25 years to the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.
The jubilee of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG) that was celebrated on 8-10 November of this year in Kyiv is an event simultaneously joyful and sad. Not only I got this impression, but all other present at the celebration members of the Kharkov Group (KhG), which was one of the organizers of the meeting.
On 8 November a press conference was held in the building of the informational press center for journalists of IREX ProMedia. Representatives of practically all nation-wide TV companies and many printed mass media gathered in the hall. The journalists communicated with Mykola Rudenko and Levko Lukyanenko, the founders of the UHG, Vasyl Ovsienko, a long-term prisoner of consciousness, Osip Zinkevich, a USA correspondent of the UHG, the manager of the publishing house ‘Smoloskyp (in 70sp-80s he was known under the penname Bogdan Klen), and Evhen Zakharov, the executive manager of the Kharkov Group for human rights protection. Ovsienko, Zakharov, Zinkevich and UHG member Josip Zisels were organizers of the celebration.
The journalists, mainly young people, were sitting in the hall side by side with old political prisoners. Some of them did prison terms counted in decades. The total prison term of 43 members of the UHG is more than 550 years. Such figures were unthinkable of in any other republic of the former Soviet Union. On the one hand, the reason was the extreme cruelty of the Ukrainian KGB, on the other hand – the intrepid courage and self-sacrifice of the UHG members. In fact the UHG members firmly knew that they would be arrested and convicted. Even those, who were ill and physically weak, for whom a prison term meant a death verdict – Marchenko, Stus, Tykhiy – entered the group without hesitation. They did it to inform the whole world the neither the freedom of speech, nor the freedom of public organizations, not the rights of national organizations existed in the USSR.
The UHG considered the problem of national and cultural rights as a basic one. The UHG members fought with russification, insisted on the right of free emigration from the USSR, protected rights of national minorities and ‘refuseniks, mainly Jews, who wanted to go to Israel.
From the very beginning of the press conference it became obvious that our society is badly informed about what were the UHG tasks. The young journalists knew rather vaguely what the Group was doing. In between the young people the real heroes, veterans of the movement, were sitting, such as P. Sichko, B. Rebrik, V. Striltsiv, who spent the best years of their lives – youth and ripe age -- in prisons and concentration camps. The journalists tried to understand how the former members of the UHG influence the present state of human rights in Ukraine, they were interested in the attitude of the former dissidents to the present power. They vaguely understoof what was the role of the UHG in the creation of the independent Ukrainian state. The reason, maybe, was that, unlike the Moscow Helsinki Group that also celebrated its 25 thanniversary this May, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group stoped to be an acting organization. Many former UHG members went to politics, some part of them left political and public activities or joined other public human rights protecting organizations. So, Levko Lukyanenko and late NRU leader Viacheslav Chornovil became founders of the largest social-democratic parties, Myroslav Marynovich founded the Ukrainian section of Amnesty International, V. Ovsienko is an active member of the Kharkov human rights protecting Group, and so on. However, as an autonomous organization the UHG does not exist now. That is why every speaker at the conference evaluated the current situation in his own way. Many UHG members, such as M. and R. Rudenko, P. Rozumny, V. Ovsienko, answering the question of journalists, if they regard that the UHG achieved its goals, responded positively. Yes, they said, Ukraine exists as an independent state with democratic institutions and has the chance to develop into a full0fkedged European democracy. Other UHG members, such as Levko Lukyanenko and P. Sichko, sharply criticized the situation in the country, affirming that they had fought for quite another state and public order. The members of the group now have very different judgements and social status, so it is not surprising that the journalists could not come to similar conclusions about the opinions of the former UHG members.
In order to assist the public to learn more about the connection of the UHG with the modern times the seminar ‘Human rights in Ukraine: yesterday and today was organized on 9 November in the building of Kyivo-Mogylianska Academy. Nina Karpacheva, the Ukrainian ombudsperson, and representatives of Ukrainian public organizations, such as Amnesty International, International society of human rights, association ‘Zeleny svit, KhG and others, took part in the seminar. Yet, both at the seminar and at the celebration devoted to the UHG jubilee (held in the same evening) the same phenomenon was observed: differences in the assessment of modern times, power and its officers, of the potential of the Ukrainian state.
The celebration held in Kyivan House of Teachers (former House of Central Rada) is an extraordinary event in our life. The hall with the capacity for 500 people, where once hetmans declared their edicts, was overcrowded. The UHG members, who could come to Kyiv, made speeches. They were 14 out of 29 members, who are still alive. Other 14 members died before the jubilee… Among them there were such figures as Valeriy Marchenko, Vasyl Stus, Oleksa Tykhiy, Yuri Litvin, tortured to death in Soviet concentration camps, Mykhaylo Melnik, who committed suicide after the confiscation of the 800-page manuscript in Ukrainian history and on the eve of inevitable arrest, Volodymir, the Holy Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyivan Patriarchy), who died under doubtful circumstances in summer of 1995, Viacheslav Chornovil, the acknowledged leader of national-democratic movement, who also perished under obscure circumstances and many others. Everybody felt that the UHG members are bright personalities today too, who are somehow pushed out by the modern establishment.
The portraits of the dead UHG members were exhibited on the stage. The meeting began with a one-minute silence for each of them. We understood that each original of the portraits is acutely needed by the modern Ukraine, which is so short now of bright, independent and active people. Those present were a few, who managed to survive under duress, although the communist authorities did everything possible to destroy them physically. 14 out of 29 is not so few, taking account of the fact that some former UHG members live abroad and others could not come because of bad health: old age, prisons, concentration camps and the hard life now did not add health to the former political prisoners. The most interesting were the speeches of Irina Senik, Petro Sicko, Petro Rozumny. I. Senik stayed in prisons and concentration camp for the total term of 34 years, P. Sichko – 15 years.
When these people spoke, the audience unconsciously stood up. Pretty words, as a rule, are worth little, but in this case I cannot say otherwise. We saw real heroes, so infrequent in our non-heroic life, they were so pure morally that the contrast between them and the rest of the audience was striking. That is a pity that not a single TV feature devoted to this action could not express this difference. The public got informed about the jubilee, but it hardly got the lesson of morals.
Each UHG member got commemorative medal from radio ‘Liberty and Amnesty International, commemorative diplomas from the publishing house ‘Smoloskyp, a 4-volume collection of documents and materials of the UHG, published to the date by the KhG. The relatives of the late members got the same presents.
N. Karpacheva, present at the celebration, handed the commemorative address and her first report (the book devoted to the state of observation and protection of human rights and freedoms in Ukraine) to Mykola and Raisa Rudenko.
Some speakers told that the authorities did not notice and did not celebrate the UHG jubilee (although MPs A. Matvienko, L. Taniuk and others were present at the meeting). However, it seems to me that if the authorities took part in the celebration, it would put the UHG members in a embarrassing position, since very few of the present assessed the current situation in Ukraine as positive. As we have said, the most positive evaluation was made by Rudenko and Rozumny: ‘Thanks God, the independent Ukraine exists, now we must make her such as we want and always wanted to see.
If the celebration was supported by the authorities, that if would be even less comprehensible for the Ukrainian citizens, who could hardly understand for what purpose the group was created, what were its goals and tasks. Yet, the UHG jubilee did not pass unnoticed, and it is good! It is also good that people, who stayed in prisons together for years, could gather, recall the past and, on 10 November, visit the cemetery and to express their respect to those, who gave their lives for their convictions. Funeral prayers sounded in the Baykovo cemetery over the graves of Yuri Litvin, Oleksa Tykhiy, Vasyl Stus, Ivan Svitlychny, Viacheslav Chornovil and Oksana Meshko. Then the participants went to the village of Gatne to the grave of Valeriy Marchenko.
It is very sad that the history of the dissident movement in Ukraine, in particular the history of the UHG, has not yet become a part and parcel of the history of our people, which would be known, learned, on which the public thought could refer, which would form the public consciousness. Today the history of the dissident movement continues to be the history for a few, namely the Ukrainian intelligentsia. Yet, the maturity of a democratic state is determined by the proportion of its citizens, who know the history of their country.