Friday April 9, 2015, was a day that will live in infamy for Vladimir Putin and the KGB. It was the day when the Verkhovna Rada, Ukraine’s parliament, agreed to declassify the Soviet archives. This includes the files in the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), which is the successor to the Ukrainian branch of the KGB.
These files include records of secret arrests, details about how victims of communism “disappeared,” and much more. For those who had relatives that suffered in this era, we now have a chance to discover the truth about what happened.
I first got interested in this subject around 2009, when I read that Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko would declassify the Soviet archives. Unlike in Russia, people would not only be able to see their file, but they would even be able to learn the identities of their informers. Like many people, who had relatives from Ukraine, I thought it was a chance to learn the truth about how my grandfather Yakov Zapesochny was arrested and who snitched on him.
But according to Volodymyr Vyatrovych, who led the effort to declassify the Soviet archives from 2008-2010, he was fired in 2010 because Viktor Yanukovych won the presidency that year. President Yanukovych wanted a better relationship with Vladimir Putin and revealing KGB secrets constituted an unacceptable strain on relations with the Kremlin.
In 2012, I began asking Ukrainian officials if it was possible to see my grandfather’s file. Apparently, it became clear that as a relative I would be given permission under some conditions. First, I would have to go to the SBU archives in Kiev and then I would have to provide evidence that this was my relative.
The process is designed to deter Ukrainians from claiming their relatives’ records—who in their right mind would voluntarily enter that dungeon and provide personal family information to a bunch of SBU thugs that used to be in the KGB?
After Yanukovych fled the country in 2014, I hoped a pro-Western government would want to reopen this issue and allow people to access the documents remotely. On Friday, Ukraine’s parliament took the first step. Since my grandfather was arrested in Ukraine, his KGB file should be located there.
There are two reasons why this declassification is important. First it provides victims some sense of closure. Second, a secret police cannot function, and the police state it supports cannot survive, without a network of informers. Releasing the names of KGB informers will expose those individuals and undercut any residual leverage they may have with SBU authorities.
In the Soviet period, the communists forced people to spy on their friends and relatives. This system killed millions of people and ruined the lives of countless others.
On June 23, 1936, my grandfather was taken from his wife, and his five-year-old son because of the testimony of a confidential informer. He was forced to work as a prisoner at the Gulag in Vorkuta. It was there he eventually met my grandmother and had two children, my father and uncle. It would be more than 10 years before my grandfather would see his oldest son again.
He survived the harsh Gulag, but once released in 1943, he was forced to live in Vorkuta until 1969. For a decade, they lived in Kaluga, which is a city about 100 miles from Moscow. It was not until 1978 that my grandparents would finally escape communism and move to Israel.
My father visited his parents in Israel several times. On one trip, he learned a rumor about how it was generally known amongst the family that my grandfather’s brother-in-law was the one who told the authorities that he was an “enemy” of the regime.
During Stalin’s Great Terror in the 1930s, it was common for people to inform to the authorities about their friends and relatives in order to save themselves. There isn’t a family in the Soviet Union that doesn’t have a similar story.
The reason this declassification is so important is because the files will hopefully break Putinism once and for all. Part of the reason democracy never fully emerged was because Soviet communism never had an equivalent of the Nuremberg trials. The names of victims and victimizers were never made fully public.
As Soviet dissident Vladimir Bukovsky once said:
“Having failed to finish off conclusively the communist system, we are now in danger of integrating the resulting monster into our world. It may not be called communism anymore, but it retained many of its dangerous characteristics … Until the Nuremberg-style tribunal passes its judgment on all the crimes committed by communism, it is not dead and the war is not over.”
While Ukraine has many strong supporters in the United States Congress that are pushing the president to provide weapons, nobody really believes that such lethal assistance alone will end this war.
Putin is using the war in Ukraine to keep his popularity high despite a terrible Russian economy. If Ukraine speeds up its record declassification, and help place it online, many Russians will finally know the secrets of the Soviet regime.
This could have a better chance of forcing Putin to withdraw from Ukraine because the potential for chaos on the streets is real. Since there are many marriages between Ukrainians and Russians, it is likely that many of the files Kiev recently declassified contain secrets about Russian victims as well.
The thirst for justice among Russians and Ukrainians is real. Bringing these records to the light of day will highlight the moral bankruptcy of the ongoing Russian invasion. Russian sentiment may even turn against the campaign. If more Soviet republics, such as the Baltic States, also release their files, it is likely to create a real groundswell of support for reform. Such a historical reckoning could threaten the very foundations of Putin’s post-Soviet regime
For 15 years, Putin’s regime has been based on blackmail. In July 2000, in a scene reminiscent of the Godfather, President Putin brought many of the nation’s top oligarchs and explained to them that the siloveki (ex-KGB members and top military officers) were taking over the country. The deal was that the oligarchs could keep their assets if they supported Putin politically.
Within a year of that meeting, Putin forced oligarchs Boris Berezovsky and Vladmir Gusinsky to flee the country to show them he was serious. And once Mikhail Khodorkovsky was arrested in 2003, the other oligarchs never challenged Putin again.
This regime has also resorted to murdering enemies to keep everyone else in line. The high profile murders of Boris Nemtsov, Boris Berezovsky, and Alexander Litvinenko are just a few of the crimes that are plausibly tied to government forces. In the case of Litvinenko, his widow Marina and friend Alex Goldfarb co-wrote a book on his final years in exile and his death.
The book talks about an incident in 2003, when Litvinenko noticed a former KGB agent spying on him. Litvinenko caught the spy and learned from him that people connected to the Russian Embassy in London had approached him, calling him by his former KGB name. They told the ex-agent to follow Litvinenko or they would tell the British government about the man’s former career as a spy. Since he had lied on his visa application, he risked deportation. He pleaded with Litvinenko to help him.
If the Russians did this in the United Kingdom, there is no reason to believe that the same thing cannot happen in the United States as well. While the vast majority of Soviet émigrés are good people, there is no reason to believe that a small percentage of them did not have some ties with the KGB. Ukraine’s decision to declassify Soviet records takes an important step towards preventing similar abuses in the future, and undercuts the Russian government’s ability to spy and blackmail foreign nationals.