Russian Archives – Русские архивы – Archivos rusos

Moscow Kremlin

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Russian Archival Environment

     Research in Russian archives often feels like dealing with an iceberg, and sometimes, like walking a tightrope.

     First, in Russia with its all-permeating governmentalization of all public spheres, there is no such thing as a single “national archives”: all major archives (and as well major libraries) are designated as “state” [“gosudarstvennye”], that is they belong to the Russian state, which means an exceptionally high level of government discretion in granting access to records. To complicate matters, after October 2004, the rather liberal archival regulation law from 1993, was gradually revised and amended to allow for more exemptions from the original 30-year declassification period and to diminish access for researchers. Russia does not have anything like the FOIA or “open records” concept: any declassification is entirely in the government or institutional domain. Despite the huge number of records declassified after 1991, as in the United States, many records remain “off-limits” – even some records from as early as 1920s-1940s, not to mention the Cold War period. To make matters worse, since the mid-2000s, the access to investigative files from the Stalin era and to any kind of personal records has been increasingly limited to ‘direct descendants’ – family members only.  Still, the declassification process has continued, with many important collections released into public domain. Further, under the Russian law on rehabilitation of victims of political repression, any such descendant may claim and receive records, provided he/she may produce documentary evidence.

     Second, Russian archival structure is rather complicated, with records dispersed among many archival depositories, which too often means the need of simultaneous research at several places, mostly in the Moscow area, but some in St. Petersburg or at regional archives. Besides public archives, there are institutional archives, access to which is granted on individual basis. Among the latter, the most indispensable are the Russian Imperial and Soviet diplomatic archives, which are part of the Historical-Documentary Department of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Work Rules

     Most archives (and all of the above listed) prohibit use of any equipment (scanner, photo and video cameras), except a laptop. In March 2016, the Russian Supreme Court recognized this ban as illegal, but the archives are very slow – and sometimes reluctant – to permit photographing of the records. However, it can be done on occasion. Thus far, Xerox and digital copies may only be ordered from the archives, with the process pretty cumbersome and quite costly and time-consuming. In the Russian archives, there is no such thing as a photocopy machine in the reading room (or anywhere within a researcher’s access): any copies are made by the archival staff upon filing a request, with the standard waiting time from 10 days to a month. Some archives, like RGASPI provide express copies at higher rates. AVP RF no longer makes paid copies, providing, instead, up to 20 pages of Xerox copies per project free of charge. However, we should note that researchers do carry their cellphones to various archives, and many can be seen examining their requested records through their phones (with the flash turned off). From January 2016, there has been an improvement in the number of files delivered to the reading room on a single day – at some places up to 20 files per day, but at some still much less. At most archives the research day is less than 8-hours, with some of the archives closed on one research day, shorter Friday hours, no Saturday research option with all archives closed one day a month for a “cleaning day.” Researchers are further required to return the records 30 minutes before the closing hour. On any national holiday eve, the archives are closed by 2 PM.

Russian records in the Moscow area

     The Moscow area has many repositories of archival records, each with its own set of regulations and hours of access. However, their common feature is a ban on the use of  copying equipment, slow delivery of files to the reading rooms with varying degrees of poor work environment.


     The State Archive of the Russian Federation (Государственный архив Российской Федерации, commonly known as GA RF = ГА РФ) (  is situated at Bolshaya Pirogovskaya St, 17, in a well-groomed enclave in the south-west of Moscow. The building in the photo is an external part of an ‘archival town’ inside, occupying a whole block, with earlier buildings of archival depositories ending with more modern ones.  GARF is the largest Russian federal archive, established in early 1992 as a successor agency to the former Soviet Central Archive of the October Revolution (TsGAOR USSR) and the Central State Archive of the RSFSR (TsGA RSFSR), holding about 7 million files on the history of Russia from the 19th to the 21st century.

