Cameras were rolling and clicking when the world's first space traveler returned home, when Soviet leaders discussed anticapitalism campaigns, and when Russian troops invaded Afghanistan. But the 38,000 films and more than 1 million pictures chronicling significant events of the former Soviet Union have been guarded in vaults, accessible only to a few government-approved groups.
Now an international media company based in Fort Worth is putting Russian archives on the Internet. "These are images most people have never seen about important events..." says J. Mitchell Johnson, president, founder,and chief executive of Abamedia. "The Soviets had bureaus worldwide, so they had coverage of the same events, but from a different perspective."
While working on a television project a few years after the Soviet Union's 1991 demise, Mr. Johnson stumbled upon the Russian State Film and Photo Archive at Krasnogorsk, a four-block facility containing all the country's nonfiction films.
Johnson signed a 20-year contract in 1996 with officials at the Krasnogorsk archives, and Abamedia later signed contracts with museums and the Russian State Archive of Scientific and Technical Documents in Moscow. But it wasn't until this summer that the Abamedia project was officially endorsed by the Federal Archival Service of Russia and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, which promotes collaboration among nations through education, science, culture, and communication.
Web surfers now can access nearly 25,000 of the films in Russian and about 5,000 films in English. Thousands of pictures already are online, including Soviet propaganda posters and cartoons, and diary entries written by the Romanovs.
About 160 Russian government employees are writing a catalog and summaries, and posting the streaming audiovisual clips and low-resolution images, free for viewing. But filmmakers, ad agencies, publishers, and others who want to use the images commercially must pay licensing fees before downloading.