Soviet-era Police and Security Services Archives in Ukraine

Katie Hiatt

A review of the State Archive Branch of the Security Services of Ukraine (Галузевий державний архив Служби Безпеки України) (Kyiv)

The State Archive Branch of the Security Services of Ukraine in Kyiv is the crown jewel of Ukrainian archives, and offers a rare glimpse into Soviet-era secret police documents, spanning chronologically from the security services’ incarnations as the OGPU to the KGB. There is no major historical event in the Western borderlands of the Soviet Union or the Soviet Ukrainian Republic—the Civil War, the Famine, Collectivization, the Great Patriotic War, etc.—the study of which cannot be improved by access to the police files housed in this archive. My own research analyzes the history of religious political prisoners from Soviet Ukraine during the Stalinist era. Conducting research at the State Security Archive enabled me to work through dozens of personal criminal files of priests and their family members. Access to these materials proved invaluable for gaining a deeper understanding of their experiences through their appeal letters, interrogations, and other documents illuminating their overall trajectories through the Soviet criminal justice system.

Given the sensitivity of the material held there, and its location within the functioning State Security apparatus building in Kyiv, access can be tricky to say the least. Yet more than anything, gaining entry depends heavily on which way the political winds are blowing. This is not to say that the basic rules change, so much that when given the opportunity to do so, the archival staff can make access to files pleasant and efficient, rather than convoluted and complicated.

The environment in which I began research in early November of 2013 bears little resemblance to the one I left at the end of June, 2014. In fall 2013, many scholars were still concerned that the measures taken in 2010 under a new law in place to protect private information would make matters difficult for new researchers—especially foreigners and graduate students, of which I was both. Though to be fair, others surmised that the archivists would treat me better as a foreigner, and that, as a doctoral candidate working on religious repression during the Stalinist era—rather than, say, an established professor with published controversial views on political events—I would be seen as less threatening. And to their credit, once they warmed up to me, the archivists did treat me well.

In my letter of introduction, alongside the usual bits of information about myself and my research, I was also asked to submit exact information about the kinds of files that I wanted. There is a general guidebook (putivnyk) available online in Ukrainian that describes the collections held at the State Security Archive, so you can get a sense of the kind of materials theoretically available before undertaking the extra steps necessary in identifying more specific material. Since this archive does not have opisi or description books for its collections available to researchers, one must identify material ahead of time. You can do so by using outside reference resources, or drawing on information cited in other archival materials at the former Party archive (Tsentral’nyi derzhavnyi arkhiv Hromod’ians’kykh Ob’ednan’ [TsDAHO]) or the government archive (Tsentral’nyi derzhavnyi arkhiv vyshchykh orhaniv vlady [TsDAVO]). The Institute of National Memory and the Institute of History within the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kyiv both have such reference material available, and can also offer pointed advice from historians who have researched or worked at this archive before. I found the Institute of History’s “Rehabilitated by History” (reabilitovani istorieiu) project to be invaluable. During a period of greater access in the mid-2000’s, local historians and researchers endeavored to pool basic identifying information on Soviet Ukrainians who had been repressed into a multi-volume set covering each oblast. Both the Vernadsky Library and the reference section at TsDAHO hold many of the volumes. More efficiently, one can comb through these large tomes using specific word searches by accessing them as .pdf documents online, either through the project’s website (www.reabit.org.ua), or through Google by searching in Cyrillic for reabilitovani istorieiu + the oblast of interest. In my particular case, I ended by searching within the volumes for “sviashchenno-” in order to catch cases of clergy who would have been processed as sviashchennosluzhiteli and then narrowed down the cases to a manageable list of files to pull.

The receiving area to submit one’s letter of introduction is located at Volodymyrs’ka st. 33 through a side entrance on the west side of the building (to your right, if you have your back to the street). If you have trouble locating the appropriate door, the security guard on the street will be eager to direct you away from the other doors. Once I dropped off my letter, I waited almost two weeks for a reply—the archive had snail-mailed its response to the director of my host institute. In retrospect, I could have emailed this letter earlier (to archivsbu@ssu.gov.ua) had I known that this was an option, and this may have cut down some of the wait time. Their response asked for clarification about my topic and sent an intake form for me to fill out, containing basic information about myself as a researcher: full name, topic title and exact chronological boundaries, country of citizenship, professional status, and highest level of education. In other words, the form was fairly standard for Ukrainian archives, except for the addition (standard in Russian archives) of passport number with date of issue and agency that issued it. The response letter also informed me that it would take a month for them to conduct a background check (provirka) on me and have the archivist assigned to me pull some of the files I had requested. This plus a rounding up to the next month meant that I could begin on November 1, roughly seven weeks from my initial submission of a letter of introduction.

The archive itself is located on Zolotovorits’ka st. 7, close to the Zoloti vorota metro stop on the green line. I found it convenient to work out of TsDAHO (next to the Pechers’ka stop) in the mornings and then take the three metro stops down on the green line to get to the State Security Archive for the afternoons. Their hours also complement each other, with TsDAHO opening earlier at 8:30 a.m. and the State Security Archive closing later at 5 p.m. The building itself is a straight shot out of the metro, past the remnant of the golden gate on the right side of the street.

Much like the initial one-month notice, gaining a spot in the reading room also requires advance arrangement, and I was told to call at least one day ahead to reserve a desk. The room itself is quite small and only contains eight spaces officially, though even that is ambitious and the archivists tend to book the six or seven spaces a week in advance. Thus the archivist will prefer to know what day you will be there and when you will arrive. There is technically a lunch break from 1-2 p.m., during which you will not be forced to leave, but neither will you be allowed to enter the reading room. You can arrive anytime between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. or between 2 and 5 p.m.

