war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Free people in the unfree country

Inna Cherniavska, Kyiv
As a rule, we do not like various anniversaries, jubilees and noisy celebrations, but sometimes they happen to be very useful. Such rituals serve not only for recollecting outstanding events or outstanding personalities, but also as a stimulus for meditations, the comprehension of past events and their influence on our life.

From this viewpoints the consecutive project of the Kharkov Group for human rights protection seems very well-chosen. The Group together with the publishing house "Folio" issued the unique book in four volumes titled "Ukrainian Public Group for endorsing the Helsinki agreements". This action was devoted to the 25th anniversary of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG).

The events of the 70s of the last century seem to be remote past from today’s moment. This was the time with its painful problems of ideological, economic and military opposition of the socialist block headed by the USSR against the West, with the threat of nuclear war and search of the ways to peaceful coexistence and relaxation, which was called then with a fashionable word "detente".

In 1975, after long and sophisticated negotiations, thirty three European countries, as well as the USA and Canada, signed in Helsinki the Final Act of the Council of safety and cooperation in Europe (CSCE). The Helsinki agreement finally fixed the frontiers formed in Europe after the WW2. Besides, the USSR, which at that time was obviously loosing the economic competition, got the most-favored nation treatment in the trade with the West. In exchange the USSR promised to fulfil the humanitarian part of the Final Act, in particular, to observe human rights according to the UNO Universal Declaration of human rights of 10 December 1948. The Final Act of the CSCE had to be regarded on the equal basis with the internal legislation of a country, which provided quite a legal basis for fighting with the violations of the rights of people and nations referring to internal and international laws.

It is obvious that, signing the Helsinki agreement, the Brezhnev-Andropov communist camarilla did not intend to fulfil it. Yet, "naive" people existed, who treated the Final Act in earnest and made the state to treat seriously their activities. The Moscow Helsinki Group was the first to appear. It was created in May 1976. On 9 November 1976, after the initiative of Mykola Rudenko, Petro Grigorenko, Oksana Meshko, Oles Berdnik and Levko Lukyanenko, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group for endorsing the Helsinki agreements was founded.

Ukrainian human rights protectors demanded from the state to acknowledge rights of people and nations. They began to realize their rights for the freedom of speech, the press, meetings and associations without waiting for the approval of the state. To guarantee the fulfillment of the Helsinki agreements, the UHG set a purpose to inform the public about the UNO Universal Declaration of human rights (which at that time was a rarity and was not translated into Ukrainian) and raised the question about recognition of Ukraine as an autonomous state (the idea that Ukraine was an independent republic within the USSR was a pure fiction) by the international community. The Group accepted the complaints about violating human rights in Ukraine and passed the information about persecutions of dissidents and on penitentiaries to the mass media and to the governments of the states-members of the Helsinki agreements. Doing this, they risked not only their jobs and prosperity, but their freedom and sometimes their life. Mykola Rudenko, the UHG head, told: "…The novelty of this phenomenon was that Ukrainian intelligentsia and patriots for the first time spoke openly, in a clear voice, contrary to the official ideology and threats, ignoring the risk of incarceration: we declare to the whole world that we exist, that we know that you will arrest us, but all the same we will tell the truth. This was a courageous act. And it was not only courage: it was readiness to sacrifice themselves and to fight for their convictions to the very end. Yuir Orlov, the head of the Moscow Helsinki Group recollects: "The KGB men hated Ukrainians, it seems, more than all other political prisoners". Orlov also remarks that in Perm concentration camp No. 35, where he was incarcerated, Ukrainians made the majority of the prisoners. As other political prisoners recollect, the same situation was in every political concentration camp.

Here are some statistics given by Vasyl Ovsienko. 43 persons joined the UHG while it existed, 24 of them were condemned for the UHG membership. They stayed in concentration camps, prisons, in lunatic asylums and exiles 170 years totally. On the whole 39 members of the UHG were punished by more than 550 years of some king of incarceration. Five Group members perished: Mikhaylo Melnik committed suicide on the eve of inevitable arrest, Oleksa Tykhiy, Yuri Litvin, Valeriy Marchenko and Vasyl Stus were actually murdered in concentration camp No. 36 in the village of Kuchino of the Perm oblast. In spite of the awful persecutions and losses, the UHG did not stop the struggle and, in contrast to other groups, the Moscow one, for example, they did not disband.

It is difficult to stop these historical reminiscences, since the history of the Ukrainian resistance is breathtakingly interesting, more than the best detective stories, and tenser than the book of suspense. Rather we must return to the edition of the Kharkov Group for human rights protection, where, for the first time in Ukraine, they published the UHG materials and documents.

As the book compilers believe, the majority of the most important documents were included into the collection: basic documents of the UHG, its memoranda, informational bulletins, collective and several personal appeals of the UHG members, materials of the trials of dissidents, facsimiles of some documents, photos. The first volume contains a fundamental review of the history of the human rights protection movement in Ukraine, an interview with M. Rudenko, the UHG head, biographic information about all 43 Group members. The 2nd, 3rd and 4th volumes include various UHG documents in the chronological order.

The need to have such an edition in the modern Ukraine is undoubted. The Ukrainian Helsinki movement for human and national rights, which united, it seems, almost all opposition movement existing then, had the immense importance. Its influence on forming the independent public though, change of the entire social atmosphere in the country and, after all, on creating the independent democratic Ukrainian state still expects a serious scientific analysis. The publication of the UHG documents may be very useful for such analysis. It is also necessary for understanding and learning the truthful newest history of Ukraine, the struggle of the Ukrainian people for its rights and sovereignty, since extremely negligent attitude to the own state, inferiority complex, disbelief in own forces and in the fact that Ukraine had its own heroes still reigns in our country.

Banal as it sounds, but it should be noted that mastering and comprehension of the UHG activities is extremely important for shaping the civil society in Ukraine, the legal consciousness of Ukrainian citizens and for building of the genuine democracy.

Andrey Amalrik said that human rights protectors caused the revolutionary change in the consciousness of Soviet population terrorized during decades: they began behave in the unfree country like free people. Unfortunately, during ten years of the independent of Ukraine not all her citizens (maybe, because of ignorance of the newest history) could do this. We pray to God that the noble example of the heroic UHG members will inspire us to follow them.

"Knizhnik" review, No. 3 (36), February 2002

From "PL" editorial board:
The book "Ukrainian Helsinki Group for endorsing the Helsinki agreements" in four volumes won the third place in the nomination "Encyclopedia" of the all-Ukrainian contest "Book of the year".
 Share this