A Conversation on Deportations and Archival Trials

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 They explore the essential aspects of preserving historical documents related to these deportations.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


Vladyslav Havrylov: Please tell us about handling documents concerning Soviet deportations. How are they stored, digitized, and utilized?


Ihor Kulyk: That’s an excellent question with no brief answer. The challenge in finding archival information about deportations is that they were mass repressions. Deportations, like the “Zakhid” operation in 1947 or the genocide against the Crimean Tatars in 1944, involved thousands of individuals. This is unlike the Great Terror of 1936–1938, where individual cases are more accessible for review. In the case of deportations, there are no personal files for each individual. Usually, confirming a deportation is possible through various lists. These lists might originate from initial village council or district executive committees compilations. As these deportations took on a mass scale and decisions were made in Moscow, ‘train lists’ were created, registering people boarding trains for relocation to remote areas* (such as Siberia and Northern Kazakhstan).


These lists cannot be considered completely accurate. If someone was not found, it was often due to the planned economy* (in Soviet times – note by Havrylov). They were usually created based on a “plan.” For example, if the party leadership mandated the eviction of 300 people from a district, then 300 people were gathered, regardless of whether they met the criteria or not. So, these lists are predominantly of this nature.


Later, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, a pattern emerged among those who survived the journey. Not everyone traveled in freight wagons under inhumane conditions; however, a significant number died en route. Many also perished shortly after their deportation, unaccustomed to the harsh environments they were sent to — whether it was the extreme cold, constant frost in the North and Siberia, or the arid climates of the steppe regions. The first year saw the highest mortality among the elderly, children, and the ill. Interestingly, in the late 1940s, cases were initiated for surviving families, and those records were created for each family unit. In the 1970s, there was a directive to return these lists and cases to the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ archives, primarily based on the individual’s birthplace, and to a lesser extent, their residence at the time of arrest. These records are the only source of information, now mostly stored in the Ministry of Internal Affairs’ archives, regional police departments across Ukraine, and some in state regional archives. This is because those labeled as “unreliable” individuals* (by Soviet standards, note by V. H.) were typically not executed or imprisoned but were placed on trains and sent to special settlements* (deported, note by V. H.), which were not much different from places of imprisonment. The only difference was that they might spend nights in a structure resembling a house rather than a barrack. However, they were still forced to work, had limited rights, and had to report monthly to the MVS-KGB departments, with austere restrictions on leaving these settlements. While conditions were slightly less harsh, the sense of imprisonment remained.


Additionally, the scarcity of documents is partly due to some records of special settlers and prisoners not returning to Ukraine; they remained at the sites of punishment. Where are these places? Mostly in Russia, Siberia, the North, or Kazakhstan, with a few exceptions in the east of Ukraine. That’s where more information can be sought. Obviously, in the Soviet era, most data was centralized in Moscow, now an information-analytical center of the Russian Federation. They hold records on all citizens of the Soviet Union convicted under any article of the USSR’s Criminal Code. Approaching them for information is exceedingly difficult given Russia’s full-scale aggression against Ukraine and the severed ties that resulted.


I’m not suggesting it’s impossible; it’s a daunting task, but the key is to start now and focus on uncovering successful cases even within Ukraine’s own territory.


V. H.: Could you clarify, are you suggesting that during the Soviet era, the individual stories and personal experiences of those deported were lost? In all the documents, there seems to be only mention of plans, train convoys, just “dry numbers” of how many were intended for deportation. We’ve seen instances from the Baltic countries where, even after the “Priboi” operation in 1949, deportations continued because the planned numbers weren’t met. Did The Soviet authorities deliberately depersonalize these processes, aiming to expel as many people as possible who didn’t align with their political, ethnic, religious, or other criteria?


I. K.: You brought up the Baltic countries. I remember about 10 years ago, perhaps slightly longer, the Center for Liberation Movement Studies, which I’m honored to be part of, organized roundtable discussions and public events. We invited representatives from the Baltic countries, particularly Lithuania and Latvia, to share their experiences overcoming their totalitarian past, their national memory policies, and how they researched their repressions. What initially shocked me was their ability to provide an approximate yet almost precise count of victims with a minimal margin of error. Their experience with Soviet occupation began in 1940 and again in 1945, but the main wave of deportations happened after World War II. Their absence from the USSR in the 1920s and 1930s spared many people.


As for the Soviet authorities, I believe they “killed” a person twice. How so? The first was physical, and the second was in erasing them from memory. The archives now open to the public, like those of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the State Security Service, were established to allow people to uncover the truth about their relatives. Providing access to this information is crucial in helping people reconnect with their lost loved ones.


V. H.: You mentioned that we have only a small fraction of the living stories of deportation documented. With Operation “Zakhid”, for instance, we know about the 78–80 thousand deported. However, reviving and personalizing these stories isn’t just a task for researchers and scholars, but also for relatives and descendants of those deported, through their memories of these individuals. Did the USSR intentionally instill a fear of remembering?


I. K.: The terror of the totalitarian regime lies in the fact that individuals within this system are reduced to nothing, merely seen as “instruments” to sustain the system. The Gulag camps utilized the “slave labor” of deported individuals. They were sent to these camps for being considered unreliable elements. The goal was to “eliminate” them while simultaneously exploiting them economically through forced labor. The USSR often dismissed these actions as “local excesses,” rationalizing them as necessary for industrialization and the construction of industrial facilities. It is essential to talk about specific people and life stories, not just statistics. We need to show that these deported individuals were just like anyone else, with jobs, dreams, families, but their lives were shattered and erased by the Soviet system.


