The light has faded
Not recollections, but a confession would be fitting to write about a person like Nadiya Svitlychna. Or, more exactly, about Nadiyka as she was known to the end of her life by her friends, those she shared her time in the labour camp with, and those who shared her views. Next to her one would feel ashamed to be a coward, when white was called black, or vice versa. It was shameful to be silent when the situation demanded a clear “yes” or “no”, shameful to not place ones signature on an appeal where everything was spelled out. When the “modern Skovoroda”, the distinguished Ukrainian writer and philosopher Vasyl Barka found himself in a terrible position – alone, elderly, ill, without a roof over his head and without means to survive, Nadiya Svitlychna did not hesitate to label as “shameful” such treatment by Diaspora Ukrainians to their prophets, recalling the pitiful end of yet another important Diaspora master of the pen – Todos Osmachky who died among strangers, forgotten and abandoned.
“Oh, youre going to Nadiyka!”
I saw her for the last time in the New York hospital where they had to bring a big round tale into the ward for all the flowers that arrived every day, brought by friends, colleagues, and sometimes complete strangers. We were aware that the news of Nadiya Svitlychnas grave illness had rocked the entire Ukrainian community. Yet we couldnt have anticipated quite such a reaction – around the registration desk there was a long queue. She was respected and loved. And this was not only as a symbol of the 1960s, a courageous dissident who was prepared to endure the GULAG for the sake of truth. She was loved as a Person. She was unattainably above others in her greatness and strength of spirit tested through suffering, while at once incredibly accessible, homely, human in everyday life.
She invited us to her home in Irvington almost immediately after our arrival in New York. Having arrived on the coach in this small town, we attempted to ask passers-by for directions. An Afro-American traffic warden, hearing the name of the street, immediately said: “Oh, youre going to Nadiyka!”. And the “Nadiyka” came out sounding almost Ukrainian.
She treated us then to some buckwheat which “you need to fry a bit first so thats tastier”, coffee with some kind of odd taste which she called “coffee with nuts”, and talked quietly about Vasyl Stus, Alla Horska, her brother Ivan… She was ironical about the lack of resonance of her voice, saying that when she was working for Radio Svoboda [Liberty], the Chief Editor good-humouredly commented that with her voice she should be reading out obituaries. She generally tried to live quietly – she hated pomposity, breast-beating, insincerity, falseness and showing off. Even in solemn moments being presented with the latest award Nadiyka remained down-to-earth and accessible.
Although she spoke quietly, each word was important. During that first meeting, we spoke about the terrible times in the past – about the artist Alla Horska who was a close friend and whom she gave lessons in Ukrainian to. It was Nadiya Svitlychna, together with Yevhen Sverstyuk, who found Allas body in Vasylkiv outside Kyiv. The KGB had murdered her with an axe and flung her body into a cellar at her father-in-laws dacha, while they pushed him under a train, manufacturing a whole “performance” in which the father-in-law was supposed to have gone crazy, murdered his daughter-in-law and then killed himself. We listened to Nadiykas account and at the same time looked at Alla Horskas original paintings, given to her friend at some stage in Kyiv, and now hanging in her Irvington home.
We spoke of Vasyl Stus who often visited the Svitlychnys one-roomed flat in Kyiv and called it a “dove-house” because it was on the last, fifth storey. Nadiyka showed us the manuscripts of Vasyl Stus labour camp poems, written and corrected by the poet himself. They were manuscripts which Nadiya Svitlychnas husband Pavlo had secretly taken to America still in Soviet times and which had been published for the first time in the USA. We wanted to move on to talk about the Shevchenko Prize she had been awarded, but she asked us to write rather about the Vasyl Stus Prize “because its more special to me”.
“Little light”, or “little sister of a great brother”
In her house we couldnt help feeling that her friends and soul-mates – Vasyl Stus, Alla Horska, Viacheslav Chornovil, and Vasyl Symonenko, were all somehow living there, as if they had just stepped out for a moment, and would be back any second. Nadiyka was choosy about people but incredibly loyal to her friends. She helped the “Shestydesyatnyky” [the Sixties activists} however she could and dreamed of creating a museum dedicated to the movment of the “Shestydesyatnyky” in Kyiv. She loved giving small and unexpected surprises even people she didnt know very well when she saw them lost, in despair, or in a state of terrible depressionї. She would restore their will to live, give them hope again. Her friends called her “Little light”, or “little sister of a great brother”. Her brother, unshakable in his struggle for Ukraines freedom, a writer, literary specialist and translator was destined to spend 24 years in harsh regime labour camps and exile for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. One recalls how at the Baikove Cemetery at Ivan Svitlychnys grave, the poet Ivan Drach said: The best thing in Ivans life was his funeral”.
“To this day when I sometimes hear people say that you just have to look at Nadiyka to imagine Ivan, I flinch inside, because I know how far I am from him, “ Nadiya Svitlychna wrote. “I know that despite the genetic similarities and the same family, I am only a feeble shadow of Ivan in everything – in intellect, character, humour, habits. Ivan saw this conviction of mine as being my complex. However I later discovered that he had written to somebody in a camp letter that I, it seems, had freed myself of my complexes, and thus imprisonment had been good for me”.
She was sentenced for “anti-Soviet activities”, and because she was Ivan Svitlychnys sister. For that regime this was a sign of belonging to the “unreliable”, while for honest people, it was a sign of membership in a small group of the courageous.
The customs officers searched her carefully
It was May 1972. Nadiyka was summoned for questioning almost everyday. Each morning she took her two-year-old son Yarema to the kindergarten and picked him up in the evening. If she was held longer at the interrogation, she asked Ivan Lyols wife to collect Yarema. One evening Ms Lyol arrived to pick up the child but he wasnt there. It transpired that while his mother was being questioned, her two-year-old son had been taken by “people in civilian clothes” and put into a childrens home outside Kyiv, in order to put pressure in this way on the childs mother and uncle, Ivan, to make them “repent their anti-Soviet crimes”. They indeed suffered, were tormented, but did not let themselves be crushed. In the years of Ukraines independence already, when we flew together to Kyiv, the customs officers for some reason took her into a separate room for a meticulous search. After waiting near the door of that room, we heard the following from Nadiyka: “Maybe they detained me from inertia. They think that Im coming for a purpose, to bring down Kuchmas regime.”
From 1972 to 1976 Nadiya Svitlychna served a four-year sentence in the Mordovian political prisoner camps. In 1978 the Soviet authorities decided to get rid of the dangerous dissident and allowed her and her family to move to the USA. There she worked as a correspondent for Radio Svoboda in New York, and later edited the journal “Vera” [“Faith”], worked in the Ukrainian Museum and played an active role in civic activities – from the Shevchenko Scientific Society to the Scout Movement* .
When we last saw her, she was no longer about to leave her bed. The insidious disease was destroying her body, but it was powerless against her spirit. She behaved as though she had ended up in hospital by chance, cutting her finger in the kitchen. She talked about her childhood in the village of Polovynkyne in the Luhansk region, where she was born, laughed until she cried remembering how she and her friends skived off lectures at Kharkiv University where she graduated from the Language and Literature Department. She discussed the latest decisions taken by Viktor Yushchenko, and Yulia Tymoshenkos fashionable skirts. It seemed like the endless tubes around her and the smell of morphine had nothing at all to do with her, and it was only the flowers, a sea of flowers with cards with best wishes for a quick recovery brought us back to reality.
It was already near the end, when the time for that last leave-taking had come, that she said: “I would like my story to be a lesson for all”. She went on to talk about everyday things, how important it was to have medical examinations, look after your health, not get too tired or stress. For us those words “I would like my story to be a lesson for all” were like a testament. We would like her impassioned, honest life to really become a lesson for us all on how not to be afraid, not to betray others, how not to crawl or sell out.
Nadiya Svitlychna, as she longed for, is returning home. After a service in Bavend Brook, her body will be brought to Kyiv, and will be laid to rest, together with her brother Ivan, Vasyl Stus and Oleksa Tykhy in Baikove Cemetery. Eternal Memory, dearest Nadiyka. May your native land be your final resting place!
Nadiya Svitlychnas body will be laid to rest in Baikove Cemetery on Thursday 17 August.
There will be an opportunity to bid farewell at the Kyiv House of Scientists from 10.00 to 12.00.
There will be a funeral service in the Volodymyrsky Cathedral.
* Nadiya Svitychnas last name is from the word for light. Her first name means hope (translators note)
* Nadiya Svitlychna was also very active in the External Representation of the UHG and edited their periodic publications. She also published the “Visnyk represiy v Ukraini” [“Bulletin of repression in Ukraine”] (translators note)