Central Historical Archive of Moscow


A review of Central Historical Archive of Moscow (Tsentral’nyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv Moskvy, TsIAM / Центральный исторический архив Москвы, ЦИАМ), Moscow, Russia.

TsIAM first attracted my attention because it holds legal and administrative records from pre-Soviet Moskovskaia guberniia, as opposed to the better known federal-level archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg, which house the records of imperial Russia’s central bureaucracy. Another archive (TsAGM) located in the same building contains municipal records from the Soviet period. I took four trips to TsIAM between 2005 and 2012, including eleven months in 2007-2008 as part of my dissertation research on the culture of personal debt in imperial Russia. I also researched several topics related to the law of serfdom, criminal law, and white collar crime in imperial Russia.

The address of TsIAM is Profsoiuznaia ulitsa, 80. It is easily accessible by subway. Take the orange line to Kaluzhskaia station, and exit the station at the last-car end if coming from the city center. Go up the escalator and turn right into the underground crossing, and then turn left into the stairs to go up to the street. The entrance to the archive is ten meters up ahead. It is clearly marked by the large electronic clock above the door. Summer and winter hours vary slightly and researchers should consult the archive’s website to get the latest information. The key thing to know is that the reading room is always closed on Wednesdays; on Mondays and Fridays it opens at 9:30am and closes at 4:30pm and 3:00pm, respectively, while on Tuesdays and Thursdays it is open from noon to 8pm. This is rather convenient, because you can beat the rush hour traffic or even visit another archive or library on the same day. Surprisingly, there is no special pressure in the evening to turn in one’s files early, and you can keep working until only a few minutes before the closing time. These opening hours seem to be coordinated with GA RF (the federal archive), whose schedule is exactly reversed. There are no lunch facilities, but across the street there is a Western-style shopping center with many fast-food restaurants. One more thing about opening times: Russian archives tend to be closed in August, but apparently this is no longer the case with TsIAM.

When you arrive, you need to call the reading room from the free phone available next to the police post (ask the guards for the number). Tell the archivist that you need a propusk to the chital’nyi zal and one of them will come out to write you one. Have your passport and introduction letter ready. The pass is valid for three months. If you will be working in the archive for the entire academic year, at some point there will be a notice about collecting passport-size photos for permanent plastic passes. If you only have the temporary pass, make sure you have your passport ready every time to show the guards. After you get the pass, you give it to the guards who will give you a kontrol’nyi listok and a key to a locker. Write your name, date, and signature on the listok once you are in the reading room. Archivists will write on it the number of files you are issued and stamp them when you turn them in. You need to give this listok back to the police once you leave the reading room for the day, together with the key, and you will get your pass back. The staff are relatively strict about bags, umbrellas, etc., although small purses and laptop bags are OK (of course it is generally a bad idea to carry a conspicuous laptop bag on the subway).

Once you are in the reading room, you will see that there are two “windows”, one for TsIAM, one for TsAGM. Come to the window and politely introduce yourself to the archivists, making sure you remember their names. The person in charge there is currently a (younger) woman named Natalia Anatolievna Granenova. She looks very business-like but is actually nice and willing to help with any logistical issues. If you are going to be working at TsIAM for a long time, make sure to bring small presents (whatever you can think of: good-quality tea, chocolates, flowers) occasionally and – if you are a man – definitely on March 8. When you introduce yourself, the archivists will ask you for your archival letter, which they will keep. They will give you a brochure with their rules (do not spend too much time on it) and an anketa to fill out asking for such things as your education/occupation (doktorant), your topic (does not have to be very specific) and a list of fondy you will be using (you can still order from any fond you want). You don’t need any research plans, lists of desired materials, etc.

When you come to TsIAM to register, you should keep in mind that it will take three working days to get your files. So, if you order your file on Tuesday, it will only come the following Monday. Moreover, if your opis’ is not located on the shelf in the reading room but must be ordered, it will take another working day. This is something to keep in mind if your time in the archive is limited; it is recommended to fight the jet lag and go there soon upon arrival. If your time is truly limited, you should whine to Natalia Anatolievna and she may take pity on you. From what I have seen, you are more likely to get some kind of an exception if you are an established middle-aged or elderly scholar than a graduate student.

Your next step is to find the materials you want. The “Guide” available online (under “obshchie svedenia”) only has the most general information about the types of materials found at TsIAM and does not, in my opinion, predict whether you will find what you are looking for. The Guide does, however, contain the list of fondy and their brief descriptions, and how many files are in each. Next, you need to get your hands on the opisi. The shelf at the back of the reading room houses several hundred of them, as well as some indeksy to the larger and more popular collections. These indeksy will give you an idea as to which opis’ you need to consult. But be careful because many opisi are not on the shelf and need to be ordered one day in advance; a card catalog located next to the archivists’ “window” shows which opisi are on the shelf.

After you decide which files you want to order, fill out the order form. You can order three files in one day. Make sure you submit your order at least one hour before the archive closes. You can keep ordering every day, as long as the total number of files that is kept for you in the reading room does not exceed fifteen. As I explain below, chances are that you will not get everything you order, so you should front-load your trip and order your fifteen files early. Again, if you are a harassed-looking Western researcher, the archivists might take pity on you if you explain to them that you only have a few days to visit TsIAM, the implication being that you prefer hanging out there instead of enjoying the many cultural and other pleasures of the Russian capital. They may let you order more than three files but do not count on that. Again, looking respectable seems to be important here. Note that there is a limit of 500 (I believe) pages per order. That is, if you order three really thick documents, one or two of them will be refused. If there is only one document in your order and it exceeds the limit, they will still give it to you.

