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Latest on Ukraine’s history wars: Orange fighter down

The recent arrest of Ukrainian museum director Ruslan Zabily provoked an outcry. Did he actually leak state secrets or is the Yanukovych regime just trying to undo all Orange achievements, including the revival of Ukrainian historical memory?
Roman Kabachiy
23 September 2010

Marina Ostapenko, press secretary of the Ukrainian Security Service, has a difficult job. Just six months ago she had to take part in Security Service initiatives aimed at reviving Ukrainian historical memory. Unknown documents on the Holodomor [Ukr. famine, ed] were published, which resulted in genocide charges against a dozen former heads of the Ukrainian SSR and an exhibition of the Security Service archive, called “Ukrainian Insurgent Army [Ukr. UPA, ed]: the Army of the Unconquered” was mounted in regional centres in south and east Ukraine. Under the new regime, Marina is having to come up with arguments to justify the Security Service rolling back these initiatives, and even to justify measures taken against historians who wish to tear Ukraine away from the post-Soviet vision of the historical process.

Lvov prison courtyard

Lonsky street prison yard. In June 1941, during the retreat of the Red Army, all the prisoners (former Polish officials, policemen and members of the underground as well as Ukrainian nationalists) were shot here by the NKVD.  

A striking example of the retrograde initiatives by the regime of the “people from Donetsk”, and their protégé Valery Khoroshkovsky, the head of the Security Service, was the arrest by plainclothes officers at Kiev Station on the morning of 8September of Lvov historian Ruslan Zabily, who is also the director of the National memorial museum “Lonsky Street Prison”. He was taken to Security Service headquarters at 33 Vladimirsky Street (in Soviet times 33 Korolenko Street, an ominous address for many citizens facing repression). Here the academic was held for 14 hours for questioning about “a possible leak of state secrets”. The officers forced Zabily to give them his laptop computer and two hard disks containing historical information – declassified documents concerning the history of the Ukrainian liberation movement during WWII (which is widely known as the “Bandera” movement). They advised him to change his profession to schoolteacher, and “think about his family”.

After he was released without his computer, Zabily and his colleagues from the Centre of the Liberation (headed by the former director of the Security Service archive Volodomir Vyatrovich) held a press conference. Zabily said that a study of UPA strategy and tactics now seems to be possible only with permission “from the top”. The Security Service immediately opened a criminal case relating to a leakage of state secrets. They confiscated two computers in Lvov at the “Lonsky Street Prison” museum, and kept museum employees out of the building. Ruslan Zabily found out about the case from a news report.

Ruslan Zabilyj

Ruslan Zabily: “study of UPA strategy and tactics now seems to be possible only with permission “from the top”.

On Wednesday 15 September a protest meeting called “Come and turn yourself in” was held outside the Security Service building in Kiev. To this former seminary of vice protestors brought disks containing historical information declassified during Viktor Yushchenko’s presidency and now available on several sites – the Ivan Franko University in Lvov, the Kiev-Mogilyansky Academy, the Security Service archive and the Centre of the Liberation Movement. The protestors included members of the Society of Political Prisoners, famous Ukrainian dissidents such as Levko Lukyanenko, Mykola Gorbal, Stepan Khmara, Evgen Sverstyuk and Vasil Ovsienko. Ovsienko had a sign reading: “We are the bearers of ‘state secrets’ ourselves”. Members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia also took part.  One of these was the writer Oksana Zabuzhko, whose most recent novel “The Museum of Abandoned Secrets” was based on archive materials.  One of the novel’s epigraphs dates back to 1952, when it was written the wall of the prison on Lonsky Street in Lvov: “Want to know what’s happening to us? Wait for us”. Zabuzhko called on employees of the Security Service to stop being NKVD officers, and become employees of the Security Service of Ukraine.

Kiev protest

On Wednesday 15 September a protest meeting called “Come and turn yourself in” was held outside the Security Service building in Kiev.

Half-hearted readers might ask what the prison on Lonsky Street is and why the museum and its director in particular were the target of a Security Service attack. They might wonder whether there are any hidden agendas other than the one Ruslan Zabily announced in an interview with Ukrainian Week “that archive information which has recently become accessible should make the smallest possible contribution to the shaping of public opinion, and be used as little as possible by the academic community”. Some light is shed by the official explanation given after the protest on 15 September by the Security Service’s press department: “…the Security Service set up the Memorial Research Complex at the former Lvov prison in memory of victims of regimes of occupation […]. To this day the museum is on the balance sheet of the Security Service and in receipt of funds from the Service for its upkeep; the salaries of its employees, including the director, Mr. Zabily, are paid by the Security Service.” However, this statement gives rise to even more questions.

