HISTORY OF DISSENT IN UKRAINE

21.09.2005
: Yevhen Zakharov

The history of Ukraine in the twentieth century could well be described as the history of a movement for national liberation. Every time when it seemed that this movement had been mercilessly crushed, it rose again, as the phoenix from the ashes, and gained new force.

The Ukrainian peasantry stubbornly resisted collectivization, this resulting in the mass exile of Ukrainians to Eastern regions of the USSR in 1931, and later in the entirely artificial Holodomor [Famine] of 1932-1933 which claimed the lives of 8 million. Stalin's regime was merciless also in annihilating the national intelligentsia. A consistent policy of Russification was aimed at eradicating a sense of Ukrainian national identity.

The annexation of Western Ukrainian territory which had, before the First World War, been divided between the Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires, and then during the period between the World Wars, had been part of the territory of three States: Poland, Czechoslovakia and Rumania, gave a new impulse to the Ukrainian liberation movement. The population of this territory was fired with national spirit, and was prepared to face any sacrifice in order to create an independent Ukrainian state. It is for this reason that armed resistance both to fascists and to the communists held out so long. The largest mass organization - the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) - headed the struggle first against German fascism and then against communism. Its fighting wing, the Ukrainian Resistance Army (UPA) fought with the German army for two years and with the Soviet army for six years. Without any support from abroad it continued its struggle until early fifties.

Soviet historians depicted UPA fighters as bandits robbing and killing women, the elderly and children and carrying out Jewish and Polish pogroms. It is now clear that such a view is at very least one-sided. A reassessment by the Ukrainian Prosecutor's Office of the cases of former UPA fighters has shown that the majority were not bandits. Moreover cases have come to light where NKVD officers, disguised as UPA fighters, perpetrated massacres of innocent civilians. Repressive measures against UPA fighters were brutal: hundreds of thousands were sent to the camps with a standard 25-year sentence. Entire villages in Western Ukraine (more than 2 million people) were exiled for abetting UPA".

Despite brutal repression, the national movement of the fifties and sixties was a feature specifically of Western Ukraine. Most of the underground organizations uncovered between 1958 and 1969 were active there, with a nationalist agenda which was ideologically close to that of OUN. However there were also organizations which rejected the armed struggle, preferring non-violent methods, for example, the Ukrainian Workers and Peasants' Union (1961) and others. It was basically with the appearance in the 50s of the idea of non-violent struggle against the Soviet regime that the dissident movement was born, a movement which could be described as a combination of nationalist (the most popular and prominent), religious and civic movements. The first period of the dissident movement which can loosely be placed between 1954 and 1962 was marked by the biggest wave of political repressions of the post-Stalin period. According to the KGB, from 954 to 1959 183 nationalist and anti-Soviet groups" in Ukraine were eliminated, were 1879 people convicted, including 46 groups (245 people) amongst the intelligentsia and young people.

At the end of the 50s a new era began in the national liberation movement, which became known as the movement of the Shestydesyatnyky [the sixties activists].  At its core were young people, inspired by Khrushchev's Thaw - poets, artists, musicians, historians, publicists. The fundamental theme of the movement was the fight against Russification, the restoration of a national culture. This movement, with its centre in Kyiv, was to spread throughout Ukraine. The Sixties activists had the support also of a part of the Ukrainian nomenklatura which is perhaps why before 1965 the movement did not encounter strong opposition, and many of its participants were able to have successful careers. The Shestydesyatnyky did not have as their goal the secession of Ukraine from the USSR; they hoped to achieve a liberalization of the regime and a solution to the national issue within the framework of the USSR. After the Thaw" ended, some of the activists began to cooperate with the communists, while others turned to opposition to the State regime. When, from 1963 to 1965, the Shestydesyatnyky stopped being published in journals and newspapers and publications of their books were suspended, their works were printed in Ukrainian-language editions in Poland (the newspapers: Nashe slovo" [Our word"], Ukrainsky calendar" [Ukrainian calendar"], in Czechoslovakia (the journals 'Dukla',  'Druzhno vpered' ['Forward together'] and 'Narodny kalendar' ['People's Calendar']) in the West, and samizdat began to spread. Initially samizdat was a purely literary phenomenon, mainly poetry-based, however from 1963 to 1965 samizdat swiftly became more politicized, with political publicist writings appearing, often anonymous. Then in the second half of the sixties, open publicist writings, articles and letters of protest about repression began common. Samizdat effectively became the infrastructure of the Sixties movement, the means of consolidating the non-conformist intelligentsia.

Ukrainian samizdat in the main concentrated on the political, historical and cultural aspects of the national issue (making its agenda somewhat narrower than that of Russian samizdat). For this reason, the greater part of Ukrainian samizdat remained accessible only to those readers who knew Ukrainian. It contained little publicist writing on socio-economic themes and few philosophical works. Nonetheless it was specifically via samizdat that some of the most profound and hard-hitting publicist articles written in Ukraine reached a wider audience. The most famous authors of samizdat were Ivan Dziuba, Yevhen Sverstyuk, Ivan Svitlychny, Leonid Plyushch, Valentin Moroz and Viacheslav Chornovil.

The Sixties (Shestydesyatnyky) movement was not monolithic. One can find in samizdat the seeds of all the main political trends in contemporary Ukraine. As a whole, the Sixties movement can be divided into cultural" Shestydesyatnyky, those who came to the movement via literature and the arts, were unable to accept the regime and in moral opposition to it, and the political Shestydesyatnyky who from the start had their own political goals and tasks.

One of the most popular examples of the samizdat of the mid-60s was an anonymous pamphlet On the trial of Pogruzhalsky", written in fact by Yevhen Sverstyuk and Ivan Svitlychny, and based on a terrible fire in the Kyiv Central Scientific Library on 24 May 1964 which destroyed a huge number of priceless archival documents and books. The article questioned the official version of how the fire had arisen, and claimed that this was yet another action aimed at denigrating the Ukrainian people. Having starved to death millions of Ukrainians in 1933, crushed any flickers of independent thought, turned us into obedient slaves... We should not deceive ourselves with some eternal truth about the immortality of a nation - its life depends directly on our willingness to stand up for ourselves".

The central figure of the movement was a Kiev poet ant critic Ivan Svitlychny, 'the moustached sun', as he was fondly called by Vasyl Stus. Svitlychny provided a link between Kyiv and Lviv dissidents. He was the first to establish contact with the Ukrainian Diaspora , who obtained literature published in the West and distributed it in Ukraine. He did a lot for spreading samizdat and he himself edited many articles. He was an undisputable moral leader of the movement.

The best-known samizdat work of the second half of the sixties was Ivan Dziuba's book 'Internationalism or Russification?', which became the manifesto of the Shestydesyatnyky. This book gained wide prominence, with thousands of copies being distributed throughout Ukraine and translations being made into several European languages and was highly regarded by various groups abroad. Without openly rejecting Soviet ideology, Dziuba gave convincing arguments against the official position on the national issue, in particular, the concept of an unchanging party policy with regard to the national question, of the equal position of Russians and Ukrainians in Ukraine, as well as of the future merging of nations under communism. The most powerful passages in the book were those devoted to Russification and its destructive social and psychological consequences for the Ukrainian people. It is interesting that the book was popular among the nationally oriented part of the nomenklatura. Pyotr Shelest, the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine was known to have read Dziuba's manuscript and to have had it copied and distributed among high-ranking party officials.

Russian samizdat was also distributed in Ukraine, largely thanks to Leonid Plyushch who copied works smuggled out of Moscow in Kyiv. Plyushch also organized translation of the best works of Ukrainian samizdat into Russian in order to get them to Moscow and abroad. This was how Dziuba's 'Internationalism or Russification?, "Lykho z rozumu" [published abroad as "The Chornovil Papers'] by Viacheslav Chornovil and other works became known. Plyushch was also the Ukrainian correspondent of Khronika tekushchykh sobytiy [Chronicle of Current Events].

Ideological and administrative pressure on the Shestydesyatnyky was not effective, and therefore the authorities resorted to repression. The first wave came in August and September of 1965. More than 20 people, all to some extent involved in the movement, were arrested. Seven of these were from Kyiv, with the leading figure being Ivan Svitlychny, who was only released after 8 months "due to lack of evidence". Svitlychny's personal charm and stature were so unquestioned, and the protests over his arrest so widespread that the authorities were not prepared to risk trying him.

One has the feeling that this action was carried out on orders from Moscow, but reluctantly. Right up to the end of the 60s, the attitude towards the Shestydesyatnyky was, by the standards of the time, less severe than the attitude to dissidents in Russia. This was seen, in particular, in the fact that the authorities tolerated the tradition which became established of laying flowers before monuments to Taras Shevchenko in various cities of Ukraine on 22 May, confining themselves to administrative measures and issuing threats to active participants. In Kyiv meetings on this day normally attracted several hundred people who sang songs and read poems. In 1967, the authorities attempted to break up a meeting, but encountered strong opposition from those present and backed off. During those years, it was only figures whose actions gained international prominence who were directly persecuted (Viacheslav Chornovil, whose book "Lykho z rozumu" about the repressions of 1965 was published in the West, yet already when it came to Ivan Dziuba, the authorities limited their actions to administrative pressure), as well as those who spoke out uncompromisingly against the Soviet regime (members of the Ukrainian National Front and other underground nationalist organizations, and a little later, Valentyn Moroz). It is interesting that this relative mildness in those years when it came to dealing with the national movement was not extended to participants in the human rights movements with generally democratic leanings. For example, in 1969, four activists from Kharkiv were arrested and tried for signing a letter to the United Nations from the Initiative group for the Defense of Human Rights in the USSR despite the fact that advice was received from Moscow to refrain from arrests.

More severe repressions followed in 1969-1970 (with the arrest and trial of Valentyn Moroz, Mykola Horbal and Anatoly Lupynis). This was due to a general hardening in the attitude of the regime after the suppression of the Prague Spring" in Czechoslovakia in August 1968 and to the fact that the movement of Shestydesyatnyky was becoming more organized. In January 1970 a periodical appeared in samizdat - the anonymous information bulletin Ukrainsky visnyk" [Ukrainian Herald"]. Its founder and chief editor was in fact Viacheslav Chornovil. Between 1970 and 1972 the first six issues appeared (with four being smuggled abroad), between 1973 and 1975 - the seventh, eighth and ninth (prepared, admittedly, by different publishers"). The publication of Ukrainsky visnyk" was resumed in 1987, and continued until 1990.

The Ukrainian Herald was based on the Russian 'Chronicle of Current Events'. Along with ordered and systematic information on the movement, repressions and the position of political prisoners (judging by the section of the "Chronicle", the bulletin had correspondents in more than 10 regional centres of Ukraine), the 'Herald' published works distributed by samizdat: essays on Ukrainian history, information on the Ukrainian Genocide (the deliberately caused Famine - Holodomor), literary criticism, prose and poetry. It is interesting that Svitlychny and other Shestydesyatnyky spoke out against publishing a periodical, correctly anticipating that this would intensify repressive measures.

In 1971 the authorities decided to put an end to samizdat. 1972 began with numerous arrests of Shestydesyatnyky, these being accompanied by mass searches and people being dismissed. Thousands of independently thinking Ukrainians lost their jobs. The purge affected not only workers of research and cultural institutions, but also rural intelligentsia and party and local council officials. Secret, as well as open, surveillance took on a mass scale, with letters intercepted and telephone conversations tapped. At the same time, a new wave of measures aimed at Russification began. This was a wide-reaching campaign aimed at eliminating Ukrainians' sense of national identity.

In the following period Ukraine was to turn into a testing ground for the KGB's new methods for suppressing dissidents. Strange, remaining unexplained to this day, murders were committed (Alla Horska, Volodymyr Ivasyuk, Nikolai Zvarych), and the method of planting drugs during searches was applied for the first time. The practice of fabricating criminal cases also developed, with charges involving rape, hooliganism, obstructing law enforcement officers, being in possession of illegal drugs, etc. It was specifically in Ukraine that repressive measures were especially brutal. Ukraine holds a sad record in many areas: the first woman to receive a labour camp sentence for participating in the Helsinki movement (Olha Heiko), the first use of Article 62 of the Criminal Code (anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda) in relation to an elderly woman (75-year-old Oksana Meshko), the first conviction of a woman (Raisa Rudenko) for trying to obtain the release of her husband, a political prisoner. It was in Ukraine that repeat arrests began of members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG). It was here also that repressions outside the courts became widely used.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Group was created in 1976 and existed up to 1981 when all members were imprisoned. Any person who joined UHG was arrested and charged with concocted criminal charges, or under Article 62 of the Criminal Code of the USSR. Vasyl Ovsiyenko calculates that out of 41 members of UHG, 39 spent a total period of 550 years in prisons, labour camps, exile or psychiatric hospitals. Four died in captivity: Oleksa Tykhy, Yury Lytvyn, Valery Marchenko and Vasyl Stus. Mykhailo Melnyk committed suicide after his comprehensive work on Ukrainian history was confiscated as a prelude to inevitable arrest.

The third period of the dissident movement, the Helsinki stage, marked the transformation of a nationalist movement into a movement aimed at defending human rights. The idea of human rights proved to be nothing alien to the Ukrainian nonconformist intelligentsia. For "cultural activists" it was inherent while the political activists used the language and form of human rights protection ideology, understood in the West, in order to attract more attention and understanding of Ukrainian national issues. UHG concentrated on reporting violations of national rights. In contrast to other Helsinki groups, it did not react to religious persecution, nor to the movement for socio-economic rights. Their charter statements, as well as 30 other documents, are all devoted to various aspects of the national issue.

In the first half of the 80s, the Ukrainian national movement with rare exceptions did not make itself felt and existed largely in the form of underground organizations. The number of anonymous anti-Soviet leaflets increased. This period saw an intensification of psychiatric repression (incarceration in psychiatric hospitals).

It should be noted that if the dissident movement among those at liberty after the General Pogrom" of 1972 was scarcely in evidence, in the labour camps there was a lot of activity. Ukrainian political prisoners actively fought the authorities from their captivity. There were constantly joint and individual petitions and statements in defence of their rights. Even chronicles were produced of labour camp opposition. These documents, prepared secretly by political prisoners, were smuggled out of the camps by wives and other relatives, and were sent abroad. The protests which gained publicity in the West eased the position of the prisoners. One of the most effective means of struggle was the use of hunger strikes, often collective. From 1969, hunger strikes began traditional on 10 December (Human Rights Day), from 1972 - 5 September (the anniversary of the signing in 1918 of a decree beginning the red terror, and leading to the creation of political camps), from 1974 - 12 January (the Day of Ukrainian Political Prisoners), and 30 October (the Day of Soviet Political Prisoners).

Geographically the nationalist movement was spread over all of Ukraine (for example, in 1972, there was an approximately equal number of arrests in Western and Eastern Ukraine), however the numbers were much larger in Western Ukraine and in Kyiv. It can be said that in Western Ukraine the dissident movement was made up largely of national liberation or religious groups, while in Eastern Ukraine national and religious elements were combined with human rights concerns. Human rights protection without any focus on the national issue were more evident in the large cities of the east and south of Ukraine - Kharkiv, Odessa, Chernivtsi, Luhansk, Zaporizhye, Donetsk, and this movement was very similar to the human rights movement in Russia. At the same time in the second half of the seventies, non-Ukrainian human rights activists began to move closer to the national movement on the latter's platform. This was especially evident in the political labour camps.

In general, there was a lot in common between the Ukrainian "culture-orientated dissidents" and Russian human rights activists. Both movements mainly consisted of members of the intelligentsia; they used similar arguments, demands and forms of expression. They got to know each other in the Mordovian camps for political prisoners, where the Ukrainians arrested in 1965 served their sentence together with Sinyavsky and Daniel, later Ginsburg and Galanskov. The route from Ukraine to Mordovia lay via Moscow, and relatives of Ukrainian prisoners stayed overnight in the homes of Moscow dissidents, left notes for 'The Chronicle of Current Events' and information for smuggling abroad. It was the Shestydesyatnyky who were involved in the campaign in support of Ginsburg and Galanskov, whereas representatives from other republics took no part. The Ukrainian Helsinki Group was also closely connected with the Moscow Helsinki Group and was created following its example, used its experience and had its own representative on it - General Petro Grigorenko. Ukrainian political prisoners took part in collective appeals reflecting general democratic demands; many participated in various collective actions in the labour camps.

As far as religious movements are concerned, then a particular feature here in Ukraine is the presence of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church (primarily in the West), as well as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (largely in the east of Ukraine). Believers belonging to these Churches were severely persecuted, with the authorities refusing to even acknowledge the existence of these Churches. Persecution of other churches and religions was the same as in other parts of the USSR.

In 1987-1988 Ukrainian dissidents returned from camps and exile and began to play an active role in politics. In virtually all newly-formed political parties with national and democratic orientation it was former dissidents who took the centre stage, and became their leaders. Between 1987 and 1988, the dissident movement effectively came to an end, and a new stage in the national liberation movement began, characterized by much wider participation of the population and open political opposition, ending in the creation of an independent Ukrainian State.