Witnesses killed, archives destroyed, documents in danger

The difficulties of protecting Ukraine's historical memory against Russian missiles.

Die Zeit, 22.3.2022

After their initial military successes, an officer wrote in retrospect, the invaders had probably hoped to take Kiev “on the move”. The first advance on the Ukrainian capital was made from the northwest, with only one tank company and some motorized infantry. Having advanced to twenty kilometers from the city center, the attack stalled: "The units' way was blocked by the Irpin River, over which all bridges and crossings had been destroyed. Thus began a bloody two and a half months for the fascist troops, which eventually cost them hundreds of thousands of killed soldiers and officers."

     An invasion, an advance on Kiev with tanks, Irpin: much of this in this Soviet report from the summer of 1942 about the ultimately failed defense of the Ukrainian capital against the Wehrmacht the year before seems disturbingly current. I found this document recently while doing research on the history of Kyiv during World War II in the former Central Party Archive of Ukraine - just three weeks before Putin sent his troops on the march to "denazify" the country. Now I encounter place names from the historical sources in the news every day. In early March, a photo on the front page of the New York Times particularly dramatically demonstrated how current events overlap with those of 80 years ago: it showed a family killed by Russian artillery fire as they fled the destroyed bridge over the Irpin River. The bodies lay at the feet of a Soviet monument to Red Army soldiers who perished in combat with the Wehrmacht at that spot in 1941.

     Putin's "denazification" of Ukraine is now killing people who survived the terror of the Nazis, people like Borys Romanchenko, whom the Germans deported to Dortmund in 1942 as a teenager, enslaving him to do forced labor. After having attempt to escape, he was sent to the concentration camp Buchenwald and then to three other concentration camps. In 1945 he was forced to serve with the Soviet occupation forces in East Germany, and was not allowed to return home until 1950. In Kharkiv, the 96-year-old now burned to death in his bedroom. A Russian rocket had hit his apartment building.

     With the death of Romanchenko, who for many years was committed to the work at the Buchenwald Memorial, an important voice of the “living memory” has fallen silent. However, the Russian invasion also endangers the scientific research on the history of World War II.

In Ukraine, archives have opened up to an extent that has long since become unimaginable for Russia. When I began researching relations between German and Soviet communists in the Weimar Republic in Moscow in 1999, the former head of the domestic intelligence service FSB, Vladimir Putin, had just been appointed prime minister. Shortly thereafter, the first holdings I needed for my work were closed - and soon FSB employees came to the archive to make sure that the files from these holding were not released. In Kiev, on the other hand, not only the holdings of the former party and the Central State Archives are accessible, but also those of the archive of the SBU, the Ukrainian secret service, where the records of the Soviet Interior Ministry NKVD are kept.

     Reading them sometimes develops a real pull. For example, the reports of the Soviet secret police from summer and fall of 1941 convey an oppressive picture of the atmosphere in Kiev, which was besieged by the Wehrmacht. Some people underestimated the imminent danger and considered early reports on German atrocities to be Soviet propaganda; some even believed that the USSR had started the war. Others had a presentiment about what was coming: for example, the editor of an agricultural magazine predicted that hard times were ahead, "especially for the Jews, who will shot by the Germans in groups."

     What the Jews had to fear could be learned since 1939, when refugees from those parts of Poland which were occupied by the Germans fled East (in some places in Eastern Ukraine about 90 percent of these refugees were of Jewish origin). From the beginning of the invasion, the Germans also dropped masses of leaflets whose messages found their way to the minds of many citizens as  Soviet informer reports indicate. One Kiev woman declared in mid-August 1941: "The Germans are a cultured people, only Jews and Communists need be afraid of them, everyone else must merely keep calm."

     Many Jewish Kiev residents recognized the danger in 1941 and tried to escape to the east - which in turn was taken as evidence that they were cowards and did not want to fight. 

"The city is now purging itself of Jews, they are fleeing," said one worker two weeks before the Wehrmacht marched in, "but death will still find them everywhere." Escaping the city, however, was very difficult. Trains were crowded and seats in cars were reserved for the Soviet nomenklatura.

     The documents show how Kiev became alienated from itself under the pressure of violence and war. Soviet society was corroded by distrust, and after decades of oppression and Stalinist terror, many unpaid bills had accumulated.

     The German occupiers now directed this hatred towards the Jews. In November 1941, a caretaker proudly recorded how he and some neighbors locked 18 Jewish residents in a room on the night of September 29 and the next morning escorted them “to the specified place” – to Babyn Yar – “from where they have not returned". A few days after the massacre of the Kiev Jews, the newspaper Ukrainske Slovo, published under German supervision, drew the readers’ attention to “the little house at Shevchenko Boulevard 45” where the Ukrainian militia received information about hidden “partisans, Jews and Red commissars”. The groups left behind by the party and the NKVD in Kyiv to work underground were also gradually decimated by denunciations.

