Adventures in Russian archives

Ivanovo Train Station

The Ivanovo train station.
(Photo from Russian Wikipedia, used under a Creative Commons license.)

I first arrived in Ivanovo, Russia, in the fall of 2004 by overnight train from Moscow. We pulled into Ivanovo at seven in the morning, and I peeked out, still sleepy and disoriented. I asked the elderly gentlemen getting off beside me if this was, indeed, Ivanovo. He looked out at the bleak landscape, still dark, of a handful of crumbling concrete buildings with a gigantic Soviet-era wall mosaic of a worker, and replied with an ironic grin, “sure looks like it.”

Archive Mittens

Hand-felted mittens, adapted for archive use.

I made these incredibly ugly mittens to wear in the Ivanovo archive where I did the bulk of the research for my book. They were knitted in Russian wool, then fulled with hot water and soap to make them denser and therefore warmer. The forefinger on the right mitten only was made separate from the rest of the hand, so that once the fulling process ensured the wool wouldn’t unravel, I could cut tiny holes in the pad of the forefinger and thumb, so that I could (just barely) grip a pen with the mitten still on. I went through all this in the long fall evening hours after the archive was closed, then wore them all through the winter. Those mittens tell you a lot about doing archival research in Russia.

I did my research mostly in just one archive, and one that few westerners ever visit: the State Archive of Ivanovo Region, or GAIO for short.


Like a beacon in the distance, the State Archive of Ivanovo Region calls to me…

GAIO is a provincial archive, and the city of Ivanovo is the capital for its region, also called Ivanovo. Like most enterprises in Ivanovo, the archive is run pretty much entirely by women. Ivanovo’s nickname is “City of Brides” because it has been a disproportionately female city for more than two hundred years. This phenomenon began because the city of Ivanovo grew out of a region that dominated Russia’s new textile industry in the late eighteenth century. Textile workshops tended to mostly employ women in those days, so there were disproportionate numbers of women workers. Today, Ivanovo’s textile industry is dead, but the disproportionate domination of women continues.

I assumed the “city of brides” thing was little more than a nickname, but Ivanovo actually has a hair salon specializing entirely in brides….

I lived in Ivanovo for almost ten months, all of them winter. Today, with its industry closed, Ivanovo is mainly known for its malls, a couple of which were built in abandoned factory spaces. Most young people try to leave Ivanovo as soon as they can, as there aren’t many jobs. Too many of the relatively small number of adult men can be seen wandering the streets, drunk at midday—there’s not much else for them to do, if they’re not both well-educated and lucky. When I was there, from 2004-05, there was some new construction, but mostly the town looked like a graveyard for the various historical epochs it has survived. There are old merchant homes from the late nineteenth century all over town, made of wood with decorations around the windows and doors. They are quaint, but decaying fast. In between them, there are the hastily erected apartment buildings and institutional constructions of the 1960s, ugly and decaying even faster than the nineteenth-century buildings. Along the river banks are the shells of what once was an enormous factory complex, and here and there are sparkling new apartment buildings offering “luxury” units to the entrepreneurs of the new shopping malls.

Ivanovo Landscape

A nineteenth- or early twentieth-century house with a 1960s apartment building in the background, in Ivanovo.

The Ivanovo archive, like most archives, opens its reading room for pretty limited hours, about 4-5 hours each day, four days a week. As a researcher, you can only request a limited number of documents each day, so you try to plan ahead to make sure you’ll have enough to fill your time until you can request more, since you can’t afford to waste an hour. When you first arrive, they tend to not give you most of what you ask for. Instead they’ll give you one or two documents to start with, and watch how you handle them, to make sure you’re a serious researcher and are handling the documents carefully. And, at least when I was there, it was very difficult to get a xerox or digital photo of anything. It was very expensive, and you had to ask permission separately for every page. They approved only a few pages once in a while, and usually only something that obviously couldn’t be easily transcribed, like a drawing. This means you have to sit there and copy out the documents you’re interested in by hand. Eventually I was given permission to use a laptop, but I found that copying by hand was actually more efficient for my research, since the handwriting of private, nineteenth-century Russian documents was hard to decipher, so it was often easier and faster to “draw” the illegible bits in my notebook than to try to indicate what I thought I saw in the middle of typing. That’s why it took almost ten months to get the information I needed, and I barely got it all before I had to leave.

I didn’t bother to get a photograph of the EKG-type handwriting, as it wouldn’t have helped. This is an example of difficult, but decipherable handwriting. It’s an excerpt from an account book.

The handwriting isn’t really difficult because it’s old and Russian. First, I’d been reading Russian for more than ten years by the time I started this project, and it’s also not that difficult to adjust to the idiosyncrasies of the mid-nineteenth century. There are reference books that provide some of the standards of the time, though the real trick is getting to know the personal quirks of a given writer. I was lucky in that the vast majority of documents I needed were written by just a handful of people, so I could get to know each one within a week or two, and have little trouble with them thereafter. Deciphering the handwriting is a bit like the last stages of figuring out a code: you can see most of it, so you isolate the strange parts and try to identify patterns about when they appear. Once the context tells you what a figure must indicate in one instance, you can apply that to the other instances, and hopefully everything suddenly becomes clear. This is all rather fun. Though sometimes you come across the handwriting of someone who just completely defeats you. I had one such case in Vasily Rogozin, the husband of Aleksandra Chikhacheva, the daughter in the family I was studying. His handwriting looked like an EKG readout, and I had to give up on it, with great regret, since the content, if only it were legible, probably would have solved a few mysteries, because Aleksandra is one of the most enigmatic figures in this collection of documents. But I felt better when I read a letter by her father to Rogozin, complaining about his impossible handwriting!

