Crossing Ethnic Barriers Enforced by the KGB: Kharkiv Writers' Lives in the 1960s-70s


  • Olga Bertelsen Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University



This study analyzes the foundations of unity developed by the Kharkiv multi-ethnic community of writers, and explores post-Khrushchev Kharkiv as a political space and a place of state violence aimed at combating Ukrainian nationalism and Zionism, two major targets in the 1960s-70s. Despite their various cultural and social backgrounds, the Kharkiv literati might be identified as a distinct bohemian group possessing shared aesthetic and political values that emerged as the result of de-Stalinization under Khrushchev. Archival documents, diaries, and memoirs suggest that the 1960s-70s was a period of intense covert KGB operations and “active measures” designed to disrupt a community of intellectuals and to fragment friendships, bonds, and support among Ukrainians, Russians, and Jews along ethnic lines. The history of the literati residing in Kharkiv in the 1960s-70s, their formal and informal practices and rituals, and their strategies of coping with state antisemitism, anti-Ukrainianism, terror, and waves of repression demonstrate that the immutability of ethnic barriers, often attributed to Ukrainian-Russian-Jewish encounters and systematically reinforced by the KGB, seems to be a myth and a stereotype. The writers negated them, escaping from and at the same time augmenting the politics of the place. Their spatial and social practices and habits helped them create a cohesive community grounded in shared history, shared interests in literature and dedication to it, and shared threats emanating from city politics and the KGB. They transcended ethnic boundaries constructed by the authorities, striving for unity, free from Soviet definitions.


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Author Biography

Olga Bertelsen, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University

Assistant Professor of Intelligence Studies