Russian State Historical Archive of the Far East

Navigating Northeast Asia in Vladivostok: A Review of the Russian State Historical Archive of the Far East (Российский Государственный Исторический Архив Дальнего Востока), Vladivostok, Russia

The Russian State Historical Archive of the Far East (RGIA DV) is a treasure trove for historians of Northeast Asia and the Russian Far East. But preparation, perseverance, and patience are needed. The archive is located in Vladivostok, which was founded in 1859 as the eastern outpost of the tsarist state and became a military and administrative center for the region. The vast majority of the collections, or fondy, hold documents of various governmental institutions in the Priamur and Primorsk territories from the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries; other fondy cover the mid-nineteenth century and early Soviet period. During a period of over nine months in 2005-6, I perused documents that offered international, regional, and local perspectives on Korean migrants in the Russia-Korea borderland at the turn of the twentieth century, the topic of my dissertation. I hope this review will be useful both for historians of Russia and East Asianists who find themselves crossing into Russia but are less familiar with the practicalities of working in archives there.

Details. The archive is located in the center of Vladivostok at ul. Aleutskaia 10a. Because of its proximity to the train station, it is accessible via many bus lines. The reading room is open 9am-4pm from Monday through Thursday, and 9am-3pm on Friday. The archive is closed on the last Friday of every month (“sanitation day”) and the reading room does not give out documents during the lunch break (12-12:45pm). Russian archives are usually closed for an extended period during the summer, so it is best to check prior to your arrival. Once you arrive, be sure to read notices and confirm with the dezhurnaia about closures on random days and holidays. General information can be found on the archive website.

Access. Former Soviet archives are (in)famous for their idiosyncratic procedures and RGIA DV is no exception. Prior to your arrival, email the director of the archive with your proposed dates of research, research topic, and, if possible, a list of fondy that you would like to work with to confirm their accessibility. Bring your passport and a letter of introduction from your host institution (otnoshenie), preferably in Russian language and from a Russian institution. The letter should state your research topic and time period as broadly as possible. After entering the archive, go through the door to the right to the information window. Present your documents, explain who you are, and request a pass (propusk) to work in the reading room. At the coat check, check your belongings so that you have only a small purse or portfolio and essentials to do research. (If you are staying long term, you will get to know the security guards and they will let you in with your belongings, including your coat in winter.) Show the security guard your propusk and passport and proceed to the reading room. Sign your name in the logbook near the dezhurnaia. Introduce yourself to the dezhurnaia, present your documents, and fill out the questionnaire (anketa) she gives you. She will issue you a long-term propusk either that day or the next. Every time you enter, give the propusk to the dezhurnaia and remember to collect it when you leave. Laptops and the use of outlets are allowed, but remember to ask permission first.

Environment. It is important to be discreet, ask about the rules, and treat all archive employees with the utmost respect. Your status as a foreigner will draw scrutiny at RGIA DV, which is a federal-level archive on par with large archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg and yet receives far fewer foreign researchers. What is more, Vladivostok’s own history and geography — its former status as a closed city and location near the sensitive “border region” (pogranichnyi raion) — has shaped an atmosphere of suspicion inside and outside the archive. I recommend giving small presents in initial meetings and, if you are staying long term, at regular intervals to the dezhurnaia and other employees you have contact with (e.g., chocolate or other treats). These small tokens go a long way in ensuring a less bumpy and more productive research trip. In my experience, employees are willing to bend a rule here and there because of the relationship established. The reading room itself is threadbare, warm in summer and cold in winter. The researchers and students, who crowd into the small reading room especially during school holidays, provide a nice community. There was no cafeteria in the archive at the time of my visit.

Working with Documents. Working with materials in RGIA DV takes much patience. Unlike many archives in Russia now, there is no guide available online (see below putevoditel’). There are also no catalogs or indices of unpublished materials (though catalogs for published materials and perechen’ on a very limited number of topics do exist). All this being said, it is imperative to prepare before your research trip in the following ways. 1) Read through the list of fondy on the archive’s website, both the full list and list of accessible fondy, and do as much research as you can on the administrative units and territorial delineations of the region. For this, the spravochnik by A. I. Krushanov (Vladivostok, 1984) is useful. 2) Note relevant fondy in the excellent primary source compilations and guides published by RGIA DV. 3) Cross reference the fondy with your secondary sources. 4) Check the RGIA DV website regularly; it has been updated to include electronic versions of a few opisi.

Once in the reading room, ask for the list of available fondy and the putevoditel’. The putevoditel’ gives general information about the archive, the various fondy, and the administrative units from which they derive. To order documents, you must first request (usually by filling out a form) a particular fond’s opisi, which list all the delo (file or folder). On the “order” slip, write the numbers of the fond, opis’, and delo as well as title of the delo. The dezhurnaia will audit your slip to see if the titles correspond to your research topic. At that point, she will forward the slip to the archivists who will find the files in the inner reaches of the archive. It can take a half-day or one to two days for the ordered files to reach the reading room. I recommend preparing one or two order slips ahead of time, so that after you receive the first batch, you can immediately submit an order for the next and ensure a steady stream of files up to the maximum number allowed. When you return a set of files, the dezhurnaia will check each to make sure that all the pages are still there.

There will be many frustrations along the way. The first will probably be knowing what delo to order. Each delo is supposed to be titled according to the contents of the documents in the folder, but often this is not the case. Over time, you will be able to guess the contents by the titles. The second concerns the audit process. The dezhurnaia or archivist may deny access to a certain delo if its title does not correspond to your research topic. If you are certain that the delo contains relevant documents (because you verified this in secondary sources), then you need to make your case.

The third and most difficult challenge to overcome is the issue of accessibility. Problems arising from a shoestring budget and the scattered history of the archive account for the fact that only a fraction of the over 4,000 fondy are available to researchers. During the Second World War, most of the archive was evacuated to the central Siberian city of Tomsk. After 1991, the archive returned to its home box by box, but years of poor preservation have unfortunately left many of the fondy in disrepair, and thus inaccessible. The diligence of the director and his staff notwithstanding, budget constraints slow the process of restoration. Additionally, collections and specific files that are deemed politically sensitive are not made available.

Duplication of Documents. Similar to other Russian archives, duplication of materials is a labyrinthine process with a myriad of rules. It is also very expensive. I gave up trying to photocopy documents shortly after I arrived and ended up transcribing everything. I also hired someone to help me type and together we worked relatively efficiently.

Be sure to visit other institutions in Vladivostok, such as the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Ethnography of the Peoples of the Far East, the State Archive of Primorsk Krai (GAPK), among others. The atmosphere in these places tends to be more relaxed. Khabarovsk, which is only a short flight or overnight train ride away, is also worth visiting. There the facilities of the regional archives and libraries are relatively modern, the contents are organized, and the staff is friendly. A trip to archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg may also be necessary for your research, especially if it concerns high-level diplomatic relations and military matters.

And remember to take breaks. Often I grabbed a shawarma at the stand outside or tea at the train station. From this vantage point on the Bay of the Golden Horn, I watched the steady movement of barges, heaving under the weight of used cars from Japan and Korea, oil from Sakhalin, and goods from around East Asia. The scene reminded me that even though Vladivostok never managed to live up to its name — “Ruler of the East” — it was and still is integrally connected to Northeast Asia. I always headed back to the archive inspired.

Alyssa Park
Assistant Professor
History Department
University of Iowa

Image: Photograph by Alyssa Park.

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