A review of the State Archive of Magadan Region (Государственный архив Магаданской области) (Magadan, Russian Federation).
Dragged into being from the sub-arctic wilderness, mostly by GULag labor starting in the late 1920s, Magadan is one of Russia’s more infamous cities. The valleys and mountains surrounding the town were home to some of the most brutal Soviet prison camps, which used forced labor not only to construct the city’s European-style buildings and boulevards, but also to extract gold, tin, timber, and any other resource that could be mobilized for building socialism and Wold War II defense industries from the rugged landscape of the Kolyma River Valley. Today, Magadan is a hilly and often surprisingly lovely city of about 100,000 people, perched between two bays on the Okhotsk Sea. The economy is primarily supported by gold mining and fishing, and there are rumors of off-shore oil development. The mountains and rocky beaches near town are well worth exploring for their beauty and the eerie remnants of the region’s prison-camp past, while the Mask of Sorrows, a moving statue dedicated to the victims of the GULag, remains the only Russian monument to this period of Soviet history.
I spent six weeks working at the State Archives of Magadan Region (Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Magadanskoi oblasti, or GAMO), primarily to use the Party files related to Chukotka, and to find general materials on the natural resource development activities of the Far North Construction Trust, or Dal’stroi. (Dal’stroi was the NKVD affiliate that managed essentially all aspects of development, from the Kolyma River region north, until the late 1950s.) GAMO contains two major groups of files. The first, the now declassified documents of Dal’stroi’s central management, relate to the regional development and administration of Magadan Oblast’ and the GULag camps. The main collection (Fond R-23) for Dal’stroi is vast, and the local historians I spoke to said it contains books’ worth of projects as yet unexplored. The Dal’stroi material is cataloged separately from the Communist Party files for Dal’stroi, Magadan Oblast’, and Chukotka. This second group is considerably more difficult to access, since many Party files discuss individuals by name and are therefore technically sealed for seventy-five years. This makes accessing this collection spotty and dependent on the highly subjective judgment of archivists. Few foreign researchers have worked at GAMO, but the reading room sees consistent traffic from local scholars.
Generally, GAMO was both easy to work in and enigmatically bureaucratic in its rules. The archivists did not respond to emails, but I did speak with them by phone in advance of arriving. Unlike in other Russian archives, a letter of affiliation from a U.S. institution or from a Russian university outside of Magadan is not sufficient to gain access (emphasis by ed.). Instead, you need to present a letter from the rector of the Northeastern State University in Magadan, Anatolii Ivanovich Shirokov. Fortunately, Professor Shirokov is exceedingly helpful, both in providing the necessary documentation and in giving advice on the archival collections at GAMO, where he has worked extensively. His email, to which he responds fairly promptly, is available on the Northeastern State University website, and he is extremely generous towards other local scholars with his time and connections. The finding aids available for GAMO through archives.ru are a good starting point, but I found conversations with Magadan-based colleagues to be invaluable. For the R-23 fond, there are subject-based finding aids available in the reading room. This fond was reorganized fairly recently to combine the formerly classified and unclassified documents into one system; if you are working from older Russian-language histories with GAMO references, there is a master list that gives the new opis’ and delo-level numbers and their corresponding old designations.
Once you have your letters in order, the archive can be found at 60 Karl Marx Street and is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., with the last Friday of the month closed for a “sanitary day” (although I was allowed to work through this, since one fell near the end of my visit). When you enter, tell the rotating front desk staff that you are interested in working at the archive and this is your first visit. They will have you put your coat and bags in a locker, give you a day pass (unlike in the Moscow archives, you will not receive a propusk for the duration of your stay), and show you to the office of Natal’ia Borisovna Primenko, the archive’s director. She is cordial, but quite strict regarding letters of affiliation. Once your documents are in order, you will be shown upstairs to the reading room. Ol’ga Eduardovna Grishtuk, who oversees the reading room, is very sweet and inquisitive about life in the United States, and the general atmosphere is far more relaxed than in the archives of major cities.
After filling out a questionnaire (which, amusingly, asks for your political party affiliation), you can start ordering materials. Like all Russian archives, the collections are organized by fond, opis’, and delo. Both opisi and dela are requested via paper forms, which will stay in a permanent file kept by the archive on all researchers. You can request five dela per day, and they are often delivered after lunch if you order in the morning, so I rarely ran out of material. Photography at GAMO is permitted free of charge. You need to fill out a request form, and Ol’ga Eduardovna will check through each of your requests to make sure they do not contain sensitive material. Some materials, especially from the Party files, were deemed permissible to read and transcribe but not to photograph.
GAMO does not have a cafeteria, but the whole building closes down between 1:00 and 2:30 p.m. for lunch, so there is plenty of time to return home or go to a restaurant to eat. There is an extensive system of minibuses, but the town is small enough that I walked everywhere; the hills provide a good exercise break after sitting in the archive. I usually ate at home, since restaurants tended to be quite pricy for regular lunches or dinners. Restaurant prices reflect the overall cost of food, most of which is shipped in from Vladivostok and other southern ports, and is far more expensive than in southern or European Russia: be prepared for $20/pound fresh produce that doesn’t, well, look so fresh. There are no American or European chain restaurants in the city. The seafood, however, is excellent.
Magadan is not particularly easy to reach, and is an expensive place to stay. The weather may be an issue for planes and vehicles between October and the end of April, when there are still frequent snowstorms. There is one airport about an hour outside town, which features regular flights from Khabarovsk and some other regional cities. Magadan can be reached from the airport by taxi (approximately $40 each way) or on a bus that leaves the airport fairly regularly and ends at the central bus terminal downtown ($8, pay on the bus from the airport, and buy a ticket at the bus terminal for a return trip). Hotel options are limited, and the town has an ongoing housing shortage. I stayed at the Golden House Hotel for several weeks, which is owned by a foreign gold-mining conglomerate and features exactingly clean, comfortable rooms and free internet—and a steep price tag of over $100 per night. I then moved to an apartment, which was less expensive and more homey. Internet, if you are living outside a hotel, is costly and slow. A MegaFon modem was the cheapest option while I was there, at the cost of about $25 per gigabyte, and there are not free options at cafes. Registering your visa if you are not in a hotel requires a very patient landlord and a willingness to answer a barrage of questions regarding your purpose in Magadan.
Overall, I found my stay in Magadan to be productive and fascinating. The city is an eclectic mix of classical architecture, the remnants of heavy Soviet industry, a fishing port, a mining town, and a memorial to one of the worst expressions of the GULag system. Despite my woeful lack of contacts when I arrived, everyone I met was exceptionally helpful and welcoming: the archivists invited me to concerts in the evenings and made sure I was introduced to local scholars, went to the museum, and knew about the good places to buy bread. The colleagues I worked with were similarly committed to making sure my work and leisure were both fulfilling. For a historian of the GULag, especially, GAMO has a wealth of material waiting to be explored. Just make sure to bring good winter boots.
Department of History
University of California, Berkeley
Image: Photo by the author.
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