Europe-Asia Studies

Political Police Archives in Ukraine and Georgia, A Research Note (Published online December 2 2019. Europe-Asia Studies Volume 72, 2020)*

Publication Cover

By Polly Corrigan

After the deluge of Soviet archival declassification that took place following the collapse of the Soviet Union, historians of the Soviet political police still find themselves without access to the files of the FSB archive in Moscow. Yet understanding of the Soviet political violence is essential to creating a complete picture of Soviet history. Until recently, historians of the Soviet period have relied on a piecemeal mix of primary sources when researching the topic of the Soviet political police. Now, thanks to a combination of political turmoil and military conflict in the former Soviet republics, we are witnessing an unexpected development: the opening of the entire archives of some of the Soviet-era political police services. In this article, it will be explained how this situation came about in two former republics: Georgia and Ukraine. There follows an outline of what these archives contain and some practical advice for those who might wish to use the archives themselves. Finally, the possibilities for new areas of research are explored. 

Why study the Soviet political police? 

It is 50 years since Robert Conquest wrote his book The Great Terror about the so-called ‘mass operations’ conducted by the NKVD, in which many hundreds of thousands of Soviet citizens were murdered by their own government, for crimes they did not commit. Published in 1968, even as Soviet tanks quelled the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia, the book has several well-known drawbacks. The first problem, which was clearly acknowledged by the author at the time, was the lack of sources. At that point in history, no western historian had access to any Soviet documentary sources. Yet, perhaps rightly, Conquest felt that the topic was so important that this lack should not stand in the way of an attempt to make sense of what little evidence did exist. However, in hindsight the use of sources such as Stalin’s daughter’s letters has significant problems. Secondly, Conquest’s original estimate of the numbers of people killed during the terror as somewhere around 10 million is clearly quite wrong, with new evidence suggesting that the number of people executed between 1937 and 1938 is approximately one million.[1] This question is still disputed, but Conquest’s statistics on the numbers killed were questioned at the time by reviewers, one of whom described the evidence Conquest used to arrive at this figure as ‘frustratingly inconclusive’[2]. Lastly, Conquest gives too much weight to the role of Stalin himself, and not only that, he resorts to stereotypes of Stalin as ‘ruthless’ and ‘less educated’ than the other Bolsheviks to explain his actions[3]. Recent biographies of Stalin show a complex, intelligent man, and the intervening decades of historiography have brought forth methods of analysis that turned away from looking at politicians and political structures and instead focused on ‘ordinary people’[4]. Despite all this, Conquest’s explanation of the events of the late 1930s remains the default in the mainstream discourse and the book is currently in preparation for its 50th anniversary edition.[5]

Writing in the 1980s, Conquest himself mused on the puzzling lack of attention paid by historians to the institution that carried out this monumental atrocity: ‘It is a curious fact that, after nearly half a century, no real examination of the role of the NKVD in the Yezhov period has been written, and only a few incomplete though useful works about the institution exist at all. Yet the story of the NKVD in its period of maximum impact is of greater moment, one might have thought, than the subjects of all manner of dissertations in the style “Cotton Prices in Uzbekistan 1947-1949”.’[6]

Conquest’s tone may be rather patronising and dismissive, but his point on the importance of studying the Yezhov era stands. The Soviet purges of the 1930s are the point at which the entire narrative of the Soviet era dramatically departs from the progressive aims proclaimed by the Bolsheviks. Historians such as Conquest, who had been sympathetic to the Bolsheviks cause, were so shocked when they learned of the reality of the purges that it could not but affect the way that they wrote about it. Leonard Shapiro, in the preface to his book The Origins of the Communist Autocracy wrote of the impact of the revolution: ‘No one of my generation will readily forget that impact in our universities, and in public, literary, and political life, nor the hopes which were raised among so many by what appeared to be a new and more noble form of society.’[7]

The emotional shock of the purges on individual historians may have diminished somewhat in the intervening time, however, for any historian of the period the dreadful years of the 1930s cast a double shadow: both forwards in time over the history of World War Two and beyond, but also backwards in time, over the early years following the revolution. We cannot understand the military, political or social history of the post-war period without reference to the purges. But, like watching a horror film when you already know the ending, it is also difficult to research the Soviet 1920s without implicit comparison with the events that followed. Beyond that, the Soviet political police from first incarnation as the Cheka to the final days of the KGB, played no small part in every aspect of the story of the Soviet Union. It has been suggested more than once that the Soviet political police were the dominant institution of the Soviet era.[8] This argument is far-fetched, but the importance of understanding the political police is clear. 

