Secret Police Archives as Depositories of Faith

It’s a typical photo from the 1950s. Eleven well-dressed people of various ages sitting together staring into the camera. A number marks each to correspond to their names listed on the back. But this seemingly harmless photo has a dark side: It’s secret police evidence against Jehovah’s Witnesses in Western Ukraine sometime between 1953 and 1955. The police confiscated it during a special operation called “Zavet” or “Testament.”

Secret police archives in former-communist countries are full of pictures, letters, religious brochures and images collected as evidence against religious communities. How do police files narrate the religious “enemy”? What do these files say about religious life in the USSR? In this interview with Anca Șincan, the Romanian Academy of Sciences, and Tatiana Vagramenko, University College Cork, we will discuss how the secret police archives represent underground religious life. What do they tell us? And what are their limitations?


Anca Șincan is a researcher at the “Gheorghe Șincai” Institute for Social Sciences and Humanities of the Romanian Academy in Tîrgu-Mureșh. She was a postdoctoral researcher on the project, Religious Minorities: Hidden Galleries in the Secret Police Archives in Central and Eastern Europe at University College Cork. Currently, she is a researcher in the project Negotiating Sovereignty: Challenges of Secularism and Nation Building in Central Eastern Europe Since 1780 at the Research Center for Humanities, Budapest, Hungary. Her most recent publications include a co-edited journal issue Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy: The Religious Underground in the Twentieth Century East-Central Europe in „Review of Ecumenical Studies”, 14:2 (2022) and the article “Do onto Yourself”: Leading the Church in the 1970s Romania through Self-Policing and Self-Censorship, in the journal East Central Europe.

Tatiana Vagramenko is a social anthropologist and a religious studies scholar. She is Principal Investigator in the project “History Declassified: The KGB and the Religious Underground in Soviet Ukraine” at University College Cork. This project is the first in-depth study using secret police records on the state persecution of religious minorities in Ukraine and the Soviet Union.


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