For a writer, Russia is a treasure trove. It generates the most improbable story lines, the characters it harbors make Hollywood action heroes seem anemic, and its history is a thrilling mixture of triumph and tragedy. The country has seen the apostle Andrew and Adolf Hitler, Emperor Napoleon and Mongol riders, Peter the Great and the Vikings. It has been part of the Great Game and the space race. It has experienced all possible kinds of regimes: absolutism, early republicanism, theocracy, communism, Nazism, democracy, you name it. No matter what you are writing about — porcelain, engineering, the navy or ballet — Russia will yield research riches. Provided you survive the process.
The most frequent misapprehension about Russia is: You’ll be fine there as long as you have dollars. No matter how poor Russia may be, it is not an Armani store. Very often, money will get you nowhere and sometimes, even worse, can get you into real trouble. This is exactly what happens with Russian archives.
The excitement and enthusiasm about Russia’s archives that were widespread among Western historians less than 10 years ago have evaporated. People doing research in the cold, gloomy reading rooms of Russian depositories complain of rudeness, groundless suspiciousness and appalling xenophobia. Very few places are still researcher-friendly, although the Naval Archives in St. Petersburg is one. Most others have resumed a Cold War-era attitude.
Legally, it is difficult for an archive to refuse to admit you. However, there are numerous subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle ways in which a bureaucracy can prevent a researcher from actually using its archive. Making you spend an hour at the front door, waiting for somebody to issue you a pass, is one method. Forcing you to wait three months and pay an exorbitant fee for the document copies you have ordered is another. Refusing you access to a collection that you know is used by other, more acceptable, writers is a third.
Of course, the underlying reason for all this is evident: poverty. An archivist is seldom paid more than $40 a month — meaning he or, more frequently, she lives far below the poverty line. People who come to the archives to pursue their research may end up being paid well for their book or article; in any case, they are headed for either fame or notoriety. All a Russian archivist can look forward to is a $20-per-month pension. At the same time, many people report that in Russia archivists cannot be bribed. It is hard to figure out the main reason for that — honesty or fear of being caught.
The obstacles are also formidable for those doing field work in Russia, i.e. outside archives. Normally, these take the form of a very angry babushka guarding the entrance to a church, palace or museum. Yet a clever person can sometimes find a way around. Money should be shown with caution; in my experience, the most easily bribed babushkas are to be found in churches. Those guarding museums or excavation sites value not money, but culture, and should be approached accordingly. Genuine enthusiasm about Russia will also unlock many doors.
The old ladies who work at various government institutions are the worst. They are irritable, authoritative, shrewd and can read your mind. In a previous incarnation, they must have been witches. In the next, they are likely to be born computer hackers. You should be as imaginative and evasive with them as you can, but remember: This type of babushka is inclined to call the police, and Russian police are not something you want to confront. So if you have unwisely chosen to pretend to be a great-great-grandson of Peter the Great, just ask the policeman how much this fraud will cost you. Unlike babushkas, Russian police have never been known to refuse money.
Beware of shady types volunteering to escort you to your destination. Some of them are indeed unemployed art historians, but 90 percent of them are thugs. Those who have acquired their English in Brooklyn and have heard of Matisse are the most dangerous. When they start to show a strong interest in the cash you are carrying, as they eventually will, surrender immediately: You will spend much more on bandages and antiseptic if you don’t. When turning your money over to the rascal, though, try to get something in return. Under no circumstances ask him where you can buy cheap caviar — this is just asking for more trouble. Ask instead what area of the city he thinks is the safest and which hotel will not have prostitutes waiting in the lobby after 10 a.m.
Be prepared to find yourself occasionally in what looks like a set from an Al Capone movie. Once my coauthor and I found ourselves the only customers of a big four-star hotel in Yalta, on the Black Sea. Its manager had been shot dead in the lobby the day before we arrived. We took the philosophical view that a bullet rarely strikes the same lobby twice — and enjoyed the dark fascination of the ghastly place for the rest of the week. Of course our courage was not rewarded by the management, and we had to pay our bill in full. On the same trip to the Crimea, we found most of the Romanov palaces on the peninsula taken over by gangsters. Drivers would refuse even to drive by some of them, since their guards had a tendency to shoot without warning.
Doing research in Russia is not cheap, no matter how low the country’s living standards may be. The daily trip from your room to the bookstore and back will not cost you much, but any deviation from the regular route will. You may negotiate the price with a driver in advance, but this doesn’t mean he won’t extort twice as much from you when you arrive. Never give a down payment. If you pay in advance, you might well end up being abandoned in the middle of nowhere, spending the rest of your days inspecting “a jewel of medieval architecture” or a “quaint village” that nobody has looked at since the first crusade.
Research in Russia can still prove rewarding, despite these difficulties. Even if your book flops, ridiculed by your colleagues and unread by your friends, you can still have a good time for the rest of your life — telling everybody about your research trip to Russia.
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