Identity and Loss of Historical Memory

The Destruction of Archives

by Igor Filippov (Volume editor) Flocel Sabaté (Volume editor)
©2017 Edited Collection 351 Pages


Archives are the documentary memory of each society and so they become one of the pillars of its identity. Its destruction is sometimes accidental, but it is often deliberate in order to remove the ties with the past. The new times that revolutions attempt to reach usually involve forceful and symbolic ruptures with former identity, including the destruction of the economic, administrative and historical documentation. This book collects updated texts written by outstanding researchers from an initial Congress held in Moscow in 2006 in order to analyze the causes and consequences of the destructive violence against archives boasted during revolutionary turmoils. The studies pay special attention to the first important contempt and destruction of documentation, during the French Revolution; continue studying the damages to archives during 19th century; and culminated analyzing the effects of Russian Revolution over the documentation and the evolution until the end of the Soviet period.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Destruction of Archives and Historical Science (Igor Sviatoslavovich Filippov)
  • Historical Archives: Function and Destruction (Flocel Sabaté)
  • La gestion archivistique de la Révolution française (Françoise Hildesheimer)
  • Bouleversements administratifs et transmission des archives. Un aspect de la Révolution française (Bruno Delmas)
  • La Révolution française, les archives et la « théorie mimétique » (Pierre Santoni)
  • A propos des origines de la sous-série B II des Archives nationales (Votes populaires, Constitutions de 1793 et 1795) (Serge Aberdam)
  • Through the Veil of Revolutionary Fires: What can we say about Medieval France despite the Mass Destruction of Archives during the Revolution of 1789 (Igor Sviatoslavovich Filippov)
  • The Survival of the Maltese Inquisition Archives during the French Occupation: 1798–1800 (Stanley Fiorini)
  • Le transport des manuscrits vaticans et l’exportation des archives à Paris sous Napoléon (Christine Maria Grafinger)
  • Medieval Documentation and Archives in Catalonia after the 19th Century Upheavals (Flocel Sabaté)
  • Revolution and Archives: the experience of the French Revolution of the late 18th century and the Russian Revolution of 1917 (Evgueni Vassilievitch Starostine)
  • Secret Police and the Romanov Family Archives during the Revolutionary Days 1917–1920 (Zinaida Ivanovna Peregoodova)
  • Archives during the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917–1921 (Iryna Matiash)
  • Making up for Lost Time: the Impact of the Destruction in 1922 of the Irish Public Record Office (Howard B. Clarke)
  • Economic Dimensions of GULAG: Evidence of the “Archival Revolution” (Leonid Iosifovich Borodkin)
  • The Split of the State and Archives – the case of Czechoslovakia (Jan Rychlík)
  • Revolutionary Archives and the “archival turn” (William G. Rosenberg)
  • Archives in a peaceable land: another case of English exceptionalism? (Edward Higgs)

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Destruction of Archives and Historical Science

Igor Sviatoslavovich FILIPPOV
Lomonosov Moscow State University

Destruction of archives is a subject which many researchers would like to avoid, even those who study wars and revolutions. For many of them, not to mention their readers, conquests, combats, conspiracies, coups d’etat, beheadings, stabbing, poisoning or other ways of eliminating monarchs and politicians are much more interesting and important subjects. Professional historians are of course aware of archives having been burned, shelled, flooded, sold to paper mills or sent to arsenals to make cartouches. They are also aware of archives deliberately or accidentally dispersed or left to rot and be devoured by rats and insects or fall into the hands of thieves hunting for rarities, silver stamps attached to old charters or specimens to use for forgeries. However, the man in the street has but a very vague idea of such things, nor does he usually realise the consequences of these disasters for studying the past. The same is true of course for historically important libraries, which often store ancient manuscripts and archival documents per se for one reason or another classified as manuscripts1.

This is both understandable (given the indifference of many people to history) and bewildering because archives are known to perish even in our days and in Europe – to say nothing of remoter parts of the world where war or negligence in preserving documents is rather common.

One of the best known examples of this sort is the shelling and eventual burning on 25th August 1992 of the National Library of Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, during the siege of the city, not by Serbs as it is often claimed, because Bosnian Serbs considered the Library their Memorial Treasury as well, and even called it Вьечница (Vijećnica), i.e. a place where cultural treasures are preserved for eternity. It would be much more correct to blame the radical wing of the Bosnian Serb army for this ← 7 | 8 → disaster. Before the shelling, the Library contained more than 1.5 million books, some unique, together with thousands of manuscripts. Only a few were saved by enthusiasts; some of the most precious items were stolen; the rest were annihilated. This event received much publicity in the West and one can say that in general terms it is quite well known2.

