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Understanding the Structure of Soviet Archives

Photo by Jonathan Waterlow

When you consult books and articles that cite Russian archives, you will see that archival sources are cited in a particular way. Here are some examples: 

  • RGALI, f. 1573, op. 5, d. 242, l. 3.
  • GA RF, f. 9425, op. 1, d. 10, ll.1-3.
  • RGASPI, f. 560, op. 1, d. 6, ll. 11, 12. 

Although at first glance the citations appear impenetrable, they follow a standard system, which reflects the organizational structure of the archive itself. Archives are catalogued on multiple levels, which is then recorded in the citation. Taking the first example, the citation contains the following information:

  1. Name of the archive in an abbreviated form. Here the document is located in the Российский государственный архив литературы и искусства (Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)
  2. The number of the fond
  3. The number of the opis’ 
  4. The number of the delo 
  5. The page number (list)

The Structure of the Archive

1. фонд The fond is the top level of archival organisation. The fond most often contains a collection of papers from a particular institution, publication or individual.

2. опись The opis’ is the second level of organisation. Each fond will contain a number of opisi. The opis’ is a document containing a list of dela and descriptions of them. (See: Finding Aids.)

The National Library of Ukraine

3. дело/ единица хранения The delo is the bottom level of organisation. This refers to the individual file you will order for consultation. The size of dela varies enormously depending on how many individual documents (e.g. letters or reports gathered into one file) are included in the file; there may be only two or three pages or several hundred.

Finding Aids

There are a large number of finding aids available to help you locate documents in the archive. Their function and how they work together is not always clear to the beginner. The most important thing to remember is that the finding aids correspond to the different levels of organization of the archive itself.

путеводитель The putevoditel’ is a published guide to the archive as a whole. It contains a list of the collections and a broad description of the fondy. The putevoditel’ is a useful first port of call when deciding which archives you wish to use.

реестр The reestr is an unpublished document held in some archives which contains a list of the opisi for each fond.

опись The opis’ is a document held by the archive containing a list of the individual dela. Each delo is assigned a number and described. The level of description varies widely and may be an undescriptive as “letters” or significantly more detailed.

Online Resources

Increasingly, finding aids for former Soviet archives can be accessed online, and this makes preliminary searching far easier than in the past as much of the preparatory work can now be done before travelling abroad. Some of the most useful websites are:

  • http://www.rusarchives.ru/ The portal to the official Russian Archives website, filled with information about federal and local archives across Russia, as well as links to websites relating to the holdings of other former-Soviet countries
  • http://archives.ru/ The Russian archive authority (Rosarkhiv)’s website. Useful for announcements and for keeping track of changes in government policy relating to archives.
  • http://guides.rusarchives.ru/ This website contains searchable digitized versions of putevoditeli for a huge number of federal and regional archives.
  • http://sovdoc.rusarchives.ru/ A new initiative, this site aims to provide online access to numerous Soviet-era documents, principally drawn from RGASPI, as well as collecting together links to various other online resources. As of late 2013, very little has actually been uploaded to the site, however.
  • http://spbarchives.ru/ The website of St Petersburg’s archives offers access not only to practical information concerning the archives themselves, but also has lists of the fondy and opisi of each institution under the “Informatsionnye resursy” tab. The level of detail varies for each archive, however.
  • http://newsletter.icsap.de/ The International Newsletter of Communist Studies. The website of an annual newsletter that provides much practical research information, as well as reviews, conference announcements, and abstracts of current research projects.
  • http://www.iisg.nl/abb/ The ArcheoBiblioBase directory covers a huge number of Russian archives, covering federal, regional, institutional and independent archival holdings. The website contains practical and historical information about each archive as well as many links to further sources of information, including links to Belarusian and Ukrainian websites.