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Russia: Secret Archives Offer Views On Canadian Events

  • Carol Macivor

Ottawa, 13 May 1997 (RFE/RL) - Two Canadian scholars have unearthed what they are calling "a treasure trove of Canadian history" from once-secret archives in Russia.

Professor Larry Black, head of Carleton University's Centre for Research on Canadian-Russian Relations and Dr. George Bolotenko of the National Archives of Canada began their project four years ago but only now are talking about what they have found.

The two have made several trips to 16 archives in Moscow and St. Petersburg. They have just received a $200,000 grant to begin a systematic three-year search for documents related to Canada.

They also are tackling archives in Ukraine.

Black says that "as well as drawing a profile of how Moscow saw Canada over the course of nearly two centuries, we are also finding material to fill gaps in Canadian history, documents that confirm past rumors and reveal tantalizing information that might fall into a category of 'regrets in history' - things that might have been."

What they have found so far, says Black, are documents ranging from "the intrigues of Czar Nicholas in a Canadian rebellion in 1837 to proof of the stupidity and naivete of the Canadian Communist Party."

"It actually looks as though the turning point in persuading the Ministry of the Interior and the Ministry of Finance in Russia to quickly build the Trans-Siberian railroad was a report that said the Canadian Pacific Railroad was used to get troops out to put down the Riel rebellion. It was a good argument," says Black.

Black is combing through reports of Russian engineers and other experts who came to Canada in the late 1880's to study the trans-continental railroad. He found a report written in 1891 by N.A. Volonshinov which warns that "Britain can move its troops to the Pacific 10 days faster than going by ship."

Black says they have discovered evidence that the building of the Trans-Siberian Railway was inspired by the building of Canada's trans-continental railway. Black says the Russians were particularly impressed by the use of rail to send troops to put down an uprising in 1885 in the prairie province of Saskatchewan. He says Moscow was afraid that, in the event of a war, British troops could beat the Czarist forces to Russia's Pacific shore by travelling quickly across Canada by rail.

The Saskatchewan uprising, in the late 1880's, was the result of the government taking over land in the prairies that had been administered for 200 years by the English Hudson's Bay Company which oversaw all aspects of trade with the local Indians and Metis (known as half-breeds, who were part Indian and part white). English and French-speaking settlers in the area resented that they had not been consulted.

The Indians and Metis, led by Louis Riel, feared for their rights and culture. Riel occupied a government fort, set up a provisional government and executed a government official. The central government responded by sending in troops from central Canada and Riel was hanged as a traitor.

As well, says Black, the Russians were impressed by Canada�s use of the railroad to settle the West, making it harder for the United States to annex a populated territory of Canada. The Russians wanted to settle Siberia to keep China from taking over the area.

The 1837 rebellion was a significant event in Canadian history. It was before Canada became a nation and was still a British colony. The French-speaking majority in what was Lower Canada,now the province of Quebec, and the predominantly English-speaking population of Upper Canada, now province of Ontario, engaged in a 18-month battle for control. In the end, it resulted in the union of Upper and Lower Canada under a common government which ensured an English-speaking majority in the legislature, a move designed to deprive the French of a political power base. To this day, the rebellion is viewed by the French-speaking province with much bitterness.

The scholars have found documents that show Russia's Ambassador to the United States, A.A. Bodisko, in the 1830's was anxious to support the 1837 rebellion against British colonial rule. He promised Russia's help to the rebels but then did not follow through after receiving instructions from Moscow saying that Czar Nicholas had decided against meddling in British affairs in Canada.

Black says that, at the time, the Czar told the U.S. envoy in St. Petersburg that when a government became oppressive and forgets the tender care to which a colony was entitled, she justified resistance and separatism.

At the time of the uprising, rebels claimed the Russians were going to help them. In a trial held in Montreal, one of the accused rebels testified that the Russian Consul had said the imperial government of Russia would seize "with pleasure this occasion to avenge in Canada the deep wounds which the Circassians (Georgians), sustained by English money and engineers, had inflicted on Russia."

Other documents deal with a 1927 Soviet plot to dump wheat on the international market to undermine world prices and trigger a worldwide depression. The memo on this says the move "will hit Saskatchewan first." Saskatchewan is Canada�s main wheat-producing province. Black says this material "is the first absolute proof of what the Soviets were up to and that Canada was right, at the time, to push for an international embargo on Soviet wheat."

Black has found documents showing that the Soviets were targeting Canadians thought to be soft on the regime of Josef Stalin. He has unearthed handwritten lists of once-prominent Canadians seen as likely friends of the Soviet Union who might influence government policy and public opinion in Canada. Among those listed as targets on a 1936 list are politicians and other public figures.

Black says he is hoping to gather 125,000 pages of documents over the next three years. He and Bolotenko are thought to be the only Canadians among the hundreds of foreign scholars now researching the Russian archives. He says the opening of the archives has been a cash cow for Russia, with American institutions pumping in millions of dollars and paying as much as three dollars a page to microfilm and photocopy entire collections of documents.

The Canadians have managed to negotiate a price of 85 cents a page for photocopying. But, says Black, given the unpredictable nature of the Russian bureaucracy, copying prices could go up or access could be halted at any time, in part because of a backlash by Russian scholars who resent foreigners plundering material they'd like to have a whack at first.

He says the Russians have no money and they want to do their own history. "They don't want it done outside." he says.