Unfortunately, people from the West, even intellectuals, usually have no idea that, the same year, two similar crimes against culture took place in Sukhumi, the capital of the autonomous, then self-proclaimed independent Republic of Abkhazia, located on the eastern coast of the Black Sea. Following the break-up of the USSR, the Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia rebelled against the government of Georgia of which it had been part since 1921 by the then decision of the new Bolshevik rulers of Moscow and the former Russian empire. The rebels soon lost ground, which came as no surprise since by 1992 they constituted a minority of Abkhazia’s population, and the republic was occupied by the newly formed Georgian army and the Georgian guards. However, by autumn 1992, the Abkhazian forces, moving from the north, were on the offensive and after they took the town of Gagra, second in importance in the small republic, it became likely that Sukhumi would soon fall too. In these circumstances, some of the Georgian guards chose to destroy everything Abkhazian in Sukhumi. At 16.40 on 22nd October, they set fire to the Gulia Institute of language, literature and history of Abkhazia, then at 16.51 also to the Central Archive of Abkhazia. The guards prevented the fire brigades and the collaborators of the two institutions from saving the buildings. As a result, they and their contents (including unprinted reports of archaeological expeditions, collections of photos and folklore and the Institute’s research library) were totally destroyed. Luckily, the National Library of the republic was not damaged. Still, it was a major blow to the ← 8 | 9 → Abkhazian national culture, memory and identity3. It was also an attempt to erase the past, but no one seemed to care about it.

Other parts of Europe have recently and surprisingly lost much of its archival and library heritage as well. The most notorious case is that of the Cologne city archive which simply fell down on 3 March 2009. This was the result of miscalculation by engineers constructing an underground line. Excavating too much soil from the wrong place led to the appearance of huge voids which finally devoured the archival building4. On analyzing the event, the Germans use the word Schlamperei. Its English equivalent is probably “slipshodness” but since even those who think they know English well are unlikely to have ever come across it let me explain that we are dealing with a notion which means doing something without thinking first. Alas, it happens even with the Germans. The scale of the disaster is still not clear but it caused many archives and libraries across the world to launch or speed up their digitalization programmes.

Other sadly famous destructions of archives and especially of libraries have taken place over the last 2–3 decades. Let us recall a few. In the night of the 10th to the 11th June 1999, the joint library of the Lyon 2 and Lyon 3 universities suffered a politically and ideologically-motivated arson attack. It seems this was the way some people protested against the presence in the collection of the anti-Semitic and “revisionist” writings (some said to be unique) of a certain Jean Plantin. As a result, about 300,000 of the library’s 450,000 books were destroyed5. It was a major blow to the very possibility of studying and carrying out research in Lyon6. ← 9 | 10 →

Finally, I will mention two recent library catastrophes in my own country. The first took place on 14th-15th February 1988. For reasons not really established, a terrible fire broke out in the Library of the Academy of Sciences in Saint-Petersburg, the oldest in the country and one of the largest (more than 20 million items) in the world. The fire was put out only after 10 hours of struggle but as it was extinguished by water, many surviving books suffered from the remedy. 400,000 books (many of them published in 17th century) were totally burned, 500,000 books were no longer legible, 6 million were soaked in water, 7.5 million were affected by dampness. All methods of restoration were employed, including drying books page by page stretched out on special threads. Yet, 29 years later the work continues with no chance to recover a huge part of the collection7.

In 2015, the bell tolled for the Library of the Academy of Sciences for Social Sciences in Moscow, also one of the richest in the world (it’s also known as INION – the Institute of Scientific Information on Social Sciences). On 30th and 31st January, fire ravaged the library’s storehouse and other premises, destroying most of the building and at least 5 million books and other items. In fact, the exact scale of the losses, as well as the reasons of the disaster, are still a matter of investigation. It seems to be the result of a combination of a tragic technical accident and not the best management. However, no verdict has yet been given8. ← 10 | 11 →

These latter examples have of course nothing to do with revolutions and rather little with archives (though practically any library of importance, and certainly the mentioned ones) have either a manuscript department or an archive reflecting the history and present activities of the library. But it is at least a reminder that cultural disasters we are studying still happen today and have a serious impact on research. As for the preceding examples, namely those of Sarajevo, Sukhumi and Lyon, they clearly show that ideological and political ideas can still motivate people to fight with old-time documents and books as if they were living opponents made of flesh and blood. Are the cases discussed so much different from those that took place in 1789 or 1917?

We have also further proof that the history of archives, especially in turbulent times, is a fascinating subject that sheds light on the way people back in time thought and acted, on how much their thoughts and actions were the product of sincere belief, ignorance, fear, indifference, neglect of responsibility, hypocrisy, careerism or intelligence and genuine bravery. A complicated blend of eternal human feelings and those typical of a particular historical epoch.