Conquest’s point on the limited amount of research on the topic is now irrelevant. In the decades since the 1980s, there has been a great flourishing in the scholarly debate on the purges and the NKVD. (The author is happy to report that the cotton situation in Uzbekistan is also a subject of lively scholarly discussion). A significant body of literature now exists on the purges of the 1930s, both in Russian and in other languages, that includes some excellent research. In parallel, there also exists a weighty collection of books of archival documents relating to the purges. Further evidence can be found online, published by Memorial among others. However, until recently, the field of study has been at a disadvantage in comparison with other areas of Soviet history, in that it lacked a broad archival evidence base.  

It is extremely difficult for the scholar born after the end of the Cold War to imagine what it was like to try and write about the history of the Soviet Union before access to the archives of the Soviet era was permitted. The rich and plentiful insights offered by the archives of the post-Soviet nations have become an indispensible part of the historiography of the decades of Soviet power. In fact, so powerful are the insights offered by the Soviet archives that their declassification has so completely altered the methodology of Soviet historian, and no historian would consider attempting to write a serious history of the Soviet era without consulting them. Indeed, when Sheila Fitzpatrick seemed to question the archival practice of another historian in a recent book review, a hot-tempered exchange followed between the two historians.[9]

As J.Arch Getty points out, archival documents very rarely give a definitive answer to a particular question – a ‘smoking gun’. Documentary evidence, he argues, does not replace the need for the work of the historian: ‘We still need to interpret and explain what things mean and why things happened as they did.’[10] Nevertheless, since the opening of the Soviet archives, some thrilling research has been produced that has helped gradually to shape answers to some of the major questions that hovered in the minds of historians until the collapse of the Soviet Union – and also to suggest new questions. An example of one mystery that might be considered to be beyond debate since the opening of the archives is the puzzle of the murder of Sergei Kirov in 1934. For years, historians speculated that Stalin had been in some way responsible for the death of the Leningrad party chief, however, Matthew Lenoe’s book ‘The Kirov Murder and Soviet History’ makes use of nearly 200 archival documents to demonstrate that while Stalin certainly used the murder for his own ends, it seems that Kirov’s was one death that Stalin did not sign off. The ‘archival revolution’ is so well established that there has been ample time to reflect on questions surrounding the use of the Soviet archives, such as how to cite archival documents to make the citation useful for the reader.[11] However, in the study of the purges – and beyond that, the entire history of the political police throughout the Soviet era – archives in Russia are closed and look set to remain so. 

Infuriatingly for historians, there was a brief window in the early 1990s when it seemed that the files of the former KGB would be declassified. As part of the general movement towards a more open state, a decree was passed in 1991 to move the archives of the KGB to the care of the archival agencies of the RSFSR where, it was claimed, they would be ‘depoliticised’.[12] However, this did not come to pass, and the vacillations over the fortunes of the KGB archives reflected the greater power struggles taking place in post-Soviet society taking place in those years. As the decade progressed it became clear that the archives held in the Lubianka and in other regional headquarters of the political police were closed and would stay that way. Under Putin, it seems unlikely that this policy will be reversed, especially in light of the President’s decision in 2016 to put Rosarkhiv – the Federal Archive Agency – under his own personal control.[13]

The western media often highlights Russia’s troubled relationship with the Stalin era,[14] however the reality is always more complex. In recent years, there has been an increase in the public commemoration of the people who died during the Soviet era. The Day of Remembrance of the Victims of Political Repression, organised by the Memorial Society, has been held on October 29 for the last few years, and on this day the names of around 1500 Muscovites who were executed during the 1930s are read out in front of the FSB headquarters. The reading of the names takes place by the Solovetsky Stone, a granite boulder from the Solovki camp, itself a permanent monument to the victims of the great terror. The Gulag History Museum in Moscow also memorialises the experiences of those arrested and sent to the camps during the Stalin period, and the museum also recently opened a research centre for those seeking information about relatives killed by during periods of political repression. 

