Central Archive of Nizhnii Novgorod Region

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A review of the Central Archive of Nizhnii Novgorod Region (Центральный архив Нижегородской области) (Nizhnii Novgorod, Russian Federation).

Lying on the banks of the Volga and Oka Rivers, Nizhnii Novgorod is one of the most picturesque of Russian cities. Perched on a cliff, the eastern side offers a collection of historical sites, hubs of cultural activity, and an assortment of architectural styles dating from the fourteenth century to the present day. In contrast, the lower, western side is a thriving center of retail, replete with modern western shopping centers in addition to traditional-style bazaars dealing in furs and handicrafts. It is this thriving commerce that made the province so famous in the nineteenth century: its annual trade fair had international reach, rivaling similar markets in Leipzig in size and popularity. The unparalleled significance of trade in the region has made it a magnet for historians seeking to understand the nature of the imperial Russian economy. It was also the subject of the 2012 Wayne S. Vucinich Prize-winning monograph by Catherine Evtuhov (Portrait of a Russian Province: Economy, Society, and Civilization in Late Nineteenth-Century Nizhnii Novgorod. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2011), who examined late imperial Russian history through the lens of this locality. Part of the attraction of Nizhnii Novgorod’s archival collections is the novelty of their accessibility, since Nizhnii (known by its Soviet toponym of “Gor’kii” between 1932 and 1990) was off-limits to foreign scholars until 1991. As a center of arms manufacture, it was classified as a closed city and was difficult even for Russian academics to access. This means that the substantial collections of the Central Archive of Nizhnii Novgorod Region (TsANO) remain relatively untouched. My own research on Orthodoxy and the Old Believer Schism in the province tapped vast and varied depths of seldom-used documents dating back to the early eighteenth century.

The archive’s collection is expansive, with 4,568 collections (fondy) ranging from the eighteenth century to the early 1990s and encompassing nearly every aspect of regional life in imperial and Soviet Russia. (There are also other archives in the city that offer even more detail on specific facets of Russian/Soviet life.) A guide (spravochnik) to the archive’s fondy is available for download on the archive’s website (http://www.archiv.nnov.ru/?id=234). TsANO has also made some progress in digitizing catalogs of their document holdings, but at the time of writing this has been limited to select fondy from the bishop’s consistory. Digitization may be expanded in time to the rest of the archive, but a likely reason for prioritizing the consistory records is the popularity among non-scholars of using church records for researching personal genealogies.

As in many regional archives, the atmosphere inside the institution is relaxed compared to that of its central counterparts: there are no security guards and there is no personal pass (kontrol’nyi listok) that needs to be stamped on departure. On arrival, present yourself to the lady at the front desk and explain that it is your first time. She will then arrange a meeting with the director of the archive. Ol’ga Sergeevna Arzhanova, the present director, is a pleasant and professional person who will review your letter of introduction and your passport, as well as asking you a few perfunctory questions related to your research topic (tema) as stated on your letter of introduction. After this preliminary discussion, you will be dispatched to the reading room, where the archivist will ask you to fill in an application form as the final step towards obtaining a reader’s card. This application contains the usual questions about your educational status and research topic. While extreme specificity is not required, it is advisable to emphasize the connection of your research to the history of the city or region of Nizhnii Novgorod. No passport photos are required for the card and they will usually give you a year’s access regardless of the length of your visit. With these bureaucratic procedures out of the way, the archivist will provide you with any file inventories (opisi) that you require and will also give expert advice as needed. This entire process will take no more than half an hour, and the friendliness and professionalism of the staff make each step very easy.

Ordering documents is equally free of hassle. While the initial speed of delivery is slower than average (on the first occasion it will take four or five working days), this is mitigated by the fact that you can order up to fifteen documents at once, and subsequent orders will take only three working days. Once the first batch has arrived, you can order more if you anticipate being finished with them before the new lot lands on your desk. The fact that you may order so many documents (either at once or in a rolling pattern) means that your research speed can be greater than in most central archives, and, if you plan well, you can accomplish much in a relatively short amount of time after the initial four- to five-day wait. Filling out order forms (obtainable from the archivist on request) is simply a matter of copying details from the opisi, although do remember to include the date of the particular file (delo) if you are dealing with an opis’ that encompasses a large expanse of time. One minor point is that some files will be labelled “OTs” (ОЦ) in the opis’: this stands for osobo tsennye (“especially valuable”) documents. In theory, this means that they may take longer for you to obtain. In practice, I found that such documents arrived along with all the other files I ordered. At no point was I refused any files, even though some of them were in quite poor condition. That being said, I should emphasize that I was only working with materials pertaining to the imperial period, and it is entirely possible that Soviet documents, particularly post-1945, are more difficult to obtain.