But there is much more to it than an appeal to conduct research on interesting yet little studied issues or to be more attentive to the treasures we have inherited from the past. Explored from different points of view, the subjects approached by the authors of this collection of papers show how much a proper investigation of the problems “destroying and destruction of archives”, “destroyed and distorted archives” can benefit a historian who is too often faced with these realities.

First of all, this book emphasizes the importance of reconstructing lost archives. I am speaking now both of physical reconstruction of the type so well demonstrated in Naples, Ypres, Dublin or Warsaw when, bit by bit, making use of identical documents preserved by chance or not in a totally different archive, of earlier publications (whole, partial, imperfect – it is not very essential in this case), of citations, even of allusions, of earlier scholars’ personal handwritten copies and extracts from the perished ← 11 | 12 → texts, – and of virtual reconstruction which enables us to get an idea of the volume of the archive, its structure, etc. This is much better than nothing (just one example: about 10% of the Archives of the Kingdom of Naples, totally destroyed in 1943, have been reconstructed this way) but, what is perhaps even more significant it is a means to have a general idea of the archive which will safeguard us from many silly mistakes.

In reality, historians rarely have nothing at all left from a destroyed archive; some documents, even in the original, though more often in later copies, escape destruction. If so, it is essential to put them in the right archival context, and this presumes knowledge of what the archive was like at the time of the documents’ creation and later when it was used for one purpose or another. Not exceptionally for this sake we turn to better preserved archives. There is nothing wrong with this manoeuvre as long as we remember that, for example, a monastic archive, especially of the same order to which “our” archive belongs, is quite different in its organisation and functioning from, say, a municipal or notarial archive.

In our research, we naturally start out from the documentary collections preserved in contemporary archival institutions. Their organisation, as a rule, differs from one country or type of archive to another, so much so that a period of adjustment is needed for newcomers to find their way (virtually in most cases) around an archive they are unaccustomed to working in. However, we should not forget that rather often the present organisation of the archive has little in common with that of the Middle Ages or the Early Modern Period. So, before making any far-reaching conclusions about the place and even the meaning of the particular document we are studying, we must “undo” the work of the archivists of the last two centuries (sometimes more) in order to return this document to its proper historical context.

The reconstruction of the initial state of an archive may imply quite different types of research. For example, this could take the form of a virtual recreation of a large group of documents, which were artificially separated in the course of reforms or revolutionary events. Thus, in France in 1790, as a result of the abolishment of old provincial divisions and their substitution by departments, the archives of the généralités, parliaments and chambres des comptes of territories, which formerly constituted a living administrative entity, found themselves divided between departments. The criteria for passing a document to the archives of this or that department were sometimes not very clear (it could have been intended for several departments), ← 12 | 13 → so not exceptionally this practice led to mistakes and loss of documents. Meticulous research over recent years has, in some cases, made it possible to recreate the unity of such collections, sometimes virtually, sometimes thanks to copies of materials from the archives of neighbouring departments. Such work was successfully done with some pre-revolutionary sets of documents from the province of Dauphiné which was divided into three departments under the Revolution, namely Isère, Drôme and Hautes-Alpes9.

The constatation that, for a certain region and a certain period of time, we have hardly any documents left at our disposal is of very little informative value (in fact it may be misleading) unless we learn that either the same was true in the period we are studying or that some later events have changed the archival scenario very significantly. This is a point I tried to prove in my own presentation. Lacunae in our sources are very important pieces of information, as are any irregularity or oddness in the mass of well-preserved sources, and a historian should make good use of these.

In organising the long planned conference “Revolution and Archives” in Moscow back in 2006, I met with enthusiastic response from many colleagues from different countries. Alas, some of them were unable to attend due to lack of funds (this was also one of my concerns) or for personal reasons. Some of them however sent their papers, which were distributed among those who did come. Other than that, the conference went well, and many participants told me that they had left with good memories and things to think of. Nevertheless, after it ended, I discovered that, despite positive comments, nobody in Russia was ready to finance the acts of the conference, which involved translation from several languages and other problems. The few soundings I made to this end abroad ended with the same results. It looked for a while as if memories would be the only result of a conference which we appreciated so much. The only participant who believed in a better outcome and kept saying that sooner or later we would solve the problem, and solve it well, was my dear friend Prof. Flocel Sabaté of Lleida University. It is his fantastic energy, the ability to find and persuade the right people and last, but not least, to find the necessary money which made this edition possible. I would like all the participants and readers to know this and I express my sincere gratitude to him and my admiration. ← 13 | 14 →

1 I received diverse and valuable advice about this paper from my colleagues and students: Grigoriy Borisov, Alexander Ivlev, Zoya Metlitskaya, Vadim Prozorov, Vasilina Sidorova, Alexander Shakhov. I am deeply grateful for their assistance.

