Closing the Archives

What Russia's Renewed Secrecy Says About Putin

A light installation is seen in the reception room of the former Soviet Committee for State Security (KGB) headquarters, popularly known as Corner House, in Riga, Latvia, April 29, 2014.  Ints Kalnins / Reuters

It is widely known that Russia has a difficult relationship with its past. In the quarter-century since the collapse of the Soviet Union, successive governments in Moscow have been conspicuously consistent in skirting serious questions about the repressive nature of the now-defunct Soviet state and minimizing the shadow that it continues to cast over the Kremlin.

In this, Russia has lagged behind its former vassals. The 1990s saw more than a few Soviet states and satellites (among them, the Czech Republic, Estonia, and Lithuania) begin the difficult process of “lustration,” that is, purging former communist officials from public life and coming to grips with Soviet-era excesses. It was not until late in the decade that President Boris Yeltsin’s administration took a halting step in the direction of greater transparency when it grudgingly opened some of the previously secret archives of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin.

The move was political in nature; after years of promising to provide an account of his country’s totalitarian past, an ailing Yeltsin was eager to finally do so in order to outmaneuver his political opponents and ingratiate himself with the West. Over the years that followed, the once-impenetrable Iron Curtain began to slowly rust, giving up some of the most sordid secrets of Soviet rule, from Stalin’s capricious political edicts to the geopolitical machinations behind the Union’s numerous interventions in Asia and the Third World.

On an intellectual level, these insights were a boon to researchers and historians seeking to better understand Soviet motivations and actions. On a personal one, they provided much needed closure for at least some of the families of the millions of victims of Stalin’s notorious purges. In the process, Russia moved—however slightly—toward a more honest accounting of its past.

Today, however, the government of Yeltsin’s successor, Vladimir Putin, is unmistakably heading in the opposite direction. Earlier this year, the Russian government commission responsible for overseeing “state secrets” officially rejected a petition by a broad

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