Imperial Russian Naval History Resources in St. Petersburg

A review of the Central Naval Library and Russian State Naval Archive (Центральная военно-морская библиотека; Российский государственный архив военно-морского флота), St. Petersburg.

The city flag of St. Petersburg is an image of two crossed anchors; its streets, landmarks, and metro stations bear nautical names such as Admiralteiskaia and Primorskaia; and the city boasts a vibrant community of enthusiasts who spend their days in the archives reading naval documents, debating Russian and Soviet naval victories, and constructing model ships. St. Petersburg could easily be your only stop on a research trip for studying maritime Russia, as the city is home to the Russian State Naval Archive (RGAVMF), the Central Naval Library, and the Central Naval Museum, of which the famous floating museum “Cruiser Aurora” is one affiliate.

Central Naval Library

The Central Naval Library is located in Mikhailovsky Castle (also known as the Engineering Castle) in central St. Petersburg, near the Summer Garden and Mars Field. This is one of the more idiosyncratic institutions you will encounter in Russia, but it can be an invaluable resource if you are interested in the Russian navy and naval activities. Using this library can be frustrating since there is no computerized catalog, the procedures for ordering materials are not very clear, you need special permission to access and view most nineteenth-century books, and not all of the books listed in the card catalog are even held by the library. On the other hand, it has a remarkable collection, and, if you are patient (or know exactly what you are looking for), working in this library can be vey rewarding.

If you are just starting out with your topic, I suggest spending some time with the bibliographer who will, at the very least, show you around the card catalog and explain where to look for certain kinds of materials. There are card catalogs for books by author and title, a systematic catalog by topic, a periodicals catalog, a catalog for ships, and a catalog for naval officers (foreign and domestic). This is to say, even in the absence of a digitized database you can  compile a rigorous bibliography on your topic.

The library is open six days a week (it is closed on Sundays) until 7 p.m. on weekdays and 6 p.m. on Saturday, but I recommend that you depart at least half an hour before the posted closing time so as not to annoy the staff. The entrance to the library is generally through the same gate as that to the museum, turning right once you are past the gate. However, on Tuesdays, when the museum is closed and the central gate is shut, you can access the library through the service entrance at the corner (near the Fontanka Canal) by telling the guard inside that you are a chitatel’ (reader). Note that many of the power outlets inside the reading room are not actually connected to electricity, so it can be difficult to find a power source for your laptop, or even for a reading lamp. Finally, this is an old building that gets rather cold in the winter, so bring an extra layer of clothing if you plan on staying in the reading room for a while.

Russian State Naval Archive (RGAVMF), pre-revolutionary collection

The Russian Navy is one in a trifecta of imperial institutions possessing its own archive: the other two are the Army and the Foreign Affairs Departments, whose documents are held in the Russian State Military-Historical Archive (RGVIA) and the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (AVPRI), respectively. The Naval Archive, therefore, will have copies of correspondence, laws, directives, and policy documents that you might find published or held by other archives.

The Russian State Naval Archive is split into two parts: pre-revolutionary and Soviet. Both parts of the archive used to be located on Millionnaia Street (or Millionaires Row), across the street from the State Hermitage Museum in the center of the city. However, in 2008, the pre-revolutionary documents were moved to a new location at 24 Serebristyi Boulevard. Soviet  naval documents are still housed at the old location on Millionnaia. Unfortunately I cannot speak to the accessibility of its collections, or to the extent of declassification of sensitive or potentially sensitive materials.

The pre-revolutionary archive’s collections are generally organized by port, institution, or commission within the Naval College, or by the name of the person generating most of the documents. You will get a better sense of where you might need to look for your documents by scanning an annotated list of the collections (fondy). Many of the earlier eighteenth-century documents are in chancellery files belonging to admirals or other high-ranking figures who led military or scientific expeditions. However, the Naval Archive is not without its unwieldy, catch-all central institutions like the Admiralty College (Fond 212; contains 11 opisi), or the Department of the Naval Minister (Fond 166). In addition to the fondy tied to particular institutions, ports, or individuals, there are also some thematic collections. For instance, Fond 227 contains the monarchs’ orders, edicts, and instructions to the Naval College and Ministry, and Fond 315 is a collection of assembled materials spanning the history of the Imperial Russian Navy.