All order forms are easy to fill out. List some kind of topic (like “Russian legal culture”); you do not have to copy the entire name of the case (some of them are really long!) Just copy the first four or five words to identify the file. Sometimes what you see in the opis’ will not correspond to the name on the file, and your request will be denied. Unless you actually did make a mistake, you need to tell the archivists firmly but politely that you copied the title correctly and they will fill the order (but unfortunately not on the same day!)

Nothing in the archive is digitized but some files are microfilmed. These are marked in the opis’ as “SF” and require a special order form. To look at microfilms you need to go to the building next door, which contains another reading room, all shiny-marble-and-red-carpet since former mayor Yury Luzhkov gave some money to renovate the archive compound. There is no separate registration; use your existing pass.

This brings up the subject of document preservation and availability. Several factors here have conspired against researchers. First, before 1917 these documents were gathering dust and mold in Kremlin and Kitai-gorod towers (in case you ever wondered what was inside them); in 1917 they took some Bolshevik artillery fire and in the 1920s were housed in several abandoned churches and monasteries. Second, in 1941 at least some of the materials were evacuated to Siberia and not everything made it back safely. Third, there is an issue of the Soviet “class-based” approach to which archival documents are considered valuable. For instance, nearly everything in legal cases that can be interpreted as class struggle has been well preserved and categorized. But not so with those courts that judged the cases of the hated “bourgeois” merchants. In some collections, my estimate is that up to 90% of files may have been “discarded” by the early-Soviet archivists. In the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, the trouble was the archive’s drive to “organize” its materials, which led to “expert evaluations” and destruction of those documents that were thought to possess little historical value. Unfortunately, the rich collection of the Moscow Governor General was one of the first to be “organized”. It is still extremely extensive but, according to an introduction written by the archival staff, much of it was preserved merely as “samples of pre-revolutionary bureaucratic procedures.” Looking at the thin opisi of surviving documents, one can only imagine the materials that have been lost that gave a detailed account of everyday life in Russia’s “original” capital in the nineteenth and early twentieth century. Thankfully, Soviet-era archivists were proceeding slowly and did not get to “organize” all of the important collections. For all of these reasons, it is possible that the document you are looking for is in too poor a shape to be given to you without digitization (for which there is no money).

Another important hurdle to keep in mind is the fact that the archivists at TsIAM are extremely poorly paid, and so are not going to kill themselves filling your order if they think that you ordered too much or if the document is taking too long to inspect (each page must be accounted for before the document is issued to you). You should be aware that a recently-hired archivist who is the lowest on the pecking order may actually be extremely well-educated and qualified, and was discarded into the archival world by Russia’s newly-capitalist economy.

The result of this combination of poor document condition and bizarre archival politics is that your requests may be frequently denied; my (and many other researchers’) sense is that the number of “denials” is arbitrary and is rarely determined by the actual condition of the document. During my eleven-month trip, I could expect to get two or three files out of every five I ordered (back then the limit was five rather than three). During a subsequent trip, I received everything I wanted because I was using a particularly well-preserved collection. This year (2012), I had a hard time getting access to things I wanted because these were crumbly loose-leaf files with many hundreds of pages, which just at that time happened to be required by one of the archivists for his own use! Of course, I had no chance there. One other important thing to remember is that more recent documents are often more poorly preserved because paper quality deteriorated in the later nineteenth century.

The one recent positive change in terms of document access was that the reading room now has another separate facility (accessed through the door at the back of the room) for reading loose-leaf documents, which previously would have been denied outright. This has its own staff member. When you use this smaller room be aware that when you return a file, the archivist has to check manually every sheet before accepting it. So if you return something late in the day, or return several large documents at once, the archivists will not be pleased.

Another positive change has been that researchers are now allowed three-hundred free copies per year (previously, duplication was prohibitively expensive). You can get paper Xeroxes or digital copies on a disk for your own use. One can only wonder why these digitized documents are not made available to other researchers! This year I tried ordering copies for the first time and have not yet been able to find out how well this new system works. The order supposedly takes a month to process. Be very careful filling out the form, listing every sheet you want copied in very clear handwriting. I was told that if the staff decide that your order is a pain in the neck, they simply will not do it! Otherwise, you are obviously free to hand-copy everything (this is how I have been working the entire time until now). Laptops are permitted but technically you are not allowed to plug them in to save the city electricity. I said technically. Do not ask the archivists about it! Some researchers secretly take digital photos, but there will probably be trouble if the archivists catch you (I only saw this happen once and the researcher was only yelled at).

The overall atmosphere in the reading room is rather unique in that most patrons are not professional researchers but ordinary citizens researching their genealogy. So the gigantic metrical books are the archive’s bread-and-butter. This makes the archivists’ work all the more demanding. As the result, your neighbor may be someone who has never been in a library or an archive, and may not understand the idea of not spreading all of his personal possessions around or not speaking at the top of his voice! These patrons do not take it lightly when their document request is denied and verbal altercations with the staff are common. This creates frequent problems with the noise levels, although some researcher usually will ask to keep it quiet. Cell phones are another problem, since Russian phones do not have voicemail and people keep them on at all times. The light is good. The temperature gets rather cold in winter, since the room has floor-to-ceiling windows, so bring warm clothes. In the summer, archivists like to periodically turn on the air conditioner hanging off the ceiling, and you may want to bring a sweater if you do not like a jet of cold air blowing into your face. The staff are generally friendly, as are other professional researchers in the room. If you stay there long enough, you are likely to make friends or meet people who work in the same area as yourself.

My final word of advice – be patient and plan well.

Sergei Antonov JD PhD
Postdoctoral Fellow
Harriman Institute
Columbia University


Image: The Nikolskaya Tower at Moscow Kremlin, site of the old Moscow Provincial Archives. Wikimedia Commons.

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