The archive has been included into the Russian State corpus of high-profile objects of cultural heritage. It is situated in a vast complex of archival buildings in Pirogovskaya St. In recent years, the archive has made considerable progress in digitizing its records. Increasing number of indexes to its collections is available on-line, accessible either from home or from desk top computers in its reading room. Some parts of a few of GA RF collections are available in digital form, however, yet mostly in the reading room, which may gradually expand. Many of the requested records are available on microfilm, with original files not delivered to the reading room, but you can always order copies from the original files. The archive now has an electronic finding aid, which is not yet comprehensive, but continuously expanding.

     GA RF has 2 reading rooms, with Reading Room No. 1   ( in its central building, where you can read files on the history of the Russian Empire, from early 19th century to 1917, history of the Soviet Russia and the USSR. Reading Room No. 2 (history of the RSFSR and records of the Soviet non-economic People’s Commissariats (Narcomaty), the early name of Soviet ministries, and their affiliates.) An unpleasant impediment has been a ban on the use of electric sockets by researchers, which are situated in the boxes under the desks (you can see them under the desks in the photo). These were nailed down about a few years ago.

     The Russian State Archive of Economic History (Российский государственный архив экономики), Commonly known as RGAE = РГАЭ (, is housed in the same archival complex with GA RF and sharing its reading room.

     Formerly known as the Archive of the People’s Economy of the USSRF (TsGANKh USSR), this is the only Russian specialized depository of economic documentation and the largest collection of sources on Russian social and economic history from 1917 through 1990s. The history of this archive, once considered as No. 2 in the USSR, may be started from 1961, at which time its collections significantly exceeded in volume those of the former TsGAOR, holding the records of the former Soviet ‘economic’ ministries, agencies and institutions.  As of January 1, 2016, RGAE had more than 5 million files in 2263 record groups, with more than 80% of its records concentrated at the archival complex in Pirogovskaya St.

     Among the most frequently requested records are the documents of the Gosplan (State Planning Agency) of the USSR, of the peoples commissariats (later ministries) of finance, foreign trade, communications, civil aviation , construction, State Bank and others. The records of economic commissariats and ministries are supplemented by the records of Soviet trusts, associations, cooperative agencies, industrial, research and informational agencies and institutions. The archives keeps 387 collections of personal papers (from 1822, but some as early as 18th century), more than 1.5 million personnel files from the Soviet period, more than 1500 files with photo documents.

     The records of the former Central Committee of the Communist Party of the USSR are divided between two federal archival depositories:

     The Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (Российский государственный архив социально-политической истории, also known as RGASPI = РГАСПИ) ( and the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (Российский государственный архив новейшей истории also known as RGANI = РГАНИ).  RGASPI was earlier (1992-1999) known as RTsHDNI (Russian Center for Keeping of the Documents of Contemporary History). Situated in the very heart of Moscow, at Bolshaya Dmitrovka St., 15 in 10-minute walk from the Kremlin, it is still housed in the building that was prominently built in 1926-27 for the former Institute of Marxism-Leninism under the Central Committee of the CPSU.

     The archive keeps the records of social-democratic movement from the late 19th century, mostly Russian, but as well European; the records of the Communist Party of Soviet Russia/USSR until 1953; the records of Soviet youth organizations and the huge collection of the Communist International (Comintern), including records of its national communist parties.

         From late 1990s, the collections of RGASPI have been expanded with several important collections transferred from the Archive of the President of RF (which is not a public archive and is mostly off-limit. These include the vast collections of the Soviet Politburo and, particularly, its once sacrosanct ‘Special file’, the papers of the Soviet party and government leaders, including Stalin (with a recent significant addition of declassified files), Molotov, Ezhov, Mikoyan and others.

Despite significant progress in declassification of the Soviet era records, many important collections have been only partially declassified. Too often you come across non-declassified files from 1930s and even early 1920s, not to say of 1940s – early 1950s. Some records that there open in early 1990s, were later closed.

    RGASPI does not yet have an online finding aid, hence the need to consult finding aids in the reading room. Although significant part of its Comintern collection was digitized in 1998-2003, some records, particularly personal files, may only be available in the reading room.

