Ukraine’s Soviet archives are opening up – and changing memory politics
With new laws opening up access to state security archives, Ukrainian citizens are discovering what really happened to their family members under Stalin.
I meet up with Alexey Gusev, the grandson of a victim of Stalin’s Terror, in a park in front of Kyiv’s Polytechnic Institute, just outside the city centre.
Gusev, a heating and ventilation engineer, is well-prepared for our meeting - he sent me a short biography, complete with photographs, of his grandmother beforehand. In 1938, an Soviet state security commission sentenced Gusev’s grandmother Vera Guseva-Romanovskaya (“Ukrainian, noblewoman”) “to be shot and her property confiscated”.
Gusev tells me how Guseva-Romanovskaya, 51 at the time, taught mathematics at the Kyiv River Institute before she was arrested. His grandmother was shot shortly after as a “Ukrainian nationalist” on the basis of a false denunciation by some of her acquaintances.
“These people were friendly with my grandmother,” Alexey says. “I don’t know if they survived, I didn’t try to find out. I didn’t know them, but my aunt, my grandmother’s daughter, did. So when I found the files in 1989, I was in shock.”
During the Soviet period, neither my father nor my aunt wanted to bring up what happened. The politics of our country didn’t encourage discussion
Alexey never knew his grandmother, and knows about her only from short conversations with other relatives. His family wasn’t informed of Vera Guseva-Romanovskaya’s death. Her daughter, Alexey’s aunt, continued to bring food parcels to the prison for another year. She only heard about her execution in 1989. Alexey tells me his family tried not to talk about his grandmother, especially his father, her son.
“During the Soviet period, neither my father nor my aunt wanted to bring up what happened. The politics of our country didn’t encourage discussion. There were photos of her at home. We knew that this person had existed. But my dad didn’t want the issue of a repressed family member to rebound on him, his children, his job: he was a faculty head at a construction industry institute. The authorities could have reacted badly. After his death, however, his sister was able to give us some insight into family history.”
In 1989, Alexey and his aunt contacted the KGB Archive, where staff showed them the papers relating to Vera’s case and allowed them to take her ID papers and photos.
“We leafed through the documents, they wouldn’t let us photocopy them,” Alexey tells me. “It was all too brief and superficial. When it’s a close family member, you get all wound up – it’s hard to remember all the information.”
Vera was posthumously rehabilitated that same year – 61 years after her execution – on the request of Alexey’s father and aunt.
The next time Alexey accessed the archive was 26 years later, after Ukraine passed a law on access to security service archives in 2015. Gusev spent a week hastily compiling a 60-page document from all the files relating to his grandmother’s case, and he is now continuing his historical investigation with the help of his son: the aunt with whom he began his quest is no longer alive.
The archive revolution
Formally, the Soviet archives where Gusev found his grandmother’s case became the property of Ukraine’s Security Services in the 1990s. In 2015, the Ukrainian parliament passed a law on “access to archives of the repressive organs of the Communist totalitarian regime of 1917-1991”, which simplified access to documents.
“Until then, it was only possible to access the case files of a rehabilitated person if they or their family members gave their permission, or if you were an investigator well known to the authorities,” says Andriy Kohut, head of Ukraine’s State Security Services Archive. “And there was a special declassification procedure to be followed – there were only specific documents you could see.”
In 2015, this procedure changed. First, the law declared Soviet-era security classifications invalid. However, the archive’s current management has had to deal with the fact that their Yanukovych-era predecessors reclassified around 2,000 cases from the Soviet period. Classification codes appeared, for example, on documents relating to the Soviet military campaign against the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army, as well as religious bodies. These papers are now being declassified again.
Second, only victims of Soviet state institution and their families may now restrict access to archive information. There has only been one instance of this in the last four years, where access to a case has been closed for 25 years. Information on this case outside the restriction may be accessed on request.
We had a charge sheet with 300 people listed. 280 were to be shot, 15 sent to a camp and five to be sent for further investigation
There have also been requests to refuse access by relatives of former security services personnel. But the law contains a special waiver: the right to restrict access does not apply to staff and agents of the Soviet security services, even if they later become “victims” of their colleagues. The Security Service archive in fact gives access not only to information on victims of repressive measures, but information about those responsible too.
By law, all documents relating to Soviet security agencies must be held under one roof – in the State Archive of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. But so far, this archive exists only in legal terms: it still needs to find appropriate premises and hire staff.
Working with the archive
“Why did you hide the fact that you’re a foreigner?” state security archive director Andriy Kohut asks me jokingly. My Kyrgyz passport has become an unexpected barrier to entering the building. The archive, like all state security premises, is considered a classified facility: you need to apply for a pass in advance, and for non-Ukrainians this takes three days. Kohut, however, agrees to an interview in a nearby cafe.
