On a bright, clear day in mid-June, Andry Kohut, director of the State Archive of the Ukrainian Security Service, stood in front of the sarcophagus of Chernobyl’s reactor Unit 4 wearing sneakers and an N95 face mask. Just over his head, a new mural by the Ukrainian artist Valeriy Korshunov, titled “Look into the Future,” came into view, depicting an outstretched hand holding an atom-like orb over a field of wild horses. Unveiled in 2019 to cheer up workers at the Chernobyl plant, the mural is meant to symbolize hope and renewal. So, too, was Kohut’s visit, in a way: before him, a stack of bright-yellow books, titled The KGB Chernobyl Dossier: From Construction to Accident were placed upon a folding table, and a small crowd of journalists gathered round.

The books contained hundreds of previously classified KGB documents about the nuclear power plant. They depicted how the Soviet security service participated in the construction, how it covered up small accidents at the plant, and how, when reactor Unit 4 exploded in April 1986, it moved to deny and mitigate the scale of the disaster. Kohut lowered his mask, grabbed a mic, and thanked the reporters for having made the journey into the exclusion zone. Because of his efforts, this archive was now being published for the first time, in print and online, for all the world to see. The first day that a portion of the Chernobyl documents were posted, 24,000 people visited the site to read them. Over seven thousand of these visitors read a single, secret, KGB report on the causes of the accident — a first draft of exactly what went wrong with the reactor. 

The initiative was undertaken on behalf of the electronic archive of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement, a project that Kohut and several collaborators launched in 2013, a few months before anti-government protests erupted in the streets of Kyiv. Then-Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych had reversed his predecessor’s policy of openness when it came to national archives, and Kohut and his team figured that creating a digital database of documents from the Soviet period would be a form of resistance. It was a way of explicitly linking the country’s tumultuous, uncertain present to its all-too-recent past.

By putting this history online, the archivists wanted not just Ukrainians but the entire international community to draw their own conclusions about how Soviet security services sought to censor, surveil, and repress citizens of the republics. During those years, friends, neighbors, colleagues, and relatives were encouraged to report on one another’s activities; professional and personal stability required strict allegiance to the Communist Party. These databases contain fragments of history that, when unearthed, have utterly transformed family and political narratives and shifted the terrain upon which conversations about memory, complicity, and justice are held. At the same time, the files provide concrete evidence against the prevailing myth about the Soviet government organs — that its agents knew, saw, and recorded everything. Sometimes the surprise is that the archives hold unexpected answers; sometimes it’s that they hold none at all. “The Chernobyl documents are just the tip of the iceberg,” Kohut says. “For us, it’s important that everyone can take a look and come to their own conclusions about the extent to which the methods used then are the same as those used today.”

All over Eastern Europe, not just in Kyiv and Lviv but also in Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius, Tbilisi, and Prague, new and forthcoming digital databases of secret police documents are aiming to bring the past into view. The Soviet Union officially collapsed in 1991, granting these nations independence for the first time since before the ’50s. Yet the rituals and rules of the Soviet era continued to structure life there for decades to come; in some places, they still do. The recent push to put these repositories online marks a subtle but monumental shift. Previously, people had to visit archives in person in order to handle documents about themselves and their families, neighbors, and colleagues — and to see who was doing the surveillance and who was being surveilled (categories that were often one in the same). They had to travel, and they needed to know what they were looking for. Now, all they have to do is type the address into their browser and wait for the artifacts of their past to load. They don’t need to say who they are or why they need access.

Each former Soviet country has a unique trove of information, some more extensive than others. In Tbilisi, Georgia, Irakli Khvadagiani and his team at SovLab (short for Soviet Past Research Laboratory) have been collecting and scanning personal diaries, photographs, and testimonies from family archives. They are focusing on private documents because, while the nation’s archives are nominally public, there is a wall of bureaucracy that prevents citizens from accessing much of them. (Plus, most of what the public archives contain pertains only to the victims of Soviet rule — information about perpetrators and collaborators is much harder to find.) In Vilnius, Kristina Burinskaitė, senior specialist at the Genocide and Resistance Research Center of Lithuania, oversees the English-language site KGBdocuments.eu and KGB Veikla Lietuvojet, which aims to help Lithuanians find documents about the experiences of their families and communities during the Soviet era, when hundreds of thousands were deported and repressed. There, new agent files are uploaded every month. 

