National Archives and Left-Wing Sources from Russia: Records of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, the Communist Party of Canada and Left-Wing Internationals

Article excerpt

I. Introduction

AS THE COMMUNIST ORDER in Russia and the other Union Republics began unravelling, its bonds critically weakened by Gorbachev's efforts to humanize and modernize that order both in theory and structure, one of the countless side-effects of Gorbachev's ministrations was, in the realm of archives, a loosening of extraordinarily strict controls over records in the Soviet archival system, and in access to them. This phenomenon manifested itself by 1989. By the time that Gorbachev was finally stripped of any nominal, residual authority in late 1990-early 1991, Russian archives were revealing riches whose existence had been suspected by many, but experienced by very, very few.

Among the records of interest to many Western countries were the fonds of the Rossiikii Tsentr Khraneniia i Izucheniia Dokumentov Noveishei Istorii (the "Centre for the Preservation and Study of Records of Contemporary History"),

George Bolotenko, "The National Archives and Left-Wing Sources from Russia: Records of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, The Communist Party of Canada, and Left-Wing Internationals," Labour/Le Travail, 37 (Spring 1996), 179-203. formerly the Central Party Archives in Moscow which housed, inter alia, the historical-archival documentation of the Institute of Marxism-Leninism of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU). (Henceforth, I will call this institution simply "the Comintern Archives"). In this institution were located the records documenting the relationship between the CPSU and the Communist parties of other countries, as well as the records of the left international movement in general, the various "-interns" of the inter-war years.

The National Archives, in late 1992, initiated an effort to acquire the records of the Canadian left from the Comintern Archives. (1) After preliminary reviews of Canada-related material in a number of Russian archives, effected in 1993, the National Archives purchased, from the Centre, copies of records deemed to be of extraordinary interest to Canadian researchers. In early July of 1994, the National Archives acquired microfilm copies of approximately 10,000 pages of material on the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, and in July of 1995, approximately 22,000 pages of material on the CPC, the Comintern, and other Internationals. What follows is intended to acquaint the reader with the scope and nature of these records.

II. Records of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion

THESE DOCUMENTS are all drawn from Fonds 545 of the Comintern archives. (2) This fonds holds the records of the International Brigades (1936-1939) which fought in defence of the Spanish Republic against Franco's fascist Falange. Of all outside powers, only Soviet Russia supported Republican Spain, playing the leading role in organizing resistance against Franco through the Comintern. Once Republican forces were defeated, Comintern officials left Spain in 1939, taking all records--including the records of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion -- with them to the Soviet Union. Hence the location of these largely Canadian-content records in Moscow.

A number of Canadians, most of them inclined politically to the left, volunteered to defend the Spanish Republic. Many, though not all, fought in the ranks of the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion, a distinctly Canadian unit formed in mid-1937. Other Canadian volunteers fought in the ranks of the American "Abe Lincoln Battalion," the British Battalion, or in other specialized army services (medical, artillery, transportation, armoured, etc) of the regular Spanish Defence Force. The Mackenzie-Papineau (or 60th) Battalion, when formed, came to constitute a unit of the XVth International ("English-Speaking") Brigade, which was itself attached to the 35th Division of the Spanish Republican Army/Spanish Defence Force. In all, about 1,300 Canadians participated in the defence of the Spanish Republic and, regardless of what unit they may have served in, they are more-or-less collectively known as the "Mac-Paps. …