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STANFORD ---Some call it the "Wild West" of scholarship, a place of overwhelming vastness, few rules and some hardship for prospectors.

The place is government and party archives in Moscow, Berlin, Bucharest, Budapest and Prague. And the prospectors are Soviet and East European scholars, who are mining information from sifting through mountains of paper and microfilm they never dreamed they would see.

It's not a job for amateurs or the impatient.

"You can easily get distracted unless you force yourself to focus on a [narrow] subject," said Robert Conquest, a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution who has spent much of his life reading smuggled documents and eyewitness accounts of the Stalinist era.

"Suddenly we have access to 30-million-plus files in the Communist Party archives, with an average 120 pages each. There's a similar number in the police archives, and that's only what's in Moscow," said Conquest, who is curator of Hoover's Russian/Commonwealth of Independent States collection, one of the largest 20th-century collections outside those countries.

In March, Hoover presented Rudolf Pikhoia, chairman of the Russian State Archives Service, with 5,000 reels of microfilm, the first installment from its collection. A five-year joint project of the two institutions also is microfilming 25 million pages of Soviet Communist Party records.

The records of the former Soviet Bloc governments are as vast as those of the United States, whose National Archives in suburban Maryland has electric cars running on miniature roads through the stacks, said Norman Naimark, a Stanford University historian of modern Eastern Europe.

In Moscow and Eastern European capitals, he and other historians say, they face chaos by comparison: physically scattered collections, overcrowded reading rooms, few working copy machines and difficulties obtaining inventories to the collections so they know what to ask for.

They also get annoyed when cash buys quicker or exclusive access for some. The secret police archive isn't officially open yet, but Stanford historian Terence Emmons said some Western publishing companies and individuals have been able to "liberate documents with monetary lubricant" to former KGB officers.

"My guess is that Crown Books will produce a lot of useful material and a lot of junk," said Conquest of that publisher's reported exclusive deal with former KGB agents. Conquest tells of a colleague at Cambridge University who turned down an offer to have KGB documents read to him in exchange for a substantial sum.

"There are a lot of problems. Just the physical circumstances for copying are a big problem and they don't have archival rules yet," said Emmons, a historian of pre-revolutionary Russia who is serving on the Hoover-Russian Archives editorial board selecting documents to microfilm and inventory.

"In the United States, we have a rule that materials generated by public institutions are in the public domain and nobody can copyright them. In Russia, it's not quite clear what kind of rights you have as a reader."

Emmons finds it unseemly, however, for American scholars to complain too much, "because the favorable exchange rate means we can afford copies. Russia's own scholars are low men on the totem pole, and they also have difficulty publishing, because their publishing industry is in a state of collapse."

Entrepreneurship, however, is thriving, Naimark said.

"A graduate student asked me what it cost to make copies, and I said, 'Well, it depends on who is at the desk,' " he said. "The new rules are being established, so the inconsistency is like everything else in Russia these days.' "

On his most recent visit, Naimark said, he paid 35 to 75 cents per page copied at the archives of the Soviet Ministry of Foreign Affairs, compared to 10 cents at the Hoover Institution's archives.

Stanford political scientist David Holloway's book on the early nuclear policy of the Soviet Union has been delayed by the wealth of new information sources. "I haven't myself been asked to pay for documents," he said. "On the other hand, maybe I would have gotten more if I offered money."

So far, he is getting more information from firsthand interviews of people in the Soviets' atomic bomb and espionage programs than from the archives.

"Declassification is proceeding, but we are still seeing relatively low-level stuff on the atomic-bomb period," Holloway said. "There is also a real anxiety in the archives about opening up to Western scholars and receiving nothing in return. They are looking for technical equipment to support archivists, which is why they seek joint projects."

The scholars are impressed with the professionalism of the former Soviet archivists and with the thoroughness of their collections, even though sensitive documents have been removed to special collections and need to be reintegrated.

"It appears almost nothing was destroyed because people were trying to cover their rear ends," Emmons said. "They wanted to show the orders they were given."

The new democratic governments of the old Soviet countries also are more willing to share their recent history than many older democracies, such as Great Britain, Emmons and Naimark said.

Documents leaked to "settle political scores" make big headlines inside Russia and other Eastern European countries, but the Stanford scholars say they've found little to cause them to reinterpret 20th-century Soviet history. Still, the documents are exciting because they help explain the whys and hows of what was already known to have happened, they say.

"The highly centralized, totalitarian interpretation of Soviet history, in its more rational versions, is being substantiated," Emmons said. "It's clear, for instance, that the 1930 purges were directed from the very top and that the top made decisions about small matters constantly.

"In the long run, I think our conceptual perspectives will change more as a result of what's happening in our day than by anything in the archives." That is not to say American scholars knew it all, Naimark said.

"I find things that surprise me," he said of his research in Berlin and Moscow on the Soviet occupation of eastern Germany from 1945 to 1949. "As an outsider, I never sensed how much criticism there was by the Central Committee in Moscow of Soviet military government in Germany until now.

"The press is looking for headlines - revelations like those recently about the number of prisoners of war in North Vietnam," he said. "But historians, on the whole, are instead involved in enriching the contours, deepening our understanding and providing a more nuanced view of what happened during various purges and crises."

Said Conquest: "You could probably collect 100 to 200 Soviet documents and have most of the important formal history of the last 70 years." Nevertheless, he finds "oddities" among the details that are important, if only because "they can make our jaws drop."

The 1939 census, for instance, was totally faked, as were more recent tourist maps of Moscow and Soviet agricultural production figures.

"The CIA didn't accept Soviet statistics, of course, but they took them as a basis of something that the Soviets adjusted upwards," Conquest said. "Now we see that they were simply faked."

Westerners have tended to put more faith in documents than in personal reminiscences, he said, "but documents are just someone's report, and we are finding out they were faked on a vast scale."

For example, Western textbooks have said the terror was easing off by 1938 because scholars put too much faith in Soviet Communist Party meeting reports.

Recently, however, Conquest saw a batch of decrees from 1938 ordering provincial leaders to shoot 60,000 people within six weeks. There were letters back from the provincial secretaries saying, "'We shot those. Can we shoot some more?'," he said.

Conquest, a novelist and poet as well as historian, delights in 1985 receipts he's seen for money the Soviet Communist Party gave to its affiliates in other countries. "The French communist's signature is illegible; the American wasn't that smart," he said with a chuckle

He hasn't found much that is new about Stalin but delights in such details as a 1934 report of the arrest of a Russian manufacturer for making buttons with swastikas on them. Stalin had scribbled on the report, "What nerve!"

"I doubt he was really frightened by buttons as a weapon of the Nazi underground," Conquest said, "but I still find it fascinating that he affected to take it seriously."



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