The Eternal Striving for Justice
You were one of the founders of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group which recently [in November 2006] marked the thirtieth anniversary of its beginning. Tell us how the UHG started. What was the impulse for this major movement of resistance to a mighty totalitarian system?
We were united most of all by a sense that it was not possible to live any longer without protest. We couldnt endure the hypocrisy of the regime and that it forced you (and closely controlled this) to declare your loyalty in all situations. All that was beyond any limits and then we saw Brezhnev, on behalf of the Soviet Union, sign the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe (the Helsinki Accords), which among other things carried the commitment to adhere to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He obviously couldnt even guess that there would be people who would take those rights and liberties seriously.
And would hold to these words of the Final Act?
Yes, and in that way become a kind of litmus test which would show the whole world: “See, the Soviet Union signed this international agreement, yet our simple test is the activities of people who are informing the West about violations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Helsinki Accords. Their activities show that the Soviet system is against democracy and Brezhnevs signature isnt worth the paper it was written on!”
This was a form of self-sacrifice.
We were well aware that they wouldnt let us work for long. When Oksana Meshko told Mykola Matusevych and I that the Helsinki Group was being organized, what its aim was and suggested we join, we understood that sooner or later this would lead to our arrest. However we were impressed by the idea of the Group, the idea of open opposition, an open declaration of our intentions and convictions.
We liked it not being an underground organization, but out in the open. We signed the Declaration on the creation of the Ukrainian Public Group to Promote the Implementation of the Helsinki Accords, giving our full names and addresses. In it we expressed our view as citizens of Ukraine about the human rights situation in our country and stated our intention to monitor how the Helsinki Accords were observed in Ukraine. We also put forward some specific demands to the Soviet authorities, on free access to information and opening consulates of other countries in Kyiv, as well as accreditation for foreign journalists.
Having taken this path, there was no turning back. If I refused, that would mean that I didnt respect myself. If I was afraid to affirm my own dignity and fight for my rights, was I going to demand that others fight and make my life better? I was 28 at the time. Losing your self-esteem at that age would mean making your whole life empty, accepting existence as a slave and total submission. A person who doesnt respect himself cannot be a fully-fledged citizen. This is particularly felt by men and it is they who are most often crushed by loss of self-esteem.
I am glad that at that difficult time I made the right choice. There has not been a single day, not even during the worst times of persecution when I regretted my choice, still less now.
What was the main credo at the beginning of the UHGs work?
It was upholding human rights. In our first Declaration there is nothing about the political system in the Soviet Union. We were defenders of human rights and we pointed to specific human rights violations.
If we wrote about the fact that, say, despite articles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the Helsinki Accord on freedom of movement, of conviction or of information, Ukrainian literary figures were being imprisoned in the Soviet Union because their works had been published in the West, then it was clear anyway that this was a totalitarian system.
As for the UHG members experience and how well they were prepared for political struggle, this varied. Levko Lukyanenko, for example, had already spent 15 years in the camps. He was imprisoned first for developing the notion of Ukraines legitimate secession from the Soviet Union. For the Soviet authorities that was a “crime” punishable by death. That was the sentence Lukyanenko received [the sentence was commuted by the Supreme Court to 15 years – translator].
There were also people with a complicated background, like Mykola Rudenko, the founder of the Group. He had once been a Party activist, a committed communist mainly on the basis of idealism. When the deceit in the Soviet Union became overt, all his inner idealism made it impossible to accept it and prompted him to place in question the legitimacy of the regime from a human point of view.
Presumably this was similar for General Petro Grigorenko??
Definitely. The move made by Mykola Rudenko and Petro Grigorenko from one way of life to another was for us an example of moral behaviour.
However there were also those whom Id say were politically inexperienced kids, like Mykola Matusevych and myself. I mean by this that we did not have political ideas or convictions. Well, we had what came from our upbringing, but no political affiliation or involvement at a professional level.
I dont think members of the UHG were governed so much by any kind of political school, but rather by the eternal striving for justice, the same yearning which had previously governed the actions of many Ukrainians. The idea of justice has in all ages changed people.
In this struggle for sublime human ideas was there no inter-ethnic tension between representatives of the Russian wing and human rights defenders of other nationalities? After all, it is common knowledge that Russian democratic thinking always ends when the issue of Ukrainian independence arises.
To some extent youre right and Russian democracy is like that. Indeed, as soon as Russias territory began shrinking, there was an immediate decrease in their democratic thinking. However it was entirely different with those Russian democrats who had direct contact with Ukrainian dissidents. I must say that we are very grateful to the Moscow Helsinki Group. This was particularly evident during the 30th anniversary of the founding of the UHG marked in Kyiv. One of the guests was Ludmila Alexeeva, founding member of the Moscow Helsinki Group. You should have seen how warmly she was greeted by all the members of the UHG!