“You need to make a formal application, leave your contact details and specify what you want to work with and when. We have between a week and a month to find out whether there are files, or at least sources, which could establish the location of the information you want.. If these exist, we can leave the phone number of a colleague who can agree a time and date to visit the reading room. If not, we can recommend other places to look.”
People who have worked here for a long time try to distance themselves: they just note the key data and ignore everything else
If a non-Ukrainian citizen wants to work with archive materials, they need to send a copy of their passport as well as an application form. Russian citizens also have to comply with this rule. “We respond to Russian citizens searching for their relatives who were repressed,” says Kohut. “Like all our other foreign visitors, they go through the procedure of getting a pass, work in our reading room and make copies of files with their own technical equipment. In other words, they have the same rights as everyone else.”
If, however, an applicant’s email account has a Russian domain name (Mail.ru, Yandex.ru and so on), they will not receive a reply. The archive will also not respond if the request comes from a Russian state agency. Following the annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas, the Ukrainian parliament declared Russia an “aggressor state” in January 2015 - and in 2017 President Petro Poroshenko announced a blockade on Russian web services.
Hundreds of people executed in a single file
When you work in an archive related to state repression, you can’t take documents too close to heart, says Andriy Kohut.
“We had a new member of staff,” Kohut tells me. “We started giving her files to catalogue – to put document descriptions together. I called in her office and she was crying: she had begun to read the case histories and it was too much for her. People who have worked here for a long time try to distance themselves: they just note the key data and ignore everything else. She had started reading a file, rather than processing it.”
Kohut himself is struck by mass investigations from the Soviet period.
“For example, we had a charge sheet with 300 people listed. 280 were to be shot, 15 sent to a camp and five to be sent for further investigation. When you see a sheet like that for the first time and read ‘Shoot, shoot, shoot’ one after another, it’s impossible to believe that the commissions actually investigated every case.”
The archive director cautions me - when you read NKVD or KGB documents, you need to bear in mind what kind of agencies they were. Documents could be falsified in order to deceive, sow hatred or compromise a person. Or add to them later, so that the file looked thicker. Someone who “confessed” could be used in a sting. Or a confession could be tortured out of them.
“If you make a record of an interrogation, the start and end times should be included. If an interrogation starts at eight in the evening and finishes at seven in the morning and the record consists of three pages where he says, ‘I confess’, it’s unlikely that he spent the whole time producing three pages of confessions. So there must have been something else going on. You can tell a person’s state from their signature – how clear or fuzzy it is.”
When Alexey Gusev found his grandmother’s file, he was struck by how rude the investigators were His experience of studying sources has shown him, for example, that Soviet investigators made no concessions to women – quite the opposite, they acted more deviously: “They threatened people’s children and carried out all sorts of brutality,” he tells me.
Yevhen Bilyi coordinates the Last Address project in Ukraine, which installs memorial plaques outside the homes of people who were repressed. He found files on performers at the Kyiv Opera from just before the Nazis occupied the city in 1941, when the Soviet security services rounded up everyone who they considered a potential traitor. Bilyi’s struck by how petty people can be even when they are on the brink of death.
“People knew that their lives were hanging by a thread,” Bilyi tells me, “but they would talk about how one singer punched another in the face, how someone stole some bricks or someone failed to say ‘Good morning’ or spat on the ground.”
Memory and politics
In recent years, the Memorial Day for Victims of Political Repression has started being marked at the state level in Ukraine, with Petro Poroshenko paying visits to a Soviet execution site on the outskirts of the city, at Bykivnia. Indeed, he visited Bykivnia for the last time as president in May - where he talked not only about the lessons of history, but his own achievements.
“On this ground where the trees have been soaked in human blood,” Poroshenko said, “we can’t play politics with the aggressor [Russia] and successor to the regime that spilt that blood [...] The process of decommunisation is basically complete in Ukraine. Communist ideology has been banned, and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has received independence from Constantinople.”
Ukraine’s new President Volodymyr Zelenskyy didn’t visit Bykivnia on 19 May. A week before, Zelenskyy’s advisors decided he should hold his inauguration that day, a Sunday, to avoid creating transport problems in the city. Though the new president’s Facebook page did publish a post (“Let us remember those who perished under Soviet rule. Let us fight for the release of the Kremlin’s prisoners”), drawing a parallel between Soviet repression and the criminal cases brought against Ukrainians in Russia today.
The fact that Ukrainian politicians are increasingly referring to historical memory is a positive trend, says Yevhen Bilyi from Last Address – even if they often do it to further their own interests.
“You can say, of course, that this focus on the inhumane, criminal and anti-Ukrainian nature of the Soviet Union is done to irritate Moscow, that it’s a political game played in the corridors of power. But however we view attitudes to painful areas of history by leading officials - which are sometimes over-the-top, done for show or overly bureaucratic - we can’t ignore the fact that sooner or later these issues have to be faced.
“If we want to establish a firm state, knowledge of history is as essential as knowing the basic tenets of Ukraine’s Constitution.”
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