In order to get to the reading room itself, you will need to use the rotary phone in the entry room to call one of the archivists to let them know that you are there and ask that they escort you from the front to the reading room. Since it is an internal line, the last five digits of the phone number listed for the archive on their website is a good start, though from there the staff member who answers would likely give you the direct number for the archivist assigned to you. I found it helpful to keep a list of several internal office lines for the archival staff and even my archivist’s cell phone number. It is not unheard of for several of the numbers to go unanswered, and the reading room proper does not have a direct line. This can result in a fair amount of waiting around, but it is a necessary step since the only way in is through a turnstile that requires either an electronic ID card or a staff member to escort you while the guard in the booth presses the button to release the turnstile for a moment. According to their rules, all foreigners must be accompanied by archive staff when not in the reading room. During some of the tenser waves of protests in Kyiv, this rule was enforced religiously: one could not linger in the hallway near the coat closet unattended for too long, or go down the hallway to the bathroom alone. But for most of the time in the eight months that I was researching there, I was accompanied by my archivist to the reading room and then allowed to leave the building on my own. On the occasions when I left the archive by myself I spoke Russian well enough with the security guard that he often thought I was local and would ask for my visitor’s pass to the archive, which is issued to Ukrainian citizens. I would then explain that I was a foreigner and therefore was not issued one. The guard would then want to check my last name off of the registry list from earlier in the day and ask whether I was planning to come back before releasing the turnstile for me to leave. The guards covering this position rotate frequently, so despite being one of few foreigners researching at the State Security Archive last winter—and in a bright purple coat to boot—I could never count on the security guard to recognize or remember me when I entered or left the building.

As far as language goes, Kyiv is quite a bilingual city, and passive bilingualism, in which each speaker understands the other’s language without switching to it, is quite common. Many archivists in the city will assume that Russian is the default language for you, as a foreigner; if you do speak Ukrainian, they will probably assume that you are from the diaspora. Either way, there is no pressure to be fully fluent in both languages. If you are indeed a Russian-only speaker, almost no one will hold it against you in the archives, especially in the State Security Archive. Among the archivists themselves, I noticed that the main language of conversation was Russian and that their accents included not only the typical Kyivan Russian (with the more open vowels, softer g’s, and an occasional Ukrainian word), but also more standard Russian and even a distinct Moscow accent. Since their collections hail from the Soviet era, the majority of the documents are in Russian. Earlier case files I looked at from the 1920s or early 1930s occasionally had formal files processed in Ukrainian, or the stray appeal letter that used Ukrainian or more commonly surzhyk (a combination of the two languages). But by and large, NKVD and KGB files are in Russian and everyone I met who conducted research in this archive could read Russian, even if they preferred to speak Ukrainian.

This being said, all official letters to this archive should be in Ukrainian. This also includes later requests for more materials. At the strictest, this involved writing out a “statement” in Ukrainian (Ukr. zaiava; Rus. zaiavlenie) formally requesting exact files, which, pending the director’s approval, would go to one’s assigned archivist who would then take two to three weeks to pull them. For me, this involved writing up a formal statement that specified who I was, how long I had been working there, and a humble request for the case files of exact people, whose information I had obtained from reference material (the full name, and place and date of birth for repressed priests from the central oblasts as recorded in the “Rehabilitated by History” series). My first request for additional material took almost a month to fill. By April, I could write a more general request about the kinds of files that I would like to see (repeat offenders, wartime cases, those files that included appeal letters, etc.), and my archivist pulled files matching those criteria in all of one week.

You can request five files a day and hold up to ten at a time. Though if it is a shorter trip and you already know what files you need, you may be able to work with more than ten at once and be allowed to come in on their cleaning day. On the plus side, you can work with material for as long as you need without being pressured to return it within a certain time frame. Each day upon arrival, you will need to sign out the files that you have a log book held by the archivist in the reading room.

Photocopies can be scanned onto a flash drive free of charge; although I was told several times that this rule was being changed to begin charging, it was still free as of June 2014. Since only one archivist seems to understand how the scanner works, the time this takes depends entirely on her availability as well as the volume of overall requests. In my experience, I waited anywhere from a week to a month. The archivists might suggest that you leave your cell number and come back to the archive a week later with a flash drive when the scans are ready if you are no longer actively researching there.

The State Security Archive can also be helpful in identifying which relevant personal files may be held in other archives. Many Purge-era criminal files—those sentenced by extra-judicial organizations such as troikas and dvoikas in 1937-1938 in Kyiv Oblast—were transferred to TsDAHO, ostensibly with the goal of increasing access. Since the State Security Archive has more familiarity with such documents, their archivists can obtain the exact file citation numbers for these transferred files, thus facilitating requests to TsDAHO. My assigned archivist was also able to locate files for me that were being held at regional Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) branches in other oblasts. Having already conducted research at the main State Security Archive, I found it much easier to plan shorter research trips to Lviv and Uzhhorod, since the archivists in the regional SBU archives there saw me as a known quantity who had an archivist calling on her behalf from Kyiv. While there is certainly a debate to be had as to whether Kyiv keeps the more controversial or interesting cases for itself or whether the regional holdings can rival them, the regional SBU archives were incredibly welcoming and supportive of my research and I highly recommend working at them as well if time permits.

Overall, the current level and ease of access for security files in Kyiv is going through an up-wave that accompanies greater pro-Western sentiment across the board, making it one of the best times in recent history to conduct research in Ukraine. Yet, given the general instability in the country, there is no way of telling how long this may last.

Kathleen Hiatt
Ph.D. Candidate
Department of History
Indiana University, Bloomington
Fulbright Ukraine 2013-14
kmhiatt@indiana.edu

Image: SBU building housing the Main State Security Services Archive (GDA SBU) on Zolotovorits’ka street 7, adapted from Wikimapia.org.

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