September 30, 2016

Those attacking Ukrainian archives should improve their own research


On May 2, Foreign Policy magazine published an article by Josh Cohen, a former employee of the U.S. State Department, titled “The Historian Whitewashing Ukraine’s Past” ( 02/the-historian-whitewashing-ukraines-past-volodymyr-viatrovych/). Although Mr. Cohen’s criticism of Ukraine’s archives open access policies are a mixture of slander, speculation and unfounded fears, Foreign Policy magazine never responded to my letters and did not explain why they would not publish my response which is given below. 

The historian alleged to have cleansed Ukraine’s past of undesirable episodes is Dr. Volodymyr Viatrovych, head of the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance (UINM). The timing of the article coincided with a series of articles that were published arguing that, even if de-communization is to be expected, this is not the right place and the right time and is not being run by the best people.

Mr. Cohen’s article is short on facts and evidence. Mr. Cohen claims the UINM has already received millions of documents from the former Soviet archives, when in reality this is not the case because the archive is just being launched. Moreover, Mr. Cohen writes that the archives were “handed in” to Dr. Viatrovych, which is not the case because the State Archival Service of Ukraine is the government body that has authority over the archives whose head is Tatyana Baranova and subordinated to the Ministry of Justice of Ukraine (not the UINM headed by Dr. Viatrovych).

Dr. Viatrovych, who is a well-known historian, held the position of director of the archives of Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) until 2010 and, importantly, he was the first person who ensured an equal and unhindered access to documents of the former Soviet regime and performed the invaluable preparatory work necessary for making them publicly accessible. When Viktor Yanukovych was elected president in 2010, the new head of SBU that he appointed overturned the previous policy of permitting open access to archives, exerted pressure and launched criminal cases against historians studying Soviet repression and Ukraine’s national liberation movements.

Since 2014, when Mr. Yanukovych fled from office and democratic leaders were elected into office, the archives have been again opened to the public. Therefore, it is surprising to read that access to SBU archives is circumscribed and censored because open access to documents is protected by Ukrainian legislation. In addition, Mr. Cohen’s fears that archival documents could be destroyed are unfounded, because all former Soviet documents are the property of the National Archive Fund and it is prohibited to destroy them under any circumstances. Indeed, the documents are subject to periodical audit and a criminal investigation is launched if any documents are suspected to be missing.

Mr. Cohen’s repetition of unsubstantiated claims about censorship and destruction of archives is based on no factual evidence and presents Ukraine as a lawless country. Ukrainian legislation on de-communization in fact opened access to former Soviet and KGB archives for foreign and Ukrainian researchers. In 2015, many historians and political scientists worked in the archives of the SBU, including 42 foreign researchers; 26 researchers worked there during the first four months of 2016, including two vocal critics of the de-communization process. These researchers have come from Canada, the United Kingdom, Belgium, Italy, the three Baltic states, Moldova and, importantly, Russia. In addition, the SBU archives participates in joint research projects with six countries: Poland, the Czech Republic, France, Germany, the United States and Israel. Unfortunately, none of those American, European or Russian researchers who have worked in the SBU archives were referred to in Mr. Cohen’s article.

In demonizing Dr. Viatrovych, Mr. Cohen also ascribes to him sole authorship of the Ukrainian laws on de-commmunization. In doing so, Mr. Cohen has obviously never heard about the “Open Archives” program active since 2010 and resulting in many large-scale projects from roundtables to conferences and discussions. These numerous activities established a platform not only for historians such as Dr. Viatrovych, but also for many other researchers who were focused on developing efficient mechanisms to open the archives on Soviet repression to the general public. One of the results of this program is the Digital Archive that currently presents over 23,000 documents that are freely available online. Another product of cooperation with experts from the Reanimation Packet of Reforms (RPR) was a law on open access to archives. Such legislation is subject to thorough expert analysis and a compliance test for different groups of interest.

Mr. Cohen does not attempt to be objective in balancing the comments from those who are critical with those who are supportive of the archives and de-communization; instead he cites only critics. Mr. Cohen should have at the very least found more reputable critics and then balanced these with Ukrainian or foreign researchers who have worked with the archives and have not faced any alleged problems of “censorship,” the “whitewashing of archives” or the notorious “rewriting of history.” Dr. Taras Kuzio for example, a well-known and leading British political scientist working at the University of Alberta, worked in the archives this year on Soviet repression against dissidents and nationalists, and KGB operations against the Ukrainian diaspora; he had only praise for how helpful were the staff and director.

One of these staunch critics is Stanislav Serhiyenko who although described by Mr. Cohen as a “historian” is completely unknown within the Ukrainian academic community. He is in fact a left-wing activist and student at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy. He is therefore not an “expert’” that Mr. Cohen could cite as a reputable critic. Mr. Serhiyenko has worked in the archives for material he prepared for the Sovietophile newspaper 2000. While working in the archives, he voiced not a single complaint to the archive staff. Furthermore, he must be satisfied, as he continues to work in the archives.

It remains unclear why a reputable American publication would publish a subjective and poorly researched article such as that by Mr. Cohen who obviously collected “facts” to match a prejudged critical conclusion. Mr. Cohen’s article is an example of the manipulation of facts, hyperbole and outright false assertions that should have been brought into question by the editors during the publication process.

Towards the end of his article Mr. Cohen claims that Ukrainians should try to overcome the “dark parts of our past” if they seek to integrate into Europe. We agree, but he fails to understand how this has been a long drawn-out process over many decades even for advanced democracies, with countries such as France and Britain only coming to terms with their brutal colonial past in recent years. It has taken more than half a century for Irish-British reconciliation, for example.

One important manner in which Ukrainians are facing up to their history is by permitting open access to the hidden pages of the past found in the Soviet archives that has led to fruitful research, publications and the growth of discussions. De-communization, similar to de-Nazification in post-World War II Germany, is central to countries that have experienced totalitarian dictatorships in overcoming their historical past and assisting in their democratization.


Andriy Kohut is the director of the State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine.