BOSTON — For 74 years, Russia's Communists obsessively kept records of their sometimes-brutal and often-secretive reign over a would-be world empire. They probably never imagined their paper trail of Kremlin plotting, military adventures, and spying skulduggery might come to light.
These archives, kept by several institutions, are especially important to historians because "most decisions about the conduct of the cold war were made in Moscow, so that's where the top-level papers are," says Mark Kramer, a researcher at Harvard University.
Only a few key archives have opened up for scholars' use, such as that of the Central Committee of the Communist Party, which provided evidence for the trial of the Communist Party in 1992.
But documents from several different sources are required, for instance, to find out just how close the superpowers came to nuclear blows. "The military archives should answer once and for all [whether] there was ever a real threat of a Soviet military attack against the West," says Vladislav Zubok, a senior fellow at the National Security Archives in Washington, a private research foundation.
The papers that many historians most covet are in the Presidential Archive, controlled by Boris Yeltsin himself, which contain the files of the Communist Party's ruling body, the Politburo, as well as the personal papers of Soviet leaders.
Those documents should allow scholars "to get into Stalin's head and Khrushchev's head and see how decisions were made during key crises," says Jim Hershberg, director of the Woodrow Wilson Foundation's Cold War International History Project in Washington, which monitors developments in the archives and brings international cold war scholars together.
But despite promises to bring them under the authority of the State Archival Service (Rosarkhiv), the Presidential Archive remains firmly in Mr. Yeltsin's grip - and subject to the vicissitudes of Russian politics and foreign policy.
In July, when Yeltsin was reelected, hopes for open archives were revived after what former Rosarkhiv director Rudolf Pikhoia calls "a sharp explosion in negative tendencies toward limiting access'' in late 1995. He adds, "The political situation often influences the rate of opening."
In February, after the Communist Party swept parliamentary elections, Yeltsin signed a law allowing each of the ministries to retain control over its archives, effectively keeping the KGB, foreign intelligence, and military archives out of reach of Rosarkhiv. Researchers also complain regularly that documents they had held in their hands in 1992 were off-limits in 1995.
Researchers also claim that some documents from the Presidential Archive - such as the Politburo documents on the downed KAL Flight 007 - have been declassified to serve as tokens of goodwill as Yeltsin goes abroad to smooth over foreign policy glitches or request aid.
In the former Soviet satellite states of Eastern Europe, access to archives has been fairly consistent. "Basically, those countries, especially Germany, made a clean break with their past," says Kramer. "But that hasn't happened in Russia."
In the meantime, the end of the cold war has yielded other dividends - such as memoirs of Soviet policymakers and the possibility of meeting with the players in key crises - that help historians compensate for the lack of documents.
And it was not only the Soviets keeping their files sealed - the US government has released scores of cold-war-era documents in the past few years. "The CIA has only begun its so-called 'glasnost' program," says Dr. Hershberg.