Working With Archives Amid a War: Experience of a Ukrainian PhD Student

In this study, Maryna Tarasiuk tries to make sense of how Ukrainian archives are managed and how people can access historical documents during an armed conflict—a topic that has become even more significant in the context of the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian war. She focuses on the National Archival Fonds of Ukraine (NAF) to understand how public access to important cultural and historical resources has evolved and define the most effective way of accessing national cultural heritage. The study takes both a theoretical and a practical approach, looking at how Ukrainian Soviet Archives were managed during World War II, examining how the NAF was managed before and after Russia’s full-scale invasion, and reflecting on her personal experiences working with the NAF as a Ukrainian PhD student. Her central argument is that the digitizing of archives is the most effective way of preserving and distributing information, not only in peacetime but critically during a war.

The paper was developed during the “History of the Public Sphere in Ukraine and East Central Europe” course at the Invisible University for Ukraine, guided by Oleksiy Rudenko (CEU), and prepared for publication in collaboration with Nadiia Chervinska (CEU). The research was supported by the Open Society University Network (OSUN) and the Deutscher Akademischer Austauschdienst (DAAD).

Ukrainian Soviet Archives in World War II

During World War II, the Ukrainian SSR lost a significant part of its national cultural heritage—what was not destroyed, was stolen or evacuated without return. The tragedy of the Ukrainian archives is linked to the fact that both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union caused irreparable damage to them. When armies were retreating, they often issued decrees to burn documents which could be useful to the enemy. To save some archival documents, in 1941 the USSR announced the evacuation of various archival institutions. Part of the documents of the 16th–19th centuries were evacuated from the Central Archive of Ancient Acts (now—Central State Historical Archives of Ukraine in Kyiv). Only 43,000 out of 800,000 cases were evacuated from the State archive of Dnipropetrovsk region (mostly descriptions, secret documents, documents of the Russian tsarist era), in which a significant part of the documents was lost. The archives from the Ukrainian border regions were also lost: the documents of the state archives of Lutsk, part of the documents of Lviv, Chernihiv and other cities were destroyed due to bombings. The documents from local archives were evacuated to the eastern part of Ukraine, and then to the hinterlands. Yet, because archival institutions often did not have time to prepare for the evacuation, many documents were destroyed due to improper conditions in new storage places. Moreover, the Soviet government carried out the evacuation selectively, and mostly focused on Soviet and secret documents or those used in ideological propaganda. In other words, the USSR authorities mostly saved the documents which were useful for the Soviet system. Archived works that could not be evacuated were destroyed. Thus, Ukrainian archival collections suffered damage not only because of the war but also due to the government policy. Some of the archival documents taken to the hinterlands of Russia (Ulianovsk, Ufa, Zlatoust) were never returned to either the Ukrainian SSR or independent Ukraine. Since access to Russian archival institutions for Ukrainians is currently limited, a part of Ukrainian national heritage is lost to us for a long time, if not forever.

Some of the archival documents of the Ukrainian SSR remained in local archives, and the German occupation authorities had their own ideas about the fate of archival documents and also used them for ideological purposes. Under their control, a significant part of the archival collections was taken to Germany, Poland, and Czechoslovakia. In particular, documents ranging from the thirteenth century to 1939 were taken from Lviv to Tynets (Poland). During the retreat of the Wehrmacht in 1943, local magistrate books and documents relating to German communities were actively carried abroad due to their connection (or even potential connection) with German history. Some documents, which the Germans did not consider valuable, were used for heating the premises. In addition, the property of archives and libraries, such as in Dnipro, were intentionally destroyed.  

Were readers able to access the archival documents during the war? With the exception of prosecutors, judicial and investigative bodies, NKVD, and archive employees, access to the reading rooms was terminated by the USSR decree from August 27, 1941. However, in April 1942, the decree was revised in response to a decline in the publication of scientific works, indicating a stagnation in the sciences. Thus, only researchers who had recommendation letters from scientific institutions were allowed to work with the documents. However, most of the archival sources were evacuated, remained under occupation, or were kept unorganized, making it difficult to talk about the effectiveness of the decree for scientific work. Although possible, making photo- and typewritten copies with technical devices was hardly an option due to their poor condition during that period. Even later, in 1947, archivists sometimes refused to issue documents or they issued documents that were illegible due to the damaged physical condition of the documents. 

