Fire in Kamianets-Podilskyi destroys 18th-19th century historical archives

by Roman Woronowycz
Kyiv Press Bureau

KYIV - Officials are blaming an unauthorized printing operation for a fire in a 16th century Franciscan cathedral in Kamianets-Podilskyi on April 10 that destroyed 70 percent of the historical archives stored there. The upper floors of the building were used as a warehouse to hold hundreds of thousands of government documents consisting of millions of sheaths of paper from the 18th and 19th centuries, which belonged to the national archives offices located next door.

The fire ravaged much of the historical record of the Podillia Gubernia, as that region of southwestern Ukraine was called until 1919, including the archives of the Podillia State Chamber from 1796-1919, the Office of the Governor of Podillia from 1795-1917, the Office for Peasant Affairs for Podillia Gubernia from 1861 to 1919, the Office of the Military Governor from 1795-1845 and the city offices of Kamianets from 1875-1920.

Many of the remaining historical documents that did not burn received extensive water damage. The director of the State Comittee of National Archives, Hennadii Buriak, called the fire a tragedy.

"April 10 will go down in our history as Black Thursday," stated Dr. Buriak.

Kamianets-Podilskyi Mayor Oleksander Mazurchak stated on April 23 during a report before a hearing of the State Committee of National Archives held to review the incident that initial findings show the fire started in the print shop, which is owned by the local eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate. The UOC-MP has had possession of the historic cathedral for some years now.

The mayor explained that workers of the UOC-MP may have been negligent in not maintaining electrical wiring and safety standards in the offices, which are found below the warehouse, on the first two floors of the historic church located in the city's old district. He said the print shop had not received municipal authorization to operate.

"The print shop had not been licensed, and its existence was not approved by either the city administration or the archive's administrators," explained Mayor Mazurchak.

He noted that contributing to the destruction and loss was the inadequate response to the fire by the two print shop workers who discovered the fire. They spent nearly 50 minutes trying to douse the flames themselves before finally contacting the local fire brigade after the fire was out of control.

"If fire officials had been contacted immediately, much could have been saved," said Mayor Mazurchak. "Huge winds that day fueled the flames, which were 15 meters high when the fire trucks finally arrived."

The Kamianets-Podilskyi mayor also noted that the fire department's only ladder truck was out of service at the time, and it took more than two hours for a similar vehicle to arrive from neighboring Khmelnytskyi, the oblast capital.

The mayor cast aside efforts to blame his city administration for the inadequate conditions that led to the fire. He said the city had requested 1.2 million hrv over the last five years from the national budget to resolve the problems of the national archives, which had come into their possession with the original law of municipal self-rule, only to be told that state budgetary funds for the city were not allowed to be spent on the archives.

"The state has not given [any money] for upkeep of the local archives," noted Mr. Mazurchak.

He said that finally this year the City Council had appropriated 400,000 hrv from its own budget for upkeep of the archives, which he did not deny were in terrible condition.

While some money had been expended on renewing the building's façade before a presidential visit in 1998, the building was in terrible shape, noted Mr. Mazurchak. There was no electricity or heating in the warehouse portion of the building, and fire alarm and smoke alarm systems were not functioning. Exterior windows were missing, in many cases covered by a simple piece of cardboard. The metal door to an outside cellar, which gave access to the buildings' interior, had long been missing.

The Khmelnytskyi Oblast director of the National Archives, Petro Slobodianiuk, blamed the fired on "negligence and carelessness by individuals and the general unsafe state of the archives and the area in the possession of the UOC-MP."

Mr. Slobodianiuk explained that, in additional to unsafe electrical wiring and wiring insulation, the building suffered from a lack of fire and smoke alarms, fire extinguishers that did not work and improperly placed heaters and stoves.

"Twice the city was warned about the poor state of its building," explained Mr. Slobodyaniuk. "Director Stelmach was also warned about the poor state of her archives."

Valentyna Stelmach, director of the national archive in Kamianets-Podilskyi, defended her maintenance of the archives. She told The Weekly that electricity had long ago stopped working on the third floor, where the archives were found, so the fire could not have started there. She said that no extensive updating of preservation systems and fire extinguishing systems had been planned because a long-planned transfer of the collection to the oblast archives was being awaited.

"It appears it was not economically realistic to develop a contemporary preservation system because the archives were leaving this building," explained Ms. Stelmach.

She called the collection that has been lost "one of a kind" and "priceless."

"These were documents that reconstructed various aspects of political and economic life, the conditions of various classes of the 19th and 18th centuries. In other words, the wellspring for much of the historical record of that period has disappeared," Ms. Stelmach said.

The director explained that a massive effort currently is underway to determine exactly what and how much was not ruined. She explained that workers, students and historians from the area, along with volunteers, were working 24 hours a day to reconstruct half-burned pieces of paper and return them to the proper documents and folders.

Those parts of the archives that were water-damaged - some eight truck loads worth - have been moved into the freezers of a local meat packing plant, where they are being held at minus 33 degrees Celsius to ward off rot. The documents will eventually go through a slow process of drying.

Polish government archival experts have offered to help in saving the collection and have suggested moving a portion of the salvageable documents to the city of Wroclaw for thawing and drying. Poland has also turned to the Council of Europe for aid in restoring the Polish portion of the archives. The collection in the Kamianets-Podilskyi archives dates from the time of both the Polish and Russian imperial periods of control of Ukraine.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, April 27, 2003, No. 17, Vol. LXXI

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