The persecution of churches and religious groups under totalitarianism in Central and Eastern Europe is well documented and the various secret police archives from the period have been utilized by researchers in order to trace the history of repression and collaboration and to understand the methods employed by totalitarian regimes to control their populations. The significance of these archives for the study of material religion, however, has been largely overlooked by scholars. The Secret Police archives in Romania and Moldova constitute a hidden repository of confiscated religious art, photographs and publications that in many cases survive nowhere else, presenting an exceptionally rich resource for the study of religions in the 20th century.
In this paper I explore the photographic traces in the archives in the Republic of Moldova relating to an Orthodox Christian movement, Inochentism, that was condemned by the authorities as a dangerous sect. The photographic materials, comprising confiscated images of the community and its leaders, photographs taken of convicted members of the community in custody as well as photographic evidence in the form of re-enactments of rituals, demonstrate the power of the photograph to produce knowledge and truths. As Susan Sontag asserts the camera record both “incriminates” and “justifies” (Sontag 1977) and as such the photographic materials within police and secret police files have a dual identity. The images were presented and preserved as evidence of criminality and yet they also stand testimony to the agency and power of religious communities to resist. When viewed in this way they represent both a tool of control as well as a means empowerment for communities seeking to understand their difficult past.
The archival holdings of the secret police are controversial and present certain challenges in terms of methodology and ethical practice. In this lecture I will outline a new approach to the holdings of secret police archives that takes into account not only the value of these materials to the historian and anthropologist of religions but also addresses issues of cultural patrimony and the right of communities to access their cultural and sacred materials.