As a research fellow at HURI, Olga Bertelsen is studying human behavior during the Holodomor. However, the talk she gave on Monday, March 20 for our Seminar in Ukrainian Studies covered a completely different topic: corruption among the Soviet Ukrainian elite in the 1970s.
The talk offered an intriguing look at the inner workings of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, examining nepotism, ideologies, loyalties, behavior on business trips abroad, and activities of counter-propaganda and ideological subversion. In other words, the “extracurricular activities” (as Bertelsen calls them) the officials carried out that went beyond their official roles as diplomats and foreign affairs ministers.
Importantly, Bertelsen’s research addresses a gap within the scholarship on corruption:
“We have a lot of general books and literature on corruption in the 1920s, ‘30s, and even during World War II and the ‘60s,” she said. “However, the scholarship about the 1970s is on Moscow and the Kremlin, not Ukraine. It provides us with a foundation for understanding what might have happened in Ukraine and other Soviet republics, but very little has been written about corruption in the 1970s among the Ukrainian political elite.”
HURI: What was the essence of your seminar on Monday, March 20?
Bertelsen: The seminar was a brief tour of my archival studies. Recently, the Ukrainian government declassified some very important documents about the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1970s and 1980s. I talked about the 1970s because the following decade is very complex with Chornobyl and so on.
My findings were quite surprising to me because I did not think the scale and the level of corruption among the Ukrainian political elite would be the same as in Moscow, because Moscow has a pretty substantial appetite in terms of self-enrichment.
I am trying not to be cynical while evaluating these people because the decade was very difficult. It was the decade when we had a new wave of repression against the intelligentsia. It was an incredibly difficult time for those who had to lie, for those who had to do something about Ukrainian nationalism, for those who still liked to steal.
So, that was the talk actually: the essence of this story. I'm trying to understand the drama behind the events. How did it feel for these people to live through this period of time? Why did they do what they did?
I identify their activity during this decade, among those who worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, as an “extracurricular activity.” It's very interesting that beyond all of the important things they had to do to deal with foreigners who came to the Soviet Union, beyond all of the affairs related to the United Nations, and so on, they had a space in which they did things we can identify as illegal. We have to understand and identify why they did this.
HURI: Is this related to the work you're doing at HURI?
Bertelsen: The two topics I'm researching right now are not precisely related. My work as a fellow at HURI is the Holodomor. It's a book project, and the topic of corruption within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is just a parallel topic that, perhaps, has no direct connection with the Holodomor.
However, we can trace some Soviet traditions through this huge period of time from the 1920s to the 1970s, and the Soviet legacy is very pronounced, even in the 1970s, and still today. So the topics are connected to some extent. I hope I will have an opportunity to discuss the Holodomor at a later event.
HURI: Bringing the topic of corruption to the present day, the court case against Roman Nasirov was recently in the news. Can you make any comparison with the 1970s? Is there a direct line from Soviet-era corruption to present-day corruption?
Bertelsen: Absolutely, I believe there are parallels. We unfortunately have to think about those who are in charge - both back then and right now.
Some families from the 1970s are still in power, surprisingly. I'm not even talking about the Ukrainian government, including President Poroshenko; I'm talking about those who are part of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. These people are sons, daughters, and grandchildren, of those who worked in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the 1970s.
I traced all of those connections, which formed a very close circle of people. To penetrate this circle was extremely difficult, even for those who wanted to be diplomats. They couldn't, because everything was associated with someone's connections and privileges, and the sons and daughters - the offspring - they followed the steps of their parents. Unfortunately, they learned a lot from their parents, but at the same time, we shouldn't stigmatize them because there are some very nice people, there are professionals, and I'm not saying that all of them are corrupt. Even today. There are always bad people and there are always good people. We have to remember that.
HURI: What do you see going forward? What would Ukraine need to do to overcome this behavior?
Bertelsen: This is a very important question. I spoke recently with Bohdan Vitvitsky, who is a former American federal prosecutor. At some point, he was invited to be in charge of the anti-corruption bureau that was created in Ukraine. Sadly, he completed the paperwork but he was not hired to be in charge of this bureau for two reasons: First, he's older than 65 and Ukrainian law prohibits such people to work for the government. Second, he is extremely opinionated; he might have been extremely inconvenient because he is a very honest person, very knowledgeable, and his specialty is corruption.
Regardless, he’s saying that the situation is just not good, and his opinion is that we have to fight corruption. However, it would be naive to think that we could excoriate or completely eliminate corruption. It'll still be there no matter how democratic Ukraine is or will be. At the same time, we have to fight.
We can see that Ukraine cannot go forward if we accept this as the status quo and consent to just live with it. It's a very bad image for Ukraine. We have to fight, all of us: the international community, people who work for Ukraine, Ukrainians. I believe these common efforts could produce some good results.
HURI: You mentioned documents that newly became available. Are those from the KGB archives?
Bertelsen: Yes, some of them came from the former KGB archives. Some of them came from TsDAGO, which is the abbreviation for the Central State Archives of Public Organizations.
I have to say that some documents were known to some historians since 2003. Not all of us, however, had access to these documents. For example, in 2007 or 2009, I asked about a particular fund, and they said these particular files were being rearranged. I received this reply twice and I thought, “They're probably not available to everybody.” They were declassified, these documents, for quite some time, but for some reason the administration of the archive works against researchers. That's the reality we have to understand. There is some specificity in Ukraine concerning archival works.
HURI: Why did you decide to start working on this topic?
Bertelsen: It was a complete accident. I started researching Chornobyl. In one archival file, you can find documents that are related to Chornobyl and documents that are related to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. They're all related, for instance, by the time period they’re from. So you'll never know what you'll find.
At the end of a file with Chornobyl documents, I found documents that emanated from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. And I thought, “These are incredibly important documents.” So, I ordered more files and worked on both topics at the same time.
HURI: Can you give us an example of something you uncovered that you found particularly interesting?
Bertelsen: I was surprised that our very famous permanent scholar in the United States, Oxana Shevel, is related to Georgiy Shevel, who was the Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1970-1979. I was surprised that they're related, number one. Number two, I discovered what kind of person he was. There is some discrepancy, for instance, between memoirs and historical materials, in terms of how people evaluate certain individuals. If you study all of these documents, then you don’t have such a superficial view of a person. If you study only one document or type of document, and you study nothing else, you won't have the full picture. Memoirs contributed a great deal to my understanding of what type of person Shevel was.
Olga Bertelsen received her Ph.D. at the University of Nottingham (U.K.) and is currently a Ukrainian Studies Fund Research Fellow at the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. She is also a recipient of postdoctoral fellowships at the Harriman Institute, Columbia University (2013-2014; 2015) and at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto (2014-2015). Her research interests include Ukrainian and Russian histories and cultures, the intelligentsia and state violence, famines, national security, Soviet secret police, political activism in Ukraine, and memory politics. Among her forthcoming publications are the monograph on the theatre director Les Kurbas and Ukrainian theatre (the publishing house “Smoloskyp”), and the edited volume of essays on the Euromaidan (Indiana University Press). Her current book projects are dedicated to the formation of imperial consciousness among Russian writers, including Joseph Brodsky, and the least investigated topic of cannibalism, a phenomenon observed in the Soviet Union during the famine of 1932-1933.