Archives: How We Had Practice

A story of two weeks in July, when students touched the flowers of the XVIII century, read censuses and scratched cats' bellies.

Archives: How We Had Practice

Third year students of History Programme must work in the archive in order to try themselves in the profession of an archivist and to better know the work of the archive from the inside. Now I want to tell you about how we practiced in the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts in the summer of 2019.

Our practice began immediately after the summer session, when on July 2 we came to introductory classes in archiving, at which we were told what we would be doing and the rules for storing documents. The next day we arrived to the archive; we were divided into groups in different archives of 10-15 people for each archive.  My group chose the Russian State Archive of Ancient Acts.

We first listened to a very long lecture on the history of this archive from the moment of its creation to the present day, and then we were given real archival gowns and we, as real archive employees, went to the storehouse. It was so strange to understand that for three years already every week we came to the archive and read documents in the reading room, but did not even know how it all works from the inside.

The first thing I felt when we came into the book depository was cold. The storehouse was about 15 degrees when the temperature in the street in early July was above 27 degrees C. To me it was amazing to know that the entire archive inside is a huge iron cabinet of 5 floors separated by bars. It was very scary to walk along these "floors", but archivists deftly and quickly walk along them. The most interesting thing is that before in this huge cabinet there were no bars, and archivists of the 19th century moved between the shelves in carts.  At the height of a 5-story building on carts.  We were even shown a drawing of how it looked.  At that moment I was already happy about the bars between the floors.

What did we do during the practice?  We made an Excel table from the books of the revision tales – the censuses of the 1760s. These are huge books, with several thousand sheets in each, where landowners were recorded for each county and village.  The text in these censuses is written in the handwriting of the 18th century and is read quite difficult.  A course of paleography was very useful to us when we were working with these books. We did this task for a large project to create a single database with a census. 

So, in the future, historians will be able, if they are interested in, for example, one noble family, make a filter on the table and find all the possessions that these nobles possessed throughout the country, and not look for their names in each book for each county, and spend years on this. It was a useful work that we did every day for 5 hours. You know, it’s kind of like math when you rejoice at finding a solution.  Only here we did not solve mathematical problems, but tried to figure out the squiggles and find out the name of the person or the name of the village.

 However, the most fascinating part of the practice was, of course, the excursions. For half a month we visited all the branches of the archive, saw what ordinary people would never see and touched the most unusual things in our lives. For example, we visited the archive where private noble funds are stored.  We were shown documents from the Goncharov’s fund, and personally I was just incredibly delighted when beautiful flowers were found in one of the diaries of a girl from the Goncharov's family. The girl decorated her diary with wildflowers, which she kept a couple of centuries ago.  Can you imagine this?  Flowers that are over 200 years old! Perhaps these flowers were not even seen by the parents of this girl, and we, ordinary students of history, can even touch them.  We also touched cotton on a 19th-century postcard with a spinning wheel.

Also we saw huge scrolls of documents, it turns out that before Peter I a columnar system of paperwork was conducted and all documents were written on long scrolls.  It was inconvenient to work with them, and they quickly deteriorated.  After Peter I, a more convenient and familiar form of document management for us appeared. In addition, we were able to touch the diploma of the carpenter, which Peter I received in the Netherlands. We also saw some documents of Lomonosov, a famous Russian scientist of the XVIII century and even the most ancient annals and treaties in the history of Russia in a secret vault.

Besides, on the second day of practice, we were shown the severed fingers of the peasants, which one archivist found in the 20th century as material evidence in a court case. It turned out that in the XVII century a dispute arose between peasants over land.  In the course of the dispute, the peasants had a fight, and one of them raised his braid and, in a fit of rage, chopped off two fingers to the second peasant. The Archive of Ancient Acts has a dining room in the Soviet style, more precisely, most likely it is a dining room that has not changed its interior since the 20th century and looks very atmospheric. Also in the courtyard of the archive there are many cats, probably they are needed to get rid of mice that can harm document, or archive employees just love cats. Anyway, scratching the tummy of an archival cat is always a pleasant addition to archival practice.

I really miss our cozy dinners with classmates in the archival dining room, exciting excursions, excellent team work on censuses and an unforgettable two weeks of practice in the archive.

Text by
Daria Bondareva