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Breaking down iron doors: why opening up Soviet archives matters

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One day nine years ago I entered the National Security Archives in Tbilisi, Georgia, in the hope of finally learning the fate of my great-grandfather Teofile Ninua.  A father of five, Teofile was picked up one cold winter night in 1938 from his home in western Georgia. He became one of the millions of people across the Soviet Union who disappeared during the Stalinist purges of 1937-38.

For decades, countless numbers of families have desperately tried to search for answers, to establish the truth about family members who disappeared without a trace. The truth that was denied to my great grandmother and her children, who grew up, raised the families of their own and died without ever finding out what happened to their father.

Files on cases of the persons persecuted during the Soviet times constituted part of the classified security service archives and were kept secret in storages carefully locked behind iron doors. Each Soviet republic had its own wing of the Soviet wide security service (KGB), headquartered in Moscow, known for the brutal persecution of dissidents. Arrested individuals were often executed or given long prison terms in Siberian gulags where many perished.

Unlike the former Democratic Republic of Germany, where Stasi archives were opened up shortly after the fall of the Berlin wall, KGB files in the countries of the former Soviet Union remained largely inaccessible years after the collapse of Communism. De-classification of files often involved lengthy bureaucratic procedures, which could be deliberately used to restrict access. In Russia many archives were opened in the early 1990s only to see access tightened a few years later, leaving key archives still effectively closed or subject to “re-classification” today.

With growing public demands, security archives started widely opening up in Georgia in early 2000s, allowing family members like me, to seek information about their lost relatives. Still, walking in to the security archives of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MIA) was a chilling and somewhat unpleasant experience. Having to fill out a hand-written application in the presence of the MIA official, made one feel almost guilty, trespassing in one’s quest to access forbidden information.

By highlighting the positive effects of transparency, the Open Government Partnership (OGP), has provided new impetus to make historic archives more accessible to public. In its 2014-15 open government action plan the government of Georgia committed to digitize the archives of the Soviet period and create e-catalogues that now allow searching for names of persecuted persons online. A lot still remains to be done. However, without having to go to the building in person, one can now fill out the application form on the website and receive hard or soft copies of archived personal files of family members and relatives.

In the aftermath of Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests, discussions between civil society and government led to a decision to open up previously concealed files. The Ukrainian Parliament passed the Access to Archives of Repressive Bodies of the Communist Totalitarian Regime of 1917-1991 law, transferring historic files to a special State archive managed by the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance. Public access to these files will provide closure for many Ukrainians eager to learn, as I was, what had happened to their relatives. The archives will almost certainly reveal decades’ worth of information on secret arrests, “disappearances” and other intricate details about Ukraine’s notorious KGB wing.

Why does opening up old archives matter so much?

The government policy towards historic archives is a good indicator of its commitment to transparency. In the post-totalitarian societies, public access to the formerly concealed historic archives carries particular importance for the prospect of future democratic development. As was the case with South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which played a key role in stabilizing the political transition by shining the light on Apartheid era crimes (including disappearances), the opening up of archives in post-totalitarian societies fosters a sense of nationhood and promotes necessary dialogue. By finally allowing for an honest examination of the horrors of the past, opening the archives hopefully leads to creation of safeguards ensuring those crimes never happen again.

Following my official request, I received two sheets of paper from the MIA archive. The first was a certificate confirming my great grandfather’s innocence. The government had officially rehabilitated Teofile Ninua. The second document contained the original verdict delivered by a court of three security officials who have sentenced my great grandfather to death.  They charged him with “participation in public meetings and distribution of literature against the party”, a common accusation at the time. He was shot for what we nowadays consider an essential inalienable human right and fundamental principle of an open society.

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