Finding documents you might need to look at in the Naval Archive is actually more straightforward than in other archives or collections. First, there are a lot of excellent guides available to help you prepare in advance of your trip (you can view or download these on the archive’s website at http://www.rgavmf.ru). In addition to the published guides (putevoditeli) and annotated registers for the RGAVMF or TsGAVMF (the archive’s Soviet-era name), there is also the ten-volume reference guide called Opisanie del arkhiva Morskogo ministerstva. The Opisanie is an incredible resource, the result of more than thirty years’ work during which members of a commission combed through the archive’s documents page by page in order to catalog and index them. Copies of the Opisanie are available in the archive’s reading room and in the archive’s small library. There is also a set in the Russian National Library (Publichka) and a microfilmed version in the New York Public Library. Unfortunately, the Opisanie only goes up to the early nineteenth century. Also note that the Opisanie uses an outdated numbering system that does not correspond to the current archive’s fondy, but the archive’s employees are well aware of this and the head of the reading room will help you to convert the numbers into their present-day versions.

You will also find a lot of material only once you get to the archive itself. There is a systematic card catalog where you can search for materials by topic. Each individual file (delo) or relevant part of a delo is written out on an index card in this catalog. The archive is in the process of digitizing it, so you can flip through some of the cards digitally on the archive’s computers (not online from home, though). Equally significant is that all of the titles of the individual dela have been digitally transcribed. This is incredibly useful because you can do keyword searches across all the items in the entire archive. As an added bonus, this saves you from having to read handwritten opisi on the computer, though you may view these if you wish.

In addition to offering practical information such as opening hours, location, and contact address, the archive’s website, itself, is also a great resource for naval history. Here you can find a small library of naval history books and articles – many of which you can download in .pdf or .djvu format – and the site contains helpful biographical notes on prominent figures tied to Russia’s naval history, particularly the naval ministers. You can also use the website to peruse several published archival guides, an annotated list of the archive’s fondy, and see a limited number of opisi in advance of your trip. Finally, you can also download from the website collections of papers from the archive’s occasional seminar series, Elaginskie chteniia (Elagin Readings).

The archive is located between the Pionerskaia metro station on M2 (the Blue line) and Kommendantskii prospekt on the M5 (the Purple line) in the north of the city. (The walk is easier and closer from Pionerskaia). You can take a tram for two or three stops from the Blue or Purple line metro stops, or walk across the north side of Prospekt ispytatelei towards Serebristyi Boulevard.

The reading room is currently open Mondays and Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Fridays, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., with opening hours likely to be extended in 2015 (9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. is one possible variant). If you are from out of town or a foreign researcher on a short trip, you will sometimes also be allowed to come on Tuesday afternoons to work with your documents, and if you are ordering particular kinds of materials such as ship plans or maps, you will be instructed to come on Tuesday afternoons after 1 p.m. in any case. For the purposes of time management, be aware that the microfilm machines automatically turn off for ten minutes every fifty minutes (usually at a quarter to or ten to the hour), and, in the summer, sometimes the reading room itself will close half an hour to an hour earlier than usual because the building gets too hot. The archive closes regularly for three weeks every August, and the reading room stops accepting document requests in late July.

Much of the archive’s collection has been microfilmed, and you are allowed to order five physical items and five microfilmed items per day, all of which you can keep for up to one month. (Unofficially, it is probable that readers will be able to order up to twenty files at once beginning in 2015.) There is a thick binder in the reading room that lists each of items that has been microfilmed, and I urge you to cross-reference everything before ordering. It will generally take two working days for your items to be delivered to you. However, if you are short on time and know exactly what you want to look at, you can phone or email them ahead of time and tell them which things to have ready for you on the day of your arrival.

When you first arrive, you will need to leave your coat and bag in the cloak room on the right (you will be issued a plastic bag to put some personal items in), and you will receive a temporary pass from the window on the left. After the director of the archive signs your letter of introduction, you will be issued a permanent pass, valid for the calendar year, for the reading room on the second floor. You should also ask for a permission slip to bring your computer.

The archive is very compact, and the reading room, catalog room, and microfilm reading room are all located on the second floor along with the archive’s small library. All of the opisi are viewable on three or four computers (depending on how many are working at any given time) in a separate room. There is no cafeteria in the archive and few good dining options are to be found nearby. Most people bring a lunch or snacks to eat in the small break room, which has a water cooler, some teabags, and instant coffee. If you walk out of the archive for a lunch break, your options are limited to some kind of cafe and tiny grocery across the street, a small marketplace to the left, and a small supermarket to the right.

I spent several months working at the archive in 2014 and, on the whole, found the staff to be quite friendly. The head of the reading room, Elena Viktorovna Nikandrova, is very knowledgeable and will sometimes make additional suggestions of materials based on your topic. I also developed a good relationship with some of the archive’s visitors, whose advice  proved helpful in navigating both the collection and the bureaucracy. It can be fun to chat with people in the break room, although you will quickly learn that many of them are not professional historians, but instead rather charmingly described by the Russian word liubiteli.

Julia Leikin
Ph.D. Candidate
School of Slavonic & East European Studies
University College London
j.leikin.12@ucl.ac.uk

Image: Flag of St. Petersburg, adapted from Wikimedia Commons.

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