These strange (to me) symbols popped up in all the family diaries and at first eluded me. Over time it became clear they represented days of the week. Then, I found this key, listing each symbol with its meaning and related day of the week, in the naval diary of Natalia Chikhacheva’s father, Ivan Yakovlevich Chernavin. I don’t know whether he invented it or it was a common naval code (perhaps a reader of this blog can tell me?)

This code was never mysterious, but is definitely a lot of fun. Andrei Chikhachev and his best friend and brother-in-law Yakov Chernavin invented a system of signaling to each other across their opposing balconies that they referred to as their “home telegraph.” The system involved navy-style flags (later they invented a nighttime version with lights). This is a page from their telegraph signal book.

Some mysteries remain: this seemingly coded text was inscribed by Andrei Chikhachev into his parallel diary. I have no idea what it means. Maybe someday someone will recognize it, if it wasn’t a completely idiosyncratic code unique to Andrei and his brother-in-law Yakov Chernavin. Other mysteries in the documents include odd lists and charts that I believe may have been related to various games the family played.

The hardest part about the archive work, for me, was the cold. The archive is deliberately kept cold because the low temperatures are better for the documents. But when you’re sitting still for 5 hours at a time in a cold room, you soon begin to feel like your limbs will fall off if you attempt to get up again. I coped with the help of those archive mittens, and an ankle-length down coat worn at all times (with hat and scarf and fur-lined boots). I went out into the hallway for a break with hot tea and crackers three times a day, and did quick stretches every time, to get the blood moving again.

The other greatest challenge was confronting the very different attitudes toward research and access held by the authorities of this archive (or any other state archive in Russia, though they vary in the details). Mind you, I had it incredibly easy compared to most foreign researchers in Russia. There’s even a whole book written about adventures in Russian archives. In the old days, your biggest problems included being followed by the KGB and getting permanently banned from ever traveling to Russia again. These days, keeping warm is really the biggest issue for most of us. Although it can still be very difficult to study certain subjects from the 20th century (some archives have still not been opened to researchers at all), for someone like me, studying gentry women in the early and mid-nineteenth century, there’s generally no question of whether I can get access. I’ve been denied some documents, and always told this was because they were “in restoration.” Sometimes I suspect this really means that they can’t be found, or that an archivist is in a bad mood, or that I’ve been asking for too much lately, but it’s never been anything very important.

What was much more challenging for me is that in Ivanovo in 2004-05, archivists were still very wary of digital photography, though they did eventually allow me to photograph a few documents, under strict supervision. Even now Russian archives are slow to permit digital imaging, although it has become pretty standard in most of the world and it’s potentially a marvelous way for archives to get paid to digitally preserve their own collections. For many decades, Russian archives were focused on keeping information from getting out, and this is how most working archivists were trained, so it has been a very slow—some might say glacial—process to shift policies toward the priorities shared by most western archives, which is that archives exist in order to provide access to the documents, so that researchers can do something productive with them, instead of letting them literally disintegrate unseen.

So, I labored away, copying by hand under the somewhat suspicious eyes of the authorities. But this is really not an accurate depiction. There are very few people who work in the reading room of the Ivanovo archive for more than a few days, and I was there every single moment of every day for so long that I became quite close to the main reading room archivist, and the archive as a whole was incredibly generous in helping me to pursue my research (they have little control over central policies, and in any case there’s a long history of archivists losing their jobs by being too kind to foreign researchers–their task is not an easy one). Working in the Russian provinces was very different from the kind of experience you’d have working at, for example, the Bakhmeteff Archive in New York, but not necessarily worse.

While it was harder to live in a rented room in a foreign town while I did my work, this aspect of my research was also incredibly fun. Ivanovo is a strange and interesting town in many ways. For whatever reason many of the names of streets and squares have not been renamed since the collapse of the Soviet Union (as they mostly have been in Moscow and especially St. Petersburg), so there’s a Revolution Square and Red Army Street and Marx Street and so on. There’s also a rock in the center of town to commemorate the fact that Pushkin once traveled somewhere near Ivanovo, but not actually to Ivanovo. This rock is maybe my favorite part of Ivanovo. The contrast of Pushkin rock and Revolution Square is just the beginning—beside the crumbling buildings there are fancy new western-style supermarkets and a McDonald’s knock-off. Above the post office that still smells of old Soviet paper there is an internet cafe full of foreign students sending emails to far-flung parts of the world. Ivanovo is home to a town-within-a-town full of universities, so there are a lot of students. There’s also a formerly-secret military base not far from town, so plenty of soldiers, too. And dotted here and there are a handful of pre-revolutionary churches, with shiny gold paint newly re-applied to their onion domes.

