Archives in Moldova
Updated: Jun 22
For the next instalment of our archives and libraries series, we spoke to Igor Cașu, head of the National Archives Agency in Moldova. Igor is an expert on Soviet nationalities policy and repression, violence, and resistance in Soviet Moldavia. He has recently published on institutional hierarchies in the newly-annexed western borderlands of the Soviet Union in the late 1940s and early 1950s, the infiltration of Jehovah's Witnesses by Soviet state security organs in the same period, and elite party recruitment in Soviet Moldavia 1940-1991.
PH: How did you get to your current position? What was your journey into working in libraries/archives?
I have been working at the archives since 1997 when I was writing my Ph.D. thesis at Iași University in Romania on Soviet nationalities policy in the Moldavian SSR. At that time, I did not have my apartment in Chișinău as I am originally from a village in the south, in the former Comrat district. So, the most I could afford to do was one-month of archival research at the former archive of the Communist Party of Soviet Moldavia, which was located in a beautiful building in the downtown area of Chișinău.
In 1998, I returned to Chișinău from Iași to teach at the University and due to a Fulbright fellowship in 2000, I could settle down there and was able to buy an apartment in which I live till nowadays (I was lucky because at that time the prices were the lowest in the whole post-Soviet period; today with that amount one could not buy even a small room in a hostel). For the next decade, I did research in the archives related to various topics.
The turning point in my relationship with the archives was in 2010 when the first archival revolution started in Moldova with the partial opening of the KGB and Ministry of Internal Affairs archives, as well as the complete declassification of all documents from the former Communist Party archive. Since then, I started to visit the archives at least once a week. In 2016, I started my book project on post-war famine in Moldavian SSR using a Soviet and European framework, for which I visited 14 district archives, several archives in Ukraine, Russia, and Romania, and the Hoover Institute in the US.
In December 2021, the director of the National Agency for Archives (NAA) retired and I decided to apply for the post. There were 10 or 11 candidates and the selection committee decided to choose me even though I have told them frankly that even though I would be happy to get the job, I was not sure that my accomplishments in one domain were automatically transferable into another one (although I many publications, including in English, I think my major contribution to the historiography is still to come, at least I hope so!) Otherwise, it was a difficult decision because I was aware that my research plans would suffer a dramatic change, and that turned out to be true. For the time being, it is almost impossible to have at least a few days in a row to dedicate to research. But that is connected to the fact we are doing a lot of reconstruction work at the archives, and we have embarked upon many projects. I am still optimistic that starting in the autumn I would be able to focus on my research plans and finish my book within 3 years.
PH: Which of your collections or resources are consulted most frequently by researchers?
As in other countries in Europe, North America, and in fact across the world, more than half of the files requested by researchers in the reading rooms are connected to genealogy. This obsession with finding out about one’s ancestors, a 19th-century legacy, is still alive for various reasons, not least because in a globalized and amalgamated world of cultures and melting pots people want to know their origins. The second type of files that are accessed most frequently are related to local history, as it is the most lucrative domain. Local authorities or businessmen sponsor the history of villages and since the salaries are very low in Moldova, many historians embark on this category of historical research.
There is also a growing interest in Tsarist and especially Soviet history from local and international students, especially in the last year after Russian aggression in Ukraine. We also have a collection of 250,000 photographs and 3000 movies that are very popular among local and international scholars. Most of the movies are documentaries from the Soviet period, but we managed also in the last year to convince Moldova-Film, the greatest film company in the country, though in deep crisis in the last decades, to give us 39 fictional movies and 31 animated ones. Here, I should thank Alisa Grecu, the director of Moldova-Film for her generosity and openness that makes it possible to disseminate Moldovan culture – Romanian and of the ethnic minorities – on the national and international level via our social media channel and YouTube.
PH: Do you have any hidden gems in your collections? What do you have that has rarely or never been used by researchers?
Among the less requested fonds are those related to statistics. This is true about the central archives but also municipal and district archives. In the Chișinău municipal archive I visited recently, there is one warehouse of files on statistics from the Soviet period and almost nobody has requested files from it. The manager of that archive asked me what should be done in that respect. One possibility is to digitalize these files and destroy the paper version, but the archival laws do not allow such a solution. Some libraries used this strategy to spare free space for new books, but the archives have their strict rules, and the popularity or the lack thereof is not a criterion to keep or destroy one fond or another.
PH: Do you have any digital collections at your archive/library?
I became the director of the Moldovan archives on 12 April 2022. At that moment, we only had three guides for the fonds and collections posted online. Meanwhile, NAA succeeded in digitalizing almost all inventories of the fonds and posted more than half online, i.e., over 2000 inventories.
In the last year, we also managed to digitalize several important fonds such as the full lists of people deported by the Soviets from the Moldavian SSR in 1949 according to the wagon lists, containing about 35,000 names, around 99% of the deported. Another digitalized fond is the one on the Sfatul Țării, the quasi-parliament of Bessarabia that voted for the Union with Romania on 27 March 1918, a project made possible due to a grant from RoAid, the Romanian Agency for International Development that allowed us to buy two high-resolution scanners. The latest digitalized fond is very important also for the politics of memory in present-day Moldova. It is about the full lists of the victims – killed and condemned to Gulag – of the Great Terror of 1937-8 in the interwar Moldavian ASSR within Soviet Ukraine – the left bank of the Dniester River of today that harbours the pro-Russian secessionist regime.
