Aleksey Makarov: ”Stagnation is a shell under which there is creeping and swarming. But we normally don’t know or understand anything of the dimensions of this”.

Vitaly Genarov
07 March 2016

The historian and employee of the archive of Memorial International Aleksey Makarov talked with a reporter of the site A personal matter for everyone about the role of archives in the forming of a scientific and public view on the past. Aleksey is specializing on the period from 1953 to 1987, which for the country was a time of thaw and stagnation, dissident movement and samizdat (self-publishing). 

– Aleksey, from your point of view, is it possible to understand what really happened during the time period that you are studying without information that is stored only in archives? To what degree does the public opinion and the information that you can get straight from autobiographical memories or from the mass media of that time match with the picture that emerges when analyzing archival material?

– I would divide this question into a few parts. On one hand there is a demand for history. In the beginning of the 1990’s the demand for history from the 60’s to the 80’s was big. The newspapers published notes from KGB, selections of Solzhenitsyn, Tvardovsky and so on. Then the interest for this faded away.

On the other hand – access. Some parts are classified but quite much is accessible, and we can already paint some kind of picture.

Demand for history, and for access to archives is permanent for some parts of the society. In 1974 the most famous dissidents signed the Moscow Plea with support from Solzhenitsyn. One of the demands was an opening of the archives. This demand is sadly enough relevant also today.

Thirdly – the motivation of the researchers. There is actually very few people who professionally are engaging in the period from the 60’s to the 80’s. These documents, especially on a regional level, just lie there. It’s possible to look at all the Komsomol and Obkom documents and notes, to see what kind of ideology they had, who they were chasing and how. The thing is, that no one is doing so.

Yes, we do have a few television projects on this period already. One of the most successful ones is obviously Namedni. Besides, it’s more of a remembrance project than the political or social history of the country. Now Natella Boltyanskaya is shooting a movie about dissidents, but then again, who is going to watch it? How to break through to the textbooks? How to get a broad platform and bring our perspective to a broad audience is a big problem.

But before this we need to formulate this perspective. And we are often dealing with completely understandable situations. Today, for example, I got a visit from a reader who is occupied with the history of Pentecostalism. But if you ask her what she understands of the Crimean Tatar movement, she says: ”nothing”. Of course, because it’s not her area. The Soviet society, with a conflict between the society and the government, existed. And was very mixed and diversified. The society consisted of a big number of people, whose paths possibly never crossed. Imagine some hippie in the middle of the seventies, and some Catholic in Lithuania. These people’s paths would most likely never cross, but nevertheless they both did what was not controlled by the state. To collect all of this and create a full a picture is very complicated.


– So, out of a lack of publicity a few parallel versions of the reality existed – can you put it like that?

– What we call stagnation is a shell under which there is creeping and swarming. But we normally don’t know or understand anything about the dimensions of this, which is very sad. People get absurd ideas of the past. And on top of this there is the idea that ”nothing happened during the stagnation”. There has for example been a quite a few presidents, prime ministers and politicians on the post-Soviet territory since 1992. And you haven’t thought about where they came from? That Gamsakhurdia was a dissident until he became the president of Georgia? That the members of the Cabinet of Ministers in Armenia during the 2000’s until then were members of the underground National United Party? In the end of the 80’s national conflicts blazed up around here – these people were smoldering the whole time. What we are still clearing up started with the deportations, then the prohibition against returning, and so on. This didn’t occur from nowhere. And that the Perestroika became possible? Yes, of course, that’s a separate topic. But the texts for example, that everyone was publishing, all of these thick magazines, were partly ordered by the Politburo. Someone must have kept these texts, so they could be published, right? They must have occurred from somewhere? This was all prepared, but we, the society, don’t recognize this enough.


– And to what degree can archival research be helpful when analyzing all of these non-public events that you are talking about?

– It can be helpful, of course, because this is statistical information – that you need to treat carefully. It’s like a half pair of scissors: we keep one half as the history of the dissidents of that time. But it would be good to have also an official half. Not only a letter from believers with a plea not to close the churches, but also a report from an authority in this field. That is, it’s not only about state archives, but they are absolutely necessary.


– Has there been any cases when working in the archives has completely changed your perception of the events of some years? Or is archival research more like looking for proof?

– It differs a lot. I’m going to tell you three examples, that show different kinds of these official and non-official sources.

For example, it’s a stated fact that in Tadzhikistan during the 70’s there was a forced resettlement of hill-people to the flatland. Somehow you can compare this with the classical deportations during the 40’s, but as a lighter version. It would be good if we could find official sources that would confirm this – so far we haven’t found any.

