Russia's Invasion Threatens Soviet Secret Police Archives in Ukraine—and Families' HistoryRoundup
tags: Soviet Union, Ukraine, archives, Secret Police
Megan Buskey is the author of Ukraine Is Not Dead Yet: A Family History of Exile and Return.
The french psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham wrote that some of us are haunted by “the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Growing up as a Ukrainian American, I felt these gaps myself. My grandfather appeared in photographs of my mother as a child, but otherwise no one spoke of him. My middle name, Stephanie, is an homage to my mother’s eldest sister; she lives in Ukraine, but we usually just said she was over there. A photo of my grandmother’s brother, who died fighting with the Ukrainian nationalist movement after World War II, watched over us while we ate pierogies at her Cleveland home after church. When she talked about him, she cried. I couldn’t fully understand her grief; even as I grew older and learned about Ukrainian history, my family’s past felt somehow out of reach.
After my grandmother died in 2013, I wanted to stay close to her. I also wanted to fill the gaps that still preoccupied me. So I threw myself into researching my grandmother’s life—and came across a rich, unexpected source of information. Under the Soviet regime, secret police and other security officials had carefully monitored residents for criminal activity, including anti-Soviet sentiment, assembling files on individuals that could total hundreds of pages. Many of them included interrogation transcripts, witness statements, trial records, and personal correspondence. These once-classified records are located in physical archives across Ukraine, and, ironically, they made my own family history finally available to me in a way that had never before seemed possible.
Now these archives, like virtually every aspect of Ukrainian life, are seriously imperiled by Russia’s full-scale invasion. And every record that is damaged or destroyed makes it harder to uncover stories that have been suppressed or forgotten—stories about families like mine.
Ukraine was a soviet republic through most of the 20th century, and for much of that time, its residents lived with a version of history that was severely biased, if not fabricated, and full of holes. Events that challenged the Communist Party’s competence, moral authority, or preferred narrative—Stalin-era purges, the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl, the Holocaust—were downplayed or stricken from the record. Not until 1987, more than 50 years after Stalin’s agricultural policies killed at least 3 million Ukrainians, did the official Soviet press use the word famine to describe what had happened.
With information so obviously manipulated, and secret police so often watching, average Soviet citizens were understandably paranoid about saying the wrong thing. Accordingly, they kept quiet—about views that might diverge from the state’s hard line, for instance, or after World War II, anti-Soviet partisan movements they’d supported. When the U.S.S.R. emerged from that vicious war, which killed roughly 26 million residents, many observed another kind of silence too: the type that can result from witnessing terrible violence and brutality.
In the 1980s, the Soviet Union experienced a period of unprecedented political openness—called glasnost—and then collapsed in 1991, hypothetically freeing its residents to speak and act in ways that had long been forbidden. For many families, that change didn’t translate immediately into candor; laws and cultural norms don’t always evolve in tandem. In Ukraine, Russia-friendly politicians continued to advance a Soviet version of history, and the country’s secret-police archives remained largely closed off. But in 2014, widespread protests swept Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, from power. The new Western-oriented government in Kyiv introduced expansive public access to the records. For those who wanted to look, a remarkable trove of family-history materials had been unlocked.
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