Upon creation of the “Chronicles of Terror”, a database of civilian testimonies from across Europe concerning the Second World War, we were convinced that the collection of accounts of witnesses and victims of inhumane regimes is complete. It seemed that mass crimes committed in the heart of Europe belong to the past, and the task of historians and archivists from the Pilecki Institute is to collect and describe them, and then make them available in a single space. Everything changed on 24 February 2022 with the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On that day, the war left its mark on the lives of the residents of Kyiv, Mariupol, Bucha and thousands of other Ukrainian towns and villages, bringing them hunger, fear, torture, rape and death. The methods used by Russian occupiers have not changed for the past 80 years, and their mechanisms are known from accounts documenting Soviet crimes: hatred, disrespect for human life, aggression against civilians and a sense of impunity. The conclusion was obvious: the “Chronicles of Terror” must be continued. But who, where and how was to document the experiences of Ukrainian victims?
On 26 February 2022 – two days after the Russian aggression – the Pilecki Institute established the Raphael Lemkin Center for Documenting Russian Crimes in Ukraine (the Lemkin Center). The Center’s mission is to collect individual eyewitness accounts of civilians in order to preserve memory about crimes and create an archive available to anyone wishing to hear the voice of witnesses to those events. The testimonies – questionnaires filled in by refugees in Poland and filmed accounts recorded mainly in Ukraine – are gathered with strict observance of data protection regulations and a particular care for the wellbeing of the respondents. The Lemkin Center works closely with more than a hundred volunteers and associates who speak Ukrainian and Russian, as well as with scholars researching the crimes of 20th-century totalitarian regimes and experts in international law. The accounts are collected both in centers for temporary stay of refugees in Poland and in areas of military activity, where witnesses to Russian crimes against civilians can still be found. So far, the documentation concerns mostly the events in the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Kherson and Kyiv Oblasts. Numerous accounts come from Mariupol and Kharkiv, as well as from Kyiv and its vicinity. Materials that illustrate the crimes also form a part of the Lemkin Center collection: these are amateur videos and photographs documenting the scale of destruction, shots of the consequences of military action taken by professional camera operators, filmed accounts of people who were in Russian captivity, as well as materials handed over by the respondents as supplementing their questionnaires. In cases where the accounts were gathered close to the frontline, where people die every single day, they sometimes become the last will, a voice from beyond the grave, the last recording of events.
In February 2023, we commenced the regular publication of questionnaires, filmed accounts, photographs and films documenting Russian crimes against Ukrainian civilians in the “Chronicles of Terror” database. The documents are processed, anonymized, digitized, translated into Polish and English and then – following verification of personal data – made available in the form of a repository for scholars, journalists and all people who take interest in history that is happening before our eyes. We act independently of the justice system, but our database can serve as a source of evidence in the prosecution of crimes committed in Ukraine. For this reason, we chose for our patron Raphael Lemkin, the author of the draft of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on 9 December 1948 in Paris and is known as the “Lemkin Convention”.
Another important task facing the Center – inspiring change in international law – is also connected with the legacy of Raphael Lemkin. A historical description of wartime events allows for identifying and naming those activities of the Russian troops that are genocidal in nature. Due to their particularity, however, our current notions often cannot adequately convey their characteristics and scale. This prompts a search for new perspectives, which not always meets with understanding on the part of the lawyers, for whom the categories of “crimes against humanity” and “war crimes” suffice to describe what is happening in Ukraine. Through gathering accounts of individual witnesses and victims of the hostilities across our eastern border and making them available, we want to point to the need for developing new classifications of crimes that would allow us to properly describe the criminal activities of the Russian army and thus bring those accountable for them to justice. The most important task, however, which is being carried out here and now, is to remind the world about the war in Ukraine. It is our duty to record the voice of victims of this war and to let the world hear it, as well as to try to understand it.
Only descriptions of individual testimonies from the “Chronicles of Terror” database are available in open access. Full access to the documents, filmed accounts and photographs is possible only in the reading rooms of the Library of the Pilecki Institute in Warsaw and Berlin. The procedure for accessing these materials is under development. The relevant regulations will be published in due time.