Associate Professor of History Dr. Matthew Pauly on Research Obstacles Amid the Russo-Ukrainian War 

By: Patti McDonald 

Dr. Matthew Pauly, an Associate Professor in the History Department at Michigan State University, is a highly experienced researcher of Ukraine, with over 30 years of dedication to the region.  Pauly’s first trip to Ukraine was in 1988 when he was a high school student. Since then, he’s gone on countless research trips there. He said the war between Russia and Ukraine has significantly disrupted his research due to safety concerns around travel and the accessibility of archives. 

“I feel the need to go back,” Pauly said. “Some central state archives reopened last summer, but most regional ones have not; it depends on the archive. I’d say universally, they’re not prepared to receive foreign researchers at this time.” 

According to Pauly, in-person access to the archives was already constrained due to COVID-related restrictions put in place before Russia’s full-scale invasion in February 2022.  However, those limitations are now exacerbated because of the war.  

“You can remotely order copies of a few files from the archives but there’s a significant wait for the processing of any requests. It’s not the way historians are used to working; we’re accustomed to sitting in the archive all day, sorting through materials, and finding new leads from what we encountered in the files that we’ve received. Now even the work of Ukrainian historians who have returned to the reading rooms is regularly interrupted by air raid warnings.” 

Dr. Pauly emphasizes his experience doesn’t compare to the hardships endured daily by Ukrainians who are trying to survive the war. The Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) verified that more than 9,000 civilian deaths have occurred during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as of September 2023. Furthermore, more than 17,000 people were reported to have been injured. However, the OHCHR specified that the real numbers could be even higher. 

“For the nearly two years of this horror, I have found it quite difficult to get the courage to email the archives with requests,” he said. “I am worried about the people, about the librarians and archivists who are doing the work that makes our historical research possible. As individuals, they’re trying to survive the war for themselves and their families.” 

Pauly credits his scholarly success to local historians and librarians in Ukraine who helped him examine files that were not easily accessible to foreign researchers, especially early on in his career as a graduate student researcher in the 90s.   

“I would not have had a career without the advice of local historians who pointed me in the right direction towards files.  There were materials that were officially accessible and then there was what really existed…the archival structure in Ukraine was a legacy of the Soviet Union and the purpose of Soviet archives was not to make files publicly available, but to preserve them for selective, regulated use,” he said.  

Pauly said he and other historians are worried that the constant bombing will cause an erasure of history with the disappearance of paper files. 

“Only a small fraction of this material is digitized. Before the full-scale invasion, Ukraine didn’t have the infrastructure to digitize these files. Soviet records were often published on poor-quality paper and the paper itself was not meant to hold together over time. The files are really fragile things, and they can fall apart in your hands. By and large, almost all my work up until this point has been with physical paper files that are easily destroyed if a bomb hits an archive. Last March, Russian forces burned down an archive of the Ukrainian Security Service in Chernihiv, a city in northern Ukraine that has since been liberated. Key documents on the Stalinist era, the Second World War, and the Holocaust in Ukraine have been forever lost. In the part of Ukraine that remains under Russian occupation, the fate of archival holdings is unknown. 

The Russian Army continues to bomb civilian populations throughout Ukraine, including in the capital city of Kyiv and the town of Odesa.  

“Odesa, where I most recently worked, is also the home of the Ukrainian Navy and is frequently attacked,” Pauly said. “The Ukrainian Navy is not a huge force because when the Russians annexed Crimea in 2014, they stole a lot of the Ukrainian fleet. So, there’s not a large presence, but the Navy is responsible for protecting the Ukrainian coastline and has had considerable success. The city itself is a target. It seemed pretty clear in 2022 that Russia intended to conquer Odesa. The Kremlin views the port as the centerpiece in its campaign to capture the former Tsarist-era territory of ‘Novorossiya.’ Much of Ukraine’s grain, which the rest of the world depends on, is exported from Odesa. Russia seeks to disrupt this trade.”  

Odesa is also the subject of one of Pauly’s current book projects. His research monograph, City of Children: Juvenile Poverty, Crime, and Salvation in Odesa, investigates the impulse of Odesa’s citizens to care for marginalized children at the turn of the 20th century and how children’s welfare institutions and programs were simultaneously maintained and transformed under Soviet rule. 

Pauly said he stays in contact with friends and colleagues who live in Odesa, and it can be heart-wrenching to hear their stories of what they’re enduring. 

“I have a friend who sends me daily messages about drones and missiles that are headed towards the civilian population in Odesa. Can you even imagine? They don’t get much sleep, if any. Then, they have to try to do work. I would think any historian, or former student in the MSU History Department would appreciate what librarians, historians, and archivists do. They’re just no different than ourselves.” 

Photo Credit: Jacqueline Hawthorne