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To those who balanced over a Soviet precipice

Halya Coynash

Just over thirty years ago, two Ukrainians, both writers and both highly suspect to the Soviet regime, visited an elderly lady in Kurenivtsi.  Since the elderly lady’s house was teeming with bugs of that peculiarly Soviet and electronic type, the three took a long walk in the moonlight and began talking only at the top of a steep hill. It was over a precipice – a symbolic place one of them was to note wryly, that the final plans for creating the Ukrainian Helsinki Group were made.  Over the next four years all three of them - Mykola Rudenko, Oles Berdnyk, and 75-year-old Oksana Meshko - were to be arrested, and not they alone.

One can choose various starting points to begin the story of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, but let’s begin with the signing by the Soviet Union of the Helsinki Accords.  This agreement from 1975 was a thoroughly democratic and liberal document the Soviets had no intention of adhering to, and which nobody seriously expected them to keep.

As Mykola Rudenko put it, however, the Soviets miscalculated badly.  Maybe everybody knew it to be a farce, but the document had been signed, the commitments made. The most important of these commitments involved rejecting any persecution on political grounds. In 1976 two crucial movements began, first the Moscow Helsinki Group and then on 9 November 1976 the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. 

All those in both Moscow and Ukraine knew that they were placing their liberty in jeopardy however the concentration of foreign correspondents, as well as diplomatic representation, in Moscow, gave some chance that the Soviet regime would be just a little circumspect.  This was not the case in Ukraine, and those who joined the UHG had every reason to expect the full force of the Soviet repressive machine to come down upon them.

There are other important features which mark out the UHG.  Unlike its Moscow counterpart, it never folded, despite the arrests of pretty well all who dared endorse the Group’s stand. Quite the contrary, in fact, since with the arrests came new members. Never many, of course, but then the danger – immediate and inevitable – could only be ignored by madmen.  Madmen they were not, however their courage would be impossible to deny.

If one takes the first members, ten in all, most had spent time in Soviet labour camps, two of them – Levko Lukyanenko and Ivan Kandyba had only recently returned from 15-year-sentences.  Mykola Rudenko recounts how Lukyanenko asked for time to think about whether to join – all of thirty minutes.

The Group’s aims included promoting the implementation of the humanitarian provisions of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (the Helsinki Accords), ensuring Ukraine’s representation at all conferences reviewing compliance with the Accords. First and foremost, however, the Group sought to inform the world of all violations of the Soviet Union’s commitments under the Accords and under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Miroslav Marynovych, one of the founding members, arrested in 1977 and held in custody for a year before his trial recounts how the investigators tried to drum into him that he had long ceased to exist, that he was nothing, an anonymous fool. It was only when he reached the camps that he discovered that all members of the Helsinki Groups had been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.  As he explains: “This was important as the difference, say, between the Stalin period when nobody knew where and under what circumstances people perished. Their fate, in that sense, was absolutely terrible. We at least knew that people were aware of us, that we wouldn’t be anonymous deaths. Even if we had to die, it wouldn’t be anonymous”[1]

Whether the readers of these lines would have perceived this as some solace, whether they could have taken that step themselves, is of course for each of us to decide, and probably to hope fervently that such a test will never again stand before any of us.  

According to Vasyl Ovsiyenko, former UHG member and political prisoner, from 1976 to the collapse of the USSR there were 41 members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.  39 of them were imprisoned, serving in prisons, labour camps, psychiatric hospitals and in exile a total of 550 years.  Four died in the camps – Oleksa Tykhy, Yury Lytvyn, Valery Marchenko and Vasyl Stus.  Mykhailo Melnyk, aware that arrest was imminent, took his own life, hoping to protect his wife and children.

Enough said from one of those who can only hope she knows where she would have stood. 

The interviews and responses to our questions ( give insight into those who followed their path in full awareness of the danger they faced, and of the imperative that somebody uphold inalienable human rights against a dishonest, rotten and oppressive regime, and – I believe – of their inability to ignore that imperative.

[1]  Miroslav Marynovych: 30 years since the creation of the Moscow Helsinki Group and Ukraine: interview on Radio Svoboda

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