    In the photo of RGASPI Finding Aid area, you can see the metal cases with finding aids of the collections. Some desks are also equipped with PC work stations for searching through the archival data bases, the digital finding aid for Comintern collection and for reading digitized records. There are also two other large work areas making for a rather comfortable research experience. Amazingly, another workstation containing the same Comintern finding aid is to be found in the European Reading Room of the Library of Congress in Washington, DC! This can be used to locate file numbers at RGASPI so that these may be “pulled” and copied by Dr. Chervonnaya in Moscow.

     On a lower level of the huge reading room, there is a microfilm room, and on the upper level – desks for reading non-microfilmed records, however, without any electric sockets, which are available in the microfilm room and at some of the desks with PC work stations.

     Soviet Communist Party post-1953 records are kept at the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, commonly known as RGANI = РГАНИ (http://xn--80afqtm.xn--p1ai).

     The archive contains the records of the Soviet communist party, its apparatus and agencies from 1952 to August 1991, with some a few groups of documentation from earlier period. The archive has no online finding aid and, More frustratingly, a significant – if not great – part of its records have not been declassified. On average, the most recent declassified records are from 1964-66, with individual later period records to be found in a few record groups, particularly in Fond 89, which holds miscellaneous records – were declassified in 1992 for the so-called “trial of the CPSU.” In 2015 these records were digitized. Among the most recently declassified collections are the papers of Khrushchev, Brezhnev, Andropov, Chernenko and Gorbachev, however, with significant lacunae, particularly in case of international policy issues.   From May 1, 2016, the archive (from 1992 conveniently housed in one of the buildings of the Administration of the President of Russian Federation) has been closed – to be moved to a new building across the river from the Kremlin. However central, it would be more difficult in terms of transportation accessibility. Russian military archives are spread among three archival depositories:

     Pre-revolutionary military records are housed at the Russian State Military Historical Archive, commonly known as RGVIA = РГВИА (http://xn--80adcv1b.xn--p1ai/ob-arkhive.shtml), which is the greatest and oldest Russian depository of military-historical documents, dating back to early 18th century; situated in a landmark early 18th century palace in a historic part of Moscow.

     Skipping its several Soviet period incarnations, the organizational origin of this archive may be traced to 1797-1812, when it was called His Imperial Majesty’s Map Depot. From 1812 to 1863, it continued as the Archive of the Military-Topographic Depot of the War Ministry. From 1819 to 1865, Moscow as well housed the newly organized Moscow department of the archive of the Inspection department of the Main Staff, keeping documentation that has lost its practical and operational value. In 1865, during military reforms, the archive was turned into the Moscow department of the General archive of the Main Staff, after which it would be replenished with documentation of the newly established central military agencies. In the same year, the archive was moved to its current location – the Lefortovo Palace, dating back to early 18th century.

     From 1867 to 1906, it was the Military-scholarly archive of the Main Staff (commonly known as VUA) and, finally, from 1906 to 1918, as Military-scholarly archive of the main directorate of the General Staff.

     From 1860s, the same building as well housed the newly organized Moscow military district archive (under the staff of the Moscow military district), and from September 1914, the main depository of the military-historical records of the fighting army.

     From after 1918, military records of the Russian Imperial army were gradually concentrated in Moscow until 1925, when the Military-Historical Archive was established with an affiliate in Leningrad. The latter was closed in 1955, with its records moved to Moscow.  As of 2015, the archive had almost 13 thousand record groups with nearly 3.5 million file, including more than 122.000 recognized as ‘particularly valuable’.  The archive now has an online data base (http://xn--90ag.xn--80adcv1b.xn--p1ai), which is yet incomplete and mostly limited to WWI period, but hopefully to be supplemented.

     The archive has a comfortable reading room with 25 desks and a much smaller microfilm room, which often requires an early arrival to ensure a seat.

