Czech researchers probe secret Soviet era archives in Ukraine

Gulag, photo: Public Domain

Czech historians and researchers are trying to benefit as fast as possible from a new open access policy to the former Soviet archives in Ukraine. One lesson that has been learnt from nearby Russia is that doors that open one day can slam shut soon after.

Gulag,  photo: Public Domain
‘History is written by the victors’ according to the quote attributed to victor and history writer Winston Churchill. And it could be also said that access to the state archives is determined by those who remain on the battlefield and take control after the fighting is over.

Access for Czech historians to the archives of Soviet era Ukraine were not surprisingly more than a little difficult if not almost impossible even after the country became independent in the early 1990’s. But all that has changed in the last year and a half with a welcoming smile and every cooperation not replacing the obstacles and cold reception given to Western historians. Kiev no longer has much reason to pay much attention to Russian sensibilities about the Soviet past.

And so Czech researchers have been keen to trawl through the former Soviet archives in Ukraine and especially those of the security service, the SBU, to fill in some of the gaps about the thousands of Czechs were unfortunate enough to feature in the secret police files.

Some of those were decendants of ethnic Czechs who moved to Ukraine in the 19th century, some were Czech teachers who visited in the 1930s and were accused of being spies. And the last batch of Czechs were those fleeing German and Hungarian occupation of parts of former Czechoslovakia or who found themselves in the Soviet occupied part of Poland. There is also the strange story of the first transport of European Jews in 1939– the shipment of Czech Jews from Ostrava to German-occupied Poland and then into Soviet hands. Many ended up in the Soviet gulags or camps.

Adam Hradilek of the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes is one of the Czech historians who has been trying to shed light on the treatment of these Czechs thanks to the new access to the archives in Kiev. I asked him how the process started.

“We started to search for files on Czechoslovak citizens present in the gulag camps in December 2011 and we were searching for material on people who we had interviewed who had spent some time in the camps. That is what we managed to find in Užhorod and we also started to work in Lviv in the regular state archives.

Adam Hradilek,  photo: Martina Bílá
“And we were told by the archivist that the majority of the files stayed in the Security Services Archive or the archives of the recent security services of Ukraine. We started to cooperate with these regional branches but after a while we received a message from the central headquarters of SBU. So we were told that we could not work there any more in that area and everything has to go through the headquarters. And everything became very complicated and it was a similar situation to the Russian archives.

“But last March when I went to Kiev and had a meeting with the new director of the SBU archives, we found out that the mentality had completely changed and they are willing to open up the archive for us. So since then we have made several visits to the archive and were able to search hundreds of files on Czechs or Czechoslovak citizens who were persecuted in the Soviet Union between, let’s say, the 1930still the 1950s.”

Can you describe some of those cases starting in the 1930s?

“In the 1930s the persecution mainly affected those Czechs that had been living for some time [in Ukraine], in the Volyň region for example. These were people who had moved there in the nineteenth century from the Czech lands. But it also covered Czech teachers who had come to these communities to help them with education etc and together with other Soviet citizens they faced persecution connected to the wave of repression linked with collectivisation of the villages. Later on, for example during the war, the majority of Czechoslovak citizens persecuted were those that escaped East during the war and ended up on Soviet territory. For example, there were approximately 5,000 Jews who fled to the Soviet Union often ended up in gulag camps. Then there were Ukrainians living in the easternmost part of Czechoslovakia, the pre-war Podkarpatska Rus [Sub-Carpathian Ruthenia] Transcarpathia. Approximately 6,000of them escaped during to war from the Hungarian occupation and from this group almost everyone went to gulag camps. They were only saved by the fact that the Germans attacked the Soviet Union and the Soviets needed men to fight the Germans. They were released to fight in the Czechoslovak Army.”

A lot of your research has been on the transport of Jews as well…

Photo: Barbora Kmentová
“This is a really interesting part of the Holocaust era, the fact that the first transport of the Holocaust era in 1939 heading from Ostrava to Nisko, which was on the demarcation line between the Soviets and Germans in Poland. Most of the Czech Jews who were deported were forced to cross the border to the Soviet Union by the Germans because the camp there was unfinished. So they forced most of the people to cross the border to the Soviet Union, where a majority of them were arrested in the Lviv region in the Spring of 1940 and sent to gulag camps. Those that survived were released later on to the Czechoslovak Army.”

How do you see this research continuing ? Will it stay within the same area of the 1930s and the war or do you think there is a lot more material you can look at?

“These archives are an extremely interesting source of information for historians in the Czech Republic. I know of Pavel Žáček who is doing research there on NKVD-KGB collaborators. I hope to see the results of his research soon. I would strongly encourage not just Czech but any other historians dealing with the Soviet era to go there and search these archives because there files contain not only information on their repression but very often also contain information that these people brought with them to the Soviet Union and these were taken from them after their search etc. So there are many photographs and documents and personal items that these people had.”

I suppose that access to these archives is all the more important because access to Russian archives is still pretty difficult?

“Yes, and we are afraid that the same scenario could happen as in Russia after the collapse of the Soviet Union. For the first few years after the collapse of the Soviet Union the archives were quite liberal and open to researchers. But unfortunately the rules became much stricter and that’s what we are afraid might happen in Ukraine. No one knows what the situation will be there in a few years. It is really very unstable there. That is why we are trying to focus on this work and bring out as much material as we can for further research.”

But are there still gaps because of lack of access to the Russian archives and how much of the picture can you fill in from having access to the documents in Kiev and not being able to get to whatever there is in Moscow?

StB Archive | Photo: Czech Television
“We have access to criminal files. So it is like the investigation files. So we know when people were arrested, the minutes of interrogations, and we know what were the materials stolen from them after their arrest. And sometimes, like in around 30 percent of the cases, there is some feedback from the gulag camps, whether they survived, whether they were released or died. But we do not have access to their prison files, what was happening in the camps. These files are still very hard to obtain. We are trying and, for example, last year were able to help one Czech professor to find out where his brother died 70 years ago in a gulag camp and also bring part of the file back to Prague.”

You were able to get those archives…?

“If you are a direct relative you can get access to part of the files. They will never let you look into or copy all of the fil. The brother of the person I mentioned managed to receive parts of the file, including the picture from the camp just before his brother died.”

As regards the Ukrainian files, are there still some parts of the history they don’t give access to or is it complete access at the moment?

“We did not run into these limitations, but I am sure the archive is still an archive of the secret services in Ukraine, so I can assume there are some materials that are sensitive and they will not be open to us.”