Nevertheless, for nearly all researchers the Lubianka archive is closed. Many historians of the Soviet terror may eye the declassified files of the East European security services, most notably the Stasi, with some envy. The Stasi files were opened up to citizens and scholars with the passing of the Stasi Records Act in December 1991. This monumental decision was also a product of the political context of the time, and it has been argued that this declassification took place so quickly due to the East and West German government’s weak attempts to respond to the legacy of Nazi Germany after the end of World War Two.[15]

Instead of an archive

Despite this clear obstacle to research, historians of the Soviet political police have not been easily thwarted. A large number of excellent histories of the Soviet political police exist, in Russian and English.[16] Alongside these books there are also a good number of books of archive documents, most of which have accompanying commentary. Notable among these are two series, one published in Russia and the other in the US. In the US, Yale University Press has published some 30 books of Soviet archival documents, including Stalin and the Lubianka: A Documentary History of the Political Police and Security Organs in the Soviet Union, 1922–1953 and The Road to Terror: Stalin and the Self-Destruction of the Bolsheviks, 1932-1939. In Russia, the Alexander Yakovlev Foundation has published a number of books on the subject of the political police as part of its flagship series Россия ХХ Век, for example, Soviet Culture and Power: A History in Documents 1917-1953 and LubiankaStalin and the MGB 1946-1953. The foundation also hosts a searchable database of all the documents available in the books. However, in a reminder of the uncertainty that faces historians of sensitive topics such as the political police, the future of these excellent books has lately looked uncertain, as funding for the foundation dried up in the spring of 2018 and the status of the foundation came under question in Russia. The situation has been averted thanks to the intervention of a third-party web host who have now consented to continue to host the online documents,[17]while most of the books can still be found in academic libraries. 

More specifically related to Ukraine, Lynne Viola along with Valery Vasiliev and Roman Podkur has edited a book of documents from the archives of the Ukrainian NKVD covering the year from November 1938 – November 1939, which includes documents from party meetings and operational meetings of the Ukrainian NKVD and regional offices, with the focus on the reaction to the announcement of the ceasing of the great terror. Two more volumes of documents are currently in preparation. 

Alongside all this sits a number of excellent online repositories of documents to do with the Soviet political police. Memorial hosts several online databases of various aspects of Soviet political terror, including a database of victims of political terror (http://base.memo.ru/) and a database of Stalin’s execution lists from 1937 onwards (http://stalin.memo.ru/). Their website also hosts useful online publications to do with the Soviet political police such as the database titled Kto rukovodil NKVD 1934-1941 (http://old.memo.ru/history/NKVD/kto/) which is a guide to all the key personnel of the central apparatus of the NKVD, as well as those in the regional offices, giving a potted biography of each officer. 

In the Baltic states, a group of historians have created a website hosting hundreds of documents from the archives of the KGB in       Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania. The documents cover a huge period of time from 1940 to 1991. More tangentially the Stalin Digital Archive, a co-operative effort between Yale University Press and RGASPI in Moscow, which holds a vast number of documents on the Soviet leader, holds a number of documents selected by Arch Getty that are directly to do with the great terror.[18]

The website of the Hoover Institution also holds a large amount of material on the Soviet Union, including documents from the Georgian NKVD[19]

as well as documents from the Estonian and Lithuanian KGB. 

The other side of this equation is the number of sources to do with the terror, and the political police more broadly, that have been destroyed. Recent rumours that the records of Gulag prisoners were being shredded were denied by a Russian government minister.[20] However, it is certain that over the years the bureaucrats of the political police regularly destroyed records that they believed were no longer useful. Further purges of the archive took place at key moments, such as after Stalin’s death, when a large number of political prisoners were released and their files destroyed.[21]

