A Conversation on Deportations and Archival Trials

In an illuminating dialogue, Director of Ukraine’s Archive of National Remembrance Ihor Kulyk and historian Vladyslav Havrylov engage in a thought-provoking discussion about Ukraine’s national memory surrounding forcible deportations. Delving into the vital aspects of preserving historical documents related to deportation, the conversation also highlights Russia’s ongoing deportation of Ukrainians and the challenges it poses for archival efforts. From the significance of forming a comprehensive archive to the complexities of protecting personal data and combating disinformation, Havrylov and Kulyk provide insights into the multifaceted nature of documenting and preserving these tragic events. 


Vladyslav Havrylov: Please tell us how and where the documents regarding Soviet deportations are stored, how they are digitized, and what is done with them.


Ihor Kulyk: That’s a good question that doesn’t have a short answer. The peculiarity of searching for archival information on deportations lies in the fact that deportations were mass repressions. So, when we talk about deportations, for example, the “Zakhid” operation in 1947 or the genocide against the Crimean Tatars in 1944, the number of people subject to eviction is calculated in thousands. If we compare this with the years of the Great Terror, 1936-1938, it is easier there. For example, there is a case, and accordingly, this case can be accessed and reviewed. But here, there are no individual files for each person. Therefore, in most cases, establishing the fact of deportation is possible through certain lists. Lists can vary, for example, there can be lists compiled at the beginning, let’s say, at the level of a village council or district executive committees. Later, when these deportations already had a mass character and decisions about them were made in Moscow, there could be so-called train lists, where people were registered when boarding the train for transportation to remote areas* (to Siberia, Northern Kazakhstan).


It is not possible to claim that these lists are completely accurate because if someone was not found, it was due to the planned economy* (in Soviet times, note by Havrylov V.). They were mainly formed according to the “plan,” so if the party leadership said that 300 people from a district should be evicted, then 300 people had to be gathered, regardless of whether they fit the criteria or not. So, these are mainly such lists.


Later, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a practice emerged when those who arrived — because not everyone travelled in freight wagons and in inhumane conditions, a significant part died on the way. A significant number also died shortly after deportation, in places to which people were unaccustomed — whether it was cold, constant frost, the North, Siberia, or steppe regions with arid climates. Most elderly people and children or those who had illnesses died in the first year. Actually, in the late 1940s, cases were initiated for those who managed to survive, and these cases were created for each family. In the 1970s, there was an instruction to return these lists and cases to the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS), mainly according to the person’s place of birth and, to a lesser extent, according to the place of residence where the person was arrested. In fact, this is one source of information that exists. Currently, these cases are mainly stored in the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs, police departments in the regions of Ukraine, while some are kept in state regional archives. This is because the “unreliable” individuals* (by Soviet standards, note by V. H.) were not usually shot or arrested but were placed on trains and sent to special settlements* (deported, note by V. H.), which, in fact, were not much different from places of imprisonment. The only difference was that people could spend the night not in a barrack, but in a building remotely resembling a house. However, they were still forced to work, had restricted rights, and had to report to the MVS-KGB departments about their presence once a month, and they were not allowed to leave the limits of these special settlements. Obviously, the conditions were somewhat easier, but people still felt imprisoned.


Also, the lack of documents is related to the fact that some cases involving special settlers and prisoners did not return to Ukraine; they remained in the places of punishment. And where are these places located? As an exception, the eastern regions of Ukraine, but people were mostly sent to two countries: Russia, to Siberia, the North, or the territory of Kazakhstan. That’s where information can be sought. Obviously, during the Soviet era, most of the information flowed to Moscow, which now serves as an information-analytical centre of the Russian Federation. They have information about all citizens of the Soviet Union who were convicted under all articles of the Criminal Code of the USSR. It will likely be very difficult to approach them because with Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine, all ties have been severed.


I don’t want to say it’s impossible; it’s quite challenging, but the main thing is to start now and engage in it, searching for successful cases even within the territory of Ukraine.