     Military records from 1918 through 1940 are kept at the Russian State Military Archive ( commonly known as RGVA = РГВА (before 1992, the Central State Military Historical Archive – TsGVA),which is also keeping the records of the military forces of the VChKOGPUNKVDMVD from 1918 to 1991, as well as the records on the history of the White movement in the Russian Civil War (from late 1917 to 1922). In 1999, the archive was merged with the former so-called Special Archive (TsGOA), which was organized in 1946 for keeping foreign (‘trophy’) archival collections, which were moved from the territory of Germany and Eastern Europe in the final period of WWII and immediately afterwards; later that archive was merged with the records of the Soviet agencies in charge of POWs and displaced persons. In 1992, the former Special Archive became public, as the center for the keeping of historical-documentary collections (TsHIDK), now part of RGVA.

    The archive is situated in northwestern part of Moscow, in about forty minute metro trip from the city center and has two relatively comfortable reading rooms.

     Post-1940 military records are kept at the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of RF (, commonly known as TsA MO RF = ЦА МО РФ. It was founded in 1936 as a department of the Archives of the People’s Commissariat of Defense; the current name of the archive dates back to June 1992. This is not a public, but an institutional archive, with access to its ‘non-secret’ records provided on an individual basis. Mostly research is limited to WWII period. In case of any personal files, it requires a power of attorney from the person himself or his/her immediate relatives. The archive is about an hour away by suburban train from the city center. Even if your request is approved, the files will be delivered only in a day or two minimum. There is no option of ordering files by phone or by email.

     The archive does not have online finding aids. Its web site advertises ‘electronic resources’ (‘collections of documents’), which on scrutiny are a few per a few collections from WWII. For instance, under ‘The early period of the Great Patriotic War’  I discovered 17 documents and under ‘the Tehran Conference’ – just five ( service/central/ resources/collection/tehran_conference.htm).

     Russian diplomatic archives are not public, but institutional archives of the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Both require a research permit granted at the Historical-Documentary Department of the Foreign Ministry of RF, usually within a month from the date of the application.

     Russian foreign policy records (and treaties) from 1720 to 1917 are kept at the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (, commonly known as AVPRI = АВПРИ. The Archive keeps 400 record groups and collections with around 600 thousand files, mostly original documents, including papers of Russian prominent diplomats, scholars and writers.

     The archive dates back to 1710-1720 period. From 1917 to 1941 (their evacuation from Moscow), the records were public, but in 1946 they were withdrawn from the corpus of the state historical archives and brought under the Historical-Diplomatic Office of the Foreign Ministry of the USSR. For many years the archive was closed for reconstruction. From September 2016, finally opened at its renovated building at Bolshaya Serpukhovskaya St, 15.

      Post-1917 Russian diplomatic records are kept at the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Federation commonly known as AVPRF = АВПРФ. The archive is conveniently situated in a quiet by-street in the area of the historical Arbat St., right behind the Foreign Ministry’s high-rise.

     The archive was created in 1918 as an operational archive of the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs – originally at the Office of the People’s Commissar (then Grigory Chicherin) as his own archive. Hence the tradition of organization of the records of People’s Commissars/Ministers of Foreign Affairs and assistant commissars/minister. This tradition continued till mid-1950s, resulting in significant collections of miscellaneous documents. The current name of the archive dates back to 1992, when it was opened for Russian and foreign researchers, however, on an individual basis.  At present the records of AVP RF, situated both at the Ministry’s high-rise and at the archival building, take up 26 kilometers of shelves.

     AVP-RF’s reading room is comfortable, with use of laptops permitted. The greatest difficulty experienced by researchers is an absence of regular archival indexes in the reading room. Research is supposed to be ‘archival keeper assisted’, which means that the keepers provide files of their own choice.

     By the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII, the archive had digitized several important collections of war-time records.

     A survey of Moscow archival resources won’t be full without the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art commonly known as RGALI = РГАЛИ, which is Russian largest depository of the records on the history of Russian literature, music, theater, film, visual art and architecture. Founded in 1941 as the Central  State Literary Archive (TsGLA), it was gradually expanded and finally received its current name in 1992. The archive has an online finding aid. Some, but not many, of its records have been digitized and may be read on-line.

     Conveniently, RGALI website has an English interface, however very incomplete!

     The archive is situated in about 40-minute metro ride from the Moscow center, in north-western part of the city. It has two reading rooms, with one reserved for reading manuscripts.

