[Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post from Jeff Hardy of Brigham Young University. Jeff has previously been a guest of Russian History Blog in our Gulag-related blog conversations. See his previous posts at Russian History Blog here.]
Let me preface this post by disclaiming that I am not an expert on Ukraine, let alone Crimea. I have lived in and done archival research in Kyiv, and I teach the history of Tsarist Russia and the Soviet Union, which includes plenty of material on Ukraine. But my specialty is the Soviet Gulag in the Khrushchev era, not anything having to do with Ukraine per se. My hope with this post, therefore, is only to offer a few personal anecdotes of how Crimea was viewed in the late 1940s and 1950s.
So why was I in Kyiv doing research? Quite simply, because it’s virtually impossible to access Soviet Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) records from 1960 onward, and I wanted to tell the story of the Gulag up to 1964, when Khrushchev was deposed. That led me to do research in Tallinn, in Vilnius, and in Kyiv. Tallinn and Vilnius, of course, were beautiful cities with remarkably open-access secret archives. Kyiv, while also beautiful, presented some more interesting archival experiences, a few of which touched (barely and briefly) on Crimea.
I was fortunate to be in Kyiv in early 2009 in the midst of a de-classifying effort by the remnants of the Orange revolution. The archival files of the SBU (the KGB successor in Ukraine) in particular were becoming more and more available, so I naturally applied to do research there. While I ultimately didn’t find much of interest to my own project, I was fascinated by a number of interrogation reports from the late 1930s and the late 1940s, the latter mostly concerning the Jewish Anti-Fascist Organization. Here I found, among other things, a “confession” by Elie Spivak, director of the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences’ Cabinet of Jewish Culture. In addition to being a spy for Zionist organizations in the West, Spivak also confessed that he, along with Solomon Mikhoels and others, were trying to set up a Jewish republic in Crimea, since Birobidzhan didn’t work out so well. The idea of a Jewish homeland on the Black Sea was, of course, a proposal from the 1920s that predated the Birobidzhan project, which the Soviets in the 1940s then resurrected as “evidence” of an anti-Soviet Jewish conspiracy. So here we have Crimea both as a potential Jewish homeland and as a foil for Stalin’s postwar anti-Semitism.
Much more important for my project than the SBU was the archive of the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVS). This required an interview with a deputy minister, along with a handler who escorted me in and out of the MVS compound each day. (He also took me to lunch at the local MVS hotel, where I enjoyed an excellent Chicken Kyiv, and at a local Irish pub. Mostly, though, I dined at the cafeteria inside the compound with the MVD officials.) The archive itself didn’t have a reading room, only a counter across from the windows of the attendants, who were kept busy not just with my requests, but with various inquiries from investigators who were digging up compromising material on the Kuchma regime. Here I found a wealth of information for my dissertation on how the Soviet penal system was transformed during the Khrushchev years, but practically nothing on the Crimea itself. I eventually found out why: in 1956 they removed virtually all inmates from the province, leaving only one corrective-labor colony near Simferopol’. And this one, in fact, was changed in 1956 from a lightened-regimen colony to a normal-regimen colony because the de-convoyed inmates on lightened status were wandering all over the city (supposedly on their way to or from work), getting drunk, and otherwise disturbing the peace. In a city with many tourists and foreign delegates, this was no longer acceptable. So here we have Crimea as a space reserved for tourism and for showcasing the Soviet experiment, which meant a place that was to be virtually devoid of prisoners.
A third archival encounter with Crimea occurred not in Kyiv, but in Moscow. When the Gulag was transferred from the Ministry of Internal Affairs (MVD) to the Ministry of Justice (MIu) soon after Stalin’s death in 1953 (an arrangement that would last less than a year), the MIu was poorly prepared to take on this new responsibility. The Gulag apparatus, after all, was massive. And what was one of the immediate requests made by the Ministry of Justice, already on 14 May 1953? To gain control of two or three MVD sanatoriums in Crimea or elsewhere along the Black Sea coast. I did not find a resolution to this request, but presumably it was not granted. So here we have Crimea as the site of bureaucratic infighting and bureaucratic vacationing.
My final archival engagement with Crimea occurred while scanning transcripts of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR for anything related to crime or punishment. While finding lots of fascinating material, particularly on the extra-legal use of the death penalty against former Nazi collaborators in Ukraine, I also happened upon the 1954 discussion concerning the transfer of Crimea from the Russian RSFSR to the Ukrainian SSR. The decision to realize this transfer, of course, had already been made, for reasons that scholars have been guessing at ever since. Was it a reward for Ukraine’s sacrifice in WWII? Was it for the purposes of economic and administrative efficiency? Was it a crazy dream of Khrushchev, who was born and raised in what would become Ukraine under the Soviet and who presided there in the 1930s? In any case, I read with some fascination as each member of the Presidium lauded the decision. Kliment Voroshilov, chairman of the Presidium and from Ukraine himself, summed up the tenor of the discussion quite nicely: “In history there hasn’t been and cannot be similar relations between states. In the past, and especially under capitalism, at the very heart of relations between countries is the striving for territorial acquisitions, the striving of strong governments to profit at the expense of the territory of weak countries. Only under the conditions of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics is such a just decision possible….” So here we have Ukraine as a way to prove the Soviet Union’s internationalist bona fides.
Internationalism in Russia has now assumed a different angle, that of protecting Russian citizens and other ethnic Russians (along with more concrete interests, namely the naval base) in Crimea. Or perhaps what we’re witnessing is simply the “striving for territorial acquisitions, the striving of strong government to profit at the expense of the territory of weak countries” that Voroshilov associated with imperialist capitalism back in 1954. Has Russia, the dominant inheritor of the Soviet Union, decided that it’s time to take Crimea back, that it was a gift that should not have been given?