On the second day of Russia’s war against Ukraine, the headquarters of the Chernihiv branch of the SBU, Ukraine’s Security Service, came under fire. The building was destroyed along with an archive containing some 13,000 documents. Historian Gregory Aimaro-Parmut frequently traveled to this archive from his home in Chicago, to conduct research on the Nazi occupation of Ukraine during World War II. At Chernihiv’s SBU archive, he was able to gather proof of crimes against the local population — and he even planned to move to Ukraine to continue his research. For Meduza, journalist Kirill Rukov interviewed Gregory Aimaro-Parmut about his family’s roots in Ukraine, his research, and his plans to return to Chernihiv.
Please note. This article was first published in Russian on March 28, 2022.
“I learned of the shelling of the building the day it happened, but hoped the documents were spared,” says Gregory Aimaro-Parmut. “I only received confirmation that the archive had been destroyed on [March] 25. Honestly, I was devastated. I could not cry: I still have friends in Chernihiv, who are in danger, and I kept thinking about them.”
Gregory Aimaro-Parmut was born in 1989, into a typical “mixed” American family. His father is Italian-American and his mother is a Christian of Jewish descent. “My mother had almost no contact with her relatives and wasn’t interested in her roots,” remembers Gregory. “Parmut is an uncommon last name, but we knew nothing about it until I started studying history in college and became interested in my family’s origins.”
At first, Gregory’s search was fruitless. But then he got lucky. Just a week before he reached out to the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum in Israel, someone had updated the its database with missing details about his family’s history.
Later, Gregory learned that the information came from Evgeny Parmut — a lawyer in Russia who was fairly well-known (in the 2000s, he represented showbiz figures such as Dima Bilan, Alla Pugacheva, Philipp Kirkorov and Yana Rudkovskaya). They turned out to be distant relative’s, and it was Evgeny Parmut’s information that brought Gregory to their ancestors’ hometown of Pryluky, Ukraine.
Over the next few years, Gregory became almost obsessed with researching the Chernihiv region of Ukraine: “Pryluky, for me, was like Mecca to a Muslim.”
The Chernihiv region was the “epicenter of the Soviet partisan movement” during World War II, Gregory says. Here, all of the main settlements had a partisan squad: “that’s why the Chernihiv region experienced a disproportionate share of violence from German and Hungarian troops, it lost around 127,000 people. Most of those killed were Ukrainians, and much less was written about these victims than about the victims of the Holocaust. This spurred my research and I focused on studying the extermination of the Slavs as an ethnic group.”
In 2015, as part of Ukraine’s policy of decommunization, the parliament decided to declassify the KGB archives. The documents remained in the archives of the SBU, but were made available to anyone interested. In 2018, Gregory flew to Chernihiv to study the holdings of one of these archives.
“At first I was nervous, going through the entrance past armed guards with Kalashnikov. But they were polite, and everything went smoothly,” says Gregory, remembering his first day at the archive. “There was no bunker or basement, the archive was on the first floor of a mansion. Inside were typical Soviet interiors, rather archaic. All in all just four large rooms filled with folders and papers.”
‘My dream came true. Then the fucking Russians came’
During the Nazi occupation, the local police carried out orders from Wehrmacht officers — this resulted in a unique collection of personal files, protocols, and witness reports. These police records made up the basis of the SBU archive in Chernihiv, which included around 13,000 pieces of evidence.
For three years, Gregory worked in the archive each summer and flew back to Chicago in the fall to continue his master’s degree in Russian and Eastern European history at Indiana University. This research resulted in his master’s essay, titled “Genocide by Any Other Name: A Reexamination of the Wehrmacht’s Punitive Policies Towards Ethnic Ukrainians in Chernihiv Oblast Ukraine 1941–43.”
Gregory’s research received several international grants for his research, but he didn’t get a chance to spend them. He paid for all of his flights from Chicago to Kyiv out of his own pocket; the tickets alone cost around $3,000. While in Chernihiv, he also worked as an English teacher at local schools: “In Pryluky I’m a local celebrity, I feel absolutely at home there, my heart is there”.
The summer before the coronavirus pandemic, while giving a talk about his research at Chernihiv College, Gregory met a girl. They began a relationship and later broke up, but they stayed in touch. Gregory was looking forward to going back and seeing her again.
“My plan was to move to Ukraine after the end of the pandemic,” says Gregory. “I was dreaming about it, and perfecting my Ukrainian and Russian too, of course.”
In the fall of 2021, Gregory finally returned to Ukraine. “My dream came true last fall. Then, the fucking Russians came,” he says.
The SBU building in Chernihiv, northern Ukraine caught fire due to the Russian shelling. pic.twitter.com/qKJjvb1x4V
— Status-6 (@Archer83Able) February 25, 2022
In early 2022, as Russian troops were massing at the border, Gregory followed the recommendations of the U.S. Embassy and evacuated, leaving his ex-girlfriend in Ukraine.