The reading room is open Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.; Wednesdays from noon to 7:30 p.m.; and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. These times are occasionally altered for reasons that are not specified, but notification will usually be posted in the reading room several days in advance. The archive is closed on the last Friday of each month for maintenance and cleaning.

The reading room itself is not particularly large (limited to between twenty and twenty-five chairs). It is therefore best to arrive early, since the room fills quickly from midday onwards. This also means that it can become very noisy. Nevertheless, regardless of its size, it is a modern and comfortable room that is well lit and properly heated in the winter. Laptops are permitted and plug sockets are provided along the left-hand wall. Large bags and outside coats will need to be left in the lockers and coatroom in the entrance hall, so do observe the usual habit of remembering to remove valuables as well as whatever you will need for your work before storing these items. Many readers wear plastic shoe covers (bakhily), but they are not compulsory. As in the majority of Russian archives, photography is absolutely forbidden and photocopying is an expensive and time-consuming process best avoided if you are on a tight schedule and/or budget. One small problem is that the reading room is managed by a single, overworked archivist: not only is she constantly besieged by readers with questions and demands, but she is also frequently summoned to deal with problems in other parts of the archive. This means that you will sometimes have to wait before she has the time to respond to your needs, particularly if there are many other people competing for her attention.

TsANO does not have its own cafeteria, so you will have to go outside for food. Thankfully, you do not need to check your documents back in before you go to lunch: simply leave them on the desk and then pop outside (notify the archivist if you intend to be gone for long). There are a few food stores in the nearby bus depot and one or two cafés on Prospekt Gagarina where you can refuel for the afternoon.

The archive is located at Ul. Studencheskaia 15. This is on the eastern bank of the Oka River and easily accessible by public transportation. If you live on the western side of the city, catch either bus no. 80 or minibus (marshrutka) no. 3 from Ploshchad’ Revoliutsii, and you may disembark directly outside the archive. If you reside on the eastern bank, it is best to use one of the many buses that go along Prospekt Gagarina, as the archive is easily accessible from this street. Getting about the city is relatively easy thanks to a comprehensive bus network and a small but efficient metro system.

A few words are also in order regarding residence in and travel to/from Nizhnii Novgorod. The city has an international airport that can be reached from Frankfurt and Prague. However, if you decide to enter the region in this way, be aware that an additional visa document is required. This is a legacy of Nizhnii’s status as a closed city and can cost you roughly €40 depending on your visa company. If you want to avoid the additional paperwork, it is easier to fly to Moscow and catch a train eastwards from the Kursk station, from which the journey takes about three and a half hours on the new high-speed Sapsan. The city itself is teeming with activities for your evenings off. There is a modern cinema and an excellent theatre. The upper city in particular has a welter of bars and restaurants that range from the ubiquitous McDonald’s to upscale dining establishments. Most of the museums are well maintained, and the art gallery inside the city’s impressive kremlin has an especially interesting collection. If your priority is to maximize research productivity during hours in which the archives are closed, there are two or three libraries that are worth visiting. Worthy of particular mention is the website of the Nizhnii Novgorod State Regional General Scholarly Library (Nizhegorodskaia gosudarstvennaia oblastnaia universal’naia nauchnaia biblioteka) at http://www.nounb.sci-nnov.ru (n.b. link defective at time of publication) where they have digitized many journals and books relevant to regional studies (kraevedenie).

In conclusion, TsANO is a pleasant and well-run archive. The staff number among some of the friendliest I have ever encountered during my research travels in Russia: one worker even took me on a tour of the city and generously offered welcome company in a place where I knew no one. In the research process, all documents that I requested were delivered on time, and no objection was raised to any of my requests. The ease with which documents can be acquired here, combined with the fact that most have barely been used previously, means that this archive offers the opportunity for efficient and original research to anyone interested in the history of Nizhnii Novgorod in particular or provincial studies in general.

James White
Researcher
Department of History and Civilization
European University Institute
james.white@eui.eu

Image: Aerial view of Nizhnii Novgorod. Wikimedia Commons.

 

 

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