Access to archival documents of the USSR was generally politicized and the situation has not changed since the beginning of World War ІІ. The circular “On the Scientific and Publishing Work of the Archival Institutions of the NKVD Because of the Patriotic War of the Peoples of the USSR Against Fascist Germany,” published on December 9, 1941, enhanced the publication of brochures, collections of documents, articles on war topics for propaganda purposes, and the search for unreliable citizens for deportation. Generally, during this period the authorities actively supported scientific research related to the study of 20th-century events. Scholars compiled reports on the political parties of Ukraine in 1917-1921, assembled collections of documents on the defeat of German troops in 1918, the reconstruction of the national economy, and stories about war heroes.

The archive experienced similar repression under German occupation. Yet, the German administration kept stricter records of captured documents. For example, German occupation authorities in Sumy oblast were interested in preserving and using documents for the purpose of anti-Soviet propaganda. In this regard, in some cities of Sumy oblast, municipal propaganda departments were allowed to use archival materials after the end of September 1941.

As a result, in 1945, the physical condition of Ukrainian archival collections had severely deteriorated compared to its pre-war condition. According to the data from 1945, 46 million archival documents were officially lost during the war. Immediately after the war, the archival institutions of the Ukrainian SSR began to search for lost documents, initiate the re-evacuation of collections, and systematize documents for the restoration of the State Archive Collection. To this day, the archival institutions of independent Ukraine still conduct these searches. Many of these collections are located in other European countries, so it is important to find ways to enable the access of Ukrainian and foreign scholars to them.

Technological progress and the internet expanded the possibilities of archival structures to fulfill the above-mentioned task, but it was not the case in the middle of the 20th century. The selective preservation of documents during World War II caused the loss of many sources that researchers are no longer able to use for the study of historical phenomena nowadays. It is important to prevent the loss of national property in today’s war because primary sources make it possible to resist Russian ideological propaganda of the past, present, and future.

Public Access to the NAF of Ukraine

Since 1991, Ukraine has needed to determine the structure of archival institutions and the methods of public access to the NAF. It was determined by two principles: firstly, by human rights, namely the right of access to information, and secondly, by the state’s idea that free access to information was one of the ways to “de-ideologize” and democratize society after the collapse of the USSR (in geographical and intellectual terms) and to ensure transparency in the study of Ukrainian history.

During the implementation of these practices, Ukrainian archives encountered many difficulties, including the secrecy of a significant array of archival materials, the lack of a correct description of cases, and the absence of a single standard for data systematization. To achieve the above goals and overcome the existing obstacles, the Ukrainian government adopted the law “About Information” in 1992 and the “About the National Archive Collections and Archival Institutions” law in 1993. As a result, in Ukraine, access to information belonging to the NAF is implemented on the democratic principle of publicity of archival materials, implying available access for all citizens. Exceptions include categories of documents related to state security or state secrets, and are regulated separately. This corresponds to the practice of European archives, which restricts access to documents of state security.

Today, according to the Ukrainian law, “On the National Archival Collections and Archival Institutions,” citizens and non-residents of Ukraine have an opportunity to physically access the documents of the archival institution if they send appropriate application forms and a document verifying their identity. In the early 2000s, archival information was disseminated by publishing certain documents through radio, press, or television. However, this method of disseminating archival materials is ineffective for researchers. The “Procedure for the Use of NAF Documents” detailed the conditions for two other special cases: 1) issuing the documents for use outside the archives (for exhibitions, investigations, religious services etc.; 2) ordering copies of the NAF documents which was possible on a paid basis with the deadline for copying up to one month.

Improvements in the field of public access to the archives were connected with the changes in the ways of disseminating information. The development of technologies, the growth of the role of the internet, and the rapid accumulation and circulation of documents created new challenges for archival institutions. In response, Ukraine set the goal of integrating its archives into the databases of the world. The structure of archival institutions is now regulated by additional laws that sparked the intensive “informatization” (i.e. computerization) of archival science: “About the National Informatization Program,” “About Electronic Documents and Electronic Document Management,” “Procedure for Storing Electronic Documents in Archival Institutions,” and a special decree of the President of Ukraine “About Measures for the Development of the National Component of the Global Information Network, Internet and Ensuring Wide Access to this Network in Ukraine.” As a result, since the 2000s, archival institutions began utilizing digital technology. This allowed the employees of the archives to publish materials on the internet, prompted the creation of the departments responsible for the development of information technologies in state institutions and supplemented their websites with electronic archives. Unfortunately, early in the century, the implementation of new archival resources in cities throughout Ukraine was generally insignificant. Some of the reasons for this include insufficient state funding and  the lack of qualified employees who could participate in the computerization. As a result, this lack of computerization hampered the digitization of documents for further online access by citizens and slowed the speed of fulfilling paid orders for copying documents. For example, until 2014, most of the collections of archival institutions in the Donetsk oblast had not been digitized, except for some descriptions and guides.

