Housing the archives of the Ukrainian branch of the infamous KGB and its predecessor organizations, the Haluzevyi derzhavnyi arkhiv Sluzhba Bezpeky Ukrainy (SBU) is a promising resource for scholars of Soviet history. I spent three months in Kyiv working in this archive five days a week, and the experience was both pleasant and productive. Boasting collections spanning the entire chronological lifespan of the Soviet Union and materials touching on an incredibly diverse array of topics, the SBU archive is a useful resource for essentially every scholar of Soviet history.
The most difficult hurdle—although not an especially difficult one—faced by prospective researchers is the registration process. Unlike some other state archives in Ukraine, scholars will not be able to walk in. This is understandable given the sensitive nature of many of the documents in the archive as well as the fact that the materials are housed in the Kyiv headquarters of the Ukrainian Security Service—the SBU—rather than at an auxiliary site. In order to register applicants are asked to e-mail a registration form (found here: https://ssu.gov.ua/ua/pages/98) to email@example.com. The forms are in Ukrainian, but Russian speakers should manage, without undue difficulty, to muddle through with a dictionary. I also recommend that graduate students submit an introductory letter from there advisor, if possible written on official letter head in Ukrainian. There is no official timetable for requests to be processed. Personally, I never received a response to any of my e-mails. Therefore, I decided to hand in my registration materials in person. After that step, the process moved quickly, and I was able to begin work in the archive the next week. However, prospective scholars should keep in mind that the archive is much busier in the summer, so researchers may have to wait up to two weeks to have their registration processed during that time period.
The archive itself is easy to find. It is located in the center of Kyiv, less than a five-minute walk from metro station Zoloti Vorota, on vul. Zolotovoritska, 7. Once registered, in order to enter the archive, one must call an archivist on a rotary phone to the right of the entrance (the numbers are posted above the phone). An archivist will then show the security guard your credentials (kept by the archivist), and then escort you to the reading room. This step must be repeated every time you enter the archive. Therefore, guests should limit their daily breaks in order to avoid irritating the staff. Foreign (i.e. non-Ukrainian) researchers must also ask an archivist to escort them out of the building every time they wish to leave. The staff is courteous, helpful, and friendly, but they may be unable to drop everything on a dime to let researchers in and out of the reading room, so scholars should learn to tolerate waits of about 5 minutes to enter and exit. Additionally, the staff speak both Russian and Ukrainian and will ask you, during your first visit, which language you prefer to use. Researchers should choose the language they are most comfortable with since there is no bias against Russian speakers.
Finding materials can be an adventure. The official finding guide is, unfortunately, classified. Staff assign each researcher a desktop during their visit. From this computer scholars can access an abridged finding guide (in Ukrainian). The descriptions are sparse, so scholars will need to experiment with their first orders until they begin to gain a sense of the materials (which are almost exclusively in Russian). Ordering dela is straightforward and convenient—simply write down the fond, opis’, and delo numbers on a scrap of paper and hand them to an archivist. Conveniently, some fonds are either partially or entirely electronic—notably fond 16 which primarily contains correspondence from the Ukrainian secret police leadership addressed to Moscow. These materials can be accessed almost immediately upon order. The archivist will upload the requested materials to the desktop assigned to the researcher from an external hard drive. The wait for hardcopy materials is longer, but relatively short compared to some other archives. Materials ordered in the morning are routinely available by the afternoon. It is possible to have an order rejected even if the delo is listed on the abridged finding guide. However, this is a rare occurrence. Of the hundreds of orders I made during my three-month stay, only two to three were rejected. There is no official daily limit on orders. It is also possible to access, in certain instances, files not found in the abridged finding guide, such as individual case or operation files referenced in other materials. If you wish to access specific materials not listed in the guide, consult the archivist working in the reading room.
Researchers consistently rave about the SBU’s policy on photography and scanning, and for good reason. Scholars are encouraged to bring a camera and may freely photograph—without prior permission—anything they order. Likewise, electronic materials can be uploaded to a USB stick (although this must be done by an archivist). One is simply asked to record, on a form provided by the staff, the pages they are photographing or scanning. There is no charge for photographing documents or downloading electronic files.
Ironically, the reading room is not always the best place for reading. It is a small space that can become cramped on certain days, especially during the summer. Staff prefer researchers photograph materials and read them at home in order to clear space for other researchers.
The archive is open Monday-Friday between 10am and 5pm. Prospective researchers should be advised, however, that the last Friday of every month is usually a cleaning day and that the staff is not always quick to advertise that fact.
A brief word on the materials themselves. The documents in the archives span the entire existence of the Soviet Union, the contain not just the archives of the KGB, but also its predecessor organization—the Cheka, NKVD, MGB, etc. However, the number of accessible documents grows thinner as one moves forward in time. After 1982 it is difficult to access any materials at all. This is principally due to the fact that most of the post-Brezhnev files were moved to Moscow prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. It is also worth noting that archive not only houses the Republic-level archives of the various iterations of the Soviet secret police, but also much of the oblast level archives as well. It may be possible to access district-level materials as well, but I am unsure.
My overall impression is extremely positive. My work in the SBU archive proved relatively straightforward, uncomplicated, and—aside from registration—unhindered by bureaucratic hurdles. Scholars have no reason to anticipate any difficulty in accessing materials relevant to their research. The staff is friendly and helpful. My experience at the SBU archive is one that I hope to see replicated in other archives.
Phil Kiffer is a PhD candidate in history at Georgetown University where he studies under Michael David-Fox. His dissertation will focus on the practices of domestic surveillance and the culture of secret policing in the postwar Soviet Union (1945-62). He has conducted research in Ukraine and Russia and will be researching in Tbilisi Georgia in Spring 2019.