  1. H.: Please clarify, did you correctly mention that during the Soviet era, the individual stories, the personal experiences of the deported individuals, were lost? In all the documents, they only mention plans, echelons, just “dry numbers” of how many people were planned to be deported. We know examples from the Baltic countries when, during the “Priboi” operation in 1949, they still deported people afterward because they couldn’t deport all the individuals they had planned. The Soviet authorities tried to depersonalize these processes; they simply tried to expel as many people as possible who were deemed unacceptable to them based on political, ethnic, religious criteria, or other factors, right?


  1. K.: You mentioned the Baltic countries. I remember about 10 years ago, maybe a bit more, the Center for Liberation Movement Studies, which I have the honour to be a part of, organized roundtable discussions, public events, where representatives from the Baltic countries, particularly from Lithuania and Latvia, were invited to talk about their experience in overcoming the totalitarian past, national memory policy, and how they research their repressions. The first shock for me was that they could provide an approximate number of victims, and their count was almost precise, not with a huge margin of error. It’s evident that Soviet occupation came to them later, in 1940, and then again in 1945, but the main wave of deportations occurred after the Second World War. However, the fact that they were not part of the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s saved a significant number of people.


Regarding the Soviet authorities, I believe they killed a person twice. Why do I think so? Because the first time it was physical, or how they humanized the execution, and then they killed in memory. These archives that are now open — the archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the archives of the State Security Service — were created so that people could come and learn the truth about their relatives. This is an important factor in helping people find information about their loved ones.


  1. H.: You mentioned that we have a small percentage of documented living deportation stories. We know about Operation “Zakhid”, approximately 78-80 thousand deported, but to revive, personalize these stories — this is a task not only for researchers, scholars, but also for relatives and descendants of the deported, their memory of these people. The USSR produced fear of remembering. Do you think this was deliberate?


  1. K.: The totalitarian regime is terrifying because a person in this system is nothing. A person is only seen as an “instrument,” a means of sustaining such a system. The Gulag camps were a way to use the “slave labour” made up of the deported individuals. They were sent to these camps because they were seen as unreliable elements. Accordingly, they needed to be “eliminated,” but they also tried to use them as an economic element through forced labour. And the USSR justified all of this as “local excesses,” attempting to justify it through industrialization, the construction of industrial facilities, and so on. It is crucial to try to talk about specific people, their biographies, life stories, and not just about statistics. To show that the deported people are just like anyone else, that they also worked somewhere, dreamed, created families, but the Soviet system shattered and crossed out their destinies.


  1. H.: The Soviet authorities tried to forcibly create a “Soviet person” by simply mixing all ethnic groups into a certain “repressive meat grinder,” destroying the ethnic landscape of the places where these people lived.


  1. K.: Yes, and it is important to understand that we are talking about terrible things. By their nature, people do not want to talk about terrible things. Therefore, it is also significant how this information is presented. The easiest way is to condense the facts and present them, but it’s not guaranteed that people will perceive it. Perhaps one way is to bring this history to life. Yes, it is a life that has tragedy, but it is life. So there is a complex aspect of how to present information about deportations — whether they are contemporary deportations or deportations of the 20th century — how to describe it correctly so that a person empathizes with it and is ready for some actions, to remember past deportations and to stop the process of contemporary ones.


  1. H.: Regarding the tragedy of Soviet deportations and how to present it correctly, this question has become relevant with our modern full-scale war. Unfortunately, deportations are not an archaism, but a crime that is currently being committed by Russia. In your opinion, to what extent does Russia now repeat these criminal practices of Soviet deportations, what is the similarity, and why is it doing this?


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    1. K.: The forms and methods used by the communist regime are also used by the Russian, Putin’s regime. In the 20th century, there were concentration camps, and now there are filtration camps; in the 20th century, there were deportations, and now there are deportations as well. Russia recognizes only the right of force, where the stronger one is considered right. Their leader Putin says that the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century was the collapse of the USSR, so they are trying to create the USSR 2.0. This is truly frightening because the democratic world has long been living in a different coordinate system, built after the Second World War, with its own rules of the game that must be respected. If someone violates these rules, there must be punishment, but the basis is that everyone accepts these rules of the game. Here, Russia appears, which simply does not accept these rules of the game. And Russia takes advantage of this from a coercive position of power.


    The problem is that the world did not pay much attention to historical deportations, considering them as history and not believing in their repetition. In reality, this is a challenge for the world and for us, how to deal with it.


    1. H.: The Soviet Union mostly deported adults, finding various artificial reasons for it, political, ethnic, and so on. Now, Russia’s policy in this regard has slightly changed: they are focusing on children. Why do they need our children? They want to “reprogram” them, deprive us of future generations, turn them into conditional “janissaries”?


    1. K.: Unfortunately, it is easiest to turn children into “janissaries” because the child’s psyche is easily influenced. It is easier for them to instil pro-Russian narratives and politics. So it is a cynical use of children for such purposes.


    1. H.: It still seems to me that they are doing this by analysing the deportation of children back in 2014. It has been 9 years since the Russian Federation has been trying to make this problem of war eternal for us. They constantly incite new generations against us, not only using their own population, but also utilizing those deported children whom they have “re-educated.”


    1. K.: Probably, yes.


    1. H.: In your opinion, considering this tragic experience and historical background, how important is it to establish a modern archive that would highlight and preserve information about Russia’s war crimes?


    1. K.: It’s worth mentioning that we are discussing both current deportations and those that occurred 100–90 years ago. However, they existed even before that, as evidenced by the phrase that St. Petersburg was built on Cossack bones, which means that Cossacks were forcibly sent there for construction as early as the 18th century. There were also cases of not just deportations but cynical extermination of entire cities, such as the Baturyn tragedy of 1708.


    Regarding the preservation of this information, it is a complex question. Currently, we are in a peculiar situation where there are not many documents available, ranging from memories, diaries, records, to active documents. There are even not so many documents about the Orange Revolution, which happened not long ago. Since the beginning of the war in 2014 and the Euromaidan period, we have encountered a different extreme – we have a lot of such materials, but they are created to be preserved right now, not with the intention of revisiting them in 15–20 years. Everyone has a mobile phone or another device and can be considered a conditional archivist. However, this poses a challenge to preserve this archive and unify this information in a specialized place.


    At the same time, we need to understand the purpose of preserving this information. Are we preserving it to present it to The Hague Tribunal or future generations? If it’s for future generations, it can be anyone, but if it’s for the tribunal, it should only be institutions legally authorized for that. There is also the question of information protection, protection of personal data, and so on. It is crucial to ensure such protection that the victims of deportations are not re-victimized if such data is lost.


    1. H.: When we communicate with international media, it is important to explain that deportation is not just forcibly putting a person on a train or bus and removing them. Even when a person voluntarily boards such transportation because they were denied the opportunity to leave for a territory controlled by Ukraine, it is also deportation. Here, we face the problem of combating Russian disinformation. Russian media, which speak of “evacuation,” are essentially covering up deportations, and the refugee camps in Russian territory are, essentially, new camps. If we don’t stop this process, it can escalate further.


    1. K.: Yes, Russians always manipulate concepts, and this is also a legacy of the Soviet Union.


    1. H.: In your opinion, how could foreign colleagues help us in shedding light on and resolving this issue?


    1. K.: From a historical perspective, it would be beneficial if they developed an understanding of Ukraine’s history and the Ukrainian question as Ukrainians perceive it – that it is not the USSR or some territorial appendage of Russia, but an independent and fully-fledged country with its own historical path, language, and culture. It would also be helpful for Ukrainian researchers to present their understanding in foreign languages to be more open to the international community.


    1. H.: As I see it, there is demand and interest in this from both sides. And it is already a significant progress to convey an accurate picture of Ukraine and the war crimes through our joint efforts, so that it can be heard and conveyed to the world. Thank you sincerely for the conversation.