The opening of the archives 

While the situation with the FSB archive remains intractable, in recent years the security services of two of the former Soviet republics have opened their doors to scholars from the west. And, just as in Russia, access to the contents of the are a deeply political question, influenced by broader questions to do with current events. In Ukraine, there had been pressure from organisations such as the Research Center for the Liberation Movement in Ukraine since around 2010 to allow access to the archives so that individuals could find out about relatives who had been victims of Soviet repression. Increased pressure from groups such as this one combined with the wider political situation in Ukraine, where throughout the first half of the 2010s unrest and public demonstration became one of the dominant features of the political landscape. After Ukrainian MPs voted to oust President Yanukovich in 2014, a raft of legislation was introduced in 2015, in an effort to redefine the relationship between Ukraine and its communist history. These laws became known as the ‘decommunisation’ laws and, among other things, they recognised Ukrainian nationalist movements outlawed in the Soviet period and did away with public symbols of the communist past. The legislation met with a mixed reception: some felt uneasy that the anti-Soviet laws were using methods the Soviets might have found familiar: the removal of the symbols of the vanquished regime and the imposition of the victors’ version of history.[22] Others scoffed at the notion of renaming ‘Soviet’ champagne or questioned whether the money being spent on the new street signs and pulling down statues of Lenin might be better spent elsewhere.[23]

One of the less discussed elements of this 2015 legislation was the law on the opening of the archives. This law set out the right of anyone to use the archives of the former ‘repressive agencies’ and included provision for the contents of the archive to be digitized.[24] Just as in Russia, politicians recognised how important the contents of the security archives are in forging a relationship with the past – but in this case, this led to the opening of the archives in Ukraine. 

The path to the opening of Georgia’s security archive is a different story. In 1990, 

the archive of the KGB in central Tbilisi held 230,000 records covering the years since 1921. During public demonstrations in 1990, protestors broke into the building on Rustaveli Avenue, and tried to seize the files. Shortly afterwards, the vast majority of the archive’s contents – around 80 per cent – were destroyed in a fire during the ‘Tbilisi war’ soon after Georgia regained its independence. Those files that were saved were in a very poor physical state, damaged by the attempts to extinguish the fire, and exacerbated by the subsequent decision to then store them in a cellar at the state archive.[25] This situation began to be resolved in 1995, when the files were moved out of the cellar, but it was not until after the ‘Rose Revolution’ that the contents of the KGB files became a focus for sustained attention, and in 2005 the files were combined with the archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, and work began on restoration and reorganisation. Following the war with Russia in 2008, the KGB files became the focus of a renewed movement to reconsider the Soviet past.[26]

In the intervening years, several NGOs have been formed in Georgia to campaign for the rights of access to the KGB files. These include the Institute for the Development of Freedom of Information, which was formed in 2009. In November of 2017, the IDFI launched a project with the aim of drawing together all of the archives in the post-Soviet states in order to ensure the openness of those archives. As such, it has begun to survey each of the archives of the former political police in each nation, examining questions such as the legal context for access to archives in each country, to access to the reading room of the archives, and access to files, to questions of how long files may be classified for, and whether once they have been declassified, they may be once more reclassified. Furthermore, the survey will investigate the digital aspect of the archive, looking at how the websites of archives work, whether documents can be requested online, whether online finding aids are available, and whether digitized versions of documents are available. Costs of copying documents will also be analysed. The resulting data should prove very useful for anyone wishing to use state archives in the former Soviet republics. However, it is unclear how encouraging a picture will be found beyond the archives of Ukraine and Georgia. 

In the case of the Belarus KGB Central Archive (as it is still known), it is hard to be exact about what documents they hold and how easy it is to gain access to them. One estimate is that the archive holds 152,399 criminal case files, with information on approximately 235,000 citizens.[27] It is possible to request access to the files, but unclear how successful such an application might be. It seems that access may be possible to arrange for a private citizen wishing to research the fate of a relative, but not for a historian wishing to conduct a more general survey.[28] A more fruitful route might be to the National Archives of the Republic of Belarus, as part of the KGB archive have been transferred here. The website of the NARB lists an entire fond of documents from the archive of the political police, containing 7683 files of documents from between 1919-1991. These files include a diverse range of information, including bulletins of the NKVD in the RSFSR and in Soviet Belorussia, minutes of meetings from regional and district-level meetings, staffing data including personnel files and detail of wages, and documents on the work of the NKVD relating to the Gulag including regulations, orders, directives, protocols, plans, reports, memoranda. [29] A recent query to the NARB about access to this fond drew the neutral reply: ‘The documents of this fund can be found in the reading room of the National Archive of the Republic of Belarus’, but it remains to be seen as to whether the documents themselves may be accessed. The website of the Central State Archive of Almaty in Kazakhstan lists records relating to the great terror of the 1930s, including the repression of the Kazakh intelligentsia during this period.[30] In other former republics, such as Armenia, Moldova and Azerbaijan, the documents of the security services are still inaccessible. 

