‘Russia will cover up Stalinist crimes’ Ukraine opens its KGB archives. Historian Nikita Petrov reflects on what this means for Russia

12:44, 21 april 2015

Фото: Sergey Bertov / Interpress / PhotoXPress

On April 9, Ukrainian parliament passed a law “On the access to the archives of repressive organs of the communist and totalitarian regime of 1917-1991.” All documents relating to repression and human rights violations will be transferred to the state archive of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory. Anyone who wishes to access them will be able to do so, including Russian historians. Meduza's Aleksandr Borzenko spoke to Nikita Petrov, a specialist on Soviet repression, on what the opening of Ukrainian archives means for people in Russia and why Russia’s archives won’t be opening up anytime soon.

Is the opening of Ukrainian archives a big event for historians?

It’s very important of course, and it’s a big decision for Ukrainian parliament to open up all the material and archives of the state security services which operated in Ukraine. Much of this was done under President [Viktor] Yushchenko, but now we’re talking about releasing all the documents, including the case files of agents and material related to undercover surveillance operations. They’re opening up the so called “dossiers” – information on dissatisfied citizens – which were compiled by the Soviet security services.

Everyone who committed bad deeds need to be visible in history. This is important for academic work and for our understanding of what the Soviet order was like, what the repressive regime was like even in its relatively moderate form, as I would call it - for example under Brezhnev and in the post-Brezhnev period. The more material we have, the more clearly we can understand and evaluate mechanisms of political power, how decisions were made, and how the state used pressure on those it considered to be harmful, superfluous or undesirable. Without opening up the archives of the security services, this understanding would be impossible.

It’s not enough to just look at the decisions of the Party’s organs, many of which, by the way, remain secret in Russia to this day. Here I’m not even talking about the archives of the state security organs, which are practically inaccessible to independent researchers. Ukraine has taken an important step forward, which has already been taken by many countries in the former socialist bloc.

Are there any episodes in the history of Soviet Ukraine where there is insufficient archival material?

There’s insufficient archival material everywhere, even if we’re talking about events that are more or less well-known to us. Opening up security service material expands our knowledge of the secret springs in repressive [political] mechanisms. We know how certain events unfolded in broad strokes, how they started and finished, but we don’t know about all the responsible individuals and their roles. Historians probably won’t make any earth-shattering discoveries after getting access to this new material. Conceptions of the nature of the Soviet structure are hardly going to be turned on their head, they’ve already more or less been formed. But opening up the archives is important not just for historians. It’s important for society, for a moral cleansing after the period we deem Soviet and totalitarian. Opening up the archive is important for showing the role each and every person played.

What if it turns out that some people in the late USSR collaborated with the KGB and now occupy important posts?

That’s not very likely. Twenty five years have passed since the Soviet Union disappeared. Many highly placed people from that time are already no longer alive. It’s not about settling scores, but rather about bringing in a certain, I would say, moral order to society. People who secretly collaborated with the Soviet Regime or secretly carried out evil deeds have already long since sufficiently punished themselves internally. They’ve been living with the fear of being discovered since 1991, and that, in a way, is worse than being discovered.

In these situations people often talk about the danger of starting a witch hunt. Perhaps the guilty are no longer alive, but they still have relatives.

A “witch hunt” in this case is a demagogic and false talking point. “Witch hunts” are about hounding the innocent. Witches aren’t real. That means that fighting them by definition means fighting the innocent on the basis of mere suspicion. Here, we’re talking about the opening up of objective historical material, and witches have nothing to do with it. They burned witches at the stake, drowned them in rivers. That was all about punishment. There’s no talk of punishment here. This is about revealing what’s been hidden from people.

The relationship between citizens and security services in the Soviet era is not just the personal affairs of citizens - the deeds of security services were done with government money, at the expense of the taxpayer, which means it was done in the name of the state… in the name of all of us. And if a certain security service agent received consent from someone for secret collaboration, he was acting on behalf of all of us and we have the right to know, at the end of the day, how and why this was done, and whether it violated any of the Soviet Union’s own laws. Often it turns out that they were violated, and that people were forced to secretly collaborate with the state security services. In order to ensure that this doesn’t happen again, these things, of course, need to be shown in public, and this is known as “lustration.”

Archival material is very complicated. Information still needs to somehow be made accessible to a wider audience. Am I correct in understanding that opening up the archives is only the first step?

That’s right. In all countries where the archives have been opened, there have been mechanisms brought in to familiarize people with the material. In some places this has been successful, in others not so much. For example, the opening of the Stasi archives in East Germany was done in quite an effective way. German law maintains that a person against whom the state security organs operated has the right to know about it, which includes knowing who it was who ruined their life.

In Russia, the situation is a bit different when it comes to the openness of archives, but all the same there are quite a few documents that testify to the criminal nature of the Soviet authorities and of mass repression. However, this hasn’t broken into mass consciousness, and people’s views on the Soviet past have not undergone any major changes.

