When I look at what happened to Ruslan Zabily last week, I can’t help but think that could have been me.
You see, I was offered the job of director of the Lonsky Street Prison Museum by Lviv city officials back in 2009. And I was going to take it, but there was no stopping Zabily in his pursuit of the position. I just finished a museum project on Ukrainians in Auschwitz and a book of translated documents from the 1932-33 Holodomor, so I welcomed the break from the miseries of history: the Lonsky Street Prison would’ve just added to the nightmares. Let him have it, I thought, if he wants it so badly.
A year and a half later, Zabily is detained in Kyiv by the Security Service of Ukraine (SBU), questioned for 14 1/2 hours, his notebook and hard discs confiscated and a criminal investigation opened against him. The charge: Zabily was going to reveal state secrets.
Domestic and international human rights watchdogs were quick to condemn the SBU’s reversion to KGB tactics. The speculations about the reasons for intimidating Zabily are many. Some think the SBU of President Viktor Yanukovych is trying too hard to please the Kremlin and demonstrably persecuting historians who do not subscribe to the Soviet historical narrative. Others consider the Zabily affair to be a warning to former SBU chief Valentyn Nalyvaichenko, who has spent the better part of the year organizing a civic movement called “Renewal of the Country.” Nalyvaichenko, the SBU chief under President Viktor Yushchenko when the spy agency declassified all the pre-1991 documents on Soviet repressions, has been vocal in his criticism of the Yanukovych regime. The Yanukovych regime has halted the declassification process started under Yushchenko.
I would add another reason to the list of speculations concerning the SBU’s hard-handed tactics, based on my experience with the Lonsky Street Prison Museum. It is much more mundane and although not as sexy as the KGB-Kremlin theory it’s just as worrisome. It goes back to the history of the prison and its location, location, location.
The prison is actually a complex of buildings constructed at different times. The building on the corner of Copernicus and Bandera streets was originally built as a barracks for Austro-Hungarian soldiers. It was used a prison by the Poles, Soviets, Nazis and Soviets again during the 20th century. The USSR liked the location so much they expanded the prison complex to include an administrative building and built a three-story prison in the courtyard.
The prison was closed in the mid-1990s and title to the land was transferred to the SBU. The KGB agents who once fought capitalism quickly embraced the entrepreneurial spirit and decided to start playing the real estate game and erecting an apartment high-rise in the courtyard. Workers said they discovered human remains soon after they broke ground, but the masters told the slaves to keep digging away. They laid the foundation and started work on the first story before a public outcry forced a halt to the construction. The human remains showed the prison complex was not only used to incarcerate enemies of the state, but to kill and bury them as well. The Nazis forced the local Jews to carry the corpses of those killed by the Soviets out of the Lonsky Street Prison in July 1941, but those bodies were identified and re-buried over half a century ago. So whose bones were these?
If I was the director of the Lonsky Street Prison Museum, the first order of business would have been the careful and respectful exhumation of the human remains found in the prisons’ courtyard. Instead, people became more concerned with who was going to get title to the land and which firm would get the contract to build the memorial complex on the location. I came away with a feeling of disgust for the whole process. The Soviet system killed human decency in these people. They had grown accustomed to having human remains lying beneath their feet and didn’t mind building condos on top of them. These are the kind of people who would much rather have their own person running the museum instead of Zabily. These are the kind of people who see mercantile advantages, take them using force and intimidation, and flourish in Yanukovych’s Ukraine. They care not about national memory or historical justice or ideology. They want to sell you a house built atop killing fields.
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