‘One can frankly lie in the information space, and the government pretends not to see it’

Historian Mikhail Meltyukov on the opening of WWII archives. Part 2

‘One can frankly lie in the information space, and the government pretends not to see it’
Photo: Maksim Platonov

A few days ago President of Russia Vladimir Putin confirmed his intention to create a publicly available Centre for Archival Documents of the Second World War in Russia — the Russian leader explained this as an aspiration to oppose foreign politicians’ attempts at distorting the history of this period. Realnoe Vremya asked Doctor of Historical Science, expert in archival studies Mikhail Meltyukhov to evaluate this decision. Read the first part of the interview with the historian on Poland’s desire to rewrite the history of WWII here.

“We don’t know what to do with documents of special departments that tracked negatives facts in the activity of the Red Army”

Mr Meltyukhov, late last year President of Russia Vladimir Putin promised to open Russian archives related to the period of the Second World War, which had been expected by many — scientists, journalists, politicians. When do you think the necessary archives will open?

The problem of this idea is the procedure, that’s to say, how it will be done. The official commission for disclosure of documents deals with such issues in Russia, which works from time to time, so disclosure happens every year. But here the case isn’t that there is no access to documents of the war now but that it is necessary to really work with them.

There is plenty of documents, and they all need to be examined from different perspectives. And it is necessary to start with the description of events in 1939-1941 in scientific literature.

Of course, we have a general outline of military actions, a general outline of the activity of the home front and so on, but it would be a great idea if scientists went deeper and considered them in detail. But it isn’t a rapid process.

Why isn’t it rapid? I don’t understand how the archive of the Great Patriotic War will open and be examined. The case is that so-called amateurs of history often examine documents from a scientific perspective and these people far from having scientific degrees. It is just compatriots who do the rough work as they can. While actually work with archives takes decades. Why? Because we have not studied many things in WWII history as scientists. Let’s say, we don’t know what to do with documents of political bodies or special departments that tracked negatives facts in the activity of the Red Army. And what should we do? Should we disclose these documents or not? Are we ready to discuss negative facts about the Red Army or not?

On the other hand, we find out that there are documents about the Nazi authorities’ occupation policy on the territory of the USSR, and here a question arises: are we ready to disclose and discuss this policy in full, not just phrases but really? Are we ready to discuss the movement of partisans and the Germans’ actions against it? These topics had enough of everything, so to speak, but are we ready to discuss it? Or will we fight shouting: “How come? Tut-tut!”?

Personally, I don’t know the answer to this question, but I do see one thing: now access to WWII document has been simplified and it seems it will be simplified further. Moreover, it will be simplified if the archive of the history of the Great Patriotic War in Podolsk is finally built because documents will be handed over from the defence ministry to the state for storage, which simplifies access.

Your colleague Nikita Petrov expressed his opinion in one of his recent interviews that authorities would unlikely disclose top-secret documents — those that reflect Stalin’s decisions. Do you agree with this point of view?

I don’t know what documents he talked about. As far as I am concerned, Petrov works on NKDV, and I admit that archives of the upper echelon of NKVD may lie in the FSB’s archive — the storage and access regimes are different anyway. And it is easier to get to what lies in the State Archive of the Russian Federation, though there are restrictions due to legislative regulations about privacy, personal data and so on. If there is legislation, we won’t violate laws, right?

Of course, scientists would like to get many materials, but it can turn out that some important materials simply don’t exist. For instance, Stalin and Molotov talked about something, and the latter issued an order in his People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs, while a top-secret document could have not existed because some things weren’t just registered.

If we are talking about materials of the political bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, they became available a long time ago and are in public domain on the website of the Russian Archive — you are welcome, have a look, no problem. And we understand many things about the Great Patriotic War through these materials, which have been available for over 20 years already.

Petrov said that documents about strategic planning during the Great Patriotic War could be hidden.

If we are speaking about strategic planning, he is wrong here. All this is available in the archive of the General Staff on Znamenka Street, this is why go and work. And as far as I am concerned, a lot of documents about short-term planning from 1921 to 1941 are going to be published, so there is no problem with this issue. Again, Petrov doesn’t deal with military aspects of history, this is why he talks strangely, but we can have a look at Beriya’s notes to Stalin, Beriya’s subordinates’ notes to Stalin in 1941, and here it is just necessary to know what the researcher meant.

Of course, a person can have problems with access to something. I mean he knows there must be a document but he doesn’t find it and then he accidentally comes across it in another fund. This happens, I know it first-hand. Why does this document lie there? God knows, it just lies, and that’s it. But the document may not be found as well, and then you can think: “Again, they hide something from me”.

Work in archives isn’t rapid, you know, it takes years. Every day you have to go through a lot of archival cases to choose that part of documents you need for research.

“The state always should financially support historians’ research, not host races for grants”

Does the opening of WWII archives mean that scientists need to research the period of 1939-1940 a lot? Or aren’t there a lot of white spots in the relationships of the USSR and Germany during that period?

