Reflections of Two American Archivists on the Soviet Union’s Archives

Today’s post come from Erik Moshe from the National Archives Public Media and Communications Office. You can read the entire article online on the National Archives website

Just months after President Ronald Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” speech in West Berlin in 1987, two men arrived in Russia. Their destination: the Soviet Archival Research Center. They had been selected to be the first archivists from the United States to visit the archives of the Soviet Union under the U.S./USSR program of cultural exchanges. Their trip lasted from September 18 to October 2, 1987.

A view of the Red Square showing the Lenin Mausoleum and a portion of the Kremlin Wall. Behind the wall is the building of the Council of Ministers of the USSR (formerly the Senate), the seat of the Soviet government, 9/17/1985. (National Archives Identifier 6408421).

This visit was one of a series of exchanges authorized by agreements between the Commission on Soviet-American Archival Cooperation of the American Council of Learned Societies and the Main Archival Administration of the USSR Council of Ministers, administered in the U.S. by the International Research and Exchanges Board (IREX).

Edwin C. Bridges, director of the Alabama Department of Archives and History, and Francis X. Blouin, Jr., director of the Bentley Historical Library at the University of Michigan, had different professional agendas for their trip: Blouin focused on archival education, while Bridges concentrated on VNIIDAD (Vsesoiuznyi nauchnoissledovatel’skii institut dokumentovedeniia i arkhivnogo dela), the primary research center for the Main Archival Administration of the USSR Council of Ministers.

The purpose of their visit was to hold open discussions with Soviet archivists and learn from each other.

During a 2017 telephone and email interview, Bridges and Blouin shared memories of their experience as visiting archivists during a tumultuous period of history.

“It was my first trip to Moscow, though not to then called Leningrad,” recalled Blouin. “I do remember standing in the Red Square looking at the red stars on the towers of Kremlin, thinking to myself: Here I am in the center of this awesome power; it was a Cold War experience.”

“We were there at the dawn of glasnost,” said Bridges. “It had been going on for maybe a year, but people were just beginning to relax a little—at least some, a few, on the cutting edge.”

Here is their story.

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