Cracks Are Slow to Open In the Vast Soviet Archives

Following the Soviet hard-line coup, Yeltsin promised to open secret files. He has a long way to go.

REM USIKOV carefully punches a code into a panel of buttons to the right of a pair of wooden doors. With a buzz, he enters a labyrinthine, carpeted corridor leading down to a sealed metal door marked "Preserve Number 9." With a combination of keys and electronic codes, the heavy door swings open to reveal a large room filled with gray and green metal cabinets stacked in six layers up to the ceiling.

Within this room - and many others like it - lies the hidden history of more than seven decades of Soviet rule. Here are stored the secret archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, from the earliest days of the Bolshevik revolution to the final hours before the attempted hard-line Communist coup last August.

The contents of the files range from the prosaic transactions of the Communist bureaucracy to glimpses of dramatic moments in history. A brown-bound file from a cabinet containing Central Committee notes from 1983 includes a memo seeking permission for "Comrade Koslov," an "agrarian specialist," to go the United States. A card pulled at random from a catalog contains a brief typewritten description of the minutes of a Secretariat meeting of Aug. 18, 1919, when the decision was made to appoint the infamou s Felix Dzerzhinsky head of the Special Bureau of the first Soviet secret police.

Until last year's failed putsch, these rooms were off limits to all but the elite members of the Central Committee staff and their bosses. Within days of the coup, the victorious government of President Boris Yeltsin moved to seize the files of the Communist Party and the KGB secret police. Cracks in official secrecy

Now cracks have been opened in those sealed doors. An exhibit of some 300 secret documents opened recently in the United States. Some documents have been sold out the back door by officials eager to turn a fast buck. Other files are made public by Russian government officials eager to expose the crimes of their Communist foes.

But officials admit they have fallen far short of earlier claims that the archives would be fully opened. The party files covering areas such as foreign policy, internal security, and military matters remain closed. A large number of documents, including all Politburo minutes since 1940, remain sealed in a separate Presidential Archive.

Historian Rudolph Pikhoya, chairman of the Russian government Committee on Archival Affairs, acknowledges that the KGB, now called the Ministry of Security, has not fulfilled an agreement to hand over 3 million of its 4.5 million files.

"The Committee for Archives wasn't persistent enough in taking away the KGB archives," Mr. Pikhoya admits with a sigh. "Now the situation is more complex."

There is as yet no serious call for access to the KGB's foreign-intelligence files. Public demands center on opening files kept on millions of former Soviet citizens during decades of repression. "The KGB says if you were persecuted, you can come and see the file," says Pikhoya. "But you never know how complete this information is."

The party archives contain about 70 million files, he says, equal to the entire government archives going back to the 12th century. Central Committee archives through 1952 are relatively open.

The most secret archives, stored separately under the direction of Dr. Usikov, are the so-called working files covering the period since 1952. These archives contain some 200 million to 300 million documents, all of which were classified as secret. The files covering party work in areas such as propaganda, organization, and industry are now open to scholars. But that encompasses only about a third of the files, says Usikov. The rest, dealing with foreign, military, and security affairs, are to be declass ified on the advice of "experts," including the staff of the KGB, foreign and defense ministries. Few documents declassified

The limited number of documents that have been declassified have been dealt with by a special government committee under the direction of Information Minister Mikhail Poltoranin. A recent set published in the weekly Moscow News included KGB reports on aid to Palestinian terrorists in the 1970s and a Gorbachev-era document requesting technology to monitor computerized dispatches of foreign correspondents.

These have been selective disclosures, aimed in large part at discrediting the Communist Party. They were prompted in part by a suit filed by the Communists before the Constitutional Court seeking repeal of Yeltsin's post-coup ban of the party. (Hearings on that suit begin July 7.)

"I can't deny this situation exists," Pikhoya comments, "but I am grateful to these Communists who placed their suit with the Constitutional Court because it has intensified our work."

But the Russian official also acknowledges that "there are no criteria" for declassification. Indeed there is no legal regulation yet of the archives. A law governing access has languished in a parliamentary committee since earlier this year. The only legal guideline defining government secrets is a Jan. 14 decree by President Yeltsin on the protection of state secrets which calls for observing earlier Soviet acts, including KGB official guidelines.

"If I am guided by these acts, I should ban completely the use of the documents in our archive," responds Usikov. Government takes lead

Frustrated by what Pikhoya says is parliamentary obstruction, his government committee declared declassification "procedures" several weeks ago that keep documents from the last 30 years closed. Free access to all pre-1942 documents is given, opening up "millions of documents" still considered secret. Documents issued between 1942 and 1962 will be declassified on a case-by-case basis, although documents related to mass repression of the Stalinist era and afterward will be opened fully.

Ultimately, the full opening of the archives is essential, says Usikov, a man who has spent 30 years of his life guarding the secrets of the Soviet power elite. "It gives us the opportunity to understand history and to restore the true past - without the deviations, the distortions, without the ideological layers that were put on it," he says in an office still decorated with Lenin's portrait.

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