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Russian Archival Resources

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by Professor Mark Steinberg

Let me begin by noting my limits:

I am not a professional reference librarian or archive specialist, but a historian of modern Russia

In other words, my knowledge is very much a practitioner's knowledge - i.e. there is much that a reference librarian may know that I don't. So be sure, in doing your research to consult with reference staff (Joe, Jan, Ula, and Sveta). Keep in mind that it is very easy to get out of date.

There are many new electronic sources such as the Arkhivy Rossii website. This site also has regular news of changes in the archives. One piece of advice: when you are working in the archives talk to the sotrudnitsy. I will discuss this later in the lecture.

My purpose in this discussion is to provide some of the basic bibliographic information you need to do archival work (or advise on archival research). Then once you have a topic of research, you will be able to identify the repositories where relevant archival materials might be housed.

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Archive Organization

First, a few points on the organization of archival holdings. There are a few key terms related to archival organization that the scholar must know. It is important to note that some institutions, such as the Gorky archive, use other citation systems.

Two general points to be aware of when citing archives in your work:

  • determine the standard in the field;
  • include substantive information (not just numbers, since these change)

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Practical Procedures

First, a general but important point: prepare fully before you go.

  • No Russian library has as complete and accessible a selection of guides as libraries like UIUC
  • Investigate all relevant guides (see below)
  • Don't overlook electronic resources. It has been difficult to obtain internet access in Russia, although conditions are improving.

So what should you do to prepare? How to identify the archives in which you will find relevant materials?

First, be aware that there is a wide variety of different types of archives that might contain materials you need:

Central State (federative level) archives (under Rosarkhiv - the Russian Archival Service) - mostly in Moscow and St. Petersburg.

  • GARF (main state archive for pre-Revolutionary society and for the Soviet state)
  • RGADA (early Russian state and society)
  • RGIA in St. Petersburg (Imperial state)
  • RGAE (economics)
  • RGAKFD (Documentary Films and Photographs)
  • RGALI (literature and art)
  • RGVA (former Red Army Archive)
  • RGASPI - former TsPA (RTsKhIDNI)
  • RGANI - former TsKhSD (Central Committee archive, 1952-1991)

Archives under other federal agencies

  • Presidential (APRF)
  • Foreign Policy (AVPRI, AVPRF)
  • Security agencies (former Cheka, OGPU, NKVD, KGB), now TsA FSB, and SVR)
  • Post-1941 Military (TsAMO)

Archives under other federal-level institutions

  • Universities and academic institutions
  • The Academy of Sciences and its institutes
  • Film studios
  • Theaters
  • Artistic unions, etc.

City and Regional Archives

They often possess very rich collections (including local archives for Moscow and St. Petersburg)

Archives now in other states

(e.g. Ukraine, Belarus, Central Asian republics and Baltic states)


They often include excellent manuscript divisions in major libraries


They often hold good manuscript, rare book, and photo collections

  • City history museums
  • Other historical museums
  • Museums dedicated to individuals (e.g. Tolstoy or Mayakovsky or Dostoevsky)
  • Ethnographic museums
  • Art museums
  • Theater museums
  • Education museum (Makarenko)
  • Factory museums
  • even a Circus museum (St. Petersburg)

Foreign archives

(many Russian materials in the United States at Hoover, Columbia, Harvard, UIUC and Western Europe)

Second, to find your way amidst all these choices, you need to consult a variety of different types of reference sources. Most are here and more accessible in this country than in Russia. There are a few exceptions to this. Occasionally you will find a few new or rare titles only available in Russia. It is also very useful to make inquiries when you arrive in Russia. You can also try to contact an archive by fax or via e-mail before you leave.

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Types of Reference Sources

Scholarly works in the field

Both Russian and English language sources are available. However, it is important for the researcher to be aware of:

  • changing names of archives. This is an issue not only since the collapse of the Soviet Union but throughout the Soviet period and then again, recently. (e.g.. 1999- RTsKhIDNI became RGASPI
  • moving materials from one archive to another (usually the archive has record of transfers, however)
  • changing fond, opis', dela, and list numbers. Pay attention to subject and origin of document.

Publications of archival documents.

These can be very useful both as guides and in saving valuable research time. Many have recently been issued and more are being planned. There are a variety of places to look for such publications


e.g. Istoricheskii arkhiv, Otechestvennye arkhivy, Istochnik, Rodina, Literaturnoe nasledstvo, Izvestiia TsK KPSS, etc.

