It is a nightmare come true for old Stalinists and a dream come true for Western historians.
The Hoover Institution, the conservative think tank at Stanford University that was considered a center of anti-Soviet scholarship, has obtained the rights to review and microfilm the previously secret archives of the Communist Party Central Committee and state ministries in the former Soviet Union, officials announced Tuesday. Millions of documents may be involved, dating from the 1917 Revolution to the failed coup last August.
Some scholars question whether the Hoover researchers will be given complete access to the files. But other experts hope the archives will provide indisputable evidence to resolve such historical debates as whether Lenin himself ordered the murders of Czar Nicholas II and his family and how much Stalin and Hitler cooperated during their brief detente before World War II.
Mainly housed in two collections in Moscow, the party and state archives represent "one of the greatest untapped bodies of knowledge in the history of the 20th Century," said Charles G. Palm, deputy director of the Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace. "In undertaking this preservation, the Russians are making a major contribution to the world's scholarship. It's an honor for us to join them in this effort."
The Hoover's arrangement with Moscow "is extremely significant," said Harvard University professor Richard Pipes, a Russian history expert and onetime adviser to former President Ronald Reagan on Soviet affairs. "These archives contain the true history of the Soviet regime. I'm just dreaming of getting my hands on it."
The agreement between the Hoover Institution and the Committee on Archival Affairs of the Russian Federation (Roskomarkhiv) comes just two weeks after Russian officials officially opened some of the archives to foreign researchers who travel to Moscow. Such openness remains controversial in Moscow. Allies of Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin still fear that sensitive files will be destroyed by loyalists of the now-dissolved Communist Party, as was done right after the coup attempt.
"For many years, everybody told us that the archives must be closed. Now we would like to have the archives open to everyone for research," Vladimir Tarasov, head of international relations for the Russian archives federation, said in a telephone interview from Moscow.
The Hoover library will provide $3 million for camera equipment, film and other technical matters over the five years of the project, which will begin in July. Full copies of the films will be kept at the Hoover library at Stanford and in Moscow.
Selected portions will be available for sale to other universities and libraries worldwide through a British publishing firm, Chadwyck-Healey Ltd. The Russian archives federation will provide manpower for the filming and garner "substantial" royalties from those sales, Palm said.
In addition, Roskomarkhiv is to receive microfilmed copies of Hoover's extensive holdings in Russian and Soviet history, including files of the Czarist secret police.
Tarasov said Russian scholars want the microfilm copies of the California library's collection dealing with events such as the Russian Civil War. Those documents were taken out of Russia by emigres at the time, he said. The royalties arrangement is also attractive because, Tarasov added, "Russian archives are now in a very bad position in terms of equipment, technical activities and salaries of archivists."
The Hoover Institution, founded in 1919 by the future President Herbert Hoover as a collection of documents on World War I and international humanitarian relief, later gained a reputation as a bastion of anti-Soviet thought.
Some scholars noted the irony of the Hoover's involvement in the Russian archives. "Everything is very bizarre about the Soviet Union, Russia, today," said Pipes, a former visiting fellow at Hoover.
The Stanford think tank has other ties with the current Russian leadership. Last year it sent advisers to help Yeltsin plan a shift to a free-market economy.
The question of how much access the Hoover scholars will be given troubles some experts. "I will caution anyone not to be duped," said Vladimir Brovkin, an associate professor of history at Harvard, who conducted research recently at the enormous, marble-floored library in Moscow that used to be called the Institute for Marxism-Leninism and where much microfilming will take place. Brovkin contended that Russians are so desperate for foreign currency that they may make "all kinds of agreements with foreigners" and then allow filming of only inconsequential files.
Palm, Hoover's deputy director, conceded that Russian officials may withhold some documents that relate to national security. But he said he has assurances from Rudolf Pikhoya, chairman of the Russian archives committee, that "the archives will be as accessible as reasonably possible."