The Russian occupation of Crimea and the start of the Russo-Ukrainian war in the Donetsk and the Luhansk regions in 2014 were accompanied by the destruction and the removal of archival property and the late evacuation of the NAF. Thus, many documents remain in the occupied territories. The full-scale Russian invasion of 2022 also resembles the World War II practice of stealing documents from archival institutions for propaganda purposes. Recent examples include stealing valuable documents of the 18th and the 19th centuries from the State Archives of the Kherson oblast and the destruction of the archive division of the Security Service of Ukraine in Chernihiv. In this context, an electronic archive would have been useful as it would ensure the accessibility of the endangered materials. Documents in an electronic archive do not decay and, in case of a loss of physical copies, they would be preserved and available to future scholars.

Yet, an increase of relevant staff and technical equipment for rapid copying at the archival institutions depends on the financial capabilities of the State Archives Service, and the war has led to a decrease in state funding, so archival institutions can rely only on cooperation with partners. Even before the full-scale Russian invasion, Ukraine invested a lot of efforts into the digitization of historical sources by intensifying cooperation with various foreign institutions, such as FamilySearch International, the Institute for Research on Totalitarian Regimes, the Archive of State Security Affairs of the Czech Republic, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum etc. This made it possible for Ukrainian archival institutions to save copies of their material on digital cloud platforms abroad, exchange documents between organizations, and receive financial and technical assistance. In spite of the present war, the State Archives Service continues to publish more documents on its official websites every month. According to my observations, many documents were digitized before the full-scale war, but the current number of digitized documents has increased significantly. For example, the State Archive of the Poltava Region, in collaboration with FamilySearch International, digitizes 12,000 to 13,500 sheets of documents daily.

Since 1991, Ukrainian citizens have received significantly more opportunities to access and work with archival resources thanks to the government’s democratic approach to the archival national heritage of Ukraine. This made it possible to overcome the biggest obstacle to archival documents— the political ideology of the Soviet Union. For the first time, Ukrainians have had the opportunity to explore various aspects of the national past, which the Soviet propaganda machine had hidden for so long.

The full-scale Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022 failed to completely paralyze the activities of archival institutions and the work of historians. The State Archives Service of Ukraine was forced to intensify the digitization of documents and the search for partners to perform this task in order to ensure unhindered access of scholars to the archives. This task becomes more important as the war continues because documents are already lost, just as they were during World War II.

At the meeting of the Humanitarian and Information Policy Committee of Ukraine on November 18, 2022, the Head of the State Archives Service Anatolii Khromov identified the most critical issues of the institution: evacuation of the archival collections to conditionally safe places, restoration of the archives in the reoccupied territories, and acceleration of digitization efforts and cooperation with international partners. Thus, the 2022 full-scale Russian invasion demonstrated that the State Archives Service needed to reorient its activities, as archival institutions were not prepared for the conditions of martial law and the consequences of the invasion for national property.

Working with Archive Materials During the Full-Scale Invasion of 2022: A Micro-Historical Analysis

At the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion of 2022, Ukrainian archives faced a dilemma: either to hide the sources in storage from potential destruction by missiles and paralyze the work of the historians or to continue the functioning of the archives and risk the national heritage contained therein. The safety of citizens during their stay in the archive was also an important concern. The first option was chosen and most archival institutions only closed their reading rooms. Only in the end of September 2022, seven reading rooms in the archives (namely, state archives of Zakarpattia, Chernivtsi, Vinnytsia, Khmelnytskyi, Kirovohrad, Lviv regions, the Central State Historical Archive of Ukraine in Lviv), far from the frontline of the war, were opened—they were deemed safe enough for researchers. However, I has not yet been able to access archived information from the period I am interested in—the late Middle Ages—offline, as these documents are held in the Central State Historical Archive of Ukraine in Kyiv, where the reading room has not resumed work. Moreover, a significant part of the documents from the Late Middle Ages is still unpublished online, so the lack of access to the archives paralyzes my entire research process. To continue my work during martial law, I have had to find other practical ways of processing documents among which are: 1) commissioning the archives to produce digital copies; 2) looking for electronic copies on the websites of archival institutions.

Ordering digital copies on a paid basis was the first option that I used. For example, the Act Book of Collection 25, Description 1, Case 10 of the CDIAC contains 430 sheets. In this case, copying an entire book is complicated by its high cost and the potential length of the process. I solved this problem thanks to a unique document-by-document description of the act book, made in the 19th century at the Archive of Ancient Acts of the City of Kyiv and which was published with open access. From these brief descriptions, I selected 151 sheets that could potentially relate to my dissertation.

