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Russian Court Ruling Aids Release of Soviet Era Secrets

January 18, 2013

By Svetlana Savranskaya

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Picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of the earliest heads of the Ministry of State Security, on parade in 1936.

Picture of Felix Dzerzhinsky, one of the earliest heads of the Ministry of State Security, on parade in 1936.

Documents labeled “secret” during the Soviet era may be declassified, the Russian Constitutional Court has ruled, apparently removing a roadblock that has frustrated historians.

The Russian Constitutional Court issued the clarification in response to a complaint from a prominent historian, Nikita Petrov, deputy chair of the Research/Informational Council of the Memorial Society.

The complaint was supported by the Foundation for Freedom of Information of St. Petersburg.  In his complaint, Nikita Petrov challenged the constitutionality of the norm of Article 13 of the Law on State Secret, which stipulates that there should be a 30-year time limit classification of documents as “secret,” after which time the document should be declassified.

However, the norm that emerged on the basis of usage of the law by several courts, including the Moscow City Court and the Supreme Court of Russia considered application of this 30-year rule only to the documents created after the Law on State Secrets was passed, i.e. after 1993.  Such application of the law made it impossible for historians to argue for declassification of the documents created during the Soviet time.

Nikita Petrov requested documents of the Ministry of State Security from 1946 to 1956. The Federal Security Service rejected his request on the grounds that the documents contain state secrets.

He filed a lawsuit, which was considered by the Moscow City Court, which ruled that the requested documents were created before the Law on State Secrets was passed and therefore were not covered by that law.  The Supreme Court of Russia issued the same ruling on appeal.  These decisions revealed grave problems with access to archival materials in Russia.  They meant that in practice, documents created before 1993 could be classified indefinitely, until the relevant agency decided to declassify them based on the review of their own internal commission.

On Nov. 22, 2012, the Russian Constitutional Court issued a decision by which it declined consideration of Nikita Petrov’s complaint but presented its own interpretation of the paragraphs of Article 13 mentioned in the complaint.

The Court ruled that “the 30-year limit of classification has to be applied to information defined as state secret both before and after this law came into force.”  In other words, the Court supported the historian and ruled that the interpretation of this norm by the courts of general jurisdiction was incorrect.  Even though the complaint itself was rejected, this decision opens potentially great opportunities for historians and freedom of information advocated to challenge classification of archival documents created during the Soviet period.

In the opinion of Daria Sukhikh, Freedom of Information Foundation Senior Lawyer, the Constitutional  Court definition can have great significance for further practice of archive data access:

The Constitutional Court’s explanations we have managed to obtain means a great chance to overcome current difficulties with practical implementation of the 30-year term. We shall apply for re-examination of the cases reviewed by the Moscow City Court, and try to implement the Constitutional Court’s explanations in practice.

The Constitutional Court definition is available (in Russian) in the FIF Litigation Register.

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