Somebody had to come out first on Maidan
On this day 20 years ago the Fourth Reactor at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant exploded. And exactly 18 years ago, in Kyiv, an event took place which was directly related both to the Chernobyl Disaster, and to what was to take place in the near future – the move to independence of the country, the appearance in it of a civic society and free press, and in the final analysis to “Maidan” whose spirit is invoked so willingly by todays politicians.
18 years ago, over fifty members of the Ukrainsky kulturolohychny klub [The Ukrainian Cultural Studies Club] came out onto Kyivs October Square, now called Maidan Nezalezhnosti [Independence Square].
Readers, take note, this was Soviet Kyiv with its traditionally specific political regime where the Kremlins local protégés eagerly copied everything bad that happened in the “union centre”, but were highly disinclined to echo any positive moves.
It was in Moscow that in the spring of 1988 perestroika was flourishing. And when the orthodox communist, Nina Andreyeva, prompted by several members of the Politburo, published her article “I cannot compromise my principles”, all that was vibrant and honest rose in defence of the so recently gained, if not full, then at least semi-freedom of speech.
In Kyiv the seemingly eternal Volodymyr Vasylyovych Shcherbytsky reigned on. One was allowed, as before, to write about “isolated shortcomings”. It sounds like a joke, but is true that when the rock group “Mashina vremeni” [“Time machine”] came to Kyiv, certain questions of the journalist in the long television interview with the groups leader, Andrei Makarevich, were read by another voice. At the last minute the management decided to change the excessively radical journalist utterances, and the interviewer himself presumably could not be found.
Literary magazines had begun on a small scale to print studies on the crisis in national culture and the works of literary figures from the times of the "Rozstriliane Vidrodzhennia" [Executed Renaissance] . Admittedly, at that stage it was those figures who had at least given the appearance of agreeing with communist ideas. “Bourgeois nationalists” from past days remained on the list of those who could only be mentioned in abusive terms.
However changes were still taking place: modern “nationalists” were no longer being sent to Mordova and Siberia. I use the term “nationalist” in inverted commas since this category at the time included real nationalists, Ukrainian chauvinists, social democrats, liberals, and even those communists who wanted to live “by Lenins principles”.
They were “only” thrown out of their jobs, beaten up, flung behind bars for 15 days. However even such a let up was sufficient to plant the real seeds of what we nowadays call a civic society, with the appearance of the Ukrainian Cultural Studies Club.
This was a public and legal organization, although one not registered by the authorities. The latter vehemently opposed the Club in the columns of the Party press, supported actively by “the workers”.
It was in this atmosphere that the activists of the Ukrainian Cultural Studies Club, created in 1987 as an “informal” association, with a core of several dozen dissidents and recent political prisoners of different ages, decided to mark the second anniversary of the Chernobyl Disaster with a demonstration in the centre of Kyiv.
We will not go into all the details of this demonstration, which have been described in the recollections of Inna Naboka “How we came out onto our Maidan” (at: maidan.org.ua/static/mai/1145982519.htlm – in Ukrainian) “Ukrainska Pravda” also in fact wrote about the demonstration when Vakhtang Kipiani mentioned Serhiy Naboka who was not only the Chairperson of the Club and one of the initiators of the demonstrators, but had also managed to be born on just that date. In that year, Naboka turned 33. He marked his birthday with true honour, on Maidan and then – behind bars in the district station of the Soviet police.
However here I wish to talk about something else: about unrecognized courage and about medal-gilded baseness. Both Inna Naboka and others participants in the demonstration mention that when the arrests of demonstrators began, Serhiys mother, the journalist Kateryna Zelenska, rushed to the Union of Writers. Just at that time they were holding some kind of meeting or conference on Chernobyl. She burst onto the stage, calling for help, saying that they were seizing their children.
Kateryna Zelenska hoped that the prominent Ukrainian Soviet writers really were the conscience of the nation and that they would not be able to look on with indifference either at the legacy of Chernobyl or the regimes arbitrary despotism. All the more so since a public condemnation, if for example, ten or twenty of the laureates and bearers of state honours just nipped down for 10 minutes to October Square, could not do the writers any particular harm.
Of course, somebody might have had their next books publication delayed by a year. Or they might not have been allowed to publish anything in the press for a time. They could have been published in that case in Moscow where such prohibitions had already, essentially, stopped working.
Instead this “conscience” huffed and puffed for a bit in the hall of the writers building and that was it. However there were foreign correspondents present and probably it was specifically their presence that stopped the authorities from unleashing large-scale repressive measures against the participants in the demonstration.
… Yes, they were the first. We deliberately refrain from naming particular individuals who participated in the demonstration since the decision was taken jointly, and those who came out onto Maidan now only mention Serhiy Naboka – because he was the Chairperson of the Club and because he has not been with us for three years now. Perhaps if there is a need to specify who took part, it is better that they do so. We are considering here whether society remembers, and especially that specific part, those in power in independent Ukraine, that not so very distant demonstration.
...And already in that same year, in the autumn of 1988, the first legal rally in Kyiv under environmental banners on the square in front of the Republican stadium gathered more than 40 thousand Kyivans. A few months earlier one of the favourite chants at political rallies had become the slogan: “Long live the Communist Party of the USSR – at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant!”
However this political rally; and the founding of the Society for the Ukrainian Language; and the emergence of RUKH [the Popular Movement of Ukraine]; and the student hunger strikes; the declaration of independence; “Ukraine without Kuchma” and Orange Maidan – all of that came later.
But somebody was needed then, 18 years ago, when it was still unclear how events would unfold, to create that “later”.
The participants in that demonstration, aside from one who was to become a state deputy in the first Verkhovna Rada have not taken high-ranking positions in independent Ukraine. Such positions were filled largely by those who were indifferent to or against the demonstrators. However even that is not so terrible.
Most important is that it would seem that the fact that such a demonstration on 26 April 1988 took place has simply been forgotten, along with those who created a civic society and laid the foundations for independence. In this we have the “specific feature” of national history and the “forgetfulness” of those at the top.
Serhiy Hrabovsky, Deputy Chief Editor of the journal “Suchasnist”