Visual Sources in Russian Archives


Visual Sources in Russian Archives

The vagaries of archival research can be taxing enough when working with conventional text-based sources, but trying to locate, access, and use visual evidence can add an extra dimension of complexity to the process. Photographs and other objects can be poorly cataloged, stored in unsuitable conditions resulting in decomposition or damage, or simply added to existing archives as an afterthought; as supplementary sources that lack biographical or contextual information. Maps, loose-leaf illustrative plates, and photographs in particular seem prone to go missing from their files (dela) or accompanying printed material. They may be mislaid accidentally during transit and usage, or else detached deliberately at some point during the life of the source. Shortly before I left on the research stint of my Ph.D., hoping to mine the treasures of Russia’s archives for visual representations of imperial Central Asia, I sought advice as to where I might begin to look for such sources. Colleagues’ opinions varied from encouraging suggestions to doom-laden predictions of fruitless months ahead, and I arrived in Russia already feeling a little discouraged and largely perplexed about which scenario would present itself. My research eventually took me to four main archives in Russia: the Russian State Historical Archive (RGIA, St Petersburg); the Russian State Military-Historical Archive (RGVIA, Moscow); and the State Historical Museum (Moscow); the Central State Archive of Film, Photography and Sound Recordings (TsGAKFFD SPb, St Petersburg). What follows are my impressions from working in these institutions, with particular respect to using visual material.

Finding which archives to use

The delights and frustrations of using visual sources are perfectly encapsulated in the initial search for which archives to visit. If you have specific sources, albums, paintings, films, or photographs in mind, then you may be able to narrow down almost immediately which institution holds the material. The “Archives in Russia” website, hosted by the International Institute of Social History, makes for an excellent starting point, as it includes listings not just for federal, regional, and independent archives, but also for the archives and manuscript holdings of museums, galleries, and libraries, where a huge range of visual material can be found that may not have been deemed suitable to belong to a traditional archive. I had several sources that I was keen to track down, but was hoping that this would lead me to a much broader range of as then still undefined visual material. At the very least, the “Archives in Russia” database can provide the websites and contact details of a number of promising archives, depending on one’s area of interest. In some cases, this may be enough then to compile a list of desired sources and to arrange a visit. The State Archives of Film, Photography and Sound, based in Moscow and Petersburg for instance, both have excellent websites, searchable by keywords, geographical location, author/creator, date, and so on, and many hits also return thumbnails of the actual images or film stills. This is an extremely easy way to begin research preparation, even if a significant percentage of holdings at both venues has yet to be cataloged in this way. At the other end of the scale, some museum archives often have little online presence, and one must rely on advance correspondence with the curators to determine which holdings may be useful, if any. This can be time-consuming but is highly worthwhile, particularly in the case of large institutions that have huge collections in storage. From an initial speculative email to the State Historical Museum on Red Square, I was able to arrange a one-on-one meeting with a curator, and a visit to the museum’s archived collections and work rooms. At no point, however, was it possible to see listings of what items were available in the archive. Instead, I was entirely dependent on the curator, her knowledge of the collection, and her interpretation of my project and research interests.

Accessing material in the archives

It may be difficult to determine in advance what sources specialist image archives or museums hold, but visits to such institutions can afford unique access to expert curators, and it is generally easier to strike up a good working relationship with staff than at larger archives such as RGIA. At the State Historical Museum, I spent a day with a delightful curator who gave me her own desk to work at, and produced a never-ending supply of photographs and engravings from the museum’s stores. Similarly at the Petersburg Photo Archive, where I was the only reader, the archive’s director and reading room staff went out of their way to offer assistance, even during their lunch break. Without this help, however, I would have been completely at sea: neither archive had comprehensive listings of its collections; and in both cases I was reliant on staff to bring items to me, rather than being able to order specific files or images from an opis’ or other type of finding aid. On the plus side, there was no limit on how many items I could view in a day, and no delay at all in their being fetched from storage, which compares very favorably to the usually much more formal system for ordering text dela in Russian archives. Where the usual opis’ and delo system is in operation, such as at RGIA and RGVIA, methodical trawling through relevant opisi can yield results independently, but visual material is in general not held separately, so one must go through the opisi with a fine tooth-comb to find references to maps, photographs, blueprints, and so forth.

