Ukraine: opening of secret archives shines light on famine, repression
President Yushchenko says his country must confront its past. But critics say deeper examination of authoritarianism and the starvation that killed millions could be dangerous.
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These were the victims of Holodomor, the "death by starvation" unleashed by Stalin that killed millions across Ukraine. The same year, Mr. Bokan was arrested and sent to a prison camp for 10 years. He didn't survive his sentence.
"Stories like this deepen our knowledge of our own history," says Volodymyr Vyatrovych, director of the archives at the state security service, or SBU, the KGB's successor in Ukraine. "That's why we want the maximum number of people possible to get to know these documents."
In January, Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko ordered state archives to declassify, publish, and study all documents relating to Holodomor, the Ukrainian independence movement, and political repressions during the Soviet period from 1917 to 1991.
There's a lot of work for Mr. Vyatrovych and his colleagues to get through: He estimates there are 800,000 documents from which to remove the "secret" seal.
"As a totalitarian system, the Soviet Union relied on the KGB. That means that these documents shed light on all aspects of Soviet life," he says.
The aim of the work is to make the documents available at digital reading rooms across the country and the Internet, and to publish collections. Vyatrovych says the publicity drive has already boosted interest, and not just among historians. "More and more people are coming to find out about relatives," he says.
Unlike many ex-Soviet states, such as neighboring Poland, Ukraine has seen limited attempts at lustration. The country's history, for centuries intertwined with its eastern neighbor Russia, is politically sensitive because of the polar opposite interpretations that people follow. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army, or UPA, for example, which fought in World War II, was portrayed in the Soviet Union as Nazi collaborators. To many in Ukraine, however, they are freedom fighters and symbols of the anti-Soviet independence movement.
But since Yushchenko's dramatic rise to the presidency in the wake of the Orange Revolution in 2004, when hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians took to the streets to protest a rigged vote, he has made a concerted effort to draw attention to Ukraine's history. His main focus has been on promoting recognition of Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people.
Although famine struck a number of areas in the Soviet Union as a result of Stalin's initiative to create collective farms, many historians argue that the famine was exacerbated in Ukraine in order to quell separatism and punish Ukrainians.
"Promoting a reappraisal of our history is one of Yushchenko's greatest achievements," says Stanislav Kulchytsky, one of Ukraine's most famous historians, who is best known for his pioneering work on Holodomor. "Sadly, it brings his popularity down, as many people are stuck in the old views they were brought up on."