Research trip to Ukraine: Science against all odds

Autumn 2017 promises to become a turning point in my starting academic career. At the beginning of October 2017 I move to Kyiv, Ukraine for a rather lengthy amount of time – 6 weeks – to do field research on my chosen topic. My PhD project covers historical politics in the Russian-Ukrainian conflict area, with a current focus on the post-Stalinist era in Ukraine (1953-1973) and its dissident movement commonly referred to as “the 1960ers”.

City of Kyiv
Kyiv-Mohyla Academy
National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy

Kyiv, as you should call the city instead of “Kiev” if you would like to skip foreign ignorance and sound like an authentic connoisseur, is a sprouting mass of streets with chaotic and insufficient transportation and an eclectic mix of luxurious upper-class high-rises and dark ghetto-like street-ends, sometimes sharing one and the same neighborhood. The city noticeably suffers from overpopulation, caused by unemployment in other regions, which drives both simple workers and young creative elites to the capital, and the war in Eastern Ukraine, which produces a constant stream of internally-displaced people from Donetsk and Luhansk. Those IDPs of the richer variety tend to transfer their businesses (and private car parks) from Donetsk and settle in Kyiv, causing congestion on city avenues and further widening the city’s inequality gap.

Food prices in supermarkets and an average restaurant are closing in on German prices, making Kyiv a “state within a state”, with stark differences in salaries and opportunities to most other Ukrainian regions. Growing up in the southern, large, but very quiet and provincial city of Mykolaiv, I got to know a very different Ukraine in my youth and am constantly amazed at Kyiv’s cultural highs and infrastructural deeps and its overall atmosphere of a giant anthill.

Former KGB Archive

This is not my first time in an archive, as I already did some research in Poland during my Master’s studies, working in the museum archive of the commemoration site/former concentration camp Auschwitz. Still, entering the archives of the former Soviet security service KGB in Kyiv, declassified only in 2011 and largely untouched by European researchers, I felt a huge pang of excitement. This was my chance to discover something new, which of course is the ultimate goal of any researcher… But will I ultimately find what I am here for?

My experience of working in this archive, nowadays stored at the premises of the State Security Service of Ukraine (the SBU), turns out to be a mixed one. On one hand, it is exhilarating to be able to read secret interrogation protocols, memos by the KGB on the activities of the „1960ers“, a generation of Ukrainian intellectuals who protested against russification and creeping de-nationalisation of the Soviet Ukraine. The records also include handwritten requests, appeals, and banned pieces of poetry and prose by the dissidents themselves.

Large Folders of Archival Material
Criminal record Vasyl Stus
Focus on three Dissidents

Here I am focused mainly on three dissidents: the cooperative Ivan Dziuba, the non-conformist Viacheslav Chornovil, and the openly defiant Vasyl Stus and on their various kinds of anti-Soviet rhetoric and strategies of protest. Their cases are fully documented with over 30 volumes of largely hand-written material in the KGB archive. In that sense, the KGB/SBU archive proves to be a place of discovery and inspiration. On the other hand, it is a typical post-Soviet institution with non-transparent but very strict hierarchies, many restrictions for getting in and out, and clear limits to the politeness of its door guards. The archivists are an exception and are truly competent and helpful, once you get past their first indifference. It takes a certain degree of diplomatic skill to find your way and your place in the archive, but the work itself is truly rewarding. I am looking forward to my next research trip and continuing my research there in early 2018.

Museum of the 1960er Movement

My unexpected highlight on a rainy end-of-the-month day when the archives are closed for cleaning, the tiny three-room Museum of the 1960ers Movement suddenly surpasses all expectations. The building is decrepit and the ancient wooden door is stuck, so that visitors have to enter sideways. The lighting inside is poor, and the friendly babushka-receptionist complains that the city tried to evict the museum, but couldn’t do it legally, so now it only tries to drive the museum out by periodically switching off the electricity for a month at a time. I automatically lower my expectations. But then a young history student comes out to give me a tour, and well, this is the best museum tour I have ever received… anywhere. I walk around looking at manuscripts, documents, and private objects that belonged to the dissidents in the 1960’s, their typing machines used to produce illegal Samizdat literature, their Ukrainian folk ornaments that were worn in protest against russification, and I begin to imagine a world in which these people lived and worked.

Ukrainian 1960ers Museum
Ukrainian 1960ers Museum

It is a stark contrast to the archival records, which allow me to see only how these people went down and the price they had to pay for their convictions. But these were real people, with fears for their future and the futures of their family members, some of them more and some much less ready for a personal sacrifice in the name of Ukraine’s freedom and autonomy from Russia. My guide and I share a critical view on the ongoing tendency for total heroisation and idealization of the past “heroes” that is so present in the Ukrainian society at the moment. We agree that museums and scientific papers alike need to present those historical “heroes” in a more nuanced and realistic light.

Scientific Department

I am offered a look behind the scenes by my guide, who asks if I’d like to peek in on the work of the scientific department of the museum. The “scientific department” is a large room filled to the brim with more documents and objects pertaining to the 1960ers movement. All documents lie on surfaces including the floor in large piles and wait to be processed. The museum only has salary for two people to work on them. To my question on whether there is an album with copies of the most interesting documents that I could buy, the scientific coordinator laughs and heartily offers me a workplace if I would like to produce such an album.

The museum visit is symptomatic of the conditions in Ukraine and confirms my general impression of the state of affairs in the country. Financing for research is scarce and working conditions are dire, but there are these enthusiasts in each such institution that bring historical research forward against all odds, and that of course, gives hope.

Iryna Lysenko M.A.

More about Iryna’s work on the Blog „Konfliktregionen im östlichen Europa„.

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