Access and Digitization on Trial: Alex Krakovsky's Archival Battle in Ukraine
By Greg Stricharchuk (firstname.lastname@example.org), Fulbright Scholar, Ukraine
Last January, after some prompting by archivists in Poland, I visited the central archives in L’viv searching for documents about my grandmother. Without consulting the files, an official at the archive told me there were not any records that would help me. Disappointed, I told the colleague who had accompanied me that I was interested in learning more about Ukraine’s archives. Shortly after returning to the United States, my colleague messaged me and suggested that I look at Alex Krakovsky’s Facebook page, which you can view here. He posts continuous updates about his efforts to obtain copies of records at various archives throughout Ukraine.
Since I arrived in Ukraine this September, Alex has helped me conduct research as a Fulbright scholar. Like me, his foray into the archives started with family. He became interested in learning more about his roots after his mother’s death in 2011. He found references to his grandfather, whom the family knew almost nothing about, in a book and some documents at the archive in Zhytomyr, but he was asked to pay 116,000 hryvnia (about $4,600) for copies of the documents! He refused and continued to refuse until the archives decreased the fee to $2, which he paid. Alex later sued the archive, winning back his $2 plus an additional 100 hryvnia ($4) for the hassle the archive put him through.
The case also changed Krakovsky's life. With no formal legal training, he has become a litigation machine—a hero of sorts to frustrated researchers and genealogists. Krakovsky has sued more than a dozen archives, with the goal of bringing Ukraine’s archives up to European standards. Among other things, he advocates for the publishing of inventories online, so that people know what is in the archives. This would also help prevent the illegal sale of archival materials, which Krakovsky suspects is ongoing. He also agitates for the right to freely photograph documents.
Krakovsky has not lost a single case to date. He often wins citing constitutional precedent. In October, he faced his most powerful adversary yet. Krakovsky filed suit against Ukraine’s Ministry of Justice. after the Ministry, which has the state archives under its wing, issued a June 2018 order barring the copying of documents larger than letter-size. as well as files thicker than 1 ½ inches, old printed books, and listings of documents—in other words--just about anything a researcher or genealogist might need to see.
I sat in a Kyiv appeals courtroom this October as a three-member judicial panel handed down a ruling partially in Krakovsky’s favor. They ruled that people have the right to copy any and all documents with cameras. The caveat, however, was that people would be required to fill out a form requesting specific documents. That suggested an archive could refuse access.
Denial to access, Krakovsky claims, could be interpreted as “a form of censorship.’’ Moreover, the power to deny access only engenders and entrenches lingering Soviet-style practices in some archives—from bribery, be it exchanging cigarettes, booze, or cash for copies of documents, to extortion. In some of Ukraine's archives, attendants demand exorbitant amounts of money for access and copies, especially when they suspect a researcher is well-paid or foreign.
Viktor Doletskiy, a professional genealogist from Vinnytsia, agrees with Krakovsky. Doletskiy has been asked to pay as much as 7,000 hryvnia (about $280 U.S.), or roughly twice the amount some pensioners live on monthly. “I know some archivists who sell copies… I have never paid,” he said. Doletskiy added that he helped cover Krakovsky’s court filing costs, because he wants “the archival sphere of Ukraine to look like a civilized one, not where everything is closed and forbidden.”
Krakovsky initially planned to appeal the Ministry of Justice ruling within two weeks; however, after hearing that the matter would be tied up in court for one to two more years, he decided against the appeal. As of now, "if the archive director is corrupt… researchers will probably be thwarted."
However, access to documents is improving in some archives, like the Security Services archive in Kyiv. Krakovsky and I have spent hours side-by-side, poring over KGB files there. In English, he whispers what he has read into my digital recorder as I furiously take notes. The records relate to deportations, a topic in which I became fascinated with after learning that my mother’s family was deported to a village near Zalisciki in 1946. Each time Krakovsky and I visit, the reading room is full of people taking notes from yellowed files stamped “top secret” or photographing pages with their cameras or phone cameras. Usually, they are researching relatives who were repressed, exiled, or deported.
“This is one of the greatest archives of our country,” said Krakovsky, explaining that the KGB files were opened after Parliament passed a law in 2015. “You can copy anything here, but when you go to the historical archives to copy ordinary metrical books it’s nearly impossible.’’
This is, of course, not true in all cases. Some archives are more open than others. In fact, Krakovsky distributed ten or more scanners to a handful of archives that are digitizing documents and publishing them online. Brooke Schreier Ganz, a distant relative of Krakovsky’s in California, raises money for the scanners through crowd-sourcing, then sends the devices along to Krakovsky.
“I’m gung-ho in helping Alex,’’ Ganz said in a phone interview. She said the scanners, made in China, cost less than $300 each, use software that works with both Macs and PCs, and automatically corrects the curvature of pages being scanned. The devices come with a foot pedal which speeds scanning.
Krakovsky usually brings a scanner, which resembles a goose-necked desk lamp, to his court appearances should judges have any questions. At one hearing, an attorney for the Ministry of Justice said such scanning damages old records. But Krakovsky claimed the scanners are the same as those used in European archives and that some Ukrainian archives have purchased the same devices for their own purposes.
Given limited funds and the rate of documental decay, Ukraine will lose some of its documented materials if they are not preserved of digitized. Krakovsky once showed me records from the 1850s at the Central Archives in Kyiv that were decaying and said that there are documents in far worse condition around the country that need to be scanned before they are lost forever. His goal, he said, is to distribute scanners to archives in all 25 of Ukraine’s oblasts “so everyone can see ancestral records.’’
A note from the editors:
The Sectoral State Archive of the Security Services of Ukraine, mentioned in this text, is located at Zolotovorits’ka 7, 01601 Kyiv, Ukraine. The archive can be contacted via e-mail (email@example.com) and in the reading room via telephone: +3800442558584. See their website here. For a recent web guide on working in these archives, see Jan Bever's March 2019 assessment here.
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