The members of the Moscow Group were special people. At that time they showed the highest commitment to democracy. Even if they considered that the Ukrainian Helsinki Group members were too involved in the national issue to the detriment of democratic ideas, they never tried to obstruct us in our contacts with foreign representatives. On the contrary, they did all that they could to organize such contacts, let us use their flats for such meetings as well as giving relatives of those in camps somewhere to stay when they came via Moscow to visit them. As Ludmila Alexeeva said in Kyiv, they knew that if the authorities in Moscow at least let the dissidents somehow exist, for Ukrainian dissidents it was like kamikaze, they were consciously sacrificing themselves. In Moscow they were genuinely concerned for us. You can neither forget nor belittle this sincerity, hence the warm words spoken at the anniversary.
Which well-known political prisoners from other nationalities did you meet in the camps and prison?
There were a lot. They didnt call the camps the fourth International for nothing. I am grateful for many interesting acquaintances with Estonian, Lithuanian, Latvian, Armenian and Georgian dissidents.
With regard to Russians, this was first of all Sergei Kovalev and Viktor Nikopelov (a Russian poet, no longer alive) whom I spent many days with in the punishment cells. Those two Russians meant a great deal to me. Sergei Kovalev had a particularly acute human rights sense and was very well-versed in the mechanisms for defending human rights. I listened to his advice and recommendations. And Viktor Nikopelov who had spent some time in Uman and therefore had an understanding of Ukrainian issues always spoke with concern about Ukrainian matters.
Russians sometimes even had to defend the Ukrainian national cause. I saw how Sergei Kovalev surrounded by any other prisoners argued with a local camp officer. The latter was arguing that members of the UPA [the Ukrainian Resistance Army] were criminals, while Kovalev demonstrated that they were normal fighters for freedom. Hearing that not from a Ukrainian, but from a Muscovite was a good argument for the need for such a struggle.
You can just imagine how hard it must have been for an officer of the punitive bodies to understand, hearing words in support of the armed struggle of the Ukrainian people against the communist regime.
In truth the officer simply couldnt understand it. As he couldnt understand what united Semyon Gluzman, who is Jewish, with fighters of the Ukrainian Resistance Army. The camp helped all those groups who seemed by inertia otherwise set against one another, to hear each others arguments. For the first time Ukrainians listened to Jews, and Jews listened to Ukrainians, and actually accepted each others arguments, and tried to find a rational core for mutual respect. The same applies to relations between Russians and Ukrainians.
The fact of shared suffering for our convictions was extremely important. Its one thing when some Russian monarchist living comfortably in the West plays with the idea of a Tsarist system. When a person goes through the camps believing that hes right, when he pays for this with his freedom, then that is something quite different. I can then respect this person. Yes, I think differently, but he has paid for his convictions through suffering and I will accept him.
The camp taught us a great deal. It was an excellent life school, a school in respecting the human dignity in another individual. It was a second university.
Unfortunately today we sometimes forget this respect.
Following my thought further, Id like to say that this school bore fruit at the beginning of the 1990s after the collapse of the Soviet Union when some tried to speculate on the national issue and provoke inter-ethnic conflict. It was thanks to our camp experience that we were able, together with our Jewish friends, to organize several joint conferences in Ukraine, and later in Israel, at which we discussed for the first time in many years sensitive issues of our past history and looked for ways of resolving them together. They were truly amazing conferences and we were able then to reach a fairly good level of understanding. Unfortunately enthusiasm in Ukraine has waned making it possible to point to new problems arising.
Among the founders of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, did all withstand the incredible pressure and repressions of the regime?
Among the ten founding members, there was only one who did not withstand this pressure. That was Oles Berdnyk. He was already serving his sentence, but didnt hold out for long. He recanted, saying that those who remained in the UHG had been “duped by the West”, etc. That was shown all around the country on television. Moreover, camp staff came to Ukrainian prisoners showing the text of his renunciation, saying “See?” You do the same, let that be an example”. I didnt understand whether he was simply working to get a pardon, repeating what they told him to say or whether there really had been some change in him.
True, now, when I remember that, although I would condemn his action, since it was very painful for us, at the same time I understand the immense pressure the whole State could exert on one individual or a few people and it was incredibly hard to withstand this. Oles Berdnyk had a family. Im sure he wasnt just thinking of himself, but of his children.
Although I must say that I know people who did nonetheless withstand the pressure. Oles Shevchenko was once summoned to the camp administration (and he hadnt had a letter from home for a long time). They said: “Your wife is terminally ill. She only has a few weeks left to live. You must now decide your childrens fate. If she dies, well put them in a childrens home. It will be different if you make a renunciation. Its your choice”. I remember how he suffered in taking that decision. In his mind, he was dying with his wife and bidding farewell to his children. He didnt make the renunciation however, he didnt surrender. And it then turned out that it had all been a KGB ploy. Yet he effectively made the choice since he didnt know this.
