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Counting Noses

04 December, 00:00

As I write, my wife is at home awaiting the census taker’s ring on the doorbell this evening. As one who has had some experience in dealing with not completely dissimilar problems, I can only echo the words of caution by former President Leonid Kravchuk about this process and wish the lady coming to visit us the best of luck with a job that could well prove a wound on the body politic of the Ukrainian nation. Let me tell you a short story.

In 1984 the Young Professionals’ and Businesspeople’s Association of New York and New Jersey came to me and suggested I design a project to interview people who had lived through the Famine of 1933. I did so and sent a promising graduate student, Leonid Heretz, on the road with guidelines on doing oral life histories from what the oldsters remembered from their mothers’ knees to the moment when they emigrated. Fully two- thirds of the respondents demanded absolute anonymity, which we promised. When the sponsoring organization demanded a list of names and addresses to revisit people and ask about things they wanted more information on, Leonid and I sat down together, drank a hundred grams of the good stuff, and burned the lists. We had promised anonymity, and there was simply no other way to guarantee it. Even after half a century, these courageous people still feared (courage is, after all, not the absence of fear: it is going ahead in the face of one’s own fear) that the regime they had fled would somehow reach out across the ocean and grab them by the throats for telling what it was still forbidden to tell.

That experience struck me in connection with Ukraine’s ongoing census. First of all, those who know the system all too well are not going to trust the confidentiality of the process, nor should they. To think that census takers slated to get perhaps $30-$35 for a month’s work will not share their findings with somebody, maybe some political or oligarchic force, who offers them more to do so in order to, say, target voters, is utterly naive. As Leonid Makarovych underscored, in the face of even the best efforts, confidentiality cannot be guaranteed. Of course, the country is in bad need of a census. There has been no headcount since 1989. But when it comes to personal data, even the most stringent penalties will not guarantee accuracy. Nor should it. This people has been through enough.

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