April 21, 2005

Secret Moscow archives kept from the public


In the grand Soviet tradition of withholding as much as possible from the public, the truth about horrific crimes against humanity committed in the last century as still locked away


Massacres, executions, mysterious suicides, alleged medical experiments on captives, deportations and disappearances — the list of past horrors to emerge from the former Soviet-controlled Eastern Block in recent years is long.

But for people here and around the world who still seek the truth about crimes committed in the last century, the quest often ends at the impenetrable doors of classified archives in Moscow.

Investigators victims’ families believe vaults held by Russia’s FSB federal security service, which is the main successor to the Soviet KGB, the interior and defense ministries and presidential administration can shed light on the fate of citizens and loved ones.

But hopes of gaining access to pertinent papers have often been dashed, despite weighty requests from foreign governments.

”What sort of secrets from 65 years ago must these have been to justify not publishing documents about this crime?” Polish Foreign Minister Adam Daniel Rotfeld said recently after Russia withheld files relating to the 1940 slaughter by the Soviet secret police of more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals.

Such frustration is also evident in the Czech Republic.

”We have gone three or four times to officials in Moscow but the answers are always `We don’t have it, we won’t give it to you,’” said Czech official Jan Srb, who heads the Office for the Documentation and Investigation of the Crimes of Communism in Prague.

He has been probing the fatal fall of prominent democrat Jan Masaryk from a window of the Czech Foreign Ministry in 1948. Moscow’s reluctance to share files of the Soviet-era KGB secret police and its Czech equivalent prompts the suspicion that this was not a suicide or an accident — but he cannot be certain.

”For us, the archives in Moscow are closed,” Srb said. ”We don’t have a chance.”

And Swedish government and family of Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, arrested in 1945 by Soviet troops and later killed by Russia’s own admission in the Lubyanka secret police building in Moscow, believe archives still hold vital information.

Such intransigence of authorities, mainly the FSB but ministries too, is well known to Dr. Yury Zhukov, an archive historian at the Russian Academy of Sciences who spent almost 50 years trying to penetrate state repositories with varying degrees of success.

According to Zhukov, only about a tenth of the documentation is accessible today, despite legal requirements to release all materials that do not constitute a state secret.

The catch lies in those two words, he says: ”The phrase `state secret’ is not specifically defined and is so general that you can hide anything you like behind it.”

But why the obstacles if papers sought are about distant eras whose main actors are usually long since deceased?

”If you make all the documents available then our history will not be the way the authorities portray it,” Zhukov says, calling the blanket secrecy on so much old paperwork, ”nonsense, madness, schizophrenia.”

After a brief thaw in the late 1980s under Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev when much material was declassified, most files went back under lock and key after Boris Yeltsin pushed Gorbachev out of power in 1991. Now it is largely the FSB’s call who gets to see what.

The secrecy is so entrenched that not even veteran researchers know where the intelligence service keeps its archives. On rare occasions materials are released they are brought from somewhere outside the city to a special unmarked reading room near the infamous Lubyanka building.

Apart traditions of withholding as much as possible from the public, some materials may still have explosive potential.

In the case of the alleged use of hundreds of US and other servicemen captured in Korea and Vietnam as human guinea pigs in Soviet medical experiments, revelations of a mass cover-up with the possible knowledge of both sides would certainly be a bombshell.

Figures high-ranking former Communist defectors claim the Soviets with their Asian allies subjected POWs to surgical operations without anaesthetic and injected them with radioactive isotopes, biowarfare micro-organisms and mind-control drugs.

The nearest to official confirmation of the presence of any US prisoners on Soviet soil came in 1992 when then president Yeltsin said some GIs were probably still alive in Russia.

While was more likely a reference to air crews shot down in Soviet-controlled territory, no missing POWS were ever officially found.

A key figure in the US-Russian joint commission on locating the servicemen, Russian army general and historian Dmitry Volkogonov, claimed in personal notes found after his death in 1995 that the archives hold KGB documents on plans to ship US prisoners to the USSR.

Some believe authorities on both sides may have simply stalled to ensure that any survivors of the suspected program died, although relatives of the lost men say time will not deter them.

”Families lend a measure of credibility and urgency of a sort that no one else can provide,” a member of a US association of missing servicemen’s families wrote on its Internet site.

”We are the only people who have lived with this issue for 50 years. We are the only ones who will stay with it for another 50 years, if that’s what it takes,” the statement said.

But by the same token, Moscow’s vaults can in this, as in other cases, be kept tightly shut to inspection for as long as is deemed necessary.

”I fear it will all still be classified in 200 years’ time,” Zhukov said.

Keeping under lock and key will also protect well-connected perpetrators of state-sanctioned crimes who are still alive in a country that has yet to fully confront dark chapters in its history.

As General Volkogonov posthumously points out in his notes: ”History, especially Soviet history, is full of secrets, and very often evil.”