Grmsted: Archival History Article Award Acceptance Remarks

Society of American Archives, Archival History Section,
Archival History Article Award 
Washington DC, 16 August 2018

 Patricia Kennedy Grimsted,"Pan-European Displaced Archives in the Russian Federation: Still Prisoners of War on the 70th Anniversary of V-E Day"in Displaced Archives edited by James Lowry.  

Displaced Archives in Russia from the Second World War:

Remarks by Patricia Kennedy Grimsted

I am personally very honored by the Archival History Article Award for my chapter on displaced archives from many European countries still in Moscow, resulting from the Second World War. I am particularly grateful for the SAA recognition for a subject I have been following for the past quarter century since the collapse of the Soviet Union.

I deeply regret that I cannot be with you in person at the SAA Meeting in Washington, DC.

Displaced foreign cultural treasures held in Russia have been one of the most dramatic revelations since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Discoveries about the long-hidden archives were one specific result of what was truly an “archival revolution,” of which I was personally a witness. Russia’s failure to return the ‘displaced archives’ to the countries of provenance, and the lengthy negotiations for those that were returned, have been one of the thorniest elements in foreign relations for the newly established Russian Federation.

Estimates of the quantity of archives captured by different Soviet agencies and those that remained in Russia after 1991 are still virtually impossible to determine. The captured French archives alone in Moscow, of which I discovered evidence in 1990, constituted no less than seven linear kilometers. The bulk of those French files long held in secret were military intelligence and national security records that the Germans had seized in France, along with a wide range of government, trade-union, and other non-governmental records, including files from Masonic lodges, Jewish organizations, and a host of personal papers. After my account of the French archives was revealed in an interview published by a Russian journalist friend in October 1991, the director of the top-secret Central State Special Archive (TsGOA) admitted the findings of “the well-known ‘archival spy’ Grimsted.” With them, he added, were extensive ‘trophy’ archives from almost every country in Western Europe.

After the Khrushchev thaw in the late 1950s, as the Soviet Union became active in the International Council on Archives, many millions of files “saved by the Soviet Army” were restituted to Eastern-bloc countries before 1991. Included were more than two million archival files (from the 14th century to 1945) returned to East Germany. Such returns were positively portrayed in the main Soviet archival publication as the Soviet role of “helping other countries reunify their national archival heritage.” 

Since 1992, those lofty principles have been forgotten in the Russian Federation. For example, although Franco-Russian diplomatic agreements were rushed to signature in November 1992, providing for the return of French archives by the end of 1993, the full return of the French archives took another ten years. Indeed today, some important French files still remain in the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA), which today still holds the bulk – although hardly all – of Soviet WW2 captured records.

While the restitution of ‘trophy’ art and library books has faltered, between 1993 and 2009, archives have been returned to seven countries – France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Great Britain, and Austria, as well as the Rothschild family archives from Austria to The Rothschild Archive in London. But Russian archivists preferred to use the term ‘exchange’ rather than ‘restitution’, because all of the returns required ‘exchange’ cash payments for ‘storage’ and ‘microfilming’ fees and usually at least a symbolic exchange of foreign Russian archival files from the claimant country. Five of those cases are described in the book I edited with two Dutch colleagues, Returned from Russia, first published in 2007 with an update in 2013. This article serves as my 2015 update.

Unfortunately, I was unable to return to Russia myself as planned this summer, due to health issues, so I do not have further updates from the Russian side. After I learned of the SAA award a few weeks ago, I wrote archival colleagues in Austria, Greece, and Norway, in effort to update those three key pending cases of archives mentioned in the article expected home by 2014. All remain unresolved four years later. Or perhaps, all the archives involved were not high priorities for claimant countries, who had to send specialists to Moscow to identify the files claimed. Nor for diplomats, because with Russia, archival claims can only be handled diplomatically, even for the non-state archives involved.

So far, the only reply to my recent inquiries is from a Norwegian Masonic archivist, who has personally been working on the identification of the files for many years. He wrote,

Our embassy in Moscow is following it up, and I am pushing the diplomats from our side. With the present political situation there is not much else we can do than keeping the issue warm.”

I am gratified that this SAA award may serve to focus renewed attention to the issue of remaining displaced archives in Russia from many European countries. Most of those I have been following since 1990 are twice-plundered during and after the Second World War. Those of Polish provenance under contention also result from the Russian imperial legacy and postwar boundary changes, as also mentioned briefly in my article. I have devoted a separate article to that case, which awaits publication.

Internationally, the break-up of empires has been another major factor in displaced archives, and with the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Ukraine is a blatant example of the problem. I have dealt at length with that case in a monograph published in 2001, Trophies of War and Empire: The Archival Heritage of Ukraine, World War II, and the International Politics of Restitution. The fact that so many archives of Ukrainian territorial provenance remain today in Moscow and St Petersburg, along with the records of Russian imperial rule, is a complicating factor in the current state of war between Russia and Ukraine. Today, not only is there no direct transportation between Ukraine and Russia, but Ukrainian researchers often do not find a warm welcome in many key Russian archives.

Let me close with my hope that the SAA award will bring renewed international archival attention to the issue of displaced archives from many countries and organizations, as well as many important personal papers. British archival scholar and instructor, James Lowry has brought together many revealing case studies in his volume entitled Displaced Archives, in which my article appears. Retired Chief Archivist of the Netherlands, Eric Ketelaar, wrote the Preface, retired ICA Secretary-General Charles Kecskeméti contributed a chapter on the international legal background, along with several perceptive contributions by others. My study of the Russian Federation with its many wartime ‘trophy’ archives, raises but one of many blatant examples covered in the volume.

Soviet-seized archives of foreign provenance captured after the Second World War, along with voluminous other cultural ‘spoils of war’, Russians today may consider ‘compensation’ for wartime losses. Or they may see them as symbols of the victory that Russians celebrate in what many still call the Great Patriotic War of the Fatherland. However, many Russians overlook the fact that the ‘trophy’ archives – hidden away for fifty years – are in reality the official records of other European countries – many of them Soviet wartime allies – who also fought in the same war against the National-Socialist Regime and who also suffered severe wartime losses and destruction. In many cases, they represent the memory of individuals and institutions that were clearly victims of that regime and the Holocaust, to say nothing of “their national historical and cultural legacy,” as Soviet archivists earlier publicly acknowledged. Thus, how can files from another country’s archival heritage ‘compensate’ the Russian nation, and who in Russia can or would want to read the early Norwegian Masonic files, or the Ladino documents of the Thessalonica Jewish Community, most of whom were exterminated in the Holocaust?