     Moscow region has multiple resources of film and photo footage. The major Russian resource is the the Russian State Archive of Film and Photo Documents (Российский государственный архив кинофотодокументов also known as the RGAKFD = РГАКФД.  This archive is located in Krasnogorsk, a town to the north from Moscow, with an hour or more travel time. Its site has a few photos to give some idea of the archival environment: RGAKFD has an online English finding aid, with about 5,000 records for immediate searching, which is a little fraction of the archive’s holdings. As of January 2016, the archive held almost 250 thousand of items, including 44,496 films, with 2,491 pre-1917 films; more than 1 million photos.

     An important resource is the National Film Foundation of Russia, better known as Gosfilmofond is the largest cinematic collection in the world with about 70 thousand titles of movies and a little under 1 million items of film material. It is situated in the Beliye Stolby, Moscow region, in about an hour by train from Moscow. Originally created in the 1930s, in 1997 it got into the Guinness Book of Records as one of the largest film archives in the world.

Archives in St. Petersburg:

     The Russian archival scene would be incomplete without its St. Petersburg component.

     The most important 18th – early 20th century archival resource is the Russian State Historical Archive (Российский государственный исторический архив –! commonly known as RGIA = РГИА).  With its more than 7 million depository items (incl. 6.5 million on the history of the Russian Empire), this is the largest archival collection in Europe and one of the largest in the world. From 2015, the archive has excellent electronic finding aids (incl. name, geographic and subject), with files conveniently ordered on-line; however, as in Moscow, they will only be delivered after 2 work days, with the number of files ordered per day limited from 10 to 20 files per day, depending on particular collection’s depository – an impediment easily overcome by daily on-line orders.

     St. Petersburg is home to the Russian Naval Archives. A unique resource is the Russian State Archive of the Navy (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv voenno-morskogo flota – – RGAVMF = РГАВМФ), which dates back to 1724 (originating as the archive of the Admiralty.) From 1880s, the Archive exists in its historical building at 36 Millionnaia St., which now houses the records of the Soviet Navy from 1917 to 1940.

     The records from 1699 to 1917 are housed at the Archive’s modern building in the outskirts of St. Petersburg.

     Post-1940 naval archives may be accessed at the Archive of the Navy in Gatchina (the suburb of St. Petersburg), which is an affiliate of the Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation – with similar restrictions as at the latter archive).

     St. Petersburg regional archives are of a particular historical interest in view of the importance of the city in the Russian and European history and culture. To name but a few:

     The Central State Historical Archive of St. Petersburg (Центральный государственный исторический архив Санкт-Петербурга – – CGIA = ЦГИАСП), at 18 Pskovskaya St., houses the records of pre-revolutionary administrative, judicial, police, municipal (zemskii), financial, credit and statistical agencies of St. Petersburg and Petersburg Guberniia (from early 18th to 1917.) The records include the records of industrial enterprises, St. Petersburg University and other institutes of higher learning; records of literary, music, art, cultural, historical, etc. institutions and associations, publishing houses and editorial offices; records of religious organizations of many denominations; many personal records of great historical and cultural significance. The archive is invaluable for historians of architecture.

     The Central State Archive of Historical and Political Documents of St. Petersburg (Центральный государственный архив историко-политических документов Санкт-Петербурга – – CGAIPD = ЦГАИПД) at 39 Tavricheskaya St. dates back to 1929, when it was established as the Leningrad division of the General Party archive under the Institute of Marx-Engels-Lenin. The archive holds the records of the organizations of the Soviet communist party of Petrograd – Leningrad from 1917 through 1991.

     The Central State Archive of Film, Photo and Phono Documents of St. Petersburg (Центральный государственный архив кинофотофонодокументов Санкт-Петербурга – – CGAKFFD = ЦГАКФФД) at 37 Tavricheskaya St. dates back to 1926, spanning the period from late 19th century to 1917. This is an invaluable visual resource on the history of pre-revolutionary Russia.

Dr Chervonnaya’s CVHow Dr Chervonnaya approaches