V. H.: The Soviet authorities aimed to forcibly create a “Soviet person,” essentially blending all ethnic groups into a single “repressive meat grinder,” thereby destroying the ethnic landscape of the regions where these people lived.


I. K.: Yes, and it is important to understand that we are discussing horrific events. People naturally shy away from talking about terrible things. Therefore, the presentation of this information is also significant. The simplest approach is to summarize the facts, but that doesn’t guarantee engagement or understanding. Perhaps one method is to humanize this history. Yet, it is a history marked by tragedy, but it is still part of life. So, there is a complex challenge in how to convey information about deportations — be they contemporary or from the 20th century — in a way that elicits empathy and motivates people to remember past deportations and to prevent ongoing ones.


V. H.: In light of our current full-scale war, the tragedy of Soviet deportations and their proper presentation has become increasingly relevant. Sadly, deportations are not just a thing of the past but a crime that Russia is currently committing. In your opinion, to what extent is Russia repeating the criminal practices of Soviet deportations, and what are the similarities? Why are they doing this?


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I. K.: The tactics and methods used by the communist regime are being mirrored by Russia, specifically under Putin’s rule. In the 20th century, there were concentration camps, and now there are filtration camps; similarly, deportations were a practice then and continue to be now. Russia adheres the principle of might makes right, with Putin declaring the collapse of the USSR as the 20th century’s greatest geopolitical catastrophe, including their intent to create the USSR 2.0. This is alarming because the democratic world operates under a different set of post-World War II principles, with established rules that are expected to be upheld. Violations of these rules should lead to consequences, but Russia outright rejects these norms, exploiting its position of power.

The issue is that the world largely overlooked historical deportations, viewing them as mere history, not anticipating their recurrence. This is now a challenge for the world and for us in terms of how to respond.


V. H.: The Soviet Union primarily deported adults, often under various contrived reasons, be they political, ethnic, etc. Now, Russia’s approach seems to have shifted: they are targeting children. What’s their aim with our children? To “reprogram” them, to rob us of future generations, to turn them into modern “janissaries”?


I. K.: Regrettably, children are the easiest to mold into “janissaries” because their psyches are more malleable. It is simpler to indoctrinate them with pro-Russian narratives and politics. This represents a cynical exploitation of children for such ends.


V. H.: It seems to me that Russia’s current actions, particularly the deportation of children, echo what they started back in 2014. It has been 9 years since the Russian Federation began trying to make this war a perpetual problem for us. They consistently incite new generations against us, not just using their own population but also those deported children whom they have “re-educated.”


I. K.: Yes, that seems likely.


V. H.: Given this tragic history and current events, how important is it, in your opinion, to establish a modern archive that documents and preserves information about Russia’s war crimes?


I. K.: It’s worth mentioning that we are discussing both current and past deportations, even those from 100–90 years ago. There were even earlier instances, as the saying goes that St. Petersburg was built on Cossack bones, indicating forced labor of Cossacks in its construction as early as the 18th century. There were also not just deportations, but cynical exterminations of entire cities, like the Baturyn tragedy of 1708.


The task of preserving this information is complex. Presently, we are in a situation with limited available documents, ranging from personal memories and diaries to official records. Even recent events like the Orange Revolution have scant documentation. Since the start of the war in 2014 and the Euromaidan period, we’ve seen an opposite extreme: there’s an abundance of materials, but it’s created for immediate preservation, not with the intent of revisiting it in 15–20 years. Almost everyone with a mobile phone can be a “conditional archivist.” Yet, the challenge lies in preserving this archive and consolidating the information in a specialized location.


Furthermore, we must consider the purpose of preserving this information. Is it for presenting to The Hague Tribunal or for future generations? If it’s for future generations, it can be widely accessible, but if it’s for the tribunal, it should be handled only by legally authorized institutions. There is also the issue of protecting this information, including personal data. It is crucial to ensure such security so that the victims of these deportations are not further harmed if their data is compromised.


V. H.: When we communicate with international media, it is important to clarify that deportation is not just about forcibly putting someone on a train or bus and removing them. Deportation also occurs when a person boards such transport voluntarily because they are denied the option to leave for Ukraine-controlled territory. Here, we confront the challenge of countering Russian disinformation. Russian media, which refer to these actions as “evacuations,” are essentially masking the reality of deportations. The refugee camps in Russian territory are, essentially, new forms of camps. If we don’t halt this process, it could escalate even further.


I. K.: Indeed, Russians have always been adept at manipulating terms, a legacy inherited from the Soviet Union.


V. H.: In your view, how could our foreign colleagues help us in highlighting and addressing this issue?


I. K.: From a historical perspective, it would be beneficial if they gained an understanding of Ukraine’s history and the Ukrainian perspective – recognizing that Ukraine is not merely a former USSR territory or a Russian appendage, but an independent, sovereign country with its own historical journey, language, and culture. It would also be helpful for Ukrainian researchers to convey their perspectives in foreign languages, making them more accessible to the international community.


V. H.: As I see it, there is interest and a need for this understanding from both sides. It’s a significant progress to be able to accurately portray Ukraine and the war crimes occuring, through our joint efforts, so that this understanding can reach and resonate with the global audience. I sincerely thank you for this conversation.