University of Rochester

Getting Past Guards Armed with Machine Guns was Unnerving, but Students Discover Scholarly Treasures in Russian Archives

October 14, 1996

This summer, two talented seniors from the University of Rochester got a rare peek at secrets which Russian officials had kept from ordinary Russian citizens for decades, and the students are now making their marks in the field of Russian history.

Gabriel Coleman of Burke, VA and Robert H. Greene of Sarasota, FL worked in Russia last summer with Jeffrey Burds, assistant professor of history at the University. Burds is co- founder and director of the Center for the Study of Russia and the Former Soviet Union, an inter-university consortium based in Rochester and the University of California at Riverside.

The program selects 45-60 scholars each summer for training and research experience in Russia. Usually, only advanced graduate students and post-docs from the most prestigious universities in the U.S. are accepted for this distinction. Coleman and Greene were offered spots in the program, based on their earlier outstanding work in undergraduate courses.

Their typical day began at the Russian State Archives in Moscow began around 9 a.m. After struggling through security guards armed with Kalashnikov machine guns accompanied by bullet- proof vests, they showed a pass along with their passport in order to enter the stacks. The students worked long hours in stifling-hot rooms, literally sweating over piles of yellowed, dusty manuscripts preserved from the Soviet era. To see materials, they needed to fill out request forms. Officials might fill the request that day or the next.

Despite these barriers and frustrations, the students felt a ripple of excitement at seeing materials long hidden from public view. Coleman remarks: "It's the first time that you get to hear the voice of the common person instead of some member of the intellectual right," the homogenized view of Soviet officialdom that has traditionally served as a veil undermining the ability of scholars to study Soviet popular opinion and popular culture.

Coleman pored though previously classified documents to analyze the culture of the gulags, prison camps for dissenters against the Soviet political system. Prisoners wrote letters of complaint to officials. Because the complaints often included political criticism, the letters were kept confidential until recently. Coleman is now completing an honors thesis in history and Russian studies, where he focuses on the music and writing of 'guitar bards' in Soviet prison camps during the 1950s. Since Coleman is working in an utterly unexplored field in Soviet history, the challenges of pulling together evidence from nearly 200 criminal files is daunting, but his advisers, Burds and Professor John Givens of the Department of Modern Languages and Cultures, are certain that the final product will represent an original and fascinating contribution.

Greene explored the destruction of the Ukrainian Catholic Church at the hands of the Soviets from 1944-46. He is also completing an honors thesis in History and Russian Studies based on recently declassified secret documents, including secret police files in Moscow, Kiev and L'viv. Burds believes that Greene's work is already of publishable quality, and that it will make a major contribution to religious history during the Soviet era.

Even though previously classified archives are now open to scholars, the students found that doing research in Moscow is a far cry from viewing original sources in the U.S.

Both students treasure their experience in Russia and hope to continue their studies in graduate school in history. "It was a remarkable opportunity to tap into previously restricted materials." Coleman also found personal satisfaction in mapping out a new intellectual frontier: "I was on my own for five months. I had to do everything independently, because no one really knew much about the topic." Greene travelled from Moscow on a 27-hour train ride to L'viv, in West Ukraine, and also had the chance to visit rural churches and villages in the Carpathian mountains. His most memorable moments came when he got to see with his own eyes the very places he had studied in published and unpublished sources.

Both students say they will remember the experience for the rest of their lives, and want to further their contributions to the fields of Russian and Ukrainian history. They are both products of a new multi-disciplinary program in Russian Studies at the University of Rochester specifically designed to enable students to pursue independent research in virtually any field in a Russian Area Studies context. Previous graduates have interviewed Afghan war veterans; studied Soviet women murders in the 1920s; worked in a Russian children's hospital; apprenticed at a Russian investment bank; and discovered and translated original works of Russian fiction.

The core faculty in the Russian Studies Program are: Profs. Kathleen Parthe and John Givens (Modern Languages & Cultures); Profs. Jeffrey Burds and Brenda Meehan (History); Prof. Randall Stone (Political Science).

Home addresses: Gabriel Coleman 5495 Lighthouse Lane Burke, Virginia 22015 (703) 323-6430

Robert H. Greene 2267 Palm Terrace Sarasota, Florida 34231 (813) 922-5268

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