Opening the files on lives under surveillance

SURVEILLANCE / A gripping exploration of Soviet-era paranoia and oppression in Ukraine.

«The less you know, the better you sleep,» is a KGB saying that a former officer repeats in The Kyiv Files (2023), a documentary by Dutch director Walter Stokman screening at IDFA. Any potentially compromising information could put a person in danger and on constant watch in a Soviet-era Ukraine in which heavy surveillance was the norm, and all aspects of private lives were considered the state’s business. Since the KGB archive was opened to the public in 2017 and citizens can now request to read their files, the new transparency has, at times, occasioned a different manner of distress, as prior targets face revelations about who informed on and betrayed them. Text is narrated in voice-over from original files to tell of several cases from the ’60s and ’70s. Those affected are sought out for interviews today to offer a sense of life under totalitarianism for both the politically active and those under suspicion for any other number of spurious reasons in a state in which paranoia was the norm and motives of subversion often assumed.

The Kyiv Files Walter Stokman
The Kyiv Files, a film by Walter Stokman

Ambiguous activities

The case files are varied. Two Dutch tourists, Evert Reydon and Louw de Jager, eventually arrested and convicted of espionage, imprisoned for thirteen years but released after two, travelled to the Soviet Union in 1961, and were monitored extensively. Notes were made on their tactics for communicating unhindered, as they pass messages to each other and then burn the paper. The true nature of their activities remains ambiguous. Stokman tracks one of them down to the caravan he has been living in after a homeless stint and does manage to secure an interview, but it is suggested his subsequent difficulties on life’s margins stem from him never getting over the experience.

Another file contains information on Lisovaya Vera Pavlovna, a teacher who tried to transmit a Ukrainian patriotic consciousness to her students within the dictates of Soviet lesson requirements and whose husband was exiled to Siberia for nationalistic activities at a time when Ukrainian intellectuals were being repressed. Wives of political prisoners were ostracised in society by others too scared to associate with them, and they had to create their own communities. Lisovaya, dubbed «The Quiet One» in her file as she was always calm under interrogation, recalls a climate of fear, hypocrisy, and opportunism, where rewards for supposed good behaviour, such as free education and medical care, came at the high price of freedom of expression and inner psychological liberty.

Any potentially compromising information could put a person in danger and on constant watch in a Soviet-era Ukraine

automatically under suspicion

The most emotionally powerful testimony comes from Regine Chivrac, whose parents had immigrated from Poland to France and who visited the USSR to meet with family in Lviv. As a foreigner, she was automatically under suspicion. An undercover agent, Bogdan, was deployed by the KGB to start a relationship with her and assess her attitudes and intentions. Unbeknown to her, he was married and leading a double life. Even now, she believes he was genuinely in love with her, although she is shocked and enraged at his deceptions and the level of intimacy they were carried out within. He taped their conversations via a recorder hidden in his hat, a detail like many that seems straight out of the fiction of espionage thrillers; photographs of them in bed together taken without her knowledge are also in her file. Her file code name is «The Courtesan,» a misogynistic disdain clearly part of the KGB’s sense of entitlement to pore over her most vulnerable and private moments. Bogdan refuses to appear in person for the film, and in a telephone call, he is equivocal and evasive, reluctant to revisit a past he has put behind him.

The Kyiv Files Walter Stokman
The Kyiv Files, a film by Walter Stokman

A warning

There are no particularly new insights in this snapshot of the realities of life under Soviet surveillance, and there is a sense of incomplete research or mysteries not fully disentangled, with deeper access for pricklier discussions denied. But The Kyiv Files confirms a vision of the Soviet Union as a regime of repression ruled through a pervasive grip of fear. It adds further testimonies to the public domain, as Russian imperialism is again flexing its militaristic power in Eastern Europe. Media reports of Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine form a conscious backdrop to this documentary look back on Soviet methods of control, a framing device that expects parallels to be drawn, and a warning against the repetition of power abuses heeded.

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Carmen Gray
Carmen Gray
Freelance film critic and regular contributor to Modern Times Review.

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