In January 2018, a long list of KGB agents was posted on the site that included the names (and aliases) of actor Donatas Banionis, star of Andrey Tarkovksy’s “Solaris”; the conductor Saulius Sondeckis; and the cardinal Vincentas Sladkevičius, all of whom are deceased. The very fact that they were mentioned was enough to suggest they may have been recruited by secret police, even though there were no details about what they might have done. A scandal ensued, and the named-men’s outraged families appealed to Lithuania’s prosecutor general to intervene. Five months later, Lithuania’s Lustration Commission found that neither Banionis nor Sondeckis had collaborated with the KGB. It is the kind of ruling — a clean bill of historical health — that many descendants are now courting. And although such commissions are often operating with as little evidence as the public, their very existence speaks to the many valences of “collaboration,” and the ample possibilities for deception and misinterpretation. 

Taken as a whole, the files offer a panoramic view of how Soviet rule impacted all tiers of society and continues to do so decades later. In 2015, Ostap Yednak was a newly elected member of the Ukrainian Parliament, part of a generation of former civil society leaders who joined the government after the revolution. He voted for the opening of the archives, without knowing what they would reveal of his own family history. “I never had the idea that I could have a personal relation to this matter,” he said, “but then I was speaking with my parents in the kitchen, and my father mentioned that, actually, my grandmother’s brother was arrested right before the German invasion and disappeared.” Yednak messaged Kohut’s archivists, and within a few weeks, he received a Google Drive folder containing almost a thousand pages on his great uncle’s fate.

He discovered that his great uncle was rounded up and interrogated with his schoolmates, accused of belonging to a Ukrainian partisan army. The boys were shot and buried in a mass grave. His grandmother hardly spoke a word of this to him — Yednak says she remained terrified of invoking the past and died without discovering the truth. Yednak, too, had grown up in the Soviet system, where he was taught a very selective story of the 20th century. Receiving the files from the archive changed that: “Suddenly, I figured out that I am part of another history, a hidden history. And I’m pretty sure that millions of Ukrainians still do not know this part of their history, because their families were too afraid to disclose this information to them.” He has been encouraging his friends and colleagues to look up their own relatives in the archives, though many Ukrainians still do not understand that the information is freely available. “We do a lot of explaining to people, to say that the archive really is open. They don’t believe it,” said Anna Oliinyk, acting director of the Center for Research on the [Ukrainian] Liberation Movement.

There are also many people who understand that the archives are open but have little desire to confront what they might hold. For the past 30 years, some who lived through the Soviet era have been trying to fill in the missing pieces in whatever way they can. Others hope that those pieces will remain missing for as long as they are alive. The dearth of information fueled conspiracy theories and rumors and prevented reform and lustration, ensuring that many of those who served in Soviet government posts were able to retain positions of power and political influence even after the Iron Curtain fell. In Georgia, where the very idea of fully carrying out lustration remains a potent political threat, Khvadagiani and his colleagues at SovLab are trying to do what they can by working around the state. “Everyone is afraid of showing the real picture of totalitarianism, when the majority was collaborating and part of the system,” he says. “Now everyone is trying to say that they were dissidents … that they were dreaming of a free Georgia and of democracy, but the reality is different.”

It’s hardly an accident that this mass unveiling is happening at this moment, when concerns over digital surveillance, data farming, and manipulation abound, as people are reappraising their relationships with their data and devices and reconsidering the role of intelligence and security agencies around the world. Critics frequently complain that Facebook and Google hold more information about private citizens than the East German Stasi, KGB, or Czechoslovakian StB ever dreamed of. The comparison is at once a cliche and a category error — the tech giants are private companies, not government enforcement bodies — but the data they generate is being used by security services, governments, and political parties for their own ends. As Facebook and its competitors augment their data-gathering and microtargeting power, so, too, do their clients. The move to publish Soviet documents online, en masse, exposes a paradox particular to our time: The same technologies that enable sophisticated data collection and surveillance techniques are also helping expose the dangerous realities and personal tolls of that very system.

“We didn’t know what was going to happen in Ukraine, so we immediately started scanning.”