Collections, series and individual volumes, for example:

Series: Rossiia XX vek (ed. A. N. Iakovlev)
Neizvestnaia Rossiia
YUP Annals of Communism (in English; often there are Russian materials)
Stalinskoe Politburo v 30-e gody: Sbornik dokumentov, ed. O. V. Khlevniuk et al, ( M., 1995)
Golos Naroda: Pis'ma i otkliki i sovetskikh grazhdan o sobytiiakh 1918-1932 gg. ed. A. K. Sokolov, et. al. (M., 1998)
Also be aware of publications issued by the archives themselves ( for example those by GARF and RGASPI).

Microfilm, CD-Rom, and On-line duplication projects. e.g.

A. Smolensk party archive is perhaps the oldest
B.Chadwick-Healey/Hoover have two large and controversial projects:
C. "Russian Archives" project
D. IDC: Comintern Archive - congresses and plenums
E. Library of Congress Soviet Archives Exhibit
F. Collections of photocopies (private and institutional holdings),

e.g. Yale's ISS collection from Military archives 1918-1939

Multi-archive directories and guides ("interarchival directories").

(A) Starting point for this category of material are the general guides to multiple archives ("interarchival directories"). The single most important body of work of this sort is that of Pat Grimsted. Grimsted is working in close collaboration with the Russian archives and Rosarkhiv. Keep in mind that her newer works do not entirely supercede the older volumes.

These volumes are based on Grimsted's database, ArcheoBiblioBase, which is partially available online, in English at
Some older works that still are especially important are those that covered the rest of the former USSR:

The entry on GARF, available at the online site as well as in the published volumes, will provide the user with a variety of information such as name changes, access to materials, working conditions, library facilities and finding aids. There is also a brief history of the archive and its collection. The image below is reproduced from the database to give the scholar and idea of what kind of information can be found at this site.
GA RF information
Grimsted's works also list guides to archival materials on particular themes. The indexes to her published guides can be helpful in identifying materials on particular subjects. For example, in her Arkhivy Rossii (Moscow, 1997), a detailed thematic table of contents serves this purpose. The detailed information in the bibliographic entries in this source, as in all her publications, are also very helpful in guiding the researcher.

(B.) In addition to Grimsted's works - which I still recommend as the starting place - there are a number of Russian multi-archive guides and directories (typically called spravochniki) and some, largely new, online sites. Most of the published works are listed in Grimsted's guides. The most important categories of the spravochniki are

Online sites such as:

Guides to personal fondy

Thematic/subject guides- new publications of this type are coming out all the time. Again, Grimsted's guides can be the best guide to this material.

Encyclopedias or other reference works with archival sources.

Putevoditeli (guides) to individual archives

These are, perhaps, the most essential resources once you have used the general guides and identified the likely archives. You will be able to find the titles of the individual guides in the general resources listed above, especially Grimsted's books. Be aware that the Putevoditeli are increasingly available online.

These guides are not always easy to obtain. They tend to be housed in the larger library collections. The University of Illinois has one of the best collections. Many older guides are available on microfilm through the IDC project. Directories are also important in identifying the appropriate Putevoditeli.

Some guides are only available in Russia especially those with small print runs, previously secret or new. There are many new publications and some very interesting collaborative projects. The "Russian Archive Series" is one of the most important of the new series. This series was published by the University of Pittsburgh in cooperation with the archives in Russia, GARF, RGAE, TsGADA, RTsKhIDNI. Another category of special publications is the "osobye papki".

To identify new archival publications check online at Arkhivy Rossii.
Very often older publications will still be needed as guides to the archives today. It is very important to keep in mind all name changes when using these sources.
The main information you will find in the Putevoditeli include:

Opisi (registers or inventories)

Finally we come to the very important opisi (registers or inventories) -- lower-level divisions of archival materials. These contain an enormous amount of information on the contents of the archives. Most opisi will have to be used in the archives. Even when you are in Russia these can only be used once you have registered to work in a particular archive

Before 1991, these resources were not available at all. Some archives still maintain restrictions on the use of opisi. Others don't have such resources. In any case, they were never designed for public use. There have been a number of recent projects to make the opisi available in the West. The most notable of these are:

Chadwyck-Healy/Hoover Project - filming all the fondy in the following archives:

Rosarkhiv announced in 1992 its intention to produce films of opisi and catalogs.

Hoover's Russian Collections are an excellent example of the extensive archival resources available outside of Russia. Their website includes a very good guide to the contents of the collection.

