Visiting Soviet archives, IDFI Blog, September 2018

Blog post for Institute for Development of Freedom of Information: 

Using the state security archives in Ukraine and Georgia

Polly Corrigan

September 2018

I am a PhD student at King’s College, London, and for my thesis I am researching the relationship between the Soviet political police and writers in the 1930s. I chose to focus on writers because I am interested in the dynamics of the relationship between the political police and those they arrested for political crimes. I am also fascinated by the ways that the political police worked during this decade. The history of the Soviet Union in the 1930s is notorious for the great terror, one of the most disturbing and perplexing episodes in the history of the 20th century, yet the archives reveal an organisation that was in constant flux during this decade – not, perhaps, what we might expect. 

The foundation of my research is the documentary evidence that I have been able to gain access to in the state security archives of two former Soviet republics: Ukraine and Georgia. These two archives are extremely valuable assets for any scholar wishing to research the subject of the Soviet political police, and a visit to one or both of them will be a very rewarding and worthwhile experience for anyone researching this area. This is particularly true because in Russia the archives of the successor to the Soviet political police, the FSB, remain closed. These two archives are not difficult to use for scholars from other countries, and I hope that what follows might be helpful to anyone planning to do so. 

UKRAINE

I visited the archive in Kyiv in autumn of 2016. This archive holds a huge amount of material on the political police, and is a great place to conduct research. 

Planning

The website of the SBU (the Ukrainian Security Service: www.ssu.gov.ua) has a very useful guide to the contents of the archive, with descriptions of what sort of documents are available in each collection. This is the best place to begin when planning your trip to the archive, as you can find out whether the archive holds documents that may be useful for you. If you do decide to visit the archive, the first step is to fill in the form on the SBU website archive page requesting permission to visit and email it to the head of the archive. You should probably plan to send this off about two months before you plan to travel to Kyiv. On the form you will be asked about the topic of your research and the sort of files you would like to see. The archive will reply by email to let you know whether you have been successful, and may also ask for more information about your research. You can also order files in advance. 

Arriving at the archive

The archive is very easy to find, as it is in the centre of Kyiv, very near metro station Zoloti Vorota. Nearby there are plenty of cafes and places to buy food for lunch. Some of the cafes also have Wi-Fi, which I found useful to download photographs that I had taken in the archive from my tablet on to my computer, when I need to free up space on the tablet. 

At the time of my visit in 2016, I did not need a pass to get into the archive, but simply handed in my passport at the reception desk, and received it back whenever I left. I believe this has now changed as researchers do now need to collect a pass to gain access to the archive. You may need to arrive in Kyiv a few days before you plan to visit the archive to organise this pass. 

Reading room

In the archive there is a small reading room, which seats about eight people. The reading room is well-lit and quiet, with a desk for each person. When I was there, not all of the desks were occupied, so you could spread out your files and notes if you needed to. 

If you have ordered files in advance, they will be waiting for you when you arrive. The files from the Soviet era are almost all in Russian rather than Ukrainian. The staff in the reading room are helpful and friendly, and will explain the process of ordering files. Some of the files are listed digitally, and some in a card index. During my visit, I also talked to the reading room staff about what I was looking for, and they found files that they thought might be suitable (most of which were useful). When I found the files I was looking for, I made a list on a piece of paper and simply gave it to one of the staff. When I was at the archive, there was no particular form to fill in to order files. For the first couple of days in the archive, I hired a research assistant who spoke Ukrainian. This was a very helpful as he could communicate much more easily and quickly with the archive staff. 

Perhaps the most important factor for researchers visiting this archive is that you are allowed to take photographs of the documents without any charge, and there is no limit to the number of documents you can photograph. You may also be able to copy some of the digitised documents on to a memory stick. This allows researchers to work through a significant amount of material relatively quickly, photograph anything that looks like it could be useful, and leave the more time-consuming process of trawling through the details of each document until they return home. This is especially useful for researchers who cannot afford several months away from home, perhaps due to work or family commitments or because of the expense. 

GEORGIA

I visited the security archive in Tbilisi in the spring of 2018. The archive holds much less material than its counterpart in Kyiv due to many documents being destroyed over the years, but is nevertheless very useful.

Planning

There is no detailed online guide to the different collections in the Tbilisi security archive, but the website gives some detail about what is available and should help you decide whether it would be useful to visit the archive. If you do decide to visit the archive, there is no application form to fill, you simply need to send an email to the head of the archive, explaining what you would like to see and when you plan to visit. You may need to include a stamped letter of request, signed by a senior member of staff from your department (this may just be graduate students). 

Arriving at the archive

The archive is in the suburbs of Tbilisi, but still very easy to reach by metro. The archive is a short distance from metro station Akhmeteli Theatre, and it may be easier to bring your own lunch with you if you are coming from the centre of town, or pick up some food from one of the shops near the metro. The archive is housed within a military training facility, so at the entrance you may be searched by the soldiers at reception. You do not need a pass to get into the archive, but you will need to hand in your passport to the soldier at the reception desk for the duration of your visit each day. When you first arrive, you will need to explain to the soldiers that you are visiting the archive, and they will telephone one of the staff there, and then someone will come across and collect you. When I talked to the soldiers, I talked to them in English, after one of them asked me not to speak in Russian. 

Reading room 

There is no separate reading room in the Tbilisi archive. During my visit I used a small desk in the archivists’ office. While the room is not completely quiet all the time due to the occasional conversations of the archivists, it is perfectly adequate for working through the files. It is also quite useful to be seated with the archivists, should you have any queries. On my arrival at the archive, I had to explain my research topic to the head of the archive, who was initially a little sceptical that there might be any documents that I would find useful in the archive. 

There is no finding aid at the archive. There is an online catalogue of the archive, but it is Georgian. However, if you do not speak Georgian, you can input search terms into the catalogue search in Russian, and then you can navigate through the files that are listed using the ‘forward’ and ‘back’ buttons (labelled in Georgian). You should be able to ask a member of staff to show how to do this. During my visit, I noted down the document numbers of those I wanted to read, and then I was brought the whole file rather than single documents. So, do not spend time noting down the numbers of individual documents in the same file, just write down one from each file. When I gave the list of documents to the archivist, the files were brought to me almost straight away. Then I began to read through the files at my own pace. You can use a notebook and pen at the desk to make notes. As I went through the files I transcribed some parts of the files, and for documents that I wanted in their entirety I made a note of the document number. You will need to wear rubber gloves when you are handling the files. 

The staff of the archive will scan pages for you, and give them to you on a CD. Unfortunately, there is a charge for scanning documents. At the time of writing this is three Georgian Lari per page, which currently works out as roughly one Euro per page. This makes copying documents prohibitively expensive. To pay for any scanned documents that you have ordered, the archivist will give you a small sheet of paper outlining the charges, and you need to take it to a bank and make the payment. It is easy to find bank branches in central Tbilisi, and in the bank that I went to it was very simple to make the payment. I handed over the paper with the charges, and paid using my debit card. I was then given a receipt, which I took back to the archive. The archivist then handed over the CD with my images on. Make sure that you have access to a computer with a CD drive! Many newer computers do not have them.