Moscow, 29 October 1996 (RFE/RL) -- The Russian government has handed over some 15,000 pages of documents on Nazi war crimes from KGB archives to the U.S. Holocaust Museum. The move could reveal new evidence about the systematic killing of Jews and others after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941.
Nikolai Kovalyov, head of Russia's Federal Security Service, turned over a symbolic sample of the documents to the director of the Holocaust Museum, Walter Reich, and U.S. Ambassador Thomas Pickering at a ceremony at the Kremlin yesterday. The rest will be flown to Washington in the coming weeks.
At a news conference in Moscow last night, Pickering called the decision to turn over the documents to the museum in Washington, D.C. an "important historical development" which he said was the culmination of two years of work.
Efforts to obtain the documents began in 1994, when U.S. President Bill Clinton asked for the documents to be made available. Russian President Boris Yeltsin promised to turn them over.
Although KGB archives have been opened up to scholars in the past, Russian authorities have never handed over so many documents to a foreign institution. Pickering said the step was "unprecedented in scope and breadth."
Alexander Yakovlev, head of Russia's Commission for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, said the documents were "soaked in blood and human suffering." He said the Russian government had agreed to open up its archives so that the "frightening facts" of the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union could be made known to the world.
The documents, most of which have never been seen in the West, contain excerpts from Soviet investigations and trials of German officers and collaborators between 1946 and 1949. Several hundred pages of the documents consist of wartime field reports from Soviet agents behind enemy lines.
Carl Modig, who helped select the documents for the Holocaust Museum, told a news conference that the field reports were "fragmentary," but they help show what the Soviet authorities knew, and when they knew it. He said the documents indicate that Kremlin officials knew early on about the mass killings, but kept the information secret.
Reich, the Holocaust Museum's director, told reporters last night that historians already know a lot about the mass killings during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But he said these documents would help "fill in the gaps."
In particular, Reich said the material sheds new light on the treatment of Soviet prisoners of war, who were held at the German concentration camp of Sachsenhausen. He said the documents show how they were killed in what he called "a macabre shooting gallery" and how they were used in experiments to demonstrate the effectiveness of hand grenades.
Reich also said the documents are expected to provide new evidence about the Einsatzgruppen, mobile killing squads that swept in behind German forces as they invaded Soviet territory.
Reich said it was essential to know more about the German invasion of the Soviet Union because "the worst of the Holocaust's mass killings began on the soil of the former Soviet Union."
More than one and a half million Jews were killed when the Germans overran parts of the Soviet Union.
Vladimir Naumov, a Russian historian who helped select the documents, said the information reveals how the German army, at all levels, took an active part in the mass killings.
Naumov said the documents were extensive, but were "a small drop" in the vast amount of material that needs to be processed and catalogued.
The documents handed over to the Holocaust Museum will be examined by a group of scholars and made available to the general public through the museum's research institute, and in part, on the Internet.