After 170 years of inhabiting the buildings that housed the pre-revolutionary Senate and Synod, Russia's largest and oldest archive, containing 6.5m manuscripts documenting history from Peter the Great to the Bolshevik coup, is being evicted by the Kremlin.
It will be moved to a new location on the outskirts of St Petersburg, while the grand 18th-century buildings designed by an Italian architect to house the archive will be handed over to the presidential administrative department, a powerful organisation that inherited most of the property used by the Central Committee of the Communist party, including sanatoriums, hospitals and hotels.
Prominent Russian historians and writers say the “relocation” of the archive is the most disturbing, though by no means the only, example of the ambivalent attitude to history in Vladimir Putin's Russia.
The Historical Archive is not the only Russian heritage site endangered by the redistribution of property in the country.
Several historic buildings in St Petersburg have already been claimed by members of Mr Putin's entourage. Moscow's Museum of Cinema is in danger of disappearing after its building was sold to an unknown organisation, and the government is claiming ownership of Catherine the Great's estate near Moscow.
Viktor Khrekov, spokesman for the presidential administrative department, says the documents will be safer in a modern and well equipped building.
But Marietta Chudakova, a famous scholar and a former member of Boris Yeltsin's presidential council, does not believe that Kremlin bureaucrats are genuine in their concern for the documents. “It is disgusting that under the mask of ‘improving' conditions of the archive, a fine historic building is being emptied for the needs of the Kremlin's power structures. It is one of the most vulgar examples of the action of siloviki [the man of power] and the inaction of the society.”
Nikita Krylov, an archivist at the state historical archive who has organised a voluntary committee for its protection, says there is a double danger in moving the archive. “First, some documents will inevitably perish during the move. Many of them have never been looked at or copied.” The second danger is that a change in environment could damage the documents. Mr Krylov says the building possesses a unique microclimate that helps to preserve the documents. “The new building is built from concrete, which is a very aggressive environment for old paper,” he says.
Ms Chudakova adds: “The archive of this size should only be moved under the threat of bombing or flooding.”
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