“I didn’t want to leave at all, I argued, but my old parents begged me to return as soon as the U.S. started evacuating its diplomats from Ukraine,” Gregory explains. “My friend Kostya, also a historian, served as a contract soldier in the Ukrainian army before the war. The morning of my flight back to the U.S. he gave me a gift, a token worn by Soviet prisoners of war in Chernihiv. This particular one was broken in half, which means the soldier did not survive captivity.”
Kostya was optimistic. He asked Gregory about his plans to return to Chernihiv. “I said, as soon as the Russians move their tanks away from the Belarus border,” Gregory recalls. “He was convinced that Russia would not invade, nothing would happen. Last time I talked to him he had joined the Territorial Defense Forces”.
‘Putin destroyed evidence of crimes committed by real Nazis’
The day before the archive was destroyed, Gregory began researching the partisan movement in the Varva and Sribne villages, south of Chernihiv region.
“These documents, as well as those concerning the neighboring Mala Divytsya were completely destroyed. Because of the fucking shelling of the archive all of this information is now gone,” Gregory laments. “If Putin’s mission was to ‘denazify’ Ukraine, then he destroyed the best evidence of the crimes committed by real Nazis in the Chernihiv region. Same goes for my plans to research the Holodomor, now obtaining the names of victims will be unimaginably harder.”
Gregory understand, of course, that the archive wasn’t the target. “Even in 2018, when I was working there for the first time, a colleague said that ‘If Russia invades, its first target in Chernihiv will be this building, because it’s an SBU building’,” he remembers. “The documents just happened to be there, there just wasn’t enough time to relocate them.”
Today, many archive workers are hiding for fear of persecution by Russian troops. Some of the historians had special access, meaning they might be formally listed in the SBU’s records, Gregory explains. “Some of them have fled the Chernihiv region. Archivist Tatyana Gapienko, who took care of me like a son and curated my work, is also on the run because her husband was an officer. I pray that they’re alright”
Gregory’s research partner, historian Yelena Lysenko, managed to send him a copy of their joint work two weeks before the archive was destroyed, after he had already evacuated. “The files saved can’t compare to the number that was destroyed. Everything capturing Stalinist and post-Stalinist repressions was lost. It’s just monstrous.”
Meanwhile, Yelena Lysenko fled to the north of the region along with her husband and daughter, hoping to wait out the war in their country house.
“Their area is currently occupied by Russia. I lost all contact with Yelena, but two days ago she managed to take a few calls through a mutual friend. I know that Russians and Ukrainians boast about their ability to survive during a catastrophe and even in extreme poverty. But I want the world to know that Yelena Lysenko is the best historian of Nazi crimes in the Chernihiv region — now, she’s basically a hostage in the Russian-occupied territory. She said Russian forces are stationed right in their village and soldiers are threatening to shoot anyone who tries to escape. The locals are trying to shelter and hide refugees in their homes. You cannot imagine how similar this is to what I’ve read about military occupation in the [archives].”
Gregory is convinced that prior to the “denazification operation” people in the Chernihiv region had no negative feelings towards Russians.
“To be honest, prior to the invasion most of the people I know in Chernihiv region had brotherly feelings towards Russians, just as before. Up until the last moment my ex’s father said: ‘Putin will not invade. We are still brothers.’ That’s what people really thought. The few [who were] dissatisfied after the Maidan — there were such people, although not many of them — would say: ‘I’ll greet the Russians with flowers.’ But no one is doing this now. When you see Russian tanks in your city, when your village is shelled, you just can’t kiss such ‘liberators’.”
Most of Gregory’s friends from Chernihiv region have family in Russia or Belarus. Most people in Chernihiv itself spoke Russian, he points out: “I even somewhat regretted choosing to live in this city, because I am not as fluent in Russian, but people on the streets spoke it more often than Ukrainian.”
“Putin’s plan is absolutely deranged and destroyed the closeness between Ukrainians and Russians,” Gregory concludes. “It’s dead now.”
* * *
Gregory thought he’d be back in Ukraine no later than a month after the start of the war — he hoped the politicians would find a diplomatic solution. He was set to fly back to Chernihiv on March 24:
“Now I’m just waiting. I send money to those serving in the Ukrainian Territorial Defense forces in Nezhin and Chernihiv so they can afford food, water, and supplies. In Pryluky, I have a friend doing long and dangerous trips to the Polish border and back for humanitarian aid. I helped him with gas and other supplies. Medicine and food are the main things needed now. My mom and I drive [supplies] to the local orthodox church in the Chicago suburbs — they ship humanitarian aid to Ukraine.”
Gregory says there’s only one thing saving him from “total depression”: “My beautiful apartment in Chernihiv is still intact, my friends check on it regularly after there’s shelling. I will return to it when I become part of a humanitarian mission. This is my plan, to return there as soon as possible.”
Story by Kirill Rukov with additional reporting by Ilya Gromovikov
Translation by Sasha Zibrov