     These documents are invaluable for understanding how the German war of extermination was experienced in Ukraine. In particular, for comprehending why and how some collaborated with the Germans while others turned away in horror,. Now the documents are threatened by a new war and with them many memories of the fates of Ukrainian victims of war and Holocaust, traces of which are omnipresent in the files.

     It is possible that a treasure trove of historical knowledge that most Germans were previously unaware of could be irretrievably damaged. After all, even many historians have ignored or simply overlooked the fact that all of these connections could have been researched in Ukraine without restrictions for many years already. Significantly, there are a number of cooperation projects between German and Russian archives, for example on the digitization of German trophy files on World War I and II, but no comparable cooperation with Ukrainian institutions. This ignorance also applies to other topics: the Ukrainian archives offer revealing holdings covering the entire Soviet era – from the time of the civil war to the years of “standstill” under Leonid Brezhnev and perestroika under Mikhail Gorbachev. You just had to use it.

     In addition, there are numerous sources from the early modern period and the 19th century which could help to correct widespread German misconceptions about Eastern and East Central Europe. In today's Germany an understanding of the nation is still widespread equates cultural diversity with ethnic tensions. No wonder that so many people are astonished at Russian-speaking Ukrainians who courageously oppose Putin's troops. The fact that in spring 2014 a political scientist like Herfried Münkler in various interviews considered a division of Ukraine along the Dnipro as a way to settle the conflict with Russia is also a result of widespread ignorance of Ukraine's history. 

     At the same time, people have repeatedly pointed to Ukraine's supposedly problematic attitude toward its history during World War II. In particular, the honoring of the nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, who pandered to the Germans (and was sent to a concentration camp by them shortly after the invasion of the Soviet Union) is seen as proof that the Ukrainians have not yet come to terms with their past as exemplarily as we Germans have – overlooking the fact that the involvement of Ukrainian auxiliary police in the mass shootings of Jews is an integral part of Ukraine’s Holocaust memorials.

     After the "Revolution of Dignity", the Euromaidan of 2014, the archival policy, which was already much more liberal than in Russia, received a further boost. People could now photograph the files themselves or download digital copies. Moreover, previously closed holdings have been opened. In addition to the files of investigative and criminal proceedings, for example against Ukrainian auxiliary police officers who had participated in the murder of Jews or against persons denounced by acquaintances for "anti-Soviet statements", the personnel files of former NKVD secret service employees are now also accessible. On the basis of these files, in recent years Ukrainian historians have been able to make important contributions to the history of Soviet rule as well as to Nazi perpetrator research.

     Since the beginning of the Russian invasion on February 24, the reading rooms of the archives have been closed, and the buildings are guarded by members of the National Guard to protect them from terrorist attacks. But the historical memory of Ukraine is largely unprotected against Russian missiles and shells.

     In a video interview, Anatoly Chromov, head of the Ukrainian archives service, reports that all the historical files of the regional NKVD and KGB stored in the building of the SBU regional administration in Chernihiv have been burned, including several thousand files of victims of Stalinist terror. In Kharkiv, the state archive was hit, although the building in which the very files are stored suffered relatively minor damage so far. The situation in the areas occupied by Russian forces, on the other hand, is completely unclear; there is no longer any contact with many of the employees there. There are also very limited possibilities for rescuing stocks from threatened areas, says Chromov, as virtually no region within Ukraine can be considered safe. The archives therefore have little choice but to store their most valuable collections in newly acquired fireproof lockers that can withstand a fire for two hours. In addition, efforts are currently being made to copy as many digital copies as possible to the servers of foreign archives - an agreement to this effect was recently concluded with the British National Archives. The problem is that only a small part of the files has been digitized so far. The holdings in the entire Ukraine amount to about 86 million units (including films, photos and sound recordings).

     Roman Podkur of the Institute of History at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev hopes that at least some of the material can be secured through some kind of grassroots initiative by historians: Since Ukrainian archives have allowed unlimited photography free of charge since 2015, he says, there are copies of many documents that can be assembled into a virtual archive. At the beginning of February, we met in his office not far from the National Museum; Roman showed me that one of the barricades of the Maidan activists had been under his window exactly eight years earlier, and told me about his editions of NKVD documents from various regional archives. At present, he tells me now on the phone, he is engaged mainly in volunteer work, besides collecting new material on the current war: "A historian never stops thinking like a historian ..."

     Even if the Russian invasion would end soon, historical research in Ukraine have suffered a serious setback. Many historians have fled to the West, some losing almost everything in the process - like Alexander Kruglov, one of the country's most important Holocaust researchers. His apartment in Kharkiv was also destroyed by Russian shelling, and his library and his private archive were burned along with the copies of documents that he had collected over many years and that were important for his work. All that remained was what he had saved on his laptop.