Research in Kiev

By Achim Klüppelberg

Every writer knows that there are different phases in our work. Of course, the most important phase is the writing phase. After all, it is our job to produce high-quality texts, is it not? Subsequently, every writer also knows that in order to be able to do so, one needs high-quality sources. While working as an historian, having access to valuable source material is paramount in order to write something relevant for the respective academic field. At the same time, the Covid-19 pandemic has made normal schedules obsolete, and many archival trips had to be cancelled or postponed – in my case, since summer 2020. Therefore, I was very grateful to finally be able to go on a crucial archival trip this November.[1] My destination was the vibrant Ukrainian capital of Kiev, and I had three archives stacked with Soviet-era nuclear documents on my to-do-list. Here, I would like to tell you about my experiences and impressions.

The Dnepr next to Kontraktova Square Metro Station

Naturally, Kiev is a city with a rich history, reflected in different architectural styles, urban planning and monuments. Kiev has a troubled and at the same time glorious history. Being the medieval cradle of Eastern Slavic principalities, states and nations, having formed the mighty Kievan Rus Empire, which through its Baptism led to the Slavic traditions of Eastern Orthodoxy, forming the cultural, political, and industrial capital of Ukrainians, posing as a major battlefield in World War Two, centring Ukraine’s independence after the collapse of the USSR and recently hosting the Maidan protests, this place emanates historic significance at its different sites. Kiev is also a torn city, in which the current economic crisis, the hybrid-war with Russia, antisemitism and nationalism struggle with opposing ideas on the streets. If we live in a time during which Ukrainian history is written in short intervals, then Kiev is the place to be.

My work led me to three archives. The first on the list was the Central State Archive of Supreme Bodies of Power and Government of Ukraine (Центральний державний архів вищих органів влади та управління України, ЦДАВО). Located in South Central Kiev, the archive is based in a complex of several governmental institutions. The reading room offered a rich ensemble of documents from Soviet-Ukrainian ministries and planning institutions, which proved to be invaluable for the immediate progress of my dissertation.

My second station was the Central State Archive of Public Organisations of Ukraine (Центральний державний архів громадських об’єднань України, ЦДАГО України), where I looked into files from the Communist Party. The archive was located next to the Kiev Region State Administration, along which the massive Lesi Ukrainky Boulevard allowed dozens of cars to speed on ten lanes towards the city centre. Here, I was less fortunate. The CP Ukraine files I ordered offered insights into internal party affairs, but not into any planning aspects of Soviet Ukraine’s energy system.

State Archive of Kiev Province building plate

My third and last station on this trip was the State Archive of Kiev Province (Державний архів Київської області, ДАКО). Inspired by Louis Fagon’s approach of visiting local and regional archives in order to circumvent the occasional quietness in central documents on nuclear issues, I examined local party protocols of the towns of Pripyat and Chernobyl to find out more about water amelioration processes and different important stages of the construction of the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant. Here, lots of exciting issues came to light and I am looking forward to incorporate them into my next article.

Apart from those visits to the archives, I was also able to see the exhibitions at the Holodomor and the Chernobyl museums. Both were very impressive. The Holodomor Museum was located in the Park of Eternal Glory overlooking the Dnepr, in which apart from the museum many memorials for Ukrainian nationalists were placed. There, visitors would see an exhibition showing the horrors of the forced famine in Stalin’s Soviet Union from 1932-33. This was based on many personal testimonials and artefacts from survivors of these times. Their main message was that it was a planned famine created by Moscow as a way to subdue ethnic Ukrainians.

I was very surprised, in a positive way, by the Chernobyl Museum. There, they had collected multiple artefacts of the main protagonists of the catastrophe, such as identity cards and passports from Deputy Chief Engineer Anatoly Dyatlov, or accident-shift-leader Aleksandr Akimov. Selected archival documents along newspaper articles were also on display. Next to them, one could see the flags of the firefighter brigades, uniforms, respirators, and dosimeters. Two whole sections were dedicated to the construction of the first and the second sarcophagus. Following were some dedications to the international solidarity in regard to the mitigation of the consequences of the accident as well as the ongoing help for chronically sick people, such as the “Children of Chernobyl” network. Another room was dedicated to the effects of radionuclides dispersed by the accident to the environment and human society. Here the focus was not to tell a uniquely Ukrainian story, but instead to document the disaster from an international point of view.

