K for confiscated: Edmonton researchers unearth coded letters intercepted by KGB

Poring over hundreds of letters confiscated by the KGB has taught Jelena Pogosjan how to read between the lines. 

'If you want to rule, if you want power, you need information'

Letters found in the KGB archives in Kiev provide insight into the life of Ukrainians under Soviet rule. (Jelena Pogosjan )

Poring over hundreds of letters confiscated by the KGB has taught Jelena Pogosjan how to read between the lines. 

She has spent hours deciphering letters sent by Ukrainians during the height of the Cold War that never reached their intended destinations in Canada. 

Each, stamped K for confiscated, were intercepted by Soviet-era secret-police and buried for decades in the KGB Archives in Kyiv. 

"If you want to rule, if you want power, you need information," said Pogosjan, director of the Kule Folklore Centre in Edmonton and a professor in the University of Alberta's Department of Modern Languages and Cultural Studies.

"This is an organization with a long memory and fortunately for us we were able to find unbelievably interesting materials." 

Many of the letters contain coded messages intended to trick Soviet censors. 

"They would use some religious citations, some biblical names or some mention of religious celebrations to convey their message, " Pogosjan said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.

"For instance, they presumed that a Russian censor would not understand a Ukrainian folk song so they would use a line from a song presuming that nobody would understand it." 

Working in collaboration with Nataliya Bezborodova, a PhD candidate in the University of Alberta's Department of Anthropology, Pogosjan also found "chain letters" in the archives. 

These identical messages were mailed repeatedly in the hopes that one would be overlooked by government agents searching for signs of espionage against the State. 

"When one letter is written again and again and sent from different cities in the Ukraine, obviously there was an expectation that at least one would sneak out," Pogosjan said.

"Some letters had some additional information but all said, 'We are in a bad situation here, we need help.'" 

After reading something like that, you can't really sleep at night.- Jelena Pogosjan

Pogosjan's study of the encoded messages is part of an ongoing research project showcasing the personal correspondence of Ukrainians throughout the 20th century.

The research project began two years ago when KGB archives in Kyiv were opened for the first time, unveiling troves of Soviet secrets and millions of formerly classified documents.

The internal records of Ukraine's secret police service are well-preserved in the archives. 

There are not only letters but documents detailing domestic surveillance, arrests, deportations, interrogations and the mass execution of millions of Ukrainians by the Soviet Union.

Reading the documents has taken an emotional toll, Pogosjan said, but each one provides an important glimpse into stories that have been buried for too long. 

"It's much more than sad," she said of the letters. "For me, it was a big question, 'Am I ready to go through all of that?'"

Pogosjan remembers one particular letter from a man who had only a ragged coat to wear, who wondered how he would survive the sweltering summer and the desolate winter to follow. 

"'Please send us some assistance, some clothes because the only thing I have right now is a winter coat. This is all I have.' 

"After reading something like that, you can't really sleep at night." 

'A drop in the sea' 

The researchers were initially searching for love letters but instead uncovered around 200 letters, and KGB instructions on how to censor a letter and detect coded messages.

One of the largest dossiers uncovered was for a man named Petro Krawchuk. He immigrated to Canada from Ukraine as a young boy but eventually returned to the country in 1947 and immediately fell under suspicion by Soviet authorities. 

"He was regarded as a spy," Bezborodova said. "When he came, he received a very good welcome on an official level but at the same time his every single step was monitored by the authorities." 

Krawchuk was a journalist, putting him in the crosshairs of Soviet police. 

Bezborodova will be doing a case study on his file and has connected with his daughter, who lives in Toronto.

The researchers hope their work will one day become part of a larger exhibit preserving the stories of Ukrainians who lived and died under Stalin.

The first letters were "just a drop in the sea" of untold stories from the time and Bezborodova and Pogosjan will continue searching the archives for more letters.

"It's just the beginning," Pogosjan said. 

The two will present their research at the Kule Folklore Centre at 12 p.m. Thursday. All are welcome to attend.