war crimes in Ukraine

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Archive without secrets

05.01.2010    source:
Initiatives from the State Security Service Archives make vital information about repression under the Soviet regime available to researchers and members of the public

During an Open Day in the Archives of the State Security Service [SBU], it’s Head Valentin Nalyvaichenko told reporters: “We are convinced that a European security service must not label the crimes of any period “secret”.

For the first time in Ukraine’s history the SBU Archive was besieged by dozens of journalists who, armed with cameras and video recorders, learned about the conditions in which valuable documents are stored and how the SBU is making them available to the wider public.

The tour began with a rare catalogue with cards giving the names of “unreliable” individuals, and a thematic catalogue – on the crushing of the peasant movement in the 1920s and 1930s, the battle with the nationalist underground, with dissidents and Zionism. The volumes of the files are held in cardboard boxes in archive storage facilities. There isn’t enough space, and only one of the 8 archive buildings has movable shelves. Searches are now easier thanks to an electronic database which contains documents on people whose cases were suspended or who were rehabilitated according to the Law of 1991. According to member of staff, Valentina Olesko, there are 11 and a half thousand cases from 1919 to 1974.

One of the archival collections contains reports on operational information from the Committee for State Security of the Communist Part leadership. The KGB reacted to civic activity in Ukraine and by Ukrainians abroad. Up till 1990 they reported to the Communist Party leadership, from 1991 – to the Verkhovna Rada. According to the Head of the Archives, Volodymyr Vyatrovych, “The KGB gave pretty accurate information about what was happening in the country. For example, long before the Chernobyl Disaster they informed the management about problems at the power plant which, in the end, led to the accident”.

Yevhen Zakharov, KHPG Co-Chair: “The transcripts of the plenum sessions of the Communist Party, statistics on the collective farms and factories imitate history. The real history is in this archive. The history of a subjugated people is the history of its struggle for independence. It is for this reason that these documents should be studied. Without this base we will have an unpredictable history, with each new politician rewriting it their own way.  Yevhen Zakharov surprised many with the fact that the greatest number of repressions in the post-Stalin period were in 1957-1958, at the beginning of the “Thaw”. He spoke of three peaks – “The first was in 1957-1958, after the uprising in Hungary. The second – 1971-72, after the Prague Spring, and the third in 1980 after the emergence of Solidarity in Poland. After each upsurge in the socialist camp, the authorities were frightened that it could be repeated in neighbouring Ukraine and began repressions against those they saw as capable of this.”

The total number of victims needs to be fixed, basically after the opening up of the archives. At present there are figures for the number of people sentenced on purely political charges, for example, under Article 62 “Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda aimed at undermining the Soviet regime”.  However there were also many extra-judicial, criminal and administrative prosecutions. The list of those repressed does not at present take into account those who for religious reasons refused to take up arms and go to the army, or those who were put in psychiatric hospitals, for example, thousands of authors of anti-Soviet leaflets. Among these were Vasyl Ovsienko, Mykola Horbal, Mykola Plakhotnyuk, and even, strangely enough, Viacheslav Chornovil.

One of the boxes of cards has the words in pencil “filtration files, destroyed”.  The SBU Archive holds the KGB orders to destroy documents. One of these orders was issued in July 1990, another in the register of files destroyed says “File on the Union of Writers of Ukraine”. Some documents were kept by chance, like the file on the Film Director Oleksandr Dovzhenko. The papers which have survived are often in a terrible state, especially those which reached the KGB from the forest underground, for example, from the Carpathian Mountains, and are treated by restorers like Lesya Voronyna.  At the same time, digital copies are made of the documents. Volodymyr Vyatrovych estimates that at present around the country 2-4 percent of the total have been recorded in this way. The archivists speak of surprises at each step. The archive was not created for research and its structure is not logical. At times material collected over dozens of years is not even described and not registered. To work through such a mass of documents, they need intelligent people. SBU archivists have presented their work in several of the capital’s institutes and though the year students of history worked with formerly classified documents. They described the documents, scanned them and entered them on the electronic database. According to volunteers such work helps them in writing dissertations and theses, and they are the first to introduce these documents to the academic world.

Foreign visitors are also eager to work in the SBU archives, and it is expected that their number will increase since this is a unique collection of documents from Soviet history with reports, instructions and directives of significance at Soviet level. There is a better and much larger collection of documents in Moscow, however it is closed from public view. The Kyiv Archive is perhaps the only “window” on the Soviet era for Soviet specialists. Use of the documents is free of charge, which Vyatrovych says is from moral considerations since in the majority of cases one is talking of the fate of victims of repression.

To work in a reading hall, you need only write an application explaining why you wish to see the documents and your specific area of interest. SBU staff contact the relative or researcher. According to the archivists the only material still classified is that containing State secrets, this constituting around 10 percent of the material.

Yevhen Zakharov notes that there is still no basic law on personal data protection as adopted in many countries. This was however mentioned in the President’s decree on bringing Ukrainian legislation into line with European norms. In regional archives they sometimes refuse to give access even to those rehabilitated, as for example, in Odessa, claiming that the files contain the names of the prosecutor, judges, lawyer, whose descendants would find it unpleasant to learn such facts about their relatives.

The information and research hall of the SBU Archives in Kyiv has been functioning for a little more than a year. There are several computers where you can see the clear layout of the database: Ukrainian statehood 1917-1922; the anti-Bolshevik struggle 1917-1930; material of various anti-Soviet organizations; the Ukrainian Central Liberation Council; repression against the Church; national communities, various social groups; the activity of the KGB abroad. Each topic has subdivisions – orders, instructions, people involved, reports. The open electronic archive of declassified documents at present contains over 16 thousand electronic copies and over two thousand photos. They can be viewed in each regional centres.  The information, obtainable through name, profession, subject matter or dates, can be saved on a flash drive or CD, or printed. Vyatrovych says that in the future they plan to post the archive on a website which could be accessed from anywhere in the world.

According to the Director of the Centre for the Study of the Liberation Movement of the Central Archive of the SBU, Oleksandr Ishchuk, 10 people are at present responsible for inputting information into the system, which is much less than in Poland where such work has also been underway for a number of years.

The archivists also presented a guide to the collections of the SBU State Archive presented with the assistance of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group. It provides information about the main collections and most interesting documents of the archive from 1919 to the end of the 1990s.  This is the first such publication in the post-Soviet region. According to Volodymyr Vyatrovych, following the publication of this material, nobody will be able to conceal the crimes of the totalitarian regime. (slightly abridged from an article by Yaroslava Muzychenko)

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