The prison on Lonsky Street (now on the corner of Karl Bryullov street and Stepan Bandera (!) street) dates from the inter-war period, when space was allocated for political prisoners in the Polish police station complex. It was primarily intended for Ukrainian nationalists, which made it infamous in the Ukrainian community of Galicia. During the so-called “first Soviets” of 1939-1941, former Polish officials, policemen and members of the underground were held in the prison as well as Ukrainian nationalists. In June 1941, during the retreat of the Red Army, all the prisoners were shot by the NKVD in the prison yard (a scene repeated in many prisons in West Ukraine). During the German occupation, the Gestapo was in charge of the prison, and once more there were Poles, Jews, and people who tried to save Jews, as well as Ukrainian nationalists (followers of Bandera). One of them was the Greek Catholic priest Emilian Kowcz who christened the Jewish population in the village of Przemyślany, and was subsequently beatified by Pope John Paul II. When the Soviets returned, the prison population consisted once more of Ukrainians. 

Independent Ukraine took some time to open a museum at the prison, the second of its kind in Eastern Europe. The first section of exhibits was only opened in June 2009. The prison building continued to belong to the Lvov Regional Security Service, so the museum too remained under its control. This later turned out to be a sinister turn of events. Initially, the prospects looked quite optimistic: Ruslan Zabily received 150,000 hrivnas (approx. $20,000) from the “Ukraine 3000” fund of Katerina Yushchenko, the wife of the president. This money was intended for the development of the museum, and there were plans to open a new exhibition about persecuted Ukrainian dissidents… When it became clear that pro-Russian forces associated with Viktor Yanukovych might return to power, an attempt was made in early 2010 to transfer the museum to the jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory, but the government of Mykola Azarov stopped the transfer process. Being under the jurisdiction of the Security Service proved an Achilles heel for the memorial museum.

Lvov prison

Independent Ukraine took some time to open a museum at the prison, the second of its kind in Eastern Europe.

The museum on Lonsky Street has been criticized for being one-sided, or more precisely for being Ukrainocentric. Yurii Radchenko, historian of the Holocaust in the Kharkov region, was unable hide his disappointment: “the entire exhibition is dedicated to the tragedy and pain of the Ukrainians, without mentioning other peoples”. Over 100 scholars from all over the world gave their support to Ruslan Zabily in his conflict with the Security Service. They included Andrew Wilson, Timothy Snyder, Andrea Graziosi, Frank Sysyn and others. They expressed their position in a rather unusual way: “Many of us are signing this petition although we cannot agree with the political line taken by Ruslan Zabily, or with his views on Ukrainian history”. What they had in mind was chiefly the glorification of the Ukrainian liberation movement while ignoring other forms of the underground in Galicia, Ukrainian participation in Jewish pogroms in 1941, and the fact that there was no mention of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement’s anti-Polish campaign in Galicia and Volyn in 1943-1944. The position of Zabily and his colleagues from the Centre of the Liberation Movement is even more of an Achilles heel than the first one.

So what happened next? One unexpected turn of events was an “information leak” from the Security Service to the Russian-language newspaper Segodnya, traditionally close to the Party of Regions (currently the party in power). Ukrainians are already used to the fact that if Segodnya, “using its own sources”, publishes certain information, it’s because someone in power wants this information to be made public in the media before an official announcement. The article published on 16 September states that the Security Service is in fact not interested in Zabily’s research activities, but in his possible involvement in leaking lists of agents and people recruited by the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR. Many documents of this kind were found in materials confiscated from Zabily. It is clear that a considerable number of KGB agents are alive today and still working for the special services, sometimes in high-ranking positions. True or bluff? If it is true, then it shows that Ukraine, and its Security Service in particular, are scared of Soviet skeletons in the closet, and of exposure. If the Security Service announces that this is the reason for detaining Zabily, it will mean that Ukraine does not have a Ukrainian secret police: the existing structure is the successor of the KGB not only in its working methods, but in its essence too. In the 21st century this fact is not a sign of either professionalism or efficiency.

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