Back streets of Ivanovo

The back streets of Ivanovo: path to the archive.

To get to the archive every day I took a short-cut through the back alleys of one of the older neighborhoods, where I saw spectacular new dachas being built alongside 150-year-old peasant huts. There were still hand-pumps for water by the side of the roads, and every morning a lady walked her goats across the path I was taking. As I exited this neighborhood and neared the main road where the archive was located, I passed a 1960s-vintage apartment building with a pack of wild dogs encamped in the courtyard. You read that right. Dogs in Russia are not routinely spayed or neutered, and there isn’t much in the way of systematic dog-catching, so there are a lot of strays wandering everywhere. Calling them “wild” is probably a stretch, but they are dangerous, to each other and to passersby. I got used to them after a while, which I cannot say for the -30 degree windchill (Celcius) in February.

An area of Ivanovo I like to call “wild dog alley.”

By far the most exciting part of that research year, however, was traveling beyond Ivanovo, into the countryside. I went there to find the villages once owned by the gentry family I was researching. Their main residential village still exists, complete with manor house, then being used as the village school. I was able to meet several of the teachers, who gave me a tour of the house and village. We went back again in spring, and the teachers treated us to a memorable feast in an upstairs bedroom that once belonged to the woman at the center of my study.

The road sign to Dorozhaevo. We went once in the bitter cold of mid-winter, and again in a muggy and buggy June.

Dorozhaevo Village

The village of Dorozhaevo

Enjoying the quality of freshly pumped well water in remote Dorozhaevo.

An upstairs bedroom of the Chikhachev house in Dorozhaevo, which the locals told me belonged to the lady of the house (and nothing I read in the documents contradicted this).

Traveling on back roads from the village of Berezovik (once owned by the Chernavin and Chikhachev families) to the nearest town, Teikovo.

A wooden church from the outdoor museum at Suzdal

A rich peasant’s house at the outdoor museum at Suzdal.

Interior of a rich peasant’s house, from the outdoor museum at Suzdal.

We also traveled to another village, where the church still stood, and to nearby towns that had been significant in the mid-nineteenth century. Of these, Suzdal is now a major stop on the tourist circuit known as the Golden Ring. It features two medieval monasteries and an outdoor museum with reconstructed village houses from the nineteenth century. We also visited Rostov-the-Great, home of a magnificent medieval fortress containing several cathedrals, which should also be a tourist site, but is somewhat off the beaten path and so not as prosperous as Suzdal.

A bell tower from a monastery in Yaroslavl, a beautiful and mostly thriving city on the Volga river.

Sadly, Yaroslavl is also the home of what I believe may be the world’s ugliest building.

Skyline of Vladimir.

Finally, we visited neighboring Yaroslavl, and the former provincial capital, Vladimir, both cities that are adjusting rather better to post-Soviet times than Ivanovo, thanks in part to their more diverse economies and several significant historical sites, which bring in tourist money.

None of these visits were really essential to my research, but they helped me to assimilate the setting in which the events of my study took place. Perhaps most exciting of all my side-trips, though, was a last-minute excursion to tiny Shuia. I went because I’d been told at the Ivanovo archive that the little town museum in Shuia had a few books that had belonged to the father of the family I studied. It turns out they had a shelf full of Andrei Chikhachev’s bound volumes of the newspaper Agricultural Gazette, full of articles he had written, and with his own marginalia! Not a bad surprise for my last day of research in Russia for that project.

On an article titled “The Influence of the Moon on Trees” Andrei wrote, “Rather useful article” (perhaps not the most revelatory annotation, but characteristic of Andrei!)

These are some of the aspects of historical research that don’t really get talked about in books or classrooms, though they should. For my current research I have been working so far in the central State Archive of the Russian Federation in Moscow, and will be doing more in St. Petersburg and possibly in archives in France and Germany, so my experience has been rather different. I can order xeroxes easily in Moscow, so I can gather my materials much more quickly, and I am less immersed in the process, as I work for short periods on summer “breaks.” This is probably more typical of most historians’ archival research, and I must admit there have been far fewer moments, lately, when I wished to myself that I had chosen to study Italian history instead.


For more images related to the people and places in my book, look here.


NOTE ABOUT IMAGES: All photographs are my own (© Katherine Pickering Antonova 2012), unless otherwise noted. Please don’t use or distribute without my permission. Photographs of archival documents were taken with permission from the State Archive of Ivanovo Region.

  1. Googling astronomical day of week symbols returns several pages with the weekday symbols you found. It appears they’re fairly common. I haven’t found anything on the other cryptic page, with the crosses and dots, but you’ve piqued my curiosity. I’ll let you know if I come across anything. Is there a reason why these guys would be using codes, or was it just for fun?

  2. Thanks for the link on the day of the week symbols!

    The codes were almost certainly just for fun – these guys had no reason to do otherwise, though they might have picked up a code either in military service, or reading military memoirs. Do let me know if you come up with anything!

  3. Jocelyn Smith

    Thanks you for such an interesting review of your research in Russia.

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