Vital ruling on Soviet era archives


Nikita Petrov

A judgement just issued by Russia’s Constitutional Court has legal force only in the Russian Federation, but may be important for other post-Soviet republics, including Ukraine.  The judgement concerned access to most archival documents of public importance which were classified as secret over 30 years ago.  The Constitutional Court judgement issued over an appeal from Memorial Society historian Nikita Petrov gives serious grounds for demanding the declassifying of documents in federal and regional archives.

The Law on State Secrets says that keeping documents secret for over 30 years is permissible only in exceptional circumstances. The FSB [Russian Security Service] and Supreme Court considered this norm to be invalid until 2023, saying that the law had only come into force on 21 September 1993.

The Constitutional Court, however, has confirmed that for archives with Soviet era classified documents, the period of secrecy has already elapsed.

Deputy Director of the Memorial Information and Education Centre Nikita Petrov approached the Constitutional Court last spring after being refused access to three orders of the MGB [predecessor of the KGB) relating to NKVD-MGB activities in Germany from 1945 to 1953.

Nikita Petrov asked that the orders from the FSB, together with the rulings from the Moscow City Court and Supreme Court supporting the Security Service, be declared unlawful.  It was stressed that the period of 30 years can only be extended in exceptional circumstances, and not by the same body which classified the documents in the first place, but by an Inter-departmental Commission on the Protection of State Secrets.

The Constitutional Court has now confirmed that there were no legal grounds for refusing to declassify the information. 

The FSB had effectively tried to prevent researchers having access to archival collections. It claimed that the Law on State Secrets only applied to documents due to be declassified in 2023.  Any earlier documents were thus in a legal nowhere land with no restriction on the time they could be classified.

The Constitutional Court  states that in the literal sense of the word, the 30 year timescale for classifying documents as secret relates to information classified as secret “both before and after the Law on State Secrets came into force.

This is a major step affirming the public’s right to know about the Soviet past and is a cheering note of sanity against rising resistance in Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet republics from the Security Services and others to those who want the truth told.

Information reported at

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