Summarising, I am very grateful for this opportunity that arose at this crucial state in my dissertation. Kiev is an exciting place, where so many things have happened and are happening right now. It is definitely worth a trip.

[1] 03 -20 November 2021.

Lithuania’s nuclear history, covid-19 and the search for archival sources

By Achim Klüppelberg

The current covid-19 crisis challenges our usual ways of conducting research. While the spring term might have gone by without too many impairments (although digitisation and the cancellation of conferences and workshops leaves some marks), by now several researchers face the problem of inaccessible archives. Albeit this also stalls my work, I was lucky to slip through a narrow window of opportunity. While spending the summer in Germany, where infection numbers were at that time considerably low, I was able to profit from Lithuania’s State Archives’ reopening. After brief consultations with my supervisors and our administration it became clear: I had green light to finally dig again into Soviet nuclear documents.

On 12 August I arrived in Vilnius. At first, I made myself familiar with the archival opportunities this city offers. Unfortunately, my 10-day-visit did not suffice to exhaust the various archives. I first visited the Modern State Archive. Despite the fact that they eventually did not have the documents I was searching for, they provided me with a contact at the Archive of Technical Documentation at Ignalina Nuclear Power Plant. This was where I headed next to.

Ignalina is actually a town 50 km south of nuclear power plant and has no obvious connection to it. The plant was earlier called (in Russian) the Drukshaiskaya NPP, after the lake that provided it with ample cooling water: Lake Drūkšiai. However, naming it after Ignalina seemed easier.

After a two-hour train ride I reached the nuclear town of Visaginas. Visaginas was earlier called Sniečkus after a former first secretary of the Lithuanian branch of the Soviet Communist Party. It was built to host about 35,000 people, but the population has now fallen to 18,000. Visaginas provided the base for people employed at Ignalina NPP and is still today mostly Russian-speaking. Obviously, the nuclera power plant shaped the vibe in Visaginas in many respects.

Taking advice from my fellow PhD student at KTH, Daniele Valisena, I explored the two-hour way from Visaginas to the power plant on foot. It was a very scenic experience and let me soon astray from the main road leading to the plant. It was very sunny and warm. Not many people were around in this somehow eerie landscape in the northeastern corner of Lithuania, close to Latvia’s Daugavpils and Belarus’ Braslaŭ.

I found myself walking through a small dacha village called Vishnya. Here, people were gardening and small-scale farming a short distance from the nuclear power plant, which hosted the biggest reactors of the world during the 1980s. It was a strange feeling, in view of a history of incidents and accidents at the plant. From the village I went through a forest towards the plant. Soon I reached a beautiful small cemetery with carefully kept graves. While Lake Drūkšiai was supposed to be very close to me, I did neither see its waters nor noticed its presence in any other way.

After a thorough fight with mosquitoes for the sovereignty over my legs, arms and neck, I soon saw the tops of the power plant’s huge transformer station. Given my experiences with Russian security, I was actually expecting someone to stop me, as I slowly but steadily approached the nuclear power plant. But nothing happened. When Lithuania entered the European Union, it had to agree to decommission the power plant due to the similarity of its reactors with those at Chernobyl. More than three quarters of the money for decommissioning came from the European Union, which, together with Lithuania’s turn towards a freer society, changed priorities from secrecy to openness. Soon I reached unhindered the formal entrance of the power plant.

After a short orientation, I entered the Archive of Technical Documentation and spoke with my contact there. Although I was provided with additional valuable literature and information, I was put off until I would be granted formal access by the leadership of the plant. This could not be acquired while I was in Lithuania, but I might get the chance to come back and follow up on this lead in the future.

On my way back I walked past an installation for the storage of low-level radioactive waste, with a conveyor belt stemming directly from the main building of the plant. This made me wonder what actually was going on inside and how the progress of the decommissioning was getting along. Opinions are split on this issue.

After my trip to Ignalina I spent the rest of my time searching through files in Lithuania’s Central State Archives. A personal highlight was here the discussion of how to make Ignalina NPP safer in the wake of the aftermath of the Chernobyl catastrophe. It was very fortunate that I was able to visit Lithuania. The trip provided me with a first archival overview, some crucial source documents, and very valuable impressions and photographs. Hopefully, we can soon all go back to our data, sources, and interview partners as we used to do. There is so much more to explore.