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Letters from Stalin's Russia

Closure of Russian Archives

Sometimes, voices from the past reach out and take me by the throat, demanding to have their story told. It’s a phenomenon that has been aptly called the “ventriloquism of history”
(G. Geddes, “The Mirror of History” 2010).

Despite the stories that grab us “by the throat”, despite events that demand a telling, and despite the voices in letters from the Gulag prison camps that plead “Remember us. Do not forget us”, some political leaders silence those voices. This is occurring now in Russia. Access to archival documents is now severely restricted.

Strangely, this restriction escaped the notice of mainstream media, international universities and many scholars. Since 2006, researchers searching the archives of the former Soviet Union can only access documents 75 years after an event has occurred. This is disturbing and distressing. Records of events that occurred after 1935 cannot be examined. The letters from the Regehr family stopped in 1937. What happened when the letters stopped? Why did they stop? Which political and ideological forces affected the letter writers? Why cannot I (or other researchers) explore archival documents that would assist me to understand the silence?  

This restriction needs to be addressed. Recently I attended a conference at the Omsk State University in Russia.  An appeal was drafted and delivered to address the restrictions to archival access. The following is a translation of the appeal:



At this gathering of scholars from many disciplines and from many places, including European Russia, Siberia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Canada and the United States, we have heard much new information on the history and culture of Russian Germans during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  Those examining the Mennonite part of that history for the period since the 1890s profited much from scholars drawing information from the archives of the Soviet period, including materials from regional and central state archives of the Council of Religious Affairs and vital materials from the KGB (OGPU and NKVD) files.

It is therefore with great concern that we observe the serious problem for scholarship caused by legislation in 2006 restricting access according to the seventy-five year old rule; that is, the denial of access until seventy-five years following occurrence of the events.  The Russian German story is deeply linked to the relationship between Germany and the USSR, and our conviction that scholarship fosters the improvement of relationships between Germans and Russians, requires an objective establishment of facts, to the fullest extent, based on archival sources. This freedom provides the foundation for the social and political reconciliation process.

We therefore appeal to the government of the Russian Federation that it returns to an open access archival policy.

Passed by the “History and Culture of Mennonites: Issues in the Study of Ethno-Confessional Groups” section and recommended to the entire conference and to the Omsk State University leadership of the conference for further processing as appropriate.


Thank you for continuing to remember the victims of Stalin's terror.

Ruth Derksen Siemens
Letters from Stalin's Russia

“Life must be lived looking forward, but can only be understood looking backward” 
(S. Kierkegaard).


As an act of remembering, I recommend the following:

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October 2, 2010, 1 - 4:00pm
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R. Derksen
University of British Columbia
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Vancouver, British Columbia V6T 1Z4

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