2 András Riedlmayer, “Erasing the Past: The Destruction of Libraries and Archives in Bosnia-Herzegovina”, Middle East Studies Association Bulletin, 29/1 (1995), pp. 7–11; Sarija Sarić, “Destruction of archival records in Bosnia and Herzegovina”, Arhivski vjesnik, 42 (1999), pp. 223–230; András Riedlmayer, “From the Ashes: the Past and Future of Bosnia’s Cultural Heritage,” Islam and Bosnia: Conflict Resolution and Foreign Policy in Multi-Ethnic States, Maya Shatzmiller, ed. (Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2002), pp. 98–135; Donna-Lee Frieze, “The destruction of Sarajevo’s Vijećnica: a case of genocidal cultural destruction?”, New directions in genocide research (Oxon: Routledge, 2011), pp. 57–74; Helen Walasek, Richard Carlton, Amra Hadžimuhamedović, Valery Perry, Tina Wik, Bosnia and the Destruction of Cultural Heritage (Farnham: Ashgate, 2015).

3 Pavel V. Florensky, ed. Белая книга Абхазии.Документы, материалы, свидетельства (Moscow: Moscow typography № 7 of the Ministry of Press and Information of the Russian Federation, 1993), pp. 199–204; Valiko M. Pachulia, Грузино-абхазская война 1992–1993 гг.(боевые действия) (Sukhumi: Алашарбага, 2010), pp. 111–113.

4 Bettina Schmidt-Czaia, Ulrich S. Soénius, eds. Gedächtnisort. Das Historische Archiv der Stadt Köln (Cologne: Böhlau Verlag, 2010); Andreas Rossmann, “Der Preis der U-Bahn”, Frankfurter Allgemeine (26th June 2016), <http://www.faz.net/>.

5 Robert Faurisson, “L’incendie criminel de la bibliothèque inter-universitaire de Lyon”, Le Blog inofficiel, 20 December 2001. 25 June 2016, <http://robertfaurisson.blogspot.ru/2001/12>.

6 Upon hearing about this disaster, as a researcher and a former librarian, I decided to help the ruined library reconstitute at least its Russian collections. I chose to give away some of my own books and obtained the promise of many Russian colleagues to do the same. On 1st December 1999, I wrote a letter to the French ambassador in Moscow (Hubert Colin de Verdière) and personally delivered it to the embassy. There was no answer but on 7th December, I managed to get in touch by phone with the embassy’s cultural attaché, Mme Anne Duruflé, who said that she had been “bouleversée” by my offer because usually people ask for something but hardly ever offer to give anything. We agreed to transfer such books as I had already collected to the embassy on 21st December. As it turned out, Mme Duruflé did not have a car at her disposal that day so she proposed that I bring the books myself. Not having a car of my own, I rented one, took the books to the embassy and, with the help of Mme Duruflé’s assistant, Igor Tscherbakov, carried them into one of the embassy’s store houses. There were 408 of my own books, mainly on Russian history, philosophy and literature plus some books donated by other people. To my knowledge they never made it to Lyon nor came to the surface in Moscow. All my efforts to find out what happened to them were in vain. The only book which ever reached the Lyon library I took there in person and gave it myself to its director, Charles Micol, on 11th May 2000.

7 Valery P. Leonov, “Учит ли история тому, что она ничему не учит?”, Библиотечное дело, 2 (2003), pp. 2–5.

8 The literature on this issue is abundant, not always accurate and often politicized beyond any reasonable measure. Here is a small choice of rather calm texts written by people who know the subject, also from personal experience: Nadezhda Volchkova, “Братство по книге”, Научное сообщество, 174 (2016), pp. 18–20; Olga Bolshakova, Zoya Metlitskaya, Mikhail Mints, “Воспоминания о прошлом и о будущем”, Библиотечное дело, 264/6 (2016), p. 3–5. See also: Mariya Blokhina, “Пожар в ИНИОН”, Полит.ru, 1 February 2015. 25 June 2016,< http://polit.ru/article/2015/02/01/lib_fire/>.

9 Yves Soulingeas, Les institutions administratives, financières et judiciaires du Dauphiné sous l’Ancien Régime. Guide des fonds d’archives (Grenoble: Archives départementales de l’Isère, 2002).

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ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (May)
Archives Documentation Documental Heritage Revolution Memory Identity
Bern, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2017. 351 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Igor Filippov (Volume editor) Flocel Sabaté (Volume editor)

Igor Philippov is Professor of Medieval History at the Moscow State Lomonossov University, former director of the Russian State Library (1992–1996) and author of The Mediterranean France in the Early Middle ages (PhD Dissertation, 2001). Flocel Sabaté is Professor of Medieval History at the University of Lleida, ICREA researcher, doctor honoris causa of the Universidad Nacional de Cuyo (Argentina) and director of the research journal Imago Temporis. Medium Aevum.


Title: Identity and Loss of Historical Memory
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