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Ukraine leads in ease of access to special services archives

Author : Natalia Lebed

Respondent : Andriy Kohut

Find out an exclusive interview with Andriy Kohut, the director of the Security Service (SBU) archive
18:42, 4 December 2019

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It is 1991, the collapse of the Soviet Union. What happens to archives of special services?

If you mean the myth that all the documents were urgently taken to Moscow, this did not happen. First of all, in Soviet times everything was very strictly regulated. In the spring of 1990, two orders were issued - No. 00111 and No. 00150 (the last one in our custody), allowing the destruction of documents. These were perestroika and glasnost, and this could not but affect the mood inside the then KGB. Well, plus the events in Berlin, where protesters seized the Stasi building (Ministry of State Security, GDR special services, - ed.), along with all the archives and those documents that simply lay on the desks of the employees. Taking this into account, Moscow decided to play it safe for the future and issued the orders mentioned, which said, incidentally, that the agent’s files were not preserved. This meant that agents could be destroyed at any time - as soon as necessary. As a result, cases from the 60s to 80s were destroyed. And only the archive of the NKVD internal troops was exported to Russia.

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That is, the affairs of agents who worked before the early 1960s were preserved?

Good question. The destruction of documents in 1990 was not the first mass destruction action. The first mass destruction occurred after the death of Stalin. It was then, according to researchers, that the largest array of documents was “mowed.” And after that, every political change entailed a new sweep of archival materials.

So what do we have in the bottom line? How many storage units?

There are more than 224 thousand storage units in Kyiv, amounting to seven kilometers, if you stretch them in length, plus more than 700 thousand in the regions. In general, the SBU archive was created in 1994.

Why so late?

In 1991, the National Security Service was created, then in 1992, the SBU was founded, and in 1994 the law on the National Archival Fund was adopted and, according to it, the branch National Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine was founded. And only in 2011, the archive was created as a separate institution.

You keep documents related to past events ...

Yes, those that belong to the National Archival Fund. In fact, everything that now originates in 1917-1918 and ends in 1991.

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Does the state allocate funds for you to digitize the documents?

The law on access to the archives of repressive bodies provides that digitization must take place. At whose expense? At the expense of taxpayers or the state budget. We receive all our funds through the Security Service, and other archives - either through the state archival service, or (if these are regional archives) - through regional administrations. Therefore, different archives have different material and technical support, storage conditions. Therefore, to be honest, if we talk about archiving as such, then everything is sad here. After all, digitization is not just a photograph of a page.

Open source

After all, it needs to be systematized later...

There is one more problem. In the early 1990s, not only part of the cases per se was destroyed, but also reference support, which made it possible to quickly find out where it was.  Accordingly, when we create an nth number of copies, including electronic ones, we do not come close to digitizing the archive. And in order to get closer, we need certain indexes, pointers, and, of course, software that allows us to understand what we have digitized. The software must be licensed, this is necessary even from a security point of view. That is, while the situation is this: the more you accumulate digital copies without proper elaboration, the more problems there are with their systematization in the future.

In a word, everything again comes down to money. Why don’t you just make the digitization service paid?

The idea is good and bad. Theoretically, payment is possible. But from a practical point of view, payment also means administration costs — accounting maintenance, legal advice, and the like. On the other hand, we are the archive of the Security Service. And the Security Service for its support receives money only from the state. And the state, in turn, has a moral responsibility to ensure that citizens have the opportunity to get acquainted with all documents for free. Too specific is this group of archival units related to repression and human rights violation...

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When you first started working here, what struck you the most?

The number of cases. One thing is when you hear about all these huge numbers (for example, those killed during the great terror), and another when you see with your own eyes. You start flipping through the affairs of the executed. And the whole case has a couple of millimeters thick. In this case, the first document is the decision on the institution of the case, then the protocol of the interrogation of another person, which refers to the person in relation to whom the case was opened, then the protocol of the interrogation of the person involved in the case, where he denies all the charges, then the decision on the execution, and that, in fact, is all.

No one bothered with long investigations, right?

It was a totalitarian machine, for which quotas were determined for "enemies of the people," the number of those who needed to be repressed. Moreover, nothing depended on the person. The idea that everyone was arrested on denunciations is true, but only partially true.

In the context of the recent anniversary of the Holodomor, I’d like to ask you, how many were killed in 1932-1933? Various studies provide different data, from 4 to almost 8 million.

I cannot voice any numbers. We have a big problem with it. In Ukraine, the number of victims who suffered or died from communism has not been established today. This is primarily due to the purges in the archives, which I already mentioned. And not only in the archives of special services. That is, a blow was inflicted on the base on the basis of which certain calculations are made.

There are difficulties with the choice of methodology. There is a methodology that demographers have proposed. It says that in the years 1932-1933, 3.5 million were killed, another 600 thousand were not born, that is, total losses - over 4 million. But some eyewitnesses - usually foreigners, foreign diplomats, for example - provided other, higher numbers. How objective are they?

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But, in my opinion, the point is not in numbers, but in goals and methods. That is, when we talk about recognizing the communist regime as totalitarian, it is generally incorrect to measure its crimes in the number of deaths. After all, even if a hundred people died, but it was proved that their death occurred as a result of planned actions, this is enough to recognize the Holodomor as genocide. For statistics, we should not lose a person.

What else the SBU archive is working on?

The research topic is determined by the nature of the documents. We are working on everything related to the repressive system. Last year, we published a book about the repressed ministers of the Ukrainian People's Republic and thereby filling the gap inherent in Ukrainian historiography - we (as in the case of the Holodomor) prefer to talk more about numbers, not about specific people and not about the state institutions that they represented.

I’d like to ask about some foreign experience. How is archival work organized in the former socialist republics? Is everything open, is everything digitized?

It depends. If we are talking about the legal aspect, we have the best situation with it. Ukraine is a leader in ease of access to the archives of special services. In this regard, we have the most liberal legislation, the most open for those who want to work with archival documents.

What about Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany - is everything closed there?

No, not closed. But they have more restrictions than ours. In Ukraine, you can work with everything that a person has not closed about himself. That is, if, for example, you or your relatives were repressed, you have the right to close this information for up to 25 years. You just need to contact the archive once. And in Germany, the initiative does not come from the person involved in the case, but from the one who is interested in it. Such a person should ask permission to work with documents from the one who is mentioned in them - as we see, the diametrically opposite approach. And I believe that we have progressed in this regard.

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But if we talk about the number of seats in the reading room, about technical support, then we, of course, are not among the first. But not among the latter.

You mentioned cooperation with the Czech Republic and Israel. Is it about sharing documents?

We have signed memoranda and agreements with Finland, Lithuania, Poland, the Czech Republic, Hungary. We are currently working on an agreement with Slovakia. Then the process with Romania started. This is - if we talk about the archives of repressive organs. We also work with academic institutions in Germany, France, the United States, Canada - these are countries where we have joint projects. Somewhere we turn first, somewhere turn to us. It happens differently... We cooperate depending on what is interesting to the other side. Now there is an exchange of documents with Poland, Finland. From the Finns received cards for prisoners of war who died in the war...

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We also study the rebel movement of the 1920s, the great terror of the 1930s (we are preparing works together with colleagues from the Czech Republic and Israel), we study the performers of great terror, that is, those Chekists who were also subsequently repressed. A lot of work was issued by us both on the Second World War and in the post-war period, that is, on dissidentism. There is also a book about Chornobyl - based on KGB documents about the 1986 accident. Now we are preparing a collection of documents on the Crimean Tatar movement - we want to do what we have available to a wider audience.

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