It took 73 days to receive the digital copies, and the cost of the order was 328.18 UAH (approximately 9 EUR according to the exchange rate of the NBU on November 21, 2022). The length of the copying period is likely due to high demand, as all researchers are forced to use this service due to the lack of an alternative. This process has had four difficulties for my research: I) copying only individual sheets may cause the omission of important texts which are not mentioned in the document description of the act books; II) not all act books have unique descriptions; ІІІ) paid copying of all act books can be financially burdensome; IV) waiting two months for 151 copies is a long time if one plans to process twenty similar act books. In the case of Ukrainian researchers, the main advantage of requesting copies is the ability to work with these documents offline due to the unexpected shortages of electricity and loss of internet connection. Additionally, digital copies on the archival websites allow the reader to quickly disseminate the information to other interested readers, regardless of wartime conditions.      

The second option of using electronic copies of the documents on the websites of archival institutions also has notable advantages and disadvantages. In Ukraine, the enlargement of the online archives is inconsistent and primarily depends on the technical equipment of individual institutions and the activities of their management. At the Central Historical Archive, the electronic archive (“E-archive”) currently contains 697,380 digital copies. This represents a significant volume of digitized documents, yet it is not comprehensive. Online access allowed me to fully process the documents of Collection 21 for research and Collection 26, Inventory 1, Case 1 free of charge. Also, during the war, in October 2022, the archive published Case 7, which belongs to Collection 25, Inventory 1. On the other hand, the website does not yet have copies of the documents of the Act books of the Collection 28 until 1569. 

Online electronic copies are: I) free of charge; ІІ) the researcher can analyze and compare different records from the act book, and not a sample; ІІІ) access to sources is 24/7 and can be used simultaneously by several researchers; IV) documents are not subject to accidental damage due to regular copying or physical contact; V) documents can be downloaded for offline use. The main difficulty is that many sources are yet to be digitized, and the archival institutions of Ukraine have  intensified this process during the war. In addition, most of the documents in the “E-archive” pertain to later periods of history. The reason for this may be the demand among scholars (the archives digitize those documents that are of utmost interest to the researchers). Medieval studies remain a relatively underdeveloped area of inquiry in Ukraine. Consequently, among historians, there is a markedly reduced demand for documentary sources from this epoch compared to those from other periods.

Sometimes digital documentary copies are made by international organizations that publish electronic versions on their websites. I mentioned that such organizations may have formal affiliations with archival institutions (such as FamilySearch International), but some may not. For example, the materials of Collection 28 before 1569 were unofficially published on one of the Polish websites. No doubt, a postgraduate student can use such external databases, but the best way to get information is one that is accessible for everyone.

My personal experience is only a single example that demonstrates certain advantages and disadvantages of each method of accessing the NAF. Yet, it shows that the publication of electronic copies of documents off-site is the most accessible and effective way of working with primary sources during both martial law and peacetime. In addition, the researcher is able to combine the paid method of ordering copies with available publications in internet-based archives, thanks to which PhD students are able to continue their research studies in any corner of the country or the world, regardless of their financial situation.

Today, as the practice of destroying documents during wars is repeating itself, archival institutions need to plan ahead and improve their access systems by implementing technical solutions. Otherwise, this war will have unnecessary long-term consequences and negatively affect the work of scientists and junior scholars. The experience of World War II showed not only the harm of selectively preserving documents, but also the limited research opportunities. Therefore, in order to reform public access, democratic access must first be implemented. The main idea of the democratic approach to preserving sources is the belief that all written sources are equal and important. Also, every citizen has the right to access these sources. Researching various aspects of human history is no less important than the political part of history. This simple idea radically changed the principles of archive work during the modern Russo-Ukrainian war compared to the archive practices during the Second World War.

As the Ukrainian experience has shown, every country should immediately work on improving open access to their archival institutions on a democratic basis, and not as an ad-hoc response to the event of an unforeseen war. At the beginning of the full-scale Russian invasion, the State Archives Service of Ukraine already had developed ways of remote access to the NAF, and this process has only been intensified. The rules for accessing the archives have also changed, as they had to be updated by taking into account the experience of researchers during wartime. The existence of online access options to the NAF made it possible to mitigate the consequences of the war for scientific research.

From the perspective of the biggest armed conflicts of the 20th and 21st centuries, the experience of Ukrainian researchers has demonstrated the possibilities of utilizing technical progress to preserve national heritage and provide the best ways for public access to archival collections. Given the potential threat of the physical destruction of the archives, the implementation of technological solutions makes it possible to avoid repeating the fate of the documents destroyed during World War II. At the moment, online access to the electronic archives is free, available whenever, and it is the most accessible option for scholars from all over the world to continue their scientific work. Digitized documents are available in the public domain and allow researchers to access primary sources.