Hennadii Boriak,
Director General, State Committee on Archives of Ukraine

Diversification of Users and Demands for History and Memory in Archives of Ukraine:
Case of a Country in Transition

Paper delivered at the XXXVI International Conference of the Round Table on Archives (CITRA 2002) (Marseille, 13-16 November, 2002)

 

The optimization of State-building as well as current transformation processes in Ukraine imposed a serious demand to develop a clear vision and identify the precise place of Archives in society and its perception by society.

Ukraine is one of the largest Post-Soviet States (NIS), and its state renaissance commenced from 1991 when the USSR collapsed as a superpower. For Ukraine, this turning point symbolized the crushing of the Soviet totalitarian system, gradual adoption of democratic standards, and the beginning of construction of civil society.

After 1991, the Archives had lost its ideological functions. Now its practical activity depends only upon the society's demands. However, this situation has created new problems: first, these demands are being formulated spontaneously; and secondly, the Archives were not ready to perceive and satisfy them.

In consequence, there is some disharmony: Society does not obtain full satisfaction of its demands; but the Archives are also not satisfied with the society's underevaluation of their increasing activity. First, we have to mention financial problems, in particular concerning the archivists' salaries that are not adequate for their social functions, tasks and honorable reputation as keepers of society's memory. The same should be stated with regard to their poor working conditions, insufficient provision of modern IT equipment, and inadequate material and technical resources in the Archives.

As a result of sociological study conducted in the archival research rooms, we came to the conclusion that, in general, the public's opinion of Archives is of a dual nature. On one hand, they are places for keeping piles of useless paper; on the other hand, they are necessary institutions that must provide them with urgent information requested as soon as possible.

The transition period has brought four categories of users to the Archives: intellectuals (or scholars), civil servants, politicians, and the general public.

The problem is that we should consider requests not only of Nazi victims -- who undoubtedly deserve to be the first in line -- but also the rapidly increasing number of genealogical researchers seeking their family roots as a completely new category of users in Ukrainian archives. Often, archivists are able to assist genealogists. Frequently, such users become "friends of the archives," providing them with technical and humanitarian assistance. Probably, this group is to become the main one in the near future. This may cause serious problems for archivists in case they are not prepared to provide them (or themselves too) with appropriate tools of access to archival holdings.

As one can suppose, the case of countries in transition such as Ukraine is unique. New times usually bring new expectations. The above-mentioned groups of users have formulated new demands that the Archives did not expect.

The intellectuals desire new research rooms with modern IT equipment, and a full set of modern and sufficient finding aids, which would reflect all the records held by the Ukrainian National Archives system (the National Archival Legacy), that is, full access to public records information. There are no problems with physical access, but I cannot say the same regarding intellectual access.

To understand the dramatic situation one should bear in mind that:

Given the fact that regional archives have became an integral part of the administrative power structure, it is necessary to ensure a balance between administrative needs and the general public's requests on a strictly legal basis (in accordance with archivists' mission as "gatekeepers"). Unfortunately civil servants as users do not always meet this necessity.

The politicians are asking for retrospective information that they can use in the political process. At the same time, Ukrainian archivists are doing their best to prevent them from using archival records in "dirty" PR campaigns. I have to say they have succeeded. For example, unlike other post-socialist countries, the Communist Party archives in Ukraine are used exclusively for scientific purposes. The fact that they became a source of compromise against former party leaders and functionaries is unknown. It may be explained by the absence of official court proceedings against the banned Communist Party, and to some extent, by specific features of Ukrainian mentality such as tolerance, political passivity, and a forgiving nature in the world outlook.

One more problem should be mentioned: language factor, as only few archives have people who can communicate with foreign visitors or deal with inquiries in English.

The general public's demands are the most complicated, on a vast scale and very diverse. The only way to answer these challenges and develop genuine public policy in Ukraine is to change the image of archives in the eyes of society, raise the status of the profession to make it possible full automation in the archives and preparation of a modern generation of comprehensive archival finding aids both in electronic and in traditional book formats.

To my mind, meeting these problems "with open eyes" is the best way to find efficient solutions.

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