We are in the process of the internal reorganization of NAA and one of the restructuring goals is to strengthen digitalization. As a result, we will have the possibility to digitalize more fonds year by year and thus make access easier for researchers, especially for those working remotely. Another strategy to bolster digitalization is to hire specialized companies to do it for us. For that, however, one needs grants from abroad and we are already preparing an application in this respect. I am personally responsible for grant writing since I am the only one fluent in English in the whole institution with experience in grant applications abroad. But I am lucky to have a lot of great people that take care of many administrative tasks within my team, including the technical issues on digitalization, posting online the inventories and exhibitions, and first of all, I should mention in this regard my deputy director Alexandru Cerbu as well as Iurie Mazur who is doing a tremendous job in everything that is connected to the digitalization.
PH: What are the main challenges of managing your archive?
The most difficult task in managing an archive is related to the growing number of requests from citizens. Only five people are dealing with thousands of requests from the citizens each month. The law prescribes one month for giving an answer, but we are facing delays of up to three months. Again, the reorganization would offer more personnel for filling the gap, but its approval is a very cumbersome bureaucratic process, regardless of the fact that there is support from the government and there is one dominant party in Moldova controlling all branches of power. The other serious problem is the lack of space required to transfer of about 2 million files from the central institutions as well as from the district ones to NAA. The problem has its roots in the Soviet period since by 1991 the state archives did not receive the most of documents from the ministries after 1970. So, we have a 50-year arrear. The main issue is the lack of space, which no previous government from the last decades has taken seriously.
PH: Does your archive engage in any public outreach activities?
We are collaborating with several institutions by organizing joint events. This is more about public exhibitions. Among the most important partners are the National Library, the Chișinău City Museum, the National Museum of History, and the Museum of Ethnography and Natural History. We could organize a lot of events independently, but we lack the space required for exhibitions or conferences. Our biggest space, the reading room, can accommodate only about 20 people.
Recently we have organized an exhibition at Mereni, a village about 20 km southeast of Chișinău, in the Anenii Noi district. Mereni was chosen specifically since they have a Soviet wagon produced in 1954 as part of an open-air museum of the victims of the Soviet regime. This was the first exhibition in which we not only delivered the raw material for text and pictures, but we also took care of all stages of preparation for the exhibition, including designing and mounting the posters in the aforementioned wagon. I was personally involved in all these issues since I am a specialist on Soviet repressions and wrote a book on that topic back in 2014. Other people involved worth mentioning are Maria Gogu-Zinovii, Tudor Ciobanu, Tatiana Chirtoacă, and Parascovia Poleșciuc. In terms of collaborating with other institutions, I should mention also the State University of Moldova with whom we are organizing joint conferences, round tables, and so on. The University’s best rector ever, Igor Șarov, a historian himself, is of great help to us and last year we organized the national conference of archivists on the premises of the best higher education institution in Moldova for free.
PH: Is there anything you wish more people knew about your archives/collections?
We are a specific archive and we invite researchers from all over the world to come to do research in our fonds and collections. We have documents spanning five centuries covering the history of three empires (Ottoman, Tsarist, and Soviet) plus the documents from the Romanian interwar and WWII periods. We have also Soviet and Romanian documents on the Holocaust in Bessarabia and Transnistria.
We have 19,000 files on the victims of the Soviet repressions and are in the process of receiving in the next year another 30,000 files from the ex-KGB archives and the Ministry of Interior, as well as other fonds needed for the reconstitution of the policies and instruments used by the USSR in the former Moldavian SSR. One of these important fonds in the Administrative fond of the ex-KGB of MSSR was transferred recently for 1944-1953 years, which is a breakthrough since this is the first time when we received files from another fond other than on the personal files of the repressed. This is due to the support we have from the government as a whole and from the Ministry of Justice, especially the former justice minister Sergiu Litvinenco and his General Secretary Stela Ciobanu (in office until earlier this year). The access to documents is simplified as foreign researchers can have their first order of 20 files one hour after arrival and 20 files for each subsequent day, and can photocopy any file for a symbolic 50 USD cents per file no matter the number of pages.
In the last year, NAA has been visited by more researchers from abroad than in the last three decades combined. This is due of course to Russian aggression in Ukraine, which has caused the closure of archives in both countries, but also due to the new policy of accessing the Moldovan archives that we have embarked upon in the last year and so. Among the most important scholars, I would mention those affiliated with Western universities such as Harvard, Yale, Princeton, U of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, EHESS Paris, Oxford, Cambridge, Tubingen, Vienna, Delaware, Manchester, Liverpool, Dusseldorf, Melbourne, the National Australian University in Canberra, and others.
Electronic library search catalogue: soon to be available on the National Library website
National Archives Agency YouTube channel
Digitised inventories (opisi)
Digitised inventories for the fond of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Moldova
List of deportees from the Moldovan SSR, July 1944
Inventories on victims of the Terror of 1937-8 in the interwar Moldavian ASSR
Selection of digitised inventories for 1937-38
National Archives Agency YouTube channel