Because states still control access to these documents, and openness to confronting history tends to shift with the political winds, researchers have good reason to worry that the KGB archives may not always be as accessible as they are now. Digitizing their holdings is at once a form of insurance against political change and a technique of preservation. Not long after Kohut launched the Ukrainian Liberation Archive in Kyiv, his Czech colleague Adam Hradilek raced to Lviv to gather documents about Czechoslovaks who were sent to Gulag camps and often never seen again. “We knew there was a window of opportunity. We didn’t know what was going to happen in Ukraine, so we immediately started scanning,” Hradilek said. The documents were held in the office of the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), a former prison which was at that time being used as a police station. “There was no study room, so they locked us in one of the prison cells. We had to call someone to release us whenever we wanted to go to the toilet.” They used flashlights to find their way through the archives in the cellars and brought documents back to their cell. Seven years later, Hradilek now has two digitization teams at work in Ukraine: one in Lviv and another in the southwestern city of Uzhhorod.

In the late ’90s, the Latvian-British anthropologist Vieda Skultans began conducting research in her country’s KGB archives and started to wonder what it would mean for their full contents to come into public view. Diena, a popular Latvian newspaper, estimated that there were about 4,800 active security agents in the country in 1991, or one out of every 520 residents. “Few workplaces were without a KGB agent,” Skultans writes. Neither politicians nor the general public were pushing for the documents’ publication — Latvian society was trying to move on. Many suggested that dwelling too much upon the Soviet past could jeopardize the country’s chance of joining the European family of nations. Yet Skultans believed that, unless some kind of reckoning occurred, Latvia would remain “an imperfect democracy,” a society with plenty of victims but “without crimes or perpetrators of those crimes.” So long as this reckoning was delayed, she thought, the democratic transition would remain incomplete. 

And indeed, the naming of collaborators can somtimes have immediate political repercussions. One of the cases that was kept concealed in the Ukrainian archive until 2015 concerned the celebrated Ukrainian poet and dissident Vasyl Stus, who in 1980 was arrested and sent to a prison camp outside Siberia, where he died five years later. His defense attorney, who did not dispute his guilt and asserted that his crimes deserved punishment, was a 26-year-old lawyer named Viktor Medvedchuk. Today, Medvedchuk is one of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s closest friends (Putin is the godfather of his youngest daughter) and a leader of Ukraine’s pro-Russian political party.

The Medvedchuk case illustrates the subtle power that the archives hold. His political allegiances are no mystery, nor is this latest revelation likely to significantly alter his fate. But Medvedchuk’s role in Stus’s sentencing is one more critical, incontrovertible data point illustrating how former Soviet authorities still hold sway in present-day Ukraine. Last year, a book documenting his involvement was released in Ukraine; Medvedchuk is now fighting in court to have it banned. “Today, the [KGB successor] FSB use new instruments — Twitter, Facebook, bots — but the logic of the work was conceived back then,” Kohut says. “They repeat the same narratives, themes, arguments.” The difference, of course, is that now social media ensures that propaganda messages travel faster and multiply at vastly greater orders of magnitude.

“The KGB archives are really a useful source for counteracting Russian disinformation now, because we can clearly see that many current efforts … have their roots in KGB disinformation campaigns,” says Oliinyk, of the Center for Research on the [Ukrainian] Liberation Movement. She and Kohut worked with a team of researchers to put together a guide for journalists working with the archives, “KGB Archives for Media,” which offers instruction on how to parse arrest warrants, interrogation records, and official reports. Oliinyk says that the strategies for reading these materials — paying attention to abrupt shifts in testimonies and looking out for leading questions and falsifications, for example — can also be used to identify and analyze contemporary manipulative media techniques.

Since the archive of the Ukrainian Liberation Movement launched in 2013, over 600,000 people have perused their online holdings. Once an upstart project, it has become a critical piece of infrastructure, a mediator between past, present, and future for a nation that has spent the past six years at war. “It’s really important to show that there were massive human rights violations happening during the [Soviet time],” Oliinyk says. “We cannot just say that only good things were happening, like industrialization, and just ignore that many people were killed.” The archive has added depth and color to the popular understanding of the Soviet era; those who may be reluctant to trust other people’s interpretations of history can peruse the documents themselves and see what remains of their former lives. “We are exiting this post-Soviet era, and the problem is that there’s this transcendent narrative that was thrust upon us. I want people to be able to see whether this holds up against the lives of their own families. I want them to ask, How was it for my parents? For my grandfather and grandmother?” Kohut says. “If we want to build a democratic society, one that respects human rights, then we need to know what happened and why. So that we do not repeat the same mistakes.”