Moral Choice


Channel 5 ran the headline that “today would have been Ukrainian dissident Valery Marchenko’s sixtieth birthday.  Words spoken in a similar connection by Myroslav Marynovych 10 years ago came to mind:

“Those whom death takes from us prematurely have one advantage over the living – they do not grow old. For this reason the phrase “Valery Marchenko would have been 50 now” sounds absurd. We know after all that Time is powerless to change the smallest feature on that young face which looks on us from his photograph. And yet the special date is a good reason to once again recall Valery. After all, unlike him, we grow older and that means that we forget. Unfortunately…”

It is indeed to be regretted. There are people whom we have no right to forget for they remind us of the moral choice which in one way or another faces each of us.

Valery Marchenko, journalist, translator and defender of human rights and human dignity was first sentenced on 29 December 1973 for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” to 6 years labour camp and 2 years exile.

Having challenged the entire empire of lies, I had one support, my awareness that the yoke was unendurable. I need only hurl myself against the stone wall, and feel the pain of impact in order to understand that it can nonetheless be overcome, that one can and must fight it. Rejection of Bolshevism is not a discovery for me, but a form of existence.  And it is not silently, passively that it needs to be opposed. The demand to democratically resolve all problems – this is the only possibility for each Ukrainian citizen

(Valery Marchenko  from a letter to his grandfather, 1975)

Having returned to Kyiv in 1981, despite his serious kidney disorder, he refused to stay silent.  He was arrested again and sentenced in March 1984 to 10 years special regime labour camp (the harshest) and to 5 years exile.  This was, as he knew, a death sentence.  Valery Marchenko died in a prison hospital on 7 October 1984. He was 37. 

He was held in the Perm political labour camps where he met and made an indelible impression on Myroslav Marynovych and many others.

A few excerpts from Myroslav Marynovych’s recollections of Valery Marchenko

Valery as political prisoner

He exuded strength, fortitude and certainty.What as a young prisoner stuck in my mind was Valery’s lack of any doubt where moral choice was involved. He had simply passed beyond the point of fear and it no longer had power to torment him. You could see that beyond that line he had gained such great spiritual treasures that there was already no need for him to agonize over any problem of choice, of whether to dare to take a moral step which would bring new suffering, or whether to lie to himself and gain some leniency that way.

Valery as son

There was a time when it was his mother who taught him – to walk, to make his first independent steps in life, to hold himself straight and proud. And then the roles changed and it was already Valery who taught his mother not to be gripped by that typical clinging fear which stripped Soviet people of their reason, conscience and honour.  He taught her to make her first steps in civic resistance and to also hold herself straight and proud. The time will come when they will meet in Heaven not only as mother and son, but as two of the closest friends who did not let each other fall into life’s blackest abyss.

Valery as fighter

One general remark first of all. People sometimes question the fighter nature of the dissidents, suggesting doubt as to whether they were particularly fighting for anything. Where was a common concept of a future state that they were standing up for? Where are their qualities now when they have divided up into parties and quarrelled among themselves?  Without taking it upon myself to justify what is not worth trying to justify, I would nonetheless like to point the reader’s attention to one fundamental feature of the dissidents. All of them were united in the camps not by a shared and single model for a future state, but by their REJECTION of the existing state. They were united in their protest against the crimes of the Soviet state, even while back then in the camps they differed over possible political solutions. This should not be seen as some kind of failing in the dissident movement, but as a sign of the times which needs deeper philosophical understanding.

Let’s return now to Valery. I would venture to compare him as a fighter with some other dissidents. For example, many knew that they would be arrested. Valery on the other hand knew that he would die in the camps. My mother was witness to this when he told her with bitter irony where it was that he was fated to “emigrate”. The difference in my view is huge. Most political prisoners took part in the common labour camp struggle in relatively good health. Valery fought as a man gravely ill. We all know how our perception of the world changes even when we just have the flu. And what about illnesses which fill the soul with mortal torment? Yet Valery withstood it all, and that therefore was not simply a struggle, but martyrdom. We should remember Valery’s own words that he “wasn’t a kamikaze” who set himself on course for self-annihilation. He loved life and very much wanted to live. However allowing the KGB to destroy his body, he was not going to let them destroy the HUMAN BEING in him. Citizens of many countries have the privilege of being a human being from birth. Valery, together with other dissidents, had to fight for this “privilege”. So was Valery a fighter or not?

Please see for more information about Valery Marchenko

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