During my life as a jobbing historian, I have had a number of memorable events, standing in a muddy field in Poland discussing 18th century horse-shoes with Christopher Duffy is one, sitting in my office in Southgate one sunny afternoon and having an elderly gentleman carrying a Sainsbury's plastic carrier sit down opposite me is another. His shirt sleeves were rolled up and there was a faded number tattooed on his forearm - he was the only Englishman to spend three years in Auschwitz and come out alive. I have spent pleasant, slow afternoons at the Frankfurt Book Fair chatting with a German Naval Officer who met Hitler on a regular basis and there is always the thrill of gaining access to some dusty archive and finding some hidden gem that has lain there undisturbed for years.
I think that my visit to the Russian Military Studies Archive is a memorable event of a different character, more like coming home after a long journey than a feeling of discovery. Yet it was a brilliant experience and one I hope to repeat again. In my research into the Logistics of the Red Army, I spend a lot of time in the library of the School of Slavonic Studies (University of London) or down the road at the British Library which between them give me access to most of the British store of material on Soviet Russia. So when I read about the RMSA in the Journal of Slavic Military Studies it sounded interesting and so I arranged a visit as quickly as I could. This took a bit of time, as the archive is stored at Cranfield University's Defence Academy at Shrivenham, so requires a trip to Swindon and an appointment to be booked as this is a 'secure site' and you have to order the material in advance working from their online catalogue.
On the day in question, I presented myself to the desk at the Barrington Library - a modest sized, modern looking building in the middle of a military-style camp and was met by a cheerful librarian who told me that the books I had ordered were on my shelf in the office and that I had been assigned desk close by. Also he told me that he would escort me over to the Archive, which meant leaving the Library, walking across a car park, round an MOD style shed, you know the kind of thing, Quartermasters Store Mark 1 where they used to issue boots and blankets during National Service days, across another car park to another MOD style shed. The only difference with this shed was that it had a large RMSA sign outside one door. Inside it is really just a shed but with a lot of basic shelving and some rolling library cabinets stretching off into the dark and at the front a single desk and computer, a couple of filing cabinets and Dr Steven Main. If ever John Le Carre wants a description of a Soviet researcher, he should go and visit Dr. Main as he is fluent in Russian with decades of experience in Soviet/Russian military research, having been a pupil of the great, late Prof. John Erickson, author of many books and papers and assisted in the setting up of archives such as The Erickson Collection at the National Library of Scotland.
The story of the RMSA is a sad one and closely follows the decline in interest in the Soviet/Russian military following the end of the Cold War. Many of the books started out at the library at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst or the Staff College at Camberley which were finally brought together into the Soviet Studies Research Centre (SRCS) at Sandhurst, which evolved in 1993 into the Conflict Studies Research Centre (CSRC) at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. This was absorbed and finally closed in 2010 with the main collection being put into boxes and stored in a warehouse. Several attempts to put the whole lot into a skip were narrowly averted but it was not until 2013 when one of the librarians at the Barrington Library of the Defence Academy heard about the collection and mounted a rescue operation. The boxes were found a home (the warehouse) and Dr. Main, formerly of the CSRC was asked to go through them. The RMSA formally opened in November 2015 and up to date around 40% of it has been catalogued and has been available for students to access. It remains under threat as various officials cannot see the relevance or its usefulness and various proposals have been to sell it off, break it up or just throw it in the skip. However it has gained such a following that it has started to receive collections from other sources such as a donation of material from Defence Centre for Languages and Culture (DCLC).
The heart of the collection is 16,000 books, a huge number of Soviet era journals, Soviet General Staff maps, Soviet military manuals and many other rare and expensive documents. In addition there are all the papers from the old SRCS and CRCS days and a large collection of Eastview material of Soviet era documents. For instance, I wanted to read three articles from the Soviet military journal "Military Thought" which neither the British Library nor the School of Slavonic Studies has copies and yet the RMSA came up with a little brown folder of Eastview microfiches with two of the three articles. Just read the Eastview catalogue to see how much this information costs to buy.
The challenge ahead for the Archive is to gain publicity and thereby gain traffic through its doors. This is unlikely to come from the military establishment, though a visit should be required for all military officers going on posting to Estonia or as Defence Attaches to Eastern European countries, this is unlikely to happen. But this is a vital resource for anyone studying Tsarist Russia, the Revolution or the Soviet Union and a steady stream of researchers, academics would help make a case to keep this great resource open and public. Just getting funding to get the Archive catalogued is a struggle with just one librarian devoting half a day a week to the task, no money for new books or material, let alone the suitability of the building.
How can you help...... well:
- book yourself into the Barrington Library and put requests in for Russian language or English language material. Search the catalogue but always ask for material as well, since so little of what is on the shelves (or more likely in boxes) is actually catalogued.
- Tell your own librarian about the collection so that they can pass on requests.
- If you really believe that this collection is worth saving, then send them a donation so that they can buy new material
- Pass the message on!