An Introduction to Russian Archives

Christ the Savior Cathedral, Moscow. Archive photo.

Russia’s archives are an essential resource for anyone seriously studying Russia. Like any tool, however, one must first know how to use it. This brief guide will introduce you to some of Russia’s major archives.

You will find extended information about individual archives on the following pages. There is some information, however, that can be applied to Russia’s archives in general.

Location

Most major Russian archives are located in Moscow and St. Petersburg, although there are, of course, a wide variety of regional and local archives in cities throughout Russia. In addition to our own listing, you can find a list of major archives at the ArcheoBiblioBase (in English) and RusArchives (more extensive listing, but in Russian only).

Visas and Travel

In nearly all cases, researchers arriving to work in archives are expected to arrive on humanitarian or student visas (rather than the more common tourist or business visas). For more information on Russian visas, see this page from SRAS.

It is not necessary to travel abroad to research archives. Services such as SRAS’ Research Abroad Services can help find what you need and send you copies. This works particularly well when you have something specific that you need to access.

Language

Any interaction with Russian archives will need to be done in Russian. All documentation, requests, official letters, etc., must also be submitted in Russian. And, of course, the documents inside will generally be entirely in Russian.

Prepare Beforehand

Most archives have an official putivoditel which describes their collections. If you are in Russia, you can sometimes find copies of these in bookstores or libraries and peruse them beforehand. Some archives even have them online. However, keyword searches in the database and the name and geographic indices in the printed putivoditel can give very different information. Check both versions if available.

Try to network as much as possible. No matter how obscure you may think your research is, there are likely other researchers looking into similar issues. You can find them online and often, however surprisingly, also abroad researching with you, especially in major cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. Each new person you meet will make your life easier by an order of magnitude. You can start networking even before you arrive by making posts to sites like RedTape.ruExpat.ru, and SEELANGS expressing your research subject and destination.

Think seriously about how much time you’ll need to complete your research, and be sure to account for how much time you’ll need to acclimate to everyday life in Russia and the contingencies that you’ll encounter (which will be inevitable). You can still accomplish a significant amount of study on limited budget of time and resources, but it is nearly impossible to do so without help. You should also be aware that archives keep “sanitary days,” which means they are closed for one day a month. In addition, archivists take summer vacations and the archives are often closed during these vacations.

Note that services such as SRAS’ Research Abroad Services can help prepare beforehand and supply a guide and/or translator or interpreter to help you navigate the archives when you arrive.

Entry Procedure

While the archives are diverse, the procedure to access them is fairly standardized, with some deviation in in specifics (see our individual pages for more on those).

First, researchers must first obtain a propusk from the archive’s administration to enter the archive and perform research there. You will need your passport and a letter of introduction, usually from the researcher’s affiliated educational institution. You may download an example letter from the SRAS site. The letter is designed for historians, who are the most common researchers abroad. It can be adapted, of course, to meet the needs of sociologists, anthropologists, etc. who ware also interested in research abroad. Most researchers write their own letters and have their professors sign them.

Make sure that the letter you submit:

  • Is addressed to the director of the archive to which you seek access (and names that archive specifically);
  • Indicates the topic of your research; and
  • Refers to specific records groups that you believe are in their collection. If you have found citations to documents in other scholars’ works, list these citations as well. Citations to documents found in archives should list the archive, the fond, the opisi, the dela and the list and should look something like this: RGASPI f. 16, op. 2, d. 16, l. 45.

Reading Rooms and Archivists

Once you have your propusk, you can visit the reading room, where you can begin your research. Archives post their rules and regulations prominently in the reading room. Read them. Each will be different and the archivists and guards enforcing them can be quite particular. There are likely to be rules on how laptops and cell phones can be used, for instance.

The archives are led by an archivist who will be in charge of getting you what you need. Be respectful and patient. If the archivist insists that you need to look at something, look at it for a while before asking for something else. The archivist can make your experience pleasant or unpleasant and more productive or less. Consider any time building your relationship with the archivist to be a good investment.

Archive Structure

Most archives have an official putivoditel which describe each fond they store. A fond usually represents documents from an entire government agency or a department within that agency. Opisi (opis’ in the singular) are subsections of fonds, often separated by subject. Individual files within an opis are known as dela (delo in singular). Expect the putivoditel to be large, often in several volumes.

Some archives also have computerized records. However, don’t neglect the putivoditel since keyword searches in the database and the name and geographic indices in the printed putivoditel can give very different information.

Individual Archive Guides

Thanks

We thank the following researchers for having contributed to this resource over the years: Brian Horne, PhD Candidate, Anthropology, University of Chicago; Jennifer Amos, PhD Candidate, History, University of Chicago; and Elizabeth Bishop, Assistant Professor, History, Texas State University.

This project is also maintained by the staff of SRAS Research Support Services, designed to facilitate research abroad.

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