The other example: we have official sources that give us a certain picture. But that being said, it doesn’t completely form up – it’s black-and-white, and not colored. We don’t have enough non-official sources. A classical example is the turbulence in the Soviet Union. The turbulence in Aleksandrov in 1961 for example – we have zero personal recollections. The picture doesn’t become alive to us.

Also, we might have information in official documents, that pushes you to search. For example, in a note from KGB in the beginning of the 80’s it was said that members of the Polish Solidarity were spreading flysheets somewhere in western Ukraine. This statement is only to be found in KGB’s yearly report. We didn’t find any further information so far. But it’s a point, it’s interesting, you could ask the Polacks about this, you could look for documents in the archives of western Ukraine and so on. So, that’s the different kinds there are.


– Aleksey, you have a very big experience of working with, let’s say, products of the Soviet bureaucratic machinery. To what degree do the public statements of the Soviet authorities match with the reasoning behind these processes, that it’s possible to reconstruct?

– You see, this is a tricky question. For example, we take a concrete note addressed to Andropov from Bobkov about the deportation of Bukovsky. Question: Does he write what Andropov wants or his own opinion? Based on what is he operating – the material that a KGB-agent has collected or the material that a KGB-agent has falsified, because he is too lazy to search for and study something and he wants a raise, so he exaggerates the hazard of the people he is observing for the Soviet authorities. Here an analysis is always needed. Why does one person say something on the Politburo’s gathering, and another doesn’t say anything? What do they base their decisions upon? It’s rather hard to understand this logic.

We have decisions that for one reason or another never were carried out, that were cancelled in the last minute. Why – who knows. In 1944 there was a project, an order from the Politburo to close a Literature Institute. It doesn’t say in the document, but it’s still clear why they want to close it – it’s connected to Belinkov. And why this wasn’t carried out is not understandable. There is always room for varieties, for interpretations, we try to understand these people’s motives – but regarding this administration the motives are often very strange.


– How could you characterize the Politics of Memory in today’s Russia? Over the last years an active, symbolic reconstruction of the events of the Second World War has begun, and the theme of holy war is actively highlighted. Is this somehow being implemented based on work with real, historical evidence, or is it propaganda? To what degree does the symbolic demand match with the real memory politics?

– I will try to answer to a concrete part – the evidence. This is the ground level, and here the ideas of the society can be seen more clearly, outside all sorts of ideological constructions of the government. If we compare veterans and victims of repressions we see that with the veterans there is an enormous amount of projects on their testimonies, traditional visits to schools and congratulations. Now to the victims of the repressions. Open a regional newspaper and you will scarcely find a notice about the day of remembrance of victims of political repressions on the 30th of October. Are these people invited to the schools? Are their testimonials being written down? There is nothing of that. Memories of the war in that kind of form exists, memories of the repressions don’t.


– Does this have some kind of parallel process in the archival sphere? Does the ideological line affect the degree of access to documents, materials and archives?

– The degree of access – no. And whether the archives publish and declassify documents to help trusted historians publish their work – yes. In this context one of the most active ones is Aleksandr Dyukov from the fund Historical memory. For example, a few years ago he published collections of documents about the Holocaust in the Baltic countries, proving that it was all locals who did this. There is a general tendency of crackdown, and the archival policy is just keeping up with the times.


– If a new Sovietization would start in the Russian society, would a trend of closing documents that already have been declassified occur?

– It’s possible. The question is whether independent historians who could go and read those documents can work freely or not. You can open all of the documents, but if you don’t have any unrestricted historical society (Memorial  and a few dozens of historians who are engaged in these topics) there will not be any publicity following this. There won’t be any scientific publications or any attempts to get through to the public. There would be one single textbook and that’s it.


– Once again it becomes a question of public demand? If there is no public demand, is it then unimportant whether the access to information stays on the same level or not?

– The public demand is very important, of course. For example, Memorial is engaged in its own topics, regardless of whether the demand is big or small. People come here and call here every day. Scientists regularly visit us. Which means that there is still some demand. Always. But, of course, if you take historians as some independent community it’s a very narrow field. An acquaintance came to me and said: ”I am going to publish an anthropological collection. But I’m going to publish it in Estonia. In Russia this is already impossible”.


– During the Soviet era the task of the archives as institutions was not to bring the documents to scientific use, but to storage them, to preserve them for coming generations. To what degree is this trend noticeable today?

– It has become weaker. Publications are in general profitable for archives, because this is money. In other words, you get a grant for publishing something. A trend of only storing documents is not realistic. Regarding archives of a particular agency the trend is stronger, because the grant is primarily a perk of working with secret documents.


– Aleksey, thank you for the interview!