ANU: Protecting Ukrainian history from the horrors of war

A historian from The Australian National University (ANU) is helping to prevent thousands of Soviet-era Ukrainian documents from becoming casualties of the Russian invasion. Amanda Diaz reports.

Dr Filip Slaveski from the ANU Research School of Social Sciences has acquired digitised copies of accounts and resources relating to the Soviet famine of 1946-1947, a tragic period of history about which very little is known.

As the war continues, the danger that the original versions of these papers could be damaged or destroyed remains ever-present.

“There’s been a real fear among many people in the field that these archival sites could be destroyed,” Slaveski says. “And that’s especially dangerous because so much of the information that’s held there is still under lock and key in Russia.”

The threat to the information safeguarded in the Ukrainian archives is twofold. While there is little evidence the archives are being targeted specifically, many such sites are located in government buildings, which are vulnerable to military attacks.

“By virtue of where these things are located, they’re in danger,” Slaveski says. “I know particularly they’ve been bombing intelligence agencies and the intelligence archives.”

The other risk is infrastructure damage. Archives rely on fans, temperature control and ventilation to assist with preservation, and budget constraints meant this was already challenging before the war. Power outages, burst pipes and damp basements could all cause untold harm – not just to the fragile hardcopies, but also to digital material preserved on hard drives and servers. Until the conflict ceases, the archivists will not be able to safely assess the extent of the destruction.

“It’s a strange situation where Western researchers might now have the only copies of things that are so important,” Slaveski says. “In a sense, we’ve become a repository.”

As the recipients of a 2021 Discovery Projects grant from the Australian Research Council, Slaveski and his team of researchers are hoping to produce the first comprehensive English language history of the Soviet famine. In the aftermath of the Second World War, a terrible drought compounded severe wartime agricultural problems which continued to plague the sector. The ensuing food shortages are thought to have killed at least a million people across western Russia, Ukraine and Moldova, although there are estimates the death toll could be as high as three million. It is the last famine in European history.

“One of the reasons we know very little about it is because news of it was repressed by the Soviet state behind the Iron Curtain at the time,” Slaveski explains. “Those who suffered were forbidden from discussing it publicly, so there’s a lack not only in scholarship, but also in popular memory about this event.”

Such a project would normally require visiting Ukraine to comb through different archives, but with the pandemic restricting travel, Slaveski and his colleagues were operating digitally in the months preceding the invasion. The researchers worked closely with the archives to digitise different collections, and their contacts scanned and photographed requested documents.

“We ended up with thousands and thousands of papers, beyond our wildest dreams of what we could have accessed,” Slaveski says.

The digitised material includes correspondence between Joseph Stalin and Nikita Khrushchev, the leader of the Ukrainian Central Committee who later went on to become the head of the Soviet Union.

“We have a really glaring insight into how the regime pursued policies which were largely responsible for the mass deaths, and for turning drought into famine,” Slaveski says. “And also the responses – local leaders pleading with central authorities for help when so many people are dying for assistance.”

According to Slaveski, the most valuable knowledge the researchers have gained from the archival material is an insight into the broader context in which the Soviet famine occurred. Environmental history, weather policy, land ownership, and the devastation of the war were the foundations of the tragedy.

“Access to these sorts of documents has been increasingly restricted under the Putin regime,” he says. “One of the reasons Ukraine has become so important to researchers is because since the Donbas war, documentation has been made available and transparent. It’s been a huge shift, particularly for people like me, who traditionally have done most of their research in Russia.”

The academic is taking his role as a “safety valve” for the archival material seriously, working closely with IT specialists and colleagues around the world to ensure that there are multiple copies of the digitised documents kept in different places. His biggest priority, however, is supporting friends and colleagues caught in the Russian conflict.

“Some of my archivists refused to leave Kyiv during the invasion because they wanted to protect the archives,” Slaveski says. “It’s incredibly noble of them, but it’s put them in real danger. I’ve been working directly with colleagues from European universities and here in Australia to try to help people we know.”

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