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.

In 1933, Mykola Bokan travelled across the Chernihiv Region of Ukraine taking photographs of his starving compatriots.

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."

The opening of the archives has not passed without controversy. Olha Ginzburg, a Communist Party member and head of the state archives committee, claims that all necessary files have already been declassified, and has opposed the publication of archival documents.

Vyatrovych counters that this may be true of some archives, but certainly not of his. "Some political forces don't want the documents to see the light of day because it will affect their popularity."

Some pro-Russian opposition politicians have criticized Yushchenko's drive as nationalistic and dangerous. But Vyatrovych says fears of social tensions are exaggerated.

"My colleagues in other ex-Soviet countries said that when they opened their secret service archives, people also told them not to do it as it would cause a civil war," he says. "But it didn't happen, and won't happen here. It's a myth."

History as politics

Yushchenko's portrayal of Holodomor as genocide of the Ukrainian people has also raised hackles at the highest levels in Russia. Confrontations – particularly over gas – have erupted frequently since the Ukraine's Orange Revolution, as Russia has reacted angrily to what it sees as Ukraine's realignment with the West.

When Yushchenko organized a 75th-anniversary commemoration last November, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev refused to attend, accusing his Ukrainian counterpart in an open letter of "[using] the so-called 'Holodomor' … to achieve short-term political goals." A number of countries, including the United States, have recognized Holodomor as genocide.

While Yushchenko has pushed a highly critical approach to Soviet history, Russia has in recent years gone some way towards rehabilitating Stalin's image, portraying him in school textbooks as an "effective manager" whose actions were "entirely rational."

Ukrainian historians complain that access to some Russian archives is much more restricted than it was in the '90s, and numerous requests for cooperation have been rejected.

In February, a group of Russian archivists and historians presented a book of historical documents that they said showed that the famine was not directed specifically at Ukrainians. Vyatrovych welcomed the move, saying he is not concerned by the interpretation.

"We are pleased that we have provoked them to take this step," he says. "The most important thing is that the documents are put out there. They speak for themselves, and much louder than any interpretation that is attached to them."

But not everyone is listening. Professor Kulchytsky, the expert on Holodomor, complains that older generations aren't open to revising their Soviet views. "It was easy to end the economic totalitarianism after 1991," he says. "It's much harder to end totalitarianism in people's heads."

Yushchenko's focus on history has also irked many at a time when he is deeply unpopular at home and the economic crisis is hitting harder in Ukraine than anywhere else in Europe.

But Vyatrovych is adamant that his work has more than academic significance. "The mobilization of society to solve the many problems we have is only possible if it isn't torn apart," he says. "And we can only achieve that if we come to a better understanding of our past."

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