Unpublished sources

A final note on finding aids. There are a number of unpublished sources available only in Russia, often as part of an archive's reference facilities. For example, in GARF there was for many years a very important unpublished guide to recently declassified fondy. This is only available in the archive and is not mentioned by Grimsted. In RGALI, there is a very useful cross-reference catalog in the basement of the archive. RGANI is beginning to digitize many of its documents, a trend that is becoming more and more widespread. Many archives are now working on electronic opisi. At present there is only one important guide to such materials: V. Kozlov (ed.) Federalnye arkhivy Rossii i ikh nauchnyi spravochnyi apparat: Kratkii spravochnik. (Moscow, 1994). This work describes the internal reference facilities in the archives, including unpublished finding aids. Many of these unpublished sources are now listed at Arkhivy Rossii under the individual archives.

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    Final Comments

    A. A few conceptual issues first.

    There are vast quantities of archival materials touching on virtually any topic. Unlike in the past, most of these are now accessible. While that means that archives are truly a treasure-house, they can also be a labyrinth and a swamp. For the researcher, this means two things:

    You must be judicious in what you actually look at. Use finding aids to determine what is most valuable and sample selected dela to determine the worth of the material.

    Don't be seduced by the idea of archives. Published primary sources can be an equally rich source. This is especially true now that spetskhrany have been opened. Of special value are newspapers, magazines and journals which are often available in the West.

    B. A few final practical issues.

    a) Access. Grimsted's guides and the Arkhivy Rossii website are good starting points to find out if an archive is open to foreigners. The situation is still in flux especially with regard to security archives and the archives of the Comintern. A related problem to keep in mind: archives are often closed for technical reasons. It is important to be aware of any such closures when planning a research trip.

    b) You need permission to work in a chosen archive. Some funding programs will provide you with both visas and permissions. More commonly, you have to obtain affiliation with a Russian academic institution, which will provide you with a letter (pis'mo otnoshenii, addressed to the director of the archive). It is also possible, though not preferable, to use a letter from an American institution. Such a letter must be on the institution's letterhead and in Russian.
    NOTE: In any case, be sure to have a passport and visa. Photocopies of these documents are generally acceptable and essential to have along during your time of registration.

    c) How to communicate with the archive. Letters can be tried, however, they are rarely received and never answered. E-mail or fax are better options. Even these are rarely answered. E-mail and fax numbers for individual archives can be found in Grimsted and at Arkhivy Rossii.

    d) Before arriving at the archive it is useful to have certain pieces of information. You will need directions to the archive (available in Grimsted, on web sites or you can call the reading room of the archive). The scheduled hours that the archive operates is clearly essential and can be obtained from Grimsted. However, these change frequently and will need to be checked. Find out if there are any scheduled closings for holidays or sanitarnye dni by calling the archive. There are August holidays that you will need to keep in mind. Try to identify any general closures (e.g., RGIA).

    e) Once in the archive, you will need to get direct permission from the archive to work there. In the larger state archives you will need a propusk. This will require your visa, passport and a letter of permission. In the smaller, less formal archives you will still need a letter to the director.

    f) When you get to the archive's reading room, get the basic information on the reading room's operation from the sodtrudntsa/zaveduiushchii.

    • Where are the opisi and how can you order them?
    • How do you order dela? Are there limitations on their use? How long does it take for them to be delivered?
    • What reference aids are available? After looking at those not available in the United States, find out if any newly published sources are available.

    g) Start looking at opisi.

    h) Even before you are finished, you may want to start ordering a first batch of dela. This will prevent any time wasted in delays in receiving material and limits on the number of dela per patron.

    i) Lastly, a few words on getting help in the archives. Generally, in Russia, if you don't ask the right question you won't get the answer you need. Rarely, if ever, will anyone offer you help or advice. So be sure to ask. Many archive professionals are highly knowledgeable and very helpful people (if asked). After you have spent a little time getting oriented and familiar with the types of materials available, ask for a consultation on your topic with a sotrudnik or sotrudnitsa in a certain area. Many of them are trained historians. They will often recommend fondy that you might not have thought of or which are still not listed in guides. This may also help you find your way into khranilishche (storage): seek consultation with the person in charge of storage of documents in the section you are using. Be sure to ask when you encounter problems finding materials, e.g. if an item is listed as "v pereplete" be sure to ask for it!

    j) Be prepared!!

    • Know how to find the documents you need.
    • Know the reference sources.
    • Know past researches on the topic.
    • Archivists expect you to be able to demonstrate your knowledge of a topic. Be sensitive to their fears of "scandalous uses of the archives" (Kozlov's words).

    Be prepared to interpret the documents you find. (See samples).
    Be familiar with published writings on the topic.
    Perhaps most basic of all: be able to read relevant handwriting. One excellent source is O. E. Glagoleva, Working with Russian archival documents: a guide to modern handwriting, document forms, language patterns, and other related topic. Toronto: Centre for Russian and East European Studies, University of Toronto.

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