Leave the Center, Explore the Periphery
Updated: Sep 14
This short post argues for the importance of leaving the main archival centers of Moscow and St. Petersburg, as well as the archives themselves, while researching Russian and Soviet history projects. My dissertation examines German prisoners of war (POWs) in the USSR from 1941 to 1956, centring on their roles in postwar reconstruction and Soviet-German diplomacy. Many of my sources reside in the Russian State Military Archive (RGVA) and the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF) in Moscow, or at least that was the case until two trips shifted some of the focus of my dissertation and resulted in material for a final chapter that carries the story of the POWs to present day.
Conducting some dissertation research outside the more familiar archives of Moscow and St. Petersburg can open up rich and rewarding new directions for a project. In my case, research in the provinces was facilitated by connections I had developed before embarking on the PhD. After I graduated from college, I spent a year as a Fulbright English Teaching Assistant at the Ulyanovsk State Technical University, where I developed a series of friendships and contacts that are strong to this day. When I traveled to Moscow in summer 2014 for a preliminary archival scouting trip for my dissertation, I made sure to return to Ulyanovsk to see my friends. I brought up my topic of research to a man who had attended my university-wide English language and American culture club. He is a professor of regional history at the university, and he wasted no time in telling me that there had been a POW camp in Ulyanovsk, and a part of the local cemetery held a mass grave and monument to the POWs who had died in that camp (Image 1). He drove me there to look at the grave site and then took me to a few buildings in the city that he knew had been constructed by the POWs.
I used this rudimentary information about the POWs in the city to justify a shorter research trip to the city’s archives in 2017, when I was based in Moscow for extensive dissertation research. I obtained access to the former party archive in the city, which rarely if ever dealt with foreign researchers. The small staff was excited that I was working on a project that included Ulyanovsk. Given the small number of files related to my topic, the reading room attendant even pre-read all of the documents and indicated which pages discussed the POWs. The small but rich amount of information that I pulled from these documents combined with the central administration files in Moscow allowed me to write an entire case study of one POW camp in my dissertation chapter on POW labor use. Through this research trip to a provincial archive, I was able to include more of the human element and a fuller picture of the POW experience.
Traveling to sites of research outside of the capitals, if possible, can be highly rewarding, as was the case with my trips to Ulyanovsk. Other travel, though, can reveal unintended paths for research. After initially seeing the POW grave memorial in Ulyanovsk in 2014, I knew that I would have a tiny bit of information to sprinkle into my dissertation as part of the conclusion to draw the case to present day, but it was another trip that sparked an entire new dissertation chapter. The turning point for both the Great Patriotic War as well as the fate of the German POWs in the USSR was the Battle of Stalingrad (August 23, 1942 – February 2, 1943). As the Red Army switched from mostly defensive to offensive fighting after this battle, it began to capture many more German soldiers, who they then deployed en masse to forced labor projects. I had always wanted to visit Volgograd to see the renowned Mamaev Kurgan memorial complex that features the Rodina Mat’ Zovet (The Motherland Calls) statue that honor the battle (Image 2), and I figured that my research year would be the best time to make the trek.
I noticed while there that the complex features a relief with the captured German POWs (Image 3). Unveiled in 1967, the carving triggered a new field of analysis for my research: the commemoration of German POWs from the end of the war until present.
Close examination of the carving suggested that there were three major periods of POW commemoration in the 1960s, 1980s, and post-1991 in which the POWs were portrayed as enemies, allies, and fallen men, respectively. In 1985 the “Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists” opened in Moscow at the site of a former POW camp. Created as a team effort between the Soviet and East German central committees and ministries of culture, the museum was to show German-Soviet friendship and solidarity, even during the war years as some German communists had worked to produce propaganda and reeducate captured POWs. Finally, in the 1990s, German families and institutions such as the Red Cross and the War Graves Commission obtained the right to travel to Russia to investigate archives and erect monuments at gravesites, allowing for some to commemorate the POWs as almost innocent victims of the war. Indeed, one grave marker in Ulyanovsk calls them as such, though ambiguously does not specify if they are victims of Nazism, Soviet communism, or both. This trip then encouraged me to look at different collections in GARF as well as research in a completely different archive, the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art (RGALI). These new collections formed the basis of the archival sources for my commemoration chapter.
Thus, travel outside of the major cities and archives in Russia can lead to extremely fruitful findings that one would never have discovered being based solely in the central archives. Regional archives and sites of history themselves are key to opening up new research questions and directions. Although working in the central archives is indeed necessary, it is also necessary to personally explore some of the diverse and removed places we study.
Researchers should not fear leaving the central archives. A simple trip to a museum or site related to one’s history can open many doors. Striking up a conversation with the staff goes a long way. In the case of explaining who I was and what my research was, the docents at the Memorial Museum of German Anti-Fascists provided me with a few publications that chronicled the museum’s history. In more remote locations, speaking with AirBnB hosts can also be rewarding. I unfortunately found out too late from the couple running the hostel that there was a German cemetery near Volgograd that had sections for the former POWs. Russians outside of Moscow and St. Petersburg generally are friendly to Russian speaking foreigners who enjoy exploring their history and are eager to help in any way that they can.
 For Russian readers, a more detailed but still rudimentary version of these findings can be found in Susan Grunewald, “Память о Немецких Военнопленных в СССР и в России (Memory of German Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union and Russia)” In Magistra Vitae: Electronic Journal of Historical Sciences and Archeology No. 2 (2018): 72-80, http://magistravitaejournal.ru/images/2_2018/grjunevald.pdf.
Susan Grunewald is a Ph.D. Candidate in History at Carnegie Mellon University. Her dissertation, “German Prisoners of War in the Soviet Union: Life, Law, Memory, 1941-1956,” examines the fate of the German POWs, especially their roles in postwar reconstruction and as pawns in Cold War diplomacy. Her researched has been funded by a Cohen-Tucker Dissertation Research Fellowship through the Association of Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies; two A.W. Mellon Fellowships in Digital Humanities at Carnegie Mellon University; and the Central European History Society.