It is necessary to know a lot in any case. But the situation is quite strange in Russia when it comes to the 20th century. As we remember, we had Soviet historiography that mainly said how well all was in the history of the USSR. But as strange as it might sound, many things published in the Soviet Union were adequate, and they are proved by the documents that are available now. However, all these processes had negative aspects too, and they need to be studied.

As strange as it might sound, to start with, we should study our history, moreover, not to hurt or justify somebody abroad but to really learn what decisions were made, why they were made, how they were implemented, if they went too far or everything ran smoothly. And it is the objectivity we talked with you about in the context of Polish history. It is hard to get it for an individual, this is why discussions are needed in our historiography now. While we don’t have real historical discussions, we have historical squabbles on the same Internet: we are afraid to discuss because we might have to correct our opinion, while we don’t want to do it.

This is why it is important to return discussions to that level we had in the late USSR. And I agree with you that it is necessary to study the period of 1939-1941 because any significant process always is multifaceted, and it should be considered from different angles.

But what do you know about the Soviet economic policy in the 30s? Nothing. There is an outline, but where are details? And at least it could be described what happened to the Soviet economy before the war. A lot of work is required here, but there must be a desire for it and, as strange as it might sound, social demand. It would be great if society wanted something, but there are problems with too.

What should society do to get objective historical information?

Such work must be backed up from a perspective of propaganda. If, for instance, quite a well-worded book is published, though the number of copies is just 500, of course, nobody knows about it besides specialists. And it is clear that nothing can be done to get knowledge about history without certain promotion of such works in the information space. Look, a pile of yellow newspapers are printed both on paper and the Internet in our country in which people write taking things out of thin air. They want it and write whatever they want in the magazine or on their website. But most citizens read precisely these things, and I can’t reproach them for this and urge them to read something different. Compatriots don’t have to do anything, our state has to.

First of all, precisely the state always should financially support historians’ research, not host races for grants. Grants are a good and great thing, but where are our youth that also should do research?

If we go to any academic institute, we will see that mainly aged people work there, I think, everybody understands why the youth don’t go to work there — because they are not paid there.

In general, historical science needs a lot from the state — both social support and propaganda. Because look, we seem to fight against history forgers from the high rostrum, but where is all this fight? Why can one frankly lie about many issues in the information space, and the government pretends not to see it, though there are laws that permit a fine to a person for direct defamation? Who will fine him? You and me? What for?

If the youth don’t want to do research, can we assume that we can’t expect a lot of works due to the opening of WWII archives?

Unfortunately. I don’t see a boom here. Historians wrote a series of volumes about the history of the Great Patriotic War by the 70th anniversary of the Victory, and it was a show-off: at best these volumes were written based on literature that had already been printed, and they include nothing new about the history of war. Yes, these volumes had additional publications of documents, it is good. But, I am sorry, it doesn’t mean the topic was studied.

“Isn’t it possible to create more modern maps now considering the access to real documents of the General Staff?"

Have historians who study WWII in general in our country had anything to boast about in the last decade?

Documents of the German side are gradually studied and compared with our documents. It is a big step forward because such things weren’t welcomed in our country. Though a historian can understand that we won’t understand many things without German documents. For instance, when describing military actions, only a bilateral approach will help us to understand what really happened there and why some decisions were made.

In addition, a lot of works about the occupation policy, problems of collaborationism we all have heard about have appeared. These works are different regarding their ideological bias, but they have a lot of facts, documents that are studied, and it is quite a normal approach — nothing should be hidden, any unpleasant topics should be gradually discussed.

Mainly semi-op-eds are printed about military operations, but with the documents of both sides, and it is also good. Yes, analytics isn’t strong there, but there is no need for it if we want to get a clear description of some battles that took place in different parts of the Soviet-German front.

I think one shouldn’t write generalised books in several volumes about the Great Patriotic War. It might be nice as a PR stunt, but they have no sense. For instance, I see that some of my colleagues don’t cite the series of volumes by the 70th anniversary of the Victory a lot because he can cite other previously printed books. The series of volumes isn’t bad, but it was written so-so: it is just funny to see that maps of military actions were taken from the series of volumes of the Soviet edition. Isn’t it possible to create more modern maps now considering the access to real documents of the General Staff? But they didn’t want.

Anyway, I want to hope that the opening of the WWII archive won’t drag on and we will discover a lot of historical truth in scientists’ works.

The truth is what we can formulate on the basis of some materials. I mean twice two is four, it is the truth because it is true. Journalists’ phrases that the truth is hidden somewhere is rubbish because it isn’t hidden anywhere. In our talk about Poland we see that the truth isn’t hidden there anywhere, just nobody needs it.

The same thing happens here. First of all, we should understand what exactly happened, what events happened, and this is the truth, then it is a matter of interpretation.

For instance, you personally like a column of events, while I do another one, and I will create my own interpretation, and you will do yours, and it doesn’t mean they will coincide, but each of us will consider one’s interpretation correct. This is why there is no easy answer to the truth. It is the information space we live in.

By Sergey Kochnev. Photo: Exhibition by 75th Anniversary of Victory in Stalingrad Battle hosted by Tatarstan State Committee fo