Using material and anticipating challenges

Working with visual sources throws up unique problems for the researcher, and in this respect some archives are better-equipped, and more thoughtfully staffed, than others. RGIA is well fitted out, with larger tables on the upper floor of the main reading room for viewing maps and large-format folios, and has plenty of natural light. It also offers a high-resolution copying service at fairly reasonable rates. In other cases, however, the problem of finding a suitably sized table to unfold a map cost me several hours of time! Likewise, the State Historical Museum quoted a prohibitively astronomical sum to copy a series of photographs.

Such scenarios speak in part to the frustrating nature of the sources themselves. The discovery process can be haphazard, and, in my experience, formalized systems of record and categorization are still in need of improvement. On several occasions at the Photo Archive, when I did manage to find potentially useful images, there was little or no accompanying information—date, subject, photographer—that would have been of use in contextualizing the material. This was not necessarily the fault of the archivists, but rather was symptomatic of the wider difficulties in dealing with historical material that bears little trace of provenance or authorship. Consequently, the systems by which such images have been categorized are open to numerous interpretations. Thankfully, in my case, the photographs had been boxed together by geographical subject area, but this would be of little use to researchers seeking different access points to the collections. Similarly, the question of how to reproduce images or films has a range of only semi-satisfactory solutions. Cheap, high-quality copying or permitted photography is still the exception to the rule, and in the majority of archives one still has to employ a range of tactics—from dubious artistic attempts to sketch objects, to illicit photography and textual descriptions—none of which are ideal. Digitization is beginning to provide a much-needed remedy to the situation, and the provisions of the Moscow and Petersburg Photo Archives are a model for advances that are gradually being made. A large quantity of photo albums has already been fully digitized, and prints can be ordered from these images directly from the websites. Even this innovation has its contradictions however. The availability of digitized surrogate images leads archivists to withdraw access to the original source, as has happened in the case of the above-mentioned photo albums. For those interested in the materiality of visual objects, in the encounter of touch and sight, in texture, surface and condition, the digitization process cannot yet hope to fully capture the entire essence of the source.

A concluding survey

There are of course a whole host of other institutions with exceptionally rich visual holdings. During the course of my research, I came across items at the Institute of the History of Material Culture under the Russian Academy of Sciences (IIMK RAN, St Petersburg), the Russian Museum in Petersburg, and the Museum of Oriental Art in Moscow, to name but a few, but was unable to follow up on them during my trip. The State Hermitage and the archive of Petersburg’s Kunstkamera both contain thousands upon thousands of potential objects for research, and the latter has a significant quantity of fully digitized and searchable objects online (including some 45,000 photographs and 4,500 postcards). For those researching the post-1917 period, the list expands still further. Lastly, the Russian State Library and National Library of Russia both have wonderful visual collections, the Fondy izoizdanii. With approaching three million items between the two libraries, it may be that, depending on topic, one may well find more of use there than in the state archives. Both institutions have particularly strong holdings of postcards, posters, lubki, maps, and photo albums, with extensive electronic and card catalogs.

As with any archival expedition, searching for visual sources in Russia requires careful advance planning. Contact as many archivists and curators as you can prior to your visit, and make full use of the information and digitized resources available on institutional websites. Despite feeling initially discouraged at being unable to pinpoint where exactly my sources were held, I found the whole experience far more rewarding—and fun—than I had anticipated, and it is easily possible to access a great number of sources that have never been used before. Russia’s rich visual culture remains a great source of future research inspiration.

Jennifer Keating
School of Slavonic and East European Studies
University College London

Image: “Turkestan Views and Types,” from Vsemirnaia illiustratsiia (1872), p. 45.

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