Post-Soviet Dichotomy: A "Western" Researcher's Experiences in the Security Service (SBU) in Chernihiv and the State Archives of the Chernihiv Oblast (DACHO)

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Post-Soviet Dichotomy: A 'Western' Researcher's Experiences in the Security Service (SBU) in Chernihiv and the State Archives of the Chernihiv Oblast (DACHO)

By Gregory Aimaro-Parmut, Indiana University  

Five years ago, a law came into effect which declassified materials held in the Ukrainian Security Service Archives. The archives have since opened to the public and scholars alike. For scholars of the Soviet era, this changed the game; never before has such material been so readily available. In particular, those studying topics like the 1932-33 famine, Stalin’s Great Terror, and the Second World War have a lot to gain from the opening of the Security Service archives. Large caches of similar materials, held in Putin's Russia and many other post-Soviet states, remain under lock and key, hidden from the public and researchers; yet, in Ukraine, these documents are completely accessible, and, for the most, without a nightmarishly bureaucratic process. 

In the summers of 2018 and 2019, I traveled to the city of Chernihiv to conduct archival research for my thesis, which examines the German Occupation of Pryluky, a midsized city in the southwestern portion of Chernihiv Oblast. While there, I worked with materials in the Ukrainian Security Service (SBU) Archive in Chernihiv and the State Archive of the Chernihiv Oblast (DACHO). Establishing connections with colleagues in the region and archives prior to traveling there for research is a key factor in ensuring a successful research trip, in terms of both ease and speed of access. In my case, Viktoriya Mudrytska, a researcher at the Tarnovsky Historical Museum in Chernihiv, connected me with the director of the Chernihiv SBU archive, Tetiana Hapyenko, and the director of DACHO, Raiisa Vorobey. Vika Mudytska's assistance helped me cut through some of the bureaucratic red tape, and I strongly recommend that all researchers contact local scholars and archivists' months prior to their scheduled research trips. 

The process of getting access to the SBU archive was surprisingly unbureaucratic. I signed a single form. Despite the rather intimidating documentation check with the guard at the Chernihiv SBU Headquarters (the man was armed with an AKS-74 assault rifle), my daily trips to the Chernihiv SBU archives went extremely well. During my two-week research trip, I was generally the only researcher at the SBU archive on any given day. I later learned that I was the first American researcher to conduct research in this specific archive. Access was easy. I marked requested cases on a sheet and there were no limits on the number of files I could access in a given day. There were no formalities or limits on photographing documents. Tetiana was tremendously knowledgeable about the materials and excited to showcase the archives' materials, staff, and hospitality. She helped me navigate materials and scanned whole sections of criminal case spravy (folders) free of charge. She even brought me tea and pastries from the local bakery. I must state that researchers planning to visit Ukraine for archival research should not expect such exceptional treatment. Experiences in Ukrainian archives can vary drastically. Some places are more crowded and understaffed; thus, archivists do not have the time to work one on one with researchers.  

My experience at the State Archives of the Chernihiv Oblast (DACHO) could not have been more different. DACHO was far busier. In both the summer of 2018 and 2019, the reading rooms were at full capacity. The archivists were constantly busy and often unavailable to help. The archival staff were underpaid, overworked, and nothing like Tetiana. Access to DACHO was shrouded in bureaucracy. Luckily, my colleagues in Ukraine informed me in advance that I should have my thesis advisor write a letter to the archive regarding the purpose of my visit. Luckily, my advisor, Dr. Hiroaki Kuromiya, was able to write my letter in Ukrainian. Surprisingly the SBU, the direct successor to the dreaded Soviet security organs like the OGPU, NKVD, and KGB, had required no such “official letter” from my institution. 

After being granted access, I began requesting materials. Similar to the SBU archive, I signed a request from for every file I took out at DACHO. Added to this, however, was the requirement that I notate every page of the file which I intended to photograph on this same form. This process proved to be tedious and the only saving grace was the fact that none of the pages or files needed prior approval from the archival staff to access them. That said, the archive's staff are cognizant of any deviations from your stated research agenda. As a descendant of the region, I also hoped to conduct some genealogical research on my great grandfather, who was born and raised in Pryluky. When I requested and received the metrical records from Pryluky in 1889 and class rosters for the Pryluky men’s gymnasium, I was scolded by one of the archivists and given another lengthy form to fill out before continuing my activities. Although this experience was a bit annoying, I could not complain, because they permitted my little genealogical side venture.

Overall, while it seems that the Security Service Archive is actively trying to distance itself from the Soviet past, the State Archives of the Chernihiv Oblast seems to be marred by the Soviet bureaucratic legacy. Undoubtedly, a lot of this has to do with resources and funding. Clearly, the SBU receives more funding from the government than the regional archives. The good news; however, is that no material from the Soviet-era seems to be off-limits. This sort of transparency, which is absent from Russia and Belarus, will undoubtedly help Ukraine remain on a democratic path. I would strongly encourage scholars interested in the Stalinist era Soviet Union to consider research projects centered on Ukraine using Ukrainian archives. As the recent past has demonstrated, open access to archival material is never a guaranteed constant. Right now, with Ukraine’s Soviet-era documents being fully accessible, we might be experiencing a second golden age of archival research in post-Soviet space.

For more on the Chernihiv State Archive, see:

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