Well, first of all, I wouldn’t describe the situation in Russia with the phrase “a bit different.” It’s actually fundamentally different. In reality, Russian citizens do not have access to a large number of archival documents, which belong to the various security structures – the Ministry of Internal Affairs, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the internal security services, the Ministry of Defense, the FSB and so forth. In these organisations, we see a deep unwillingness to open up documents, even though this unwillingness contradicts the laws on state secrets, on the 30-year limit to classifying documents and other laws, which guarantee Russians access to the archives. I’m not even talking about the law which was passed on criminal investigations, which raises the work of agencies to the rank of state secrets, that wasn’t supposed to extend to similar investigations from the Soviet era. We have a legal basis for revealing material from before 1991, but the Russian state doesn’t want to.

But some documents are available to the public all the same?

Yes, many documents have been made public. Some are being made public even now, but here’s the question, why hasn’t this been become a factor in public consciousness? Many of the directives concerning criminal decisions by the Soviet authorities have already been published. But there are also details - like the role of a certain person, materials connected with a certain state security operation or repressive campaign - that have not been revealed to this day. There are so many documents which unfortunately are still classified, even ones that concern the Great Terror of 1937-1938.

Russia has also kept documents connected with the repression of citizens of other countries secret. Take, for example, the formal decision to carry out the Katyn Massacre, where the guilt of the Kremlin and Soviet Union was clearly and obviously declared by [Russia’s] head military prosecutor. This is still classified, and only to prevent the [Russian] people from reading it. So that there isn’t any obvious evidence of Soviet guilt and of Soviet criminal political practices.

It’s the same with regard to 1945, with crimes carried out by the organs of [the wartime counterintelligence organisation] SMERSH. For example, take the Augustow Forest roundup, where 575 Polish citizens were secretly shot without a trial. Russia still hasn’t revealed the place where the bodies of the dead are buried. Is this a crime? Yes, but Russia will cover up such Stalinist crimes.

Why haven’t the documents that have been made public become a basis for change in public consciousness?

That is the question. Why do so few people realize that the Soviet regime was built exclusively on repression, the fear of repression and forced labor? People don’t want to be robbed of their pleasant illusions about a conflict-free past, a past that they remember as good. Stalin broke the laws of this country, which he was in charge of, which means he’s a criminal and there is an ocean of documents that show this. But has this become the basis for any legal verdict in relation to the Soviet regime and its leaders? No, it hasn’t. But in Ukraine, such decisions have already been taken, with relation to the Holodomor for example.

If a person wants to look at a case file against their relatives in Russian archives, what hurdles must one overcome?

If you’re talking about criminal investigation, then, if this relative has been formally rehabilitated, then one is allowed to see the case file. But even then, they often hand over such case files with important pages missing. They’re always trying to hide something, which in a normal person brings up feelings of rejection and dissatisfaction. Some people were not arrested, but they were investigated, and in the archives there’s material about the surveillance and pressure they were under. For example, Solzhenitsyn was simply hounded out of the country. The security services investigated the academic Sakharov, the writer Voinovich and many others. These sorts of files from the security service archives haven’t been released to anyone. They say there is no law to allow them to give out such documents. On the state level, we have denied the right of a person to know what secret actions the security services have taken against them and their family.The state and its laws stand above the individual if they’ve said to you “you don’t need to know all of this, stay home, don’t act out.”

And what if your relative wasn’t rehabilitated?

If they weren’t rehabilitated, then, according to current Russian law, after 75 years the file becomes accessible to anyone. But before the 75-year term is over, relatives have the right to insist on acquainting themselves with a case, for example, in order to prepare an appeal for rehabilitation in court. But unfortunately they currently do everything they can to not give out such cases and not help relatives with their difficult work achieving rehabilitation. Although, in fact, formally everyone has the right to come or send a lawyer to familiarize themselves with such a case. From the point of view of the law, such cases are still ‘open’ as the accusation remains in effect and can always be returned to and reviewed and for this reason they are required to be released. Every time, it takes herculean effort to break through the bureaucratic wall.

There is a law that gives one the right to familiarize oneself with cases against people who’ve suffered repression. But in practice, these laws are not observed. A hundred reasons have been invented for you not be given these cases files. You, of course, can stand your ground, but you’ll have to work hard to get them. Occasionally people even begin legal proceedings, but more often than not, they lose. We don’t know how many of these cases are won.

Memorial complex to the victims of communist terror in Bykovnya, Ukraine.
Фото: Gleb Garanich / Reuters / Scanpix

Could the opening of the Ukrainian archives partially solve the problem of the top secret classification of some Russian documents? Can historians now hope that they’ll receive access to certain documents which they couldn’t open in Russia?

They can. In Ukraine’s archives historians will be able to familiarize themselves with these documents. But in Russia, such documents aren’t going to have their top secret classification removed just because they’ve been declassified somewhere else. Very recently there was the case of Sergei Prudovsky, the historian and researcher, who wrote an application to the FSB’s central archive to declassify a so-called secret letter relating to the ‘Harbinite Order’ in September 1937. The letter formed the basis of the repression of and mass operations against citizens suspected of “spying for the Japanese.” This was a large-scale operation by the NKVD, where many thousands of people suffered. But he was refused declassification in Moscow. At the same time, this document was declassified in Kyiv in 2009 and he could find it on the internet. This had no effect on the position of the Moscow court, which refused to recognize as illegal the decision that the FSB and Inter-service Commision on the Defense of State Secrets made to classify “The Secret Letter about the Harbinites.” And the High Court calmly told him that this document had nothing to do with repression. However, if you analyze the “Secret Letter,” it becomes clear that it entirely falsifies events, placing blame for espionage on completely innocent people. What’s more, the people mentioned in this order have been rehabilitated, which means the accusations against them are false. This means that this document is evidence of a repressive campaign, and, according to our laws, it must be declassified. But the our Russian courts don’t give a damn.

But how do the archive departments of these agencies usually justify their refusal? Do they cite privacy issules, or threats to national security? What is the formal basis? Or does no one explain anything?

No, privacy ceases to be a reason as soon as the 75-year limit expires. It would seem that there’s no way to justify denying information - the archives have to just hand over the documents. But instead they’ve started inventing all sorts of tricks in the form of bylaws, like the 2006 “Regulation on Archived Investigative Cases against the Rehabilitated,” which does not provide for the issuing of the case files of the unrehabilitated. In reality, this regulation doesn’t at all concern the unrehabilitated, as access to the case files of unrehabilitated is already regulated by a 2004 law on archived cases. But the state workers in the archives play up on their bureaucratic misunderstanding, “Oh we don’t have that written down here, so we can’t give anything.” Of course, some particularly desperate people attempt to discipline them with the help of the courts, but this doesn’t always work out, like I already said.

To what extent can the opening of the Ukrainian archives be compared to the opening of the Stasi archives? When they opened the Stasi archives, everyone rushed to find out who had reported on them to the secret services; whether their neighbor, their friend, their brother was a secret informant of the Stasi. There, the institution of secret informants was incredibly widespread. How much is this interest now at play, to find out who reported on you?

You know, if we’re talking about the Soviet period, after the 25 years have passed, this probably isn’t going to be the primary motive. Remember that the Stasi archives opened with unprecedented historical speed after German reunification. But the Soviet state security archives which are now going to open in Ukraine, or (a man can dream) will open one day in Russia, will of course not present such visceral interest today. It’s of great academic and historical interest. Bust still, the public should be interested as well, since we still remember the events of the 1980s, and in Ukraine these repressions did take place. Many people suffered from the actions of the KGB. So this won’t be the primary motive for interest, but we can’t deny that it also exists.

It has turned out that all the countries around us have reevaluated the Soviet past, and it’s only Russia who doesn’t want to, who holds on to it and finds in it some sort of historical inspiration. This speaks to our being stuck in the past, and the Kremlin knows how to use this nostalgia. They try to feed it by giving us fairy-tales about Soviet greatness on the one hand, and by refusing to open up any sort of supplementary archival collections on the other hand. Russia hasn’t ventured to call Stalin a criminal, and plays with historical ambiguity. All this unthinking glorification of 1945, when we need to understand who the victims are and what sorts of political regimes were set up in the countries of Eastern Europe. These were repressive regimes which no one can be thankful for, and yet we’re surprised that everyone we liberated isn’t thanking us? This is cognitive dissonance, we’re unable to reconcile the understanding of how we really look in the eyes of the rest of humanity with all that we’ve done.

This goes against logic and common sense. The source of power in Russia is its people. They created the state delegate their powers to it. We are not “there for the state,” rather the state “is there for us.” But it turns out we’re not in charge in our state, as you can see from what is happening in Russia today. Did citizens decide in a referendum to establish an embargo against food imports from the West? No, the government established it, and that’s that, no matter who is going to suffer from this. The citizens weren’t asked. And this is our current political practice.

If they opened the archives, and historians went there and everything was somehow effectively publicized, could this have any effect on public consciousness, or has that ship already sailed?

They would go and they would publicize. Scholarly tourism, of course, would flourish, as the opening of archives is always a celebration for people who study history. It’s always a noteworthy occasion to expand your horizons and enrich your knowledge. In Russia we are currently observing the reverse tendency: in Russia, foreigners have difficulty working in libraries and archives because people find problems with what they’re doing, for example they can get in trouble for having a tourist visa.

It seems to me that Russian lawmakers have absolutely perverted everything. If a person comes here on a tourist visa, he has the right to visit a museum. Then the question arises, why does he not have the right to visit an archive?

The way you obtain knowledge is the same in archives, in museums, in libraries. And this is the visitor’s personal affair. The visitor pays for copies (and in our archives this is an expensive business). This situation doesn’t exist anywhere else - you can go to any country Europe with a tourist visa and immerse yourself in an archive, expanding your knowledge.  

Aleksandr Borzenko