Nikolai Bokan Collection


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Nikolai Bokan Collection

A Note on the Collection

Nikolai Fedorovich Bokan (1881–1942) was a photographer from Baturyn, Chernihiv oblast, in Soviet Ukraine. Among Nikolai’s surviving photos are those that document his family’s experience of the Holodomor, and notably the death of one of his sons from starvation. The photos included in this collection offer a uniquely personal perspective on the experience of famine and speak to the famine’s devastating impact on family dynamics amid broader social and political transformations. As Nikolai was a devoted member of the Tolstoyan movement, which was based on the religious and political writings of Leo Tolstoy, his writings and photos also provide insight into the fate of religious groups amid Soviet-era repressions.

Nikolai was arrested in 1937, charged with anti-Soviet agitation, and died in a labor camp in 1942. The materials in this collection were retrieved from Nikolai’s criminal case file, housed at the Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine. The case file is comprised of trial documents, including verdicts, appeals, and interrogation reports, as well as personal items of Nikolai’s confiscated by the authorities upon his arrest. These included correspondence, photographs, an unfinished memoir, and a notebook of reflections. The latter two items are presumed to have been written in the mid- to late 1930s.

Nikolai was a self-employed photographer, having begun his career in the early 1900s. He acquired photographic equipment from profits attained through the sale of inherited property. Although the source of all his equipment is unclear, an envelope in his criminal case file indicates that his photo printing paper was manufactured in a factory in Kyiv. Nikolai catered to local clients in Baturyn and developed his photos with equipment kept in his home. It is notable that in the year 1932, as famine conditions began to take hold, Nikolai acquired a number of debtors who were either unable or refused to pay him for his services.

The photos in this collection are understood to have been captured by Nikolai, and generally feature members of the Bokan family. Photos of individuals beyond the family are presumed to have been commissioned and feature inhabitants of the surrounding region. Nikolai's son Boris also engaged in photography, and he is similarly described in the trial documents as a self-employed photographer. Although Boris is known to have assisted his father in his work, it is unclear to what extent he was involved in capturing the photos in this collection. It is notable, however, that Nikolai is featured in many photos and may well have been assisted by Boris in staging them.

In addition to individual photos, the case file also contains photo display boards created by Nikolai between 1931-1936. The display boards are compilations of photos together with inscriptions that offer narratives about the life of the Bokan family and commentaries on broader societal developments. Nikolai is known to have prepared these boards for dissemination, sharing them with others in the surrounding region, and even dispatching his children as part of these efforts. The appearance of display boards as photos on others indicates that copies were produced, although the extent to which this was done is unknown. The boards’ reception among Nikolai’s acquaintances is unknown, although the boards and the photographs figured prominently in his trial as evidence of his engagement in anti-Soviet propaganda.

The display boards included in the collection were selected for their relevance to events surrounding the famine, and combined with other textual documents in the case file, further illuminate the complicated reality from which the photos emerged. The display boards feature photos of events ranging from 1865-1934. Certain photos featured on these boards therefore predate Nikolai’s birth and include photos of his parents and siblings. For the purposes of the directory, only those photos related to the famine were evaluated for their provenance.

In total, the Nikolai Bokan Collection presented here features 19 photos and 7 display boards, selected from more than 27 photos and 20 display boards included in the case file. This total contrasts with the inventory of confiscated items found among Nikolai’s trial documents, which states that 42 photos and 20 negatives were confiscated. Notably, the Chernihiv region NKVD representative ordered the destruction of 30 confiscated photos and negatives, along with 63 of Nikolai’s books. It is assumed that the negatives were destroyed accordingly, as none are included in the case file. The case file does not include the display board dedicated to the death of Nikolai’s son Konstantin by starvation. The only indication of the display board’s previous existence is in a photo included in the file. Given the sensitive nature of the photos that have survived, it is possible that those that are missing were destroyed for portraying events the Soviet authorities were determined to hide

The criminal file of Nikolai Bokan was found in 2007 in the Ukrainian city Chernihiv in the local archives of the Security Service of Ukraine. Vasyl Danylenko and Vyacheslav Vasylenko, researchers from the Security Service Archives in Ukraine's capital, had traveled to Chernihiv to attend the opening of a traveling exhibition on the Holodomor titled "Declassified Memory." There they learned from the head of the Chernihiv Security Service archival department of the existence of a criminal file containing rare photos taken by a repressed photographer who had recorded life during the Holodomor. Recognizing the value of the file, the Kyiv-based researchers brought the material to Kyiv, where its contents were featured in the exhibition on declassified memory. The file is now part of the fonds on rehabilitated persons in the Security Service Archives in Kyiv.