How to use the archives

By comparison to many of the archives in Russia, both the security archives in Kyiv and Tbilisi are easy to use. However, that is not to say they are entirely without their own idiosyncrasies. A little forward planning should help to iron out any possible problems. For researchers planning to use the archive in Kyiv, there is a helpful page on the website of the Ukrainian Security Service, with everything you will need to plan your visit.[31] First, there is a very useful guidebook (Putivnik/putevoditel’), which gives details of the history of the archive, plus plenty of detail about what can be found in each of the archive fonds. Secondly, there are forms to fill in to request access to the archives. These are very simple, with space to write which fonds you want to request and also to describe your own research. These need to be submitted a couple of months before your visit. On this page, you can also find a general guide to using the security archives, aimed at both historians and members of the public looking for information about relatives. This guide does not add much to the information given in the putivnik, except for offering the sage advice that to use the archive one must be ready to suffer ‘… defeat after defeat…’

When you arrive at the archive, located near the centre of Kyiv, you will need to hand in your passport for the time that you are using the archive, but you do not need a pass. The archive has a small reading room, and your files will be delivered here. Many files are also available digitally, and some can be copied directly on to a USB stick. You are allowed to photograph the files, and there is no charge. You can also request further files as you work through. The archivists are very helpful.

The security archive in Tbilisi also has a website, outlining the fonds that they have available. There is not as much detail here as in the guide on the SBU website, but nevertheless it is still possible to get a sense of what is available. There is no form on the MIA website, you just need to send an email to the archive, explaining what you would like to see, addressed to the head of the archive. For graduate students, you will need a stamped letter of request, signed by a senior member of staff from your department. Once you arrive at the archive, which is in the suburbs of Tbilisi, you may need to explain again your research and exactly the files that you would like to see. There is no list of the available fonds. There is a digital catalogue, however, this is in Georgian. You can input search terms in Russian and this will search the catalogue, and even if you do not speak Georgian it is easy to navigate through the list of all the documents returned by your search term, using the back and forward buttons on the computer. Once you have chosen the documents you wish to see, the files will be brought to you almost immediately. 

There is no reading room in the Georgian archive, but there is a small spare desk in the room where the archivists work. This room can be a little noisy, but only with the normal chatter of a friendly office. You may not photograph documents in this archive. The staff will scan files for you, but the cost is high at 3 Georgian Lari (GEL) per page. This currently works out as just over one Euro per page. 

What can be found in the archives

As can be seen from the SBU guidebook, there is a wealth of archival material about the Ukrainian political police throughout the Soviet era. Focusing on the collections that are most relevant to answering remaining questions about the NKVD during the 1930s narrows the parameters somewhat, however there is still an abundance of material here that may be useful. 

Fond 16 is probably one of the most important for scholars researching the great terror. Documents from this fond are regularly cited in Lynne Viola’s recent book Stalinist Perpetrators on Trial, a study of the NKVD cadres who were themselves arrested after the great terror. This fond holds documents on the administrative aspects of running the political police from 1930 onwards, including instructions and guidance on operational matters, reports on the progress of operations against ‘anti-Soviet elements’ and reports on the extrajudicial ‘troika’ tribunals. Documents such as the correspondence between the central and regional offices of the NKVD on questions of operational matters allow researchers a detailed reading of the day-to-day activity of the institution. This fond also contains material to do with foreign espionage, including data pertaining to Ukraine’s geographical situation such as information on operations along the Polish and Romanian borders, as well as supervision of foreign consulates, and radio intercepts of German military preparations. 

