Discovering Canada's International Role in Russia's Archives

By Roberts, Peter M. | International Journal, Summer 2000 | Go to article overview

Discovering Canada's International Role in Russia's Archives


Roberts, Peter M., International Journal


ALTHOUGH CANADIANS AND RUSSIANS are citizens of countries with greatly different historical, political, and social traditions, they also share territorial, political, and economic characteristics unique to them. As inhabitants of the world's two largest countries territorially, their style of life is moulded by long-distance considerations. The Arctic is more or less a Canadian and Russian preserve, and a sense of the north, of 'northernness,' is ever present in both cultures. The flora and fauna are much the same in both countries, as are deposits of natural resources; thus, both countries process and attempt to market more or less the same things. Both are multilingual and multinational societies; political life in both is dominated by tensions between federal centres and provincial peripheries.

More important for observers of international affairs, however, are the neighbours we share, especially the United States. Canada's location as a potential battleground between Great Britain, Russia, and the United States has long been a consideration for Russian authorities. From the eighteenth century, when Russians crossed the Bering Sea to the west coast of North America, to more recent confrontations between the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and the Warsaw Treaty Organization, Canada's strategic position has attracted the attention of officials in St Petersburg and Moscow.

These and other shared characteristics and tensions provided the incentive for the Centre for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations (CRCR) at Carleton University to send a research team to Russia to seek archival information on Canada. The origins and nature of the project have been described elsewhere.(1) Suffice it to say here that, although Carleton's search for materials on Canada in Russia was kick-started in the mid-1980s with small grants from the Social Science and Humanities Research Council of Canada, the project received its greatest impetus in March 1997 when the Donner Canadian Foundation awarded the CRCR a generous sum of money. Since then, the team has been scouring archival holdings in Moscow (and St Petersburg and Kiev), photocopying and relocating thousands of pages to the CRCR.(2) The formal, funded stage of the project is complete, though the CRCR still has much to do to organize and process the documents. Most of some 12,000 pages are catalogued and available by appointment at the CRCR for general use. To that store will be added about 100 documents recently copied at the State Archives of the Russian Federation (GARF).(3) Work on translating selected documents is under way.

Photocopies and microfilms of dozens of books on Canada, written in Russia between the 1850s and 1950s, supplement the archival documentation. Many are very rare. Hundreds of Imperial Russian and Soviet articles, reports, and papers have been placed on file in the CRCR as well.

The purpose of this essay is to inform readers of the depth and often startling nature of the archival and special monographic findings.(4)

It has long been known that Russia's archives contained much of interest about Canada. Canada's first dominion archivist said as much in his annual report for 1883. But, for a variety of reasons, mostly obvious, no attempt to discover the true extent of these holdings was possible until the 1990s.

Because it is in the 'diplomatic' sphere that the Russian connection has most consistently been ignored by scholars who look only to Canadian, American, French, and British archival collections, that is where our tale begins. Formal relationships between Ottawa and St Petersburg got their start in 1899, when the Russian State Council approved the opening of a consulate in Montreal. According to the Russian documents, Canadians 'eagerly' awaited this event. On the other hand, a confidential memorandum from the minister of foreign affairs, Count M.N. Murav'ev, explains that 'the study of the circumstances of its [England] trade with Canada. …

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