You understand, it would be difficult to judge a person in such situations. I can only say that Oles Berdnyks action was a source of great pain to me however it is for God to judge.
Did you meet Valery Marchenko in the camps?
Yes, we were both in the Perm Camp No. 37 at Kutchino for about half a year, although we were in different barracks (then incidentally in the same place of exile, but at different times). We were therefore pretty limited in possibilities for communicating, however I got to know him quite well and would say that he was an amazing person. I can mention one occasion that made an enormous impression on me.
We once planned a hunger strike for a particular date. A few days before it, Valery who had a serious kidney condition was taken to hospital in Perm and was beyond the camp channels of information. I dont know remember what changed in the camp administrations behaviour, but the camp prisoners decided to change the hunger strike to some other form of protest. A little later Valery returned and asked how the hunger strike had gone. We just gaped at him. And he asked again: “But didnt you hold a hunger strike?” Embarrassed, we began explaining that the circumstances had changed and that wed chosen a different form of protest. Valery Marchenko says: “But I went on hunger strike, after all wed agreed”.
We were in an awful situation. Wed forgotten that he knew about the planned hunger strike. And we had not even thought that a person of such honour, such innate integrity as Valery Marchenko would consider it his duty to go on hunger strike together with us even when nobody would know, and when he was extremely ill. Such things are simply incredible. That was the amazing dignity of a person whose moral calibre fills one with awe.
For a lot of people in Ukraine the symbol of patriotic struggle, at least at the end of the 1980s and 1990s, was Viacheslav Chornovil. Did you know him in the camps? If he were alive today, would his presence be important for the democratic camp?
I was never in the same camp as him, although of course I knew a great deal about him both before my arrest, during my imprisonment, and later.
Unfortunately, any answer I give must be in the conditional. Viacheslav Chornovil died almost nine years ago. I believe in Gods Providence, and if it was His will to take Chornovil from us, maybe this means that the people need to find the source of their hope in themselves and not in a charismatic leader.
So this is in a way some kind of challenge, test for the people?
Maybe because we Ukrainians are used to revolt under a clear leader and this is a habitual form of reacting to various problems. We dont however have experience of holding power achieved. You cant gain these skills in an office or a library; you need to gain the ability through your own experience. … Ukraine has for a long time been in a state of expectation, waiting for changes in political, economic and spiritual life. Unfortunately the changes dont come as quickly as wed like. Could there not come a moment when the people get sick of waiting and their protest breaks out like two years ago during the presidential elections? And then the peoples rage will hurl us into some evolutionary development?
I dont think that there will be a repetition. And if Ukraine now tried to repeat Maidan [the “Orange Revolution”], Im almost certain that it would somehow be linked with aggression, and not so uplifting and pure. Maidan 2004 was unique and cannot be repeated.
You are right nonetheless when you speak of some kind of pulsating impetus in our development. Over the last 15 years Ukraine has shown the world two wonderful moments when its spirit burst forth: the attaining of Independence in 1991 and the Orange Revolution. These were powerful passionary outbursts which set paradigms for the future. Having become presidents of an independent country, Kravchuk and Kuchma were forced to adopt the role of independent leaders. Nor would I brush Maidan aside, or call it fruitless. It also set paradigms, and bore rich fruit. Just remember that Yanukovych recently sang, so to speak, arias from the opera “The Orange Revolution”. He articulated the Maidan rallying calls “East and West together!” and others. The benefit of the Orange Revolution lies at least in the fact that in the East of Ukraine they (I mean Yanukovych, Akhmetov and others) have to take that into account.
As we know, after every surge, there is a slip back. However note that this is not back to the previous level but to somewhere higher, with the level of freedom in Ukraine rising each time. We do indeed endure things longer than other nations. I wont mention the British or French, but not even the Poles would have put up with what Ukraine does (just look at the mockery over the Ukrainian language and culture in independent Ukraine. Yet I believe that there will be a moment of resistance when the Ukrainian people will refuse to let this force that has returned to power totally ride over it. I think that the spirit of the Orange Revolution is alive in us, only the people are still scrutinizing it and “chewing it over”. They will still have the final word. I dont think that we will repeat Maidan, but I hope that we will repeat the non-violent nature of our protest. I hope that we dont follow the Russian blind and blood-drenched form of revolt, and that this protest is pure as it has ready been twice. We chose independence through a democratic and unsullied path and Maidan took place in the same way. We affirmed our freedom very very honourably!
The Interviewer was Volodymyr Pavelchak, Chief Editor of the weekly “Time and Events” (Chicago)
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Much more can be learned about Myroslav Marynovych, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and the many other people mentioned here on our website http://archive.khpg.org.ua/en/index.phphttp://archive.khpg.org.ua/en/index.php?id=1162948162