Fond six is the collection of criminal cases against suspects who have subsequently been rehabilitated. These files include documents to do with investigations, and minutes of interrogations for a staggering 12,802 cases, including those suspected of being members of Ukrainian nationalist organisations, dissident scientists and writers, and members of the clergy. A companion to Fond six is Fond five, which holds the files of suspects who were never rehabilitated, including the many files of those NKVD operatives documented in Viola’s book who carried out the great terror and were subsequently charged with violating Soviet law. This fond also holds the files of German intelligence agents arrested during World War II, and those who served in the German army, as well as members of the tsarist political police. 

Another fond that may throw an interesting light on the 1930s is Fond 42, which is a collection of statistical reports on the work of the Ukrainian political police. This includes many different types of statistics throughout the 1930s, including data on the results of the investigative work of the regional NKVD offices in 1936, on the operation to remove the kulaks in 1937, and about the work of the NKVD from 1936 through to 1938 including the social composition of those who were repressed during that period. 

In Georgia the situation is more limited. Lacking anything approaching the detailed online guide provided by the SBU archive in Kyiv, it is slightly more difficult to definitively say what exactly the archive holds. The security archive holds just eight fonds. There are very brief descriptions of these fonds on the archive website, from which it is possible to deduce roughly what may be of interest for the scholar of the great terror. However, on arrival at the archive, be prepared to be flexible about making requests according to what is set out on the website, as it would seem that some topics listed on the website may not correspond exactly with what the archivists are willing to let you see. The author of this paper had planned to ask for documents relating to theatrical censorship (listed as a part of the contents of fond one on the website), however this was not possible during her visit. 

With those caveats in mind, there is still a great deal of material that may be useful. Fond one holds decrees, orders and directives sent out to the Georgian political police throughout the 1930s. A similar fond of documents is held in Kyiv, however that collection really only begins in 1937, whereas the archive in Tbilisi holds a collection dating all the way back to 1920 (excluding 1921), meaning that this is a very exciting addition to the landscape.  

Fond six holds around 4000 criminal files of those arrested during the great terror, and fond eight holds the minutes of meetings of the troikas between 1937 and 1938, the extrajudicial bodies who dispensed justice during the great purges.   Fond 12 holds documents on those people who were given the death penalty between 1937 and 1938 (and, beyond those dates, between 1921 and 1952).         

Conclusion

Since the opening of the archives of the Soviet era, huge advances have been made in our comprehension of the history of the Soviet Union. Fascinating developments have been made in every area of research, including in the field of the Soviet political police. However, the western conception of the NKVD and the Stalin era of totalitarian terror still pervades the way that the vast majority of people think about that time. Despite the very clear issues with Conquest’s version of the terror, some of which he himself acknowledged at the time, his version of the events of the late 1930s is still entrenched in popular thinking. 

The reasons why scholarly consensus fails to penetrate the mainstream discourse are many and varied, but the simple story of one evil man who manages to change the course of history is seemingly one of the most seductive interpretations of history for many readers. Should this trouble historians? Yes and no. A degree of acceptance that scholarly debate is by its nature not accessible to every reader – if only because it is time consuming and requires patience, rather than because it is opaque or overly technical – is probably healthy.  However, misconceptions about contemporary Russia are increasing at the moment, and no doubt some of them are rooted in misconceptions about Russia’s past. A clearer understanding of the Soviet political police might help to diminish Cold War stereotypes.

The newly opened archives in post-Soviet nations finally make this a possibility. They herald the development of what could be a vigorous debate within the academic community, bringing new energy to the question of the Soviet political police and sweeping away once and for all the tired rhetoric of Conquest’s version of the terror of the 1930s. The archives that are now open to scholars contain so many thousands that it would be impossible for any one person to read them all. If one day the archives in other former republics were opened up as well, this would double or triple the available sources. Perhaps, with such a rich and important source base, research into the Soviet will be characterized by a broader use of methodologies and debates, in order to bring a deeper understanding of what is a hugely complex and difficult period of history. 


Polly Corrigan, Department of War Studies, King’s College London, Strand, London, WC2R 2LS, UK. Emailpolly.corrigan@kcl.ac.uk

*NB: The paper was published online eight days before her death. She tweeted:

Dec 9 2019: I really enjoyed writing this and I hope it’s useful to others who are considering using these archives. for their research.

She died before it was published in the print journal in January 2020.