Archangel and The Fictional World of Archives

Original Novel Title: Archangel

Author: Robert Harris

Publisher: London, UK: Hutchison, 1998 ; New York, NY: Random House, February 1999.

Harris, author of the novels Fatherland and Enigma, sets this novel in modern Russia where a one-hit wonder historian, Dr. Christopher Richard Andrew "Fluke" Kelso, is in search of a secret notebook kept by Josef Stalin. Russian archives and archivists play a starring role in the novel, so much so that this work could represent the Great Archival Novel of the 1990s.

Quotations are from the British hardcover edition:

Kelso, addressing a conference, "Confronting the Past": An International Symposium on the Archives of the Russian Federation", paints a grim picture of Stalin's personal life unaccounted for in any archives (p. 69-70):

Colleagues, whenever I sit in an archive, or, more rarely these days, attend a symposium like this one, I always try to remember that scene, because it reminds me to be wary of imposing a rational structure on the past. There is nothing in the archives here to show us that the Deputy Chairman of the Council of Ministers, or the Commissar for Foreign Affairs, when they made their decisions, were shattered by exhaustion, and very probably terrified -- that they had been up until three a.m. dancing for their lives, and knew they might well be dancing again that evening. ...
Here we are, gathered in Moscow, forty-five years after Stalin's death, to discuss the newly-opened archives of the Soviet era. Above our heads, in fire-proofed strong-rooms, maintained at a constant temperature of eighteen degrees celsius and sixty per cent humidity, are one and a half million files -- the entire archives of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union.
Yet how much does this archive really tell us about Stalin?

A former hardline Communist Party and KGB member, Vladimir Mamantov, acidly comments to Fluke on how some Russians view the opening of the Russian Archives and its exploitation by historians (p. 73):

"So you're part of the gathering of thieves,' he said to Kelso.
"The symposium. Pravda published a list of the foreign historians they invited to speak.Your name was on it."
"Historians are hardly thieves, Comrade Mamantov. Even foreign historians."
"No? Nothing is more important to a nation than its history. It is the earth upon which any society stands. Ours has been stolen from us -- gouged and blackened by the libels of our enemies until the people have become lost."
Kelso smiled. Mamantov hadn't changed at all. "You can't seriously believe that."
"You're not Russian. Imagine if your country offered to sell its national archive to a foreign power for a miserable few million dollars."
"You're not selling your archive. The plan is to microfilm the records and make them available to scholars."
"To scholars in California," said Mamantov, as if this settled the argument. ...

The Tenth Directorate (pp. 107) is the shorthand form for the Special Federal Archive Resource Bureau, "or whatever the Squirrels had decided to call themselves that particular week" wryly notes one Russian investigator of Fluke's discovery. (p. 133).

The Tenth Directorate records room is maintained by one (p. 134, 136)

Blok -- an ageless creature, stooped and dusty, with a bunch of keys on his belt -- [who] led him [Feliks Suvorin] into the depths of the building, then out into a dark, wet courtyard and across it and into what looked like a small fortress. Up the stairs to the second floor: a small room, a desk, a chair, a wood-block floor, barred windows. ...
He had been expecting one file, maybe two. Instead, Blok threw open the door and wheeled in a steel trolley stacked with folders -- twenty or thirty of them -- some so old that when he lost control of the heavy contraption and collided with the wall, they sent up protesting clouds of dust. ...
He couldn't read them all. It would have taken him a month. He confined himself to untying the ribbon from each bundle, riffling through the torn and brittle pages to see if they contained anything of interest, then tying them up again. It was filthy work. His hands turned black. The spores invaded the membrane of his nose and made his head ache.

In another extract from Kelso's speech before conference delegates he pessimistically assesses the worth of the Russian archives (p. 156-157):

And the opening of the archive? "Confronting the past"? Come, ladies and gentlemen, let us say frankly what we all know to be the case. That the Russian government today is scared, and that it is actually harder to gain access to the archives now than it was six or seven years ago. You all know the facts as well as I do. Beria's files: closed. The Politsburo's files: closed. Stalin's files -- the real files, I mean, not the window dressing on offer here: closed.

In the town of Archangel, to which the notebook about, not by Stalin, led Kelso and a reporter who intruded into the hunt, the men bribe a Communist Party official to let them see the Party archives. The scene is once again rather dismal and almost pathetic from Kelso's perspective (p. 276):

The Russian conducted them back along the passage and into reception. The woman with the dyed blonde hair was watering her tinned plants. Aurora still proclaimed that violence was inevitable. Zyuganov's fat smile remained in place. Tsarev collected a key from a metal cupboard and they followed him down two flights of stairs into the basement. A big, blast-proof iron door, studded with bolts, thickly painted a battleship grey, swung open to show a cellar, lined with wooden shelving, piled with files.
Tsarev put on a pair of heavy-framed spectacles and began pulling down dusty folders of documents while Kelso looked around with wonder. This was not a storeroom, he thought. This was a catacomb, a necropolis. Busts of Lenin, and of Marx and Engels, crowded the shelves like perfect clones. There were boxes of photographs of forgotten Party apparatchiks and stacked canvases of socialist realism, depicting bosomy peasant girls and worker-heroes with granite muscles. There were sacks of decorations, diplomas, membership cards, leaflets, pamphlets, books. ...

The tension that exists between the historian and the archivist is well portrayed in this novel. This conflict, driven by the desire of both parties to possess history, is molded and manipulated to an evil end by Mamantov.

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CONTENTS: The Fictional World of Archives

Submitted by David Mattison, 1999.05.06. Updated 1999.06.23.