Communist archives reveal historical treasure trove

Advancing Society and Culture

Research has revealed insights into the Soviet psyche in post-World War II Russia.

In a tech-savvy, Google connected world, where most knowledge can be downloaded in an instant or captured in a three-minute video, Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation’s Dr Filip Slaveski’s latest research trip to Russia and the Ukraine would appear positively old school.

The research, which involved travel to Moscow and Kiev to manually trawl through newly declassified documents from the Communist state archives, will ultimately contribute to our knowledge of the period and the issues countries face when trying to rebuild after war.

“There is no Google search there,” Dr Slaveski said.

“The archives are stuck in time. There are paper records or microfilm dated in the 1950s and some of the staff have been there for 40 or 50 years.

“There are no maps or instruction guide or handy video to find the answers you are looking for. You have to search for it.”

Dr Slaveski’s research is part of a prestigious, federally funded Australian Research Council Discovery Early Career Researcher Award (DECRA) which is investigating the chaotic transition from war to peace in Soviet-occupied Europe after World War II.

He is particularly interested in the difficulties of post-war reconstruction and the mass violence that occurred in Ukraine and the Baltics during the period.

Dr Slaveski explained that the documents, which have rarely been accessed before, talked about the difficulty of establishing Soviet rule in these areas, the dysfunction, the material food shortages and chaos at the end of the War.

“The perception has been that the War ended in 1945 and people went back to their normal lives.”
Dr Filip Slaveski Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation

“Yet for people in the Soviet Union there was no normal to go back to.

“Stalin’s rule was a succession of crises and the War was the greatest crisis ever. It had been preceded by mass collectivism, famine, the great purge and the war with Finland.

“So what does the society go back to? They have to lurch forward into an unknown space.”

Dr Slaveski said Westerners tended to interpret the actions of the Soviet government through its actions and threats to regional stability during the Cold War.

“Our understanding of the Cold War and our lack of knowledge of that period has led to a misunderstanding of Russian thinking,” he explained.

“It doesn’t excuse what they did, but it helps us understand where they were coming from.”

Dr Slaveski said in reality what was driving the Russian psyche was a constant fear of destruction and invasion.

“Even at the height of their power this was how they felt and what they feared. You can see remnants of this in the actions and responses of Putin.”

Dr Slaveski said, while the archives were exciting, they could also be incredibly boring, with lengthy discussions of how many toilet rolls or pairs of socks needed to be provided to this or that factory.

“It takes incredible patience and discipline to get to the things that are of interest to you,” he said.

“You need to let the documents talk to you. You have to sit there and immerse yourself in the period to understand and grasp what is going on. You even read things that seem not to be that important, but over time they gain importance.”

Dr Slaveski said there was an innocent honesty in the records.

“The people writing them didn’t know that the records would be declassified,” he said.

“The documents were never meant to be seen by a researcher, nor a foreigner, so people were writing to each other, they never had any concern that things would go beyond that circle.

“So it was fundamentally honest reporting, though often strategic, and we have had access to it.”

Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation

The Alfred Deakin Institute for Citizenship and Globalisation (ADI) is an internationally recognised and highly regarded social sciences and humanities research institute.

Our researchers aim to understand the complex meanings of citizenship, social inclusion and globalisation, and investigate the implications of these forces in our lives and communities.