The Secret-Police Files That Revealed My Family’s History

If those records are damaged in Russia’s invasion, other Ukrainians might not have the same chance.

Soviet-era archives with a silhouette of a woman's profile cut out of them
Matt Chase / The Atlantic. Source: LOC.

The French psychoanalyst Nicolas Abraham wrote that some of us are haunted by “the gaps left within us by the secrets of others.” Growing up as a Ukrainian American, I felt these gaps myself. My grandfather appeared in photographs of my mother as a child, but otherwise no one spoke of him. My middle name, Stephanie, is an homage to my mother’s eldest sister; she lives in Ukraine, but we usually just said she was over there. A photo of my grandmother’s brother, who died fighting with the Ukrainian nationalist movement after World War II, watched over us while we ate pierogies at her Cleveland home after church. When she talked about him, she cried. I couldn’t fully understand her grief; even as I grew older and learned about Ukrainian history, my family’s past felt somehow out of reach.

After my grandmother died in 2013, I wanted to stay close to her. I also wanted to fill the gaps that still preoccupied me. So I threw myself into researching my grandmother’s life—and came across a rich, unexpected source of information. Under the Soviet regime, secret police and other security officials had carefully monitored residents for criminal activity, including anti-Soviet sentiment, assembling files on individuals that could total hundreds of pages. Many of them included interrogation transcripts, witness statements, trial records, and personal correspondence. These once-classified records are located in physical archives across Ukraine, and, ironically, they made my own family history finally available to me in a way that had never before seemed possible.

Now these archives, like virtually every aspect of Ukrainian life, are seriously imperiled by Russia’s full-scale invasion. And every record that is damaged or destroyed makes it harder to uncover stories that have been suppressed or forgotten—stories about families like mine.

Ukraine was a Soviet republic through most of the 20th century, and for much of that time, its residents lived with a version of history that was severely biased, if not fabricated, and full of holes. Events that challenged the Communist Party’s competence, moral authority, or preferred narrative—Stalin-era purges, the nuclear catastrophe at Chernobyl, the Holocaust—were downplayed or stricken from the record. Not until 1987, more than 50 years after Stalin’s agricultural policies killed at least 3 million Ukrainians, did the official Soviet press use the word famine to describe what had happened.

With information so obviously manipulated, and secret police so often watching, average Soviet citizens were understandably paranoid about saying the wrong thing. Accordingly, they kept quiet—about views that might diverge from the state’s hard line, for instance, or after World War II, anti-Soviet partisan movements they’d supported. When the U.S.S.R. emerged from that vicious war, which killed roughly 26 million residents, many observed another kind of silence too: the type that can result from witnessing terrible violence and brutality.

In the 1980s, the Soviet Union experienced a period of unprecedented political openness—called glasnost—and then collapsed in 1991, hypothetically freeing its residents to speak and act in ways that had long been forbidden. For many families, that change didn’t translate immediately into candor; laws and cultural norms don’t always evolve in tandem. In Ukraine, Russia-friendly politicians continued to advance a Soviet version of history, and the country’s secret-police archives remained largely closed off. But in 2014, widespread protests swept Ukraine’s Kremlin-backed president, Viktor Yanukovych, from power. The new Western-oriented government in Kyiv introduced expansive public access to the records. For those who wanted to look, a remarkable trove of family-history materials had been unlocked.

Ukraine’s secret-police archives were, I found, notably responsive and efficient. All I had to do was send an email with a few vital statistics about the person I was researching, and within two months, I would receive an immaculate, high-resolution scan of the relevant record. In the years that I intensively researched my family’s history, I submitted so many requests for case files that the director of the secret-police archive in Kyiv friended me on Facebook.

These files contained information that no one in my family remembered or even knew: the crimes certain relatives were accused of (singing anti-Soviet songs), the length of time my grandparents were held in a cattle car as they were transported from western Ukraine to Siberia (two weeks), the years’ worth of paperwork my American family submitted to secure my mother and grandmother’s emigration. I saw family members’ signatures, thumbprints, and mug shots. So this is what my grandfather’s handwriting looks like, I remember thinking, reading a biographical statement he had written at the order of Soviet officials after arriving in Siberia. Even ordinary details, such as the flourishes he gave to uppercase letters, felt revelatory.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, though, has made it more difficult for others to have the same experience. “The archives are unlikely to be the Russians’ main target,” Anna Yatsenko, a co-founder of After Silence, an NGO dedicated to preserving Ukrainian history, wrote in an essay for the website War. Stories From Ukraine. “But the totality of the war means that they also become its victims.”

The biggest verified loss has been in Chernihiv, a regional capital in northern Ukraine. A Russian missile struck the secret-police archive there on the second day of the full-scale invasion, destroying approximately 8,000 criminal case files from the Soviet period. Russian forces have also looted the Kherson branch of the national archives, taking most of the historically valuable documents from the 18th and 19th centuries, and have damaged archives in Kharkiv and Mykolaiv. The fate of archives in Donetsk, Luhansk, and Crimea—areas that Ukraine lost control of following Russia’s 2014 military incursion—is unknown, but their holdings may have been transferred to Russia.

For Yatsenko, the destruction in Chernihiv was particularly devastating. Three years ago, she obtained the Soviet secret-police file on her paternal grandfather, Ivan Yatsenko, from the archive there. He had been murdered in 1948, one month before her father was born. Growing up, she heard virtually nothing about Ivan’s death, just as she heard very little about her family’s experience during the Ukrainian famine of 1932–33 or World War II.

From her grandfather’s file, which amounted to more than 300 pages, she learned that he had been shot by a fellow villager; Ivan, the head of the village council, had warned that he’d report the man for illegally storing weapons. The file even included the actual bullet that killed him: “a silent witness,” in her words. When she heard that the archive holding the materials had been hit in February 2022, “I felt anger, hatred, and helplessness,” she emailed me from Lviv, where she lives. Now the bullet, she wrote in her essay, “is a mere piece of molten metal amid the ash.”

Ukrainians are defending their historical resources as best they can. Anton Drobovych, the head of the country’s Institute of National Memory—a government body for research and preservation—advises his staff remotely even as he serves as a member of Ukraine’s armed forces. The national archive has accelerated its digitization strategy, aiming to create a one-stop online portal for its holdings. After Silence continues to record oral histories with Ukrainians; the organization keeps extra batteries and lights in case of power outages, and when its employees travel to reach their subjects, they build in extra time to account for the beleaguered railway system.

Like the rest of the country, they’ve demonstrated impressive resilience—because that’s what their circumstances require, but also because they know how essential their work is. Given the Soviet tradition of warping the truth, history research in Ukraine has an important political function: It allows what was hidden to finally be known.

When it’s your own family’s history you’re unburying, I found, what comes to light can affect you in surprising ways. Some of it might fill you with pride; some of it might be disturbing. That was true in my case, as I saw how larger forces—nationalism, genocide, totalitarianism—intertwined with the lives of my individual family members. But that knowledge was still deeply satisfying: Once I’d seen the “secrets of others” even just partly unraveled, I didn’t feel haunted by so many gaps. I hate to think of any other families losing that chance.