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July 16, 2001

The Current State of Research on the Political Terror in Ukraine, 1920s-1950s

In spring 2001, Dr. Yuri Shapoval, a leading authority on the history of communist rule in Ukraine visited Edmonton and other Canadian cities at the invitation of the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies (CIUS). Dr. Shapoval heads the Centre for Historical and Political Studies (CHPS) at the Institute of Political and Ethnonational Studies (IPES), National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NASU) in Kyiv and is the author or co-author of many publications based on archival documents of the Soviet secret police, known successively as the Cheka, GPU, NKVD, and KGB, as well as other Communist Party organs. The following article is a summary of Dr. Shapoval's lecture delivered in Edmonton this past spring.

The Current State of Research on the Political Terror in Ukraine, 1920s-1950s

by Yuri Shapoval

For many years, critical research on the history and reality of communist Ukraine was carried on mainly outside the Soviet Union. This situation began to change following Ukraine's proclamation of independence in 1991. Thereafter, two tendencies became apparent there: the reprinting of studies by emigre Ukrainians and the step-by-step transformation of former Soviet Ukrainian historiography.

Bearing in mind that until 1989, Ukraine remained a "communist preserve," this was a topic that had to be approached with great caution. It was only toward the end of the 1980s that publications on the crimes of communism became possible in Ukraine. Over the past ten years, however, the appearance of new works on this topic has made it possible to speak about a new paradigm of Ukrainian history in regard to research on a previously forbidden topic.

Among works of a general nature to have appeared over the past ten years, it is worth mentioning the studies by Bohdan Yarosh, Totalitarnyi rezhym na zakhidnoukrainskykh zemliakh. 30-50-ti roky XX stolittia. Istoryko-politolohichnyi aspekt (The Totalitarian Regime in the Western Ukrainian Lands, 1930s-1950s), Stanislav Kulchytsky, Komunizm v Ukraini: pershe desiatyrichchia, 1919-1928 (Communism in Ukraine: The First Decade, 1919-1928), and Serhii Bilokin, Masovyi terror iak zasib derzhavnoho upravlinnia v SRSR (1917-1941 rr.). Dzhereloznavche doslidzhennia (Mass Terror as a Means of State Government in the USSR. A Study of Sources).

New publications have appeared on topics such as the famines of the early 1920s, 1930s and 1946-47 in Ukraine; deportations from Ukraine; political and repressive actions taken against national minorities; cultural life in Western Ukraine from 1939 to 1953; and the Institute of History of Ukraine under totalitarian rule. Publication of the scholarly documentary series Reabilitovani istoriieiu (Rehabilitated by History) on repressions in the various oblasts of Ukraine continues. This series offers a panoramic view of the activities of the communist regime and emphasizes specific policies in the various oblasts.

Work continues on themes associated with the activities of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and the operations of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). Several collections of documents on their activities were published recently. The reader is now in a position to compare Soviet, Nazi, OUN and UPA documents.

We know very little as yet about communist concentration camps in Ukraine or mass burial grounds, although there has been some progress on these questions. Specifically, collections of documents and eyewitness accounts of the mass shootings in Vinnytsia in 1937-38 and in the village Bykivnia near Kyiv, another place of mass killings and burials, have been published. In recent years a number of interesting memoirs have appeared. These publications, together with such classics of Ukrainian memoir literature as Ivan Maistrenko's Istoriia moho pokolinnia (The History of My Generation) and Hryhorii Kostiuk's Zustrichi i proshchannia (Meetings and Farewells), both published by CIUS, are important sources for studying events of the 1920s to 1940s.

One of the most notable accomplishments of Ukrainian historiography of the 1990s is the publication of original documents of the Cheka-GPU-NKVD, which were not previously available to researchers. One of the first groups of documents was published in the journal Nashe mynule (Our Past) in 1993. In 1994, the journal Z arkhiviv VUChK-GPU-NKVD-KGB (From the Archives of the VUChK-GPU-NKVD-KGB) began publishing, issuing previously restricted materials from the State Archive of the Security Services of Ukraine (Derzhavnyi Arkhiv Sluzhby Bezpeky Ukrainy) (DA SBU). Documents and materials from regional branches of the former communist security services have also begun to be published.

There is no centre or institution in Ukraine today devoted specifically to studying the history of the communist terror and totalitarianism and publishing documents on these themes systematically (as does, for instance, the International "Democracy" Fund in Moscow). Such research is done largely by specialists at the Institute of History of Ukraine (NASU) or IPES (NASU), the Taras Shevchenko National University in Kyiv, and other research and teaching institutions of Ukraine.

However, the question of institutionalizing research on totalitarianism remains acute and relevant for Ukraine. In essence, this would mean establishing an institution to conduct focused and objective research on the totalitarian era, establish an appropriate archive, and undertake relevant projects, especially the publication of a fundamental documentary series and eye-witness memoirs.

After 1991, in an unprecedented initiative, the State Archive of the Security Services of Ukraine (DA SBU) began to play an important role in publishing documents (obviously, within the limits allowed by its relationship to state security agencies). From 1996, the DA SBU, the Central Archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the Administration of the Republic of Poland, and the CHPS, began work on a multi-volume series, Ukraina i Pol'shscha u 30-40-kh rokakh XX stolittia. Nevidomi dokumenty z arkhiviv spetssluzhb (Ukraine and Poland in the 1930s and 1940s. Unknown Documents from the Archives of the Security Services). The first volume, which concerned the Polish underground in Western Ukraine in 1939-41 was published in 1998. The second volume, on the Polish-Ukrainian population transfers of 1944-46, appeared in 2000.

A research project on "Society through the Eyes of Chekists. Informational Activities of the ChK-GPU-NKVD in Ukraine, 1920-1941," has recently been undertaken with the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute and the Department of History of Harvard University. This project is especially important for a scholarly understanding of the unique aspects of the communist socio-political system, where the repressive organs not only performed law-enforcement functions, but also played a key role in political struggles and in carrying out comprehensive socio-economic transformations.

As attested by the documents, state terrorism in Ukraine from the 1920s to the 1950s was invariably "anti-nationalist." Bolshevik security organs consistently regarded Ukrainians as potentially subversive, regardless of the official party line, systematically gathered compromising material against those who showed sympathy for the idea of Ukraine's independence or even simply identified themselves as Ukrainians. Many special reports of the ChK-GPU-NKVD have been preserved concerning the outlook of various strata of the population, and there are carefully gathered categories of reports on the "Ukrainian counterrevolution" or on the "Ukrainian chauvinist intelligentsia." To this day these materials have not been carefully studied despite their extreme importance, as they convincingly show that the Chekists--and this phenomenon still needs to be analyzed--never identified (and never even attempted to identify) themselves with the local population. They always viewed themselves as a "third force" that monitored and "serviced" the nationalistically-inclined "natives."

What kind of people became members of this "service personnel?" The search for answers has opened a new avenue of research. In 1997, in the book ChK-GPU-NKVD v Ukraini: osoby, fakty, dokumenty (The ChK-GPU-NKVD in Ukraine: Personalities, Facts, Documents), the authors Yu. Shapoval, V. Prystaiko and V. Zolotariov include biographical sketches of several influential Chekists, as well as almost 200 brief notes on Chekists of various rank.

Much more is now known about the background and origins of many official terrorist acts of the early 1930s, owing to recent discoveries of materials on Ukrainian prisoners on the Solovets Islands, one of the cruelest concentration camps of the era of communist rule. In 1997, 60 years after the mass killings at the Solovets Islands, staff members of the DA SBU and CHPS, together with activists of the St. Petersburg Memorial research and informational centre, joined forces in ascertaining the circumstances behind the mass murder of the Ukrainian prisoners. A group sent by the SBU brought back interesting materials from Arkhangelsk and the Solovets Islands that were included in the three-volume scholarly documentary publication Ostannia adresa. Do 60-richchia solovets'koi trahedii (The Last Address. Toward the 60th Anniversary of the Tragedy on the Solovets Islands) (Kyiv, 1997-1999).

This unique publication, which I helped prepare, contains details on executions of prisoners at the Sandomorkh ravine near Medvezhiegorsk (Karelia), as well as execution orders from the minutes of meetings of special troikas of the Leningrad oblast NKVD headquarters, on the basis of which the shootings were carried out. Documents and materials from the Arkhangelsk oblast and Solovets Islands regional headquarters of the Federal Security Services of the Russian Federation were also included.

Repressive actions and mass killings carried out at the beginning of the Second World War have been studied fairly thoroughly. The same cannot be said for the problem of political terror in Ukraine in the postwar period, although certain common features were present. The hunt for "Ukrainian bourgeois nationalism" in the works of scholars, writers and artists during the period known as "Zhdanovshchyna" (late 1940s) grew into an openly anti-Semitic campaign and a search for a "Jewish nationalist underground."

The question of Lavrentii Beria's use of the so-called "Ukrainian card" in the post-Stalin struggle for power remains to be studied in detail. On 16 May 1953, he prepared a special memorandum on "shortcomings" in the work of the former organs of the Ministry of State Security of the Ukrainian SSR (MGB URSR) in the struggle against the nationalist underground, which pertained to the situation in western Ukraine.

Information in this memorandum (which some researchers mistakenly viewed as strictly provocative in nature) and the events surrounding it makes clearer the negative consequences of the Soviet regime's brutal policies in western Ukraine. On 26 May 1953, at a meeting of the Presidium of the Central Committee, Communist Party of the Soviet Union a resolution was adopted on "The Question of the Western Oblasts of the Ukrainian SSR." This document gives interesting figures: from 1944 to 1952 approximately 500, 000 people were subject to some form of repression. Among these, more than 134,000 were arrested; more than 153,000 were killed; over 203,000 were exiled permanently; and almost 8,000 young people became "illegals." As a corollary, on 8 May 1953 Beria prepared a memo on this topic concerning the activities of the MGB of the Lithuanian SSR. Following his defeat in the power struggle and arrest on 2 July 1953, the Presidium of the CC USSR decided to excise both memos from the minutes of the Presidium. Further, the decisions adopted on the basis of these memos were changed because they encouraged the "activation of bourgeois-nationalist elements."

Obviously, much still remains to be done in order to write a comprehensive history of the political terror in Ukraine. This requires an initial period of discussion and even serious polemics that should begin with methodological and conceptual issues pertaining to Ukrainian history during the era of communist rule.







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