Russian State Historical Archive, St Petersburg


A review of the Russian State Historical Archive (Российский Государственный Исторический Архив), St Petersburg, Russia.

The Russian State Historical Archive or RGIA (Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Istoricheskii Arkhiv) is a compulsory destination for any historian of imperial Russia.  Holding the majority of central Russian state records the period from Peter the Great to 1917, as well as the files of a number of individuals and non-state organizations for the same period, the archive is located appropriately in the former imperial capital, St Petersburg.  I have been to RGIA for two separate research trips of three months, once in the summer of 2010 and again in Spring 2012, as part of my research into imperial law and the crime of “white slavery” in pre-revolutionary Russia.  Both times I found it the most convenient and well-organized archive I have encountered in the former Soviet Union, although there are still some idiosyncrasies that are useful to be aware of when planning a trip.

Ed. Note: Philippa Hetherington is our editor for the Russian Studies series on Dissertation Reviews.

The archive is located at 36 Zanevskii Prospekt in St Petersburg, which is slightly out of the center and a ten minute walk from Ladozhskaia metro station.  There is only one central building containing multiple reading rooms, and which is newly built and for a Russian archive, rather grand.  The hours of operation are Monday to Thursday 10am to 5pm, and Friday 10am to 4pm.  As with all Russian archives, it is important to note that RGIA closes for a month in summer, from mid-July to mid-August.  If you are planning a trip in the summer months, it is best to contact the archive ahead of time to ensure that they will be open for the time you are there, as closures can be somewhat erratic.  Similarly, the archive has a monthly “sanitarnyi den” or “sanitation day” when it is closed for cleaning; usually this is the final Friday of the month.  If, like me, you find it hard to keep track of days, it is best to keep your eyes peeled for any notices pasted at the entryway which will let you know when the sanitation day is coming up.

In order to register at the archive, you need a letter of introduction from your institution (otnoshenie), your passport and a passport photo.  I have always taken letters in Russian assuming that this would be easiest.  I have heard of people bringing letters in English and still gaining admittance but there is a good chance this will not work so Russian is always the safest bet!  On your first day you should take these documents to the information desk, located at the left of the main entrance, introduce yourself and your affiliation and explain that you would like a pass (propusk) to work in the archive.  The procedure is relatively straightforward; they will hand you a questionnaire (anketa) to fill out with name, address, and a brief research topic, and as long as these documents are in order, will affix the passport photo to your new pass (a flimsy piece of cardboard) and you are set to go.  You must also let them know if you will be bringing a laptop, as this requires a separate pass and for somewhat obscure reasons, must be stamped afresh with the date every day.  A final thing to note regarding first day practicalities is that each day you need to leave your coats, hats and scarves (and you will have many of these in St Petersburg) in the cloakroom to the right of the entrance before approaching the information desk, and you also need to put a pair of “bakhili” over your shoes, which are on sale for five roubles either from the cloakroom attendant or from a small machine near the lockers.  Bakhili look like blue plastic bags and they are the same type of shoe covers you often get in Russian museums, designed to protect precious artifacts or, in this case, precious documents, from any dirt, dust or snow you might bring in.

Each day that you arrive at RGIA, you need to take your propusk to the information desk, hand it over and receive in return a small piece of paper which is the kontrolnyi listok, a somewhat untranslatable term that denotes the checklist on which archivists stamp out your documents, and then stamp them back in when you return them at the end of the day.  A relic of non-computerized archival systems, you cannot leave the archive without the stamp on your kontrolnyi listok to say that you have given back all of your documents.  On receiving the kontrolnyi listok, you flash it at the entrance guard and enter the archive.  You can start using the archive on the same day that you sign up.  In terms of looking for material, your first stop (prior to arriving at the archive) should be to access RGIA’s digital catalogue, which contains a keyword searchable list of “fonds” (collections).  This will however only find fonds which contain the exact word you are searching for; for more detailed information you must also turn to the archival guide (putevoditel) which is now digitized and available online on the Russian State Archives website.  Once you have used the archival guide to identify which fonds and “opisi” (sections of a collection) you need, you can look on the scanned finding aids for each opis on the RGIA website listed above.  Unfortunately, these scanned documents are not keyword searchable, and many are handwritten, so you still need to look through what may be hundreds of pages of document lists to find the exact files you want.  However, the fact that you can do this online before you get to the archive, a very recent innovation, is a definite advance on the old system of only accessing the dusty tomes of opisi in the reading room.

To order documents, you collect an order slip (trebovanie) from the desk in the middle of the main reading room, and fill out the appropriate fond, opis and delo (document) numbers.  You can only order three dela a day, and they take three days to arrive.  You can, however, order a new batch of three each day, so while you are waiting for your first stash of documents you can order more, as long as you do not exceed three new dela a day.  Although I have not tried this out in RGIA yet, I have also heard that if you are a foreign researcher on a relatively short research trip, you can ask for special dispensation to raise your quota to four dela a day.  In general I have found that although bureaucracy in Russian and other former Soviet Union archives can seem quite strict, it is always worth politely asking for special allowances if you are short on time.  Quite often if the archivists think you are serious and scholarly enough, or, in my case, take pity on you because you have come all the way from Australia to brave the cold and snow for your research, they will be able to make arrangements to allow you to access more documents in your time which can make all the difference in the efficiency of your research.

You collect your documents from the window marked “выдача” (delivery) at the entrance of the main reading room and hand them back at the window next to it marked “сдача” (handing back/returns).  There are two words to know when returning documents: “sdaiu” which means “I am handing them back for good” and “ostavliaiu” which means “I want to leave them on my hold shelf for the next day”.  Unless you go up to ask specific questions, your conversation with the archivists behind the window in the reading room will be almost entirely limited to these words.  When I have particular questions or need some guidance, I have always found it better to go to the archivists working either in the computer catalog room or the card catalog room, both of which are more willing to help you track down obscure documents, point you in unexpected directions for your research, or decipher illegible nineteenth-century archivist handwriting in the ancient card catalog.

In terms of working conditions, RGIA is the most luxurious archive you can work in in Russia.  It is both heated and air-conditioned (the latter is rare in Russia, despite St Petersburg’s often stifling summers), has a power outlet at every desk, and has more than ample space in the reading room.  The only thing to be careful of is the lack of microfilm machines; it may seem like there are many, but they fill up fast, and particularly in popular research periods such as June you need to get there early in the morning to secure one.  There is a cafeteria that is open from 12pm to 4pm; this serves a decent range of Soviet-style buffet food, from fish salads to borshcht and dumplings, as well as endless supplies of tea and cakes for when you have an afternoon energy slump.  It is very cheap, so I have always found it perfect for the price, and I say that as a vegetarian who doesn’t always find it easy to live on a Soviet diet!

Philippa Hetherington
PhD Candidate
Department of History
Harvard University


Image:  Russian State Historical Archive, Wikimedia Commons.

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