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Moral aspects of the dissident resistance in Ukraine: From rosy expectations to sober reality

11.04.2011    source:
Myroslav Marynovych
Reflections on the dissident resistance in Soviet times and the challenges which those committed to the same freedom and democratic values must confront in today’s Ukraine


This conference is devoted to the history of dissent in the former Soviet Union, and I, as a former Ukrainian dissident, would like to use this opportunity to offer a special introductory reflection. It is my moral duty and great personal privilage to thank all those who made our mission possible:  those  who risked their diplomatic or professional positions by meeting with us in that “empire of evil”; those who transfered our materials to the free world; the ones who helped our voices be heard; all those  who gave us their  invaluable support. Here, I mean governments and ordinary citizens, diplomats and journalists, editors and media communicators, cultural figures and religious communities. I mean people of varied ethnic origins (in my case, Ukrainian) living in diaspora, but also those whose connection with Ukrainian or Russian, Baltic or Caucasian cultures had been established simply through human solidarity and compassion. Let their efforts be blessed, let their support be never forgotten. On behalf of all former dissidents, I would like to express our deep gratitude to our well-known, and maybe still unknown, beneficiaries, and I ask you to be the recipients and mediators of this gratitude.

 Toward the History of the Resistance Movement

The genesis of the Ukrainian dissident movement was two-fold, pre-determined by the two-fold nature of the Soviet regime – as a totalitarian state and as a Russian Empire camouflaged under the communist “union”.

On the one hand, the dissident movement was an attempt to provide serious resistance to the totalitarian state and aimed at the democratization of the society. In this sense, Ukrainian dissidents shared the position of all Soviet dissidents and have the Russian human right circles in Moscow as an example to follow. And, let me say at the very beginning: the support by our colleagues in Moscow was just invaluable. At its early stages, the cross-Soviet dissident movement had been fed by the hopes generated by the debunking of the so-called “cult of Stalin” after the 20th Congress of the Communist Party (1956) and by a certain democratization often addressed as “Khruschev thaw”. A crisis of official communist identity occurred: the former Stalinist ideological standards had been reconsidered and the official history of the state had been rewritten. Belief in the justice of the Soviet system had been injured, but not fatally. The most active core of the dissident movement at that time consisted of optimistic and, to some extent, idealistic communists who wished “distortions of the Lenin official policy” to be removed and the existing system to be transformed into “communism with a human face”.

On the other hand, the Ukrainian dissident movement derived its inspiration from the liberation struggle of Ukrainians especially strengthened in the first half of the twentieth century. In some sense, it was a continuation of this struggle, but using different means. The movement for cultural, religious, and, later, civil rights had objectively weakened the Moscow colonial regime and, therefore, promoted independent trends within various nations subjugated. This liberational aspect made Ukrainian (like Lithuanian, