Ivan Svitlychny: “If not me, then who?”


The title is from lines of a poem which Ivan Svitlychny wrote to his small nephew, after his mother and Ivan’s sister Nadiya was arrested. The last four lines read:

“Stand firm like a rock, and watch over

Our law, our credo:

If not me, then who!

Not now, then when?”

Ivan Svitlychny, poet, literary critic and spiritual leader of the “Shistdesyatnyky” (the movement of the 1960s) was born 80 years ago, on 20 September 1929.

He was an active participant in all the activities of the Shistdesyatnyky, and was one of the members of the intelligentsia to be arrested in 1965. He was on that occasion released many months later, without charge, but was from then on unable to find work or publish under his own name.  A letter in support of Svitlychny, organized by the poet Lina Kostenko, had been signed by a large number of prominent figures in Ukraine from quite different fields of life. Ivan Svitlychny over the following years up till his second arrest was himself active in defending others who were being persecuted and in writing and circulating samizdat material.

He was arrested on 13 January 1972 and sentenced for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” to 7 years harsh regime labour camp and 5 years exile. He served his sentence in the Perm political labour camps, where he was one of the leaders of the camp resistance. He took part in all collective protest actions, went on hunger strike and also played a leading role in keeping a camp chronicle and arranging that it be smuggled to the outside world. 

In 1981 during his term of exile, he suffered a stroke, after which he was assigned first group disability status (for most serious disability). His wife, Leonidalived with him in exile. 

He was released on 23 January 1983, but returned gravely ill, and for the last three years of his life he could not move or speak. Ivan Svitlychny died on 25 October 1992. He is buried at the Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv.

In his recollections of his friend, the human rights defender and former political prisoner Zinoviy Antonyuk, speaks of the profound and lasting impact Ivan Svitlychny had on his worldview.

“I understood for the first time that real patriotism - not just that for show, is always quiet, serious and civic and not narrowly ethnic. With Ivan it was even something sacredly light.”


(Halya Coynash)

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