The declassification of Russian documents is often linked with incredible problems that stem from amazingly absurd circumstances.
From 1917 to 1990, the leadership of the Communist Party combined both party and state administration functions in the Soviet Union. The Communist Party's Central Committee handled virtually every aspect of life in the Soviet Union from space exploration, defence, state security to printing school textbooks and running the souvenir industry. Every Central Committee document was classified according to its importance. Documents created by various Central Committee departments and commissions, were stamped "Confidential" or "Secret" according to their importance. Documents from the Central Committee's Secretariat and the Political Bureau were marked as "Secret." The most important documents were marked as "Top Secret" and stored in a "special folder."
In 1991, Russian society demanded that Party secrets be made public. Over 95% of the documents in the Russian State Modern History Archive (RGANI) were classified.
The RGANI did not have a depositor or legal successor after the fall of the Soviet Union. The former ceased to exist along with the Soviet Communist Party, while no Russian Communist party or organisation could serve as the latter. The archive itself was not given the right to declassify the archive documents. Accordingly, this problem had to be solved as quickly as possible.
The "revolutionary expediency" principle was applied to process of declassifying archive documents between 1992 and 1993 and some documents were declassified immediately.
In 1992, Rudolph Pikhoya, the former chief of the Federal Archive Service, gave an interim order that allowed former Party archives to issue specific classified documents from various Central Committee divisions.
The Russian Federation's Constitutional Court examined the situation while an impressive number of documents from party archives, the KGB (State Security Committee), the Foreign Ministry and the Defence Ministry were published.
Most of the documents that the RGANI stores were written after 1952 and contain state secrets that still have a resonance today. The widespread and largely uncontrolled declassification of those documents evoked a negative response in some countries. This created particular problems for Russia's foreign policy.
In 1993, the national leadership passed the law "On The Russian Federation's Archives And Archive Files" and the law "On State Secrets," which regulated the entire archive document declassification process. In 1994, former President Boris Yeltsin established an ad hoc commission for declassifying Party documents. This commission was comprised of representatives from different ministries, academics, archivists and public figures.
The commission immediately faced problems concerning the documents that were declassified on orders from Rudolph Pikhoya. The new laws required that all declassified documents had to be declassified again in accordance with official procedure. Many of them were stamped "Secret" once again at that time. The commission did declassify several thousands of files from the RGANI and other archives. The third phase in declassification began after the commission finished in June 1997. This phase has amounted to little more than "bureaucratic games."
Many departmental officials were unable to clarify document declassification proceedings for almost five years. The future of the short-term document declassification process remained bleak. The RGANI, working within the framework of the Interdepartmental Commission for Protecting State Secrets managed to declassify only hundreds of documents, which for an archive that stores hundreds of thousands of files is a rather negligible achievement.
On June 2, 2001, President Vladimir Putin signed decree No. 627 abolishing the previous commission for declassifying Soviet Communist Party documents and replacing it with the interdepartmental commission for protecting state secrets. Mr Putin ordered the interdepartmental commission to define the procedure for declassifying former Party documents in two months.
However, the commission has failed to approve its basic normative document that regulates the document declassification procedure, and extends document classification deadlines, since January 2002.
The flawed legal base hinders the declassification of Communist Party documents. Experts often provide subjective and inadequately motivated findings that sometimes contradict Russian legislation.
Various departmental officials view document checks as an additional burden and some ministries and departments assume no responsibility for storing classified documents. Both of these factors slow the document declassification process.
The current commission has so far failed to accomplish its 2002 objectives. Therefore, if these rates are maintained, one can safely say that this process will not be completed within the next 100 years.
The RGANI has repeatedly contacted various agencies, suggesting that it be allowed to independently declassify documents like the programme of a concert in honour of Vladimir Lenin's birthday and the Central Committee decision to publish a football reference book, which were unjustifiably classified in the past. These documents do not contain any state secrets. The "Pravda" and "Communist" magazines used to publish the Party's resolutions dealing with economic, construction and propaganda issues on orders from the Central Committee. The RGANI still stores these classified documents.
Boris Yeltsin presented copies of documents from the RGANI and other archives to foreign leaders, while visiting the Czech Republic, South Korea and Germany in the 1990s. The world already knows what those documents, which have been published in articles and academic papers and translated into dozens of foreign languages, contain. Unfortunately, Russian academics have to find the required foreign publications and retranslate documents, also referring to foreign publications, rather than the RGANI archive files.
Researchers and archivists have urged the government to display common sense and not to embarrass Russia. However, various departmental officials, as well as Vladimir Kozlov, the head of the National Archive, have responded to these requests by claiming that the publication of specific documents is no reason for their subsequent declassification. In short, it is a situation reminiscent of Franz Kafka.