KGB archives got declassified in Ukraine; on April 9, the parliament voted for a bill on access to the documents of repressive organs of 1917-1991 communist regime. What this decisions means for Ukraine and the world, how it will work, and what can be found there - MYMEDIA asked historians and the initiators of the law all about it.
When we speak about the law, we speak about 800,000 documents. And this is just KGB documents. "Right now, we have no idea about the amount of documents in other services," says VolodymyrVyatrovych, director of the Institute of National Remembrance, a former director of the archives of Ukraine’s Security Services and the man who brought the new law to life.
The law assumes that all files of the former NKVD, Ministry of Internal Affairs, KGB and foreign intelligence are to be put into a single archive of the Institute of National Remembrance, and historians, journalists, scientists, and concerned citizens from all over the world will have an unlimited access to information about victims of repressions and the activities of these structures.
How and why open KGB archives
The idea of opening the archives is not new: “We first tried to implement the idea of such a bill in 2009, but then, there was not yet a possibility to pass it through Parliament”, says VolodymyrVyatrovych. "The whole process was accompanied by internal disputes; and the head of Ukrainian State Archive of that time, the Communist OlhaGinzburg blocked the law, its passage through the government, and especially through the parliament."
In 2010, after the dismissal of VododymyrVyatrovych from the director’s post of the archives of Ukraine’s Security Services, there started a process of closing the archives alongside partially opened documents that could be accessed before. Therefore, the necessity to adopt a law that would make the opening of archives irreversible has become even more acute.
"As a director of the archives of Ukraine’s Security Services, I tried to give access to any documents. If the documents contained vultures to limit access, we conducted their declassification.
Vyatrovych explains that after the adoption of this law, the access to information will not depend on the will of the particular head of the archive: "The problem was that there was no legal basis that would once and for all make these documents public. So they would get opened when there was the political will of the head of the archive or Security Services, and they would be closed as soon as the political situation changed. Now, the documents are finally independent from the political situation."
Previously, the historians would often encounter the problem of accessing archives.
Vakhtanh Kipiani, chief editor of "Istorychna Pravda” (“Historical Truth"), says that he was refused access only once, but based on his colleagues’ experience he knows that this problem is much bigger. Kipiani says: “There were times when historians knew exactly that specific information was in the archive, but they could not access it. The archivists would find many different excuses - from the technical problems of finding documents to various additions in the law or banal unwillingness to fulfill the request."
YaroslavHrytsak, Professor of History in Ukrainian Catholic University, said that the most common reason for refusing an access was that the documents contained information about people or their relatives who were still alive.
And yet, he notes that the situation in Ukraine’s archives is much better than the one in Russia: "I know from my American counterparts, who came to work in Ukrainian archives, that it is much easier to access our archived information comparing to the same process in Russia."
Preparation of the law on archives’ declassification lasted several years and required a lot of efforts ofthe enthusiasts; for example, VolodymyrVyatrovychand his colleagues at the Center for the Study of the liberation movement began to develop the bill even before 2012. They did the writing and research of the foreign experience. Vyatrovych explains: "We have studied the experience of Poland, the Czech Republic, Germany, brought their experts here and traveled to them.”
Colleagues praised the result of the group of historians. Vakhtanh Kipiani notes: "It is very important that there was a group of people who wrote this law, agreed it with the deputies, made it to the parliament and promoted it in different fractions because all of these things are very difficult."
He welcomes the law and explains what it will be useful to ordinary Ukrainians: "Historians will be able to freely explore their topics, the families can find information about the convictions, deportation or disappearance of their relatives, and local historians will be able to restore the information that they needed."
The opening of the archives will benefit the international scientific community, too, states Kipiani: "Russian historians say that they will have “scientific tourism ": since their archives are closed, they will come here to work in ours.
VolodymyrVyatrovych also notes the global impact of the law’s adoption: "In those post-communist countries, where the archives of the internal security services were opened, this process led to a condemnation of authoritarian and totalitarian practices of the communist regime, and became one of the guarantees of its non-repetition in the present time. However, in the countries where the opening never happened, a partial rehabilitation of the communist regime takes place with attempts to transfer its methods into present." As an example, he cites Russia’s experience, which is now turning into an authoritarian state, and Ukraine during the reign of Yanukovych as an attempt to return to the authoritarian past.
Historian is positive that the declassification of the archives will help Ukrainians to learn a very different history of Ukraine in the 20th century, restore white spots in history and see how it was being distorted and falsified.
Expectations of Yaroslav Hrytsak are much more down to Earth when it comes to opening archives. He says: "I do not expect that much because many documents have been destroyed or removed in 1991. Another important detail is that many agreements in the USSR were made orally, and it is unlikely that they have been recorded somewhere."
As an example, he cites the situation with Holocaust: "We know that one of the greatest tragedies of the world was the mass killing of the Jews, but the historians still could not find any document which stated that the Jews had to be destroyed. This does not mean that there was no such decision, it is just it was not documented on paper." The historian says that once, there was even a competition with the award of one million dollars to anyone who finds such a document signed by Hitler. But in the end, no one got that million.
Also, according to Hrytsak, the archives may reveal some unpleasant discoveries. As an example, he speaks about Poland where the archives were declassified. The documents revealed the people who helped the Polish security services and participated in its deeds. Later, it turned out that many of these people had nothing to do with the punitive structures. Security Services falsified some documents to show "higher efficiency" of their work and network of informants. It took years for the victims and their families to prove their innocence.
"I remember very well the words of Adam Michnik (Polish dissident and political prisoner - Ed.),” adds Hrytsak. "He said that although Bandera was not his favorite character, he still deserved a good biography. And God forbid this biography to be written based on the documents of the security services."
How archives will work
VolodymyrVyatrovych assures that with the new law, everyone can now go to the archive ad receive the needed information quickly and without any restrictions. An exception may be only with the information about the victims of political repressions who have the right to restrict access to information about themselves for 25 years.
However, according to the law, in case a victim wants to restrict this information, he or she should appeal to archives only within a year after they were declassified. Otherwise, the information will remain open. In addition, only some information can be hidden from the public like data on racial and ethnic origins, political beliefs and worldview, religious faith and health. In this case, the person must indicate the specific page and phrases that he or she does not want to disclose. All other information, including the victims’ names and the names of KGB officers who participated in the persecutions will be opened.
Vyatrovych notes that this approach is an important innovation from the European practices which has not been used in Ukraine before: "If there is a document in which, for example, two sentences can harm an individual who was a victim of famine or political repressions, the document is simply copied. The copy closes the two sentences, and the rest of the document remains available. So far, Ukraine had another practice: if the document had at least a couple of words with limited access, the entire file would be classified, and sometimes, that would happen to the entire case”.
There will be another important innovation. According to it, the punishment for the disclosure of restricted information will be given not to the archivist, who provided access to it, but to the researcher. This is the European practice which was not used in Ukraine in the past.
By the way, a certain part of the Security Services’ archive is working in an electronic mode for quite some time. On the basis of the KGB archives, the historians created an electronic library of the liberation movement which already contains more than 20,000 documents. But it is not even one hundred’s part of one percent of the documents that are available: "We want to publish a maximum amount of documents online, but this goal requires decades to accomplish. There are more than 800, 000 only in Security Services’ archive; and we have no idea how many documents are in archives of other services,” explains Vyatrovych.
To work in the archive, a person needs to provide a proof of identity and a completed application. For online work, an individual would need a minimal authorizationthat does not even require entering the passport data. The authorization will include the name or nickname, the profession and the topic that interests the user. This information is necessary to understand who the main users of the archive are.
Among the challenges that the Museum of National Remembrance will have toface,Vyatroychpredicts logistics problems. There may be difficulties with the placement and movement of documents that will be collected under one roof from different parts of Ukraine. "We do not have the space yet, but we will look for it after we know the exact amount of materials," says Vyatrovych. He adds optimistically: “Our neighbors Poles dealt with the same difficulties, and they overcame them quite effectively. We will succeed, too."