24.10.2006 | Vasyl Ovsiyenko

Thirtieth Anniversary of the Founding of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group


The Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (the Helsinki Accords), were signed after much procrastination on 1 August 1975 in Helsinki by all European states (except Albania), the USA and Canada.  They were given the force of domestic legislation and therefore presented legal opportunities for legally fighting human rights violations with reference to both internal and international laws. The first to realize this were human rights defenders in Moscow who on 12 May 1976 created the Moscow Public Group on the Assistance of the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords in the USSR (the Moscow Helsinki Group). Soon after, on 9 November 1976 the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (or formally the Ukrainian Public Group to Promote the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords) was formed on the initiative of writer and philosopher Mykola Rudenko, General Petro Grigorenko (Moscow), civic figure Oksana Meshko, science fiction writer Oles Berdnyk, and lawyer Levko Lukyanenko (Chernihiv).  Its founding members were also the microbiologist Nina Strokata-Karavanska, the engineer Myroslav Marynovych, the historian Mykola Matusevych, teacher Oleksa Tykhy and the lawyer Ivan Kandyba. It issued a Declaration on its creation and Memorandum No. 1.

The Helsinki movement soon became international, with groups being formed in 1976-77 in Lithuania, Georgia, Armenia.  Similar groups were active in Poland (the Committee for the Defence of Workers, later becoming the Committee for Civic Defence) and in Czechoslovakia – Charter 77.  A special commission in Congress was created in the USA.

The human rights defenders achieved a revolutionary turn in the awareness of the population which had been terrorised over the previous decades. In an unfree country they began to act like free citizens, with no prior fanfare exercising their constitutional rights (freedom of speech and press, of demonstrations, association, and others), that is, understanding the laws to be what was written. Independent public opinion emerged within society. From then on demagogy about “interference in the internal affairs of the USSR” ceased to be an available option where violations of fundamental human rights were concerned.

In addition, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, at a time of the collapse of the world colonial system reminded the world of the existence of subjugated Ukraine and raised the issue of its recognition by the world community, first and foremost that Ukraine be represented at future conferences on Security and Co-operation in Europe by a separate delegation.

The Ukrainian Helsinki Group united people with different views and of different nationalities, since the human rights defenders understood that under a system of colonial rule there can be no question of observance of human rights, and independence to all was viewed as the most feasible guarantor of freedoms.  It was a step of genius, to place Ukrainian national interests on an international legal basis in the context of the confrontation between the democratic West and the totalitarian USSR.  And this aspiration for Ukraine in just a decade and a half became real, with Ukraine becoming independent.  In a sense one could say that freedom of speech and truthful information brought down the “empire of evil”.

All that was still vibrant in Ukraine was drawn to the Helsinki Group. This was the first time after decades of repression that the Ukrainian intelligentsia organized itself and spoke to the entire world about the lack of freedom and rights of its people. In this sense the Helsinki movement was much more important for Ukraine than for countries which had their own statehood and it was therefore to be more enduring.

The milieu of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group was fairly broad and heroically steady. It was made up of former political prisoners, their friends and family, still young people, who did not wish to suffocate any longer in the atmosphere of official lying ideology. The Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, and its “fighting avant-garde”, the KGB were thrown off track. They wanted, after all, to present a “human face” to the world. They did not however hold out and showed their real features by resorting to the old methods – arrests of the most active, extra-judicial repression of those who supported them, or seemed suspect.

There were in all 41 members of the Group. In 1982 the Group was joined by two foreign members and at the end of 1987 another six hundred people joined. 24 members were sentenced to terms of imprisonment over their membership of the Group. They spent a total of 170 years in labour camps, prisons, psychiatric hospitals and exile. Overall members of the Group sent a total of 550 years in captivity. Five paid with their lives: Mykhailo Melnyk took his own life on 9 March 1979, awaiting inevitable arrest.  Four prisoners of the special regime camp VS – 389/36 (the Kuchino Settlement, Chusovsk District of the Perm region) died in the camp: Oleksa Tykhy on 5 May 1984, Yury Lytvyn – 4 September 1984, Valery Marchenko – 7 October 1984 and Vasyl Stus – 4 September 1985.

In spite of incredible pressure, the UHG never folded and its documents were issued from captivity. The External Representation of the UHG published a monthly bulletin Visnyk represiy v Ukraini  [Bulletin of repression in Ukraine].  There was a Washington Committee on Helsinki Guarantees for Ukraine, the Ukrainian  publishing house “Smoloskyp” (named after Vasyl Symonenko) published the Group’s documents in both Ukrainian and English, and all of Ukrainian tried to listen to the jammed broadcasts of Radio Svoboda.

The strength and enormous moral superiority of the Ukrainian  human rights defenders over the regime lay in the fact that they did not go underground, but signed all documents with their own names, openly demonstrating commitment to legality, appealing to Soviet law and international legal documents to which the USSR was signatory. They gained the appropriate respect in the world. In 23 September 1981, in a report to the 13th National Congress of the American Association for the promotion of Slavonic studies in the city of Pacific Grove, the well-known researcher into political theory Lysak-Rudnytsky stated: “… the significance of Ukrainian dissidents confirmed by factual information cannot arouse any doubts. The commitment of these courageous men and women testifies to the unbroken spirit of the Ukrainian nation. Their struggle for human and national rights is in full accord with the trend of world universal progress in the spirit of liberty. The Ukrainian dissidents believe that truth and freedom will prevail. Those who are fortunate enough to live in free countries must not believe less.”

As soon as the first Helsinki people were released during the period of perestroika and glasnost [openness], they renewed their human rights activities which swiftly took on a political nature. On 7 July 1988 the Group was transformed into the Ukrainian Helsinki Union which can be seen as the precursor of a political party. It launched the creation of a political system in Ukraine.

The Ukrainian Public Group to Promote the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords occupies a significant place in the history of the Ukrainian national liberation and human rights movements. Its activities, together with other factors, led Ukraine to independence where the opportunity existed to create a law-based society which would suit the freedom-loving spirit of the Ukrainian people, and the letter of international legal agreements.

To mark the Anniversary in Kyiv a public committee has been created which is planning to hold the following events:

8 November (Wednesday) 12.00 – 13.00  Press Conference in UNIAN press agency

8 November 14.00 Memorial Service at the grave of Patriarch Volodymyr on St Sophia Square.  Members of the UHG and their families will visit the graves of members of the UHG Mykola Rudenko, Vasyl Stus, Yury Lytvyn, Oleksiy Tykhy, Oksana Meshko, Viacheslav Chornovil and Nadiya Svitlychna at Baikove Cemetery and Valery Marchenko’s grave in the village of Hatne.

8 November  Evening dedicated to the memory of Nadiya Svitlychna in the Kyiv City House of the Teacher.

9 November, from 10.00 to 15.00 the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union is organizing a seminar on “Human rights: yesterday and today”, dedicated to the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the UHG.  This will be held in the Trade Union Building (Maidan Nezalezhnosti – Indpendence Square]

9 November  17.00 – 20.00  Main event:  Formal public evening to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Ukrainian Public Group to Promote the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords.  In the conference hall of the Kyiv City House of the Teacher, Volodymyrska St, 57.

Most of the remaining 20 members of the UHG are expected to attend, as well as representatives of the Helsinki movement of other countries, the President of Ukraine, ambassadors of state signatories to the Helsinki Accords.  There will also be a photo exhibition.

On 10 November - an academic conference with the participation of members of the UHG will take place at the “Smoloskyp” publishing house (21 Mezhyhirska St, nearest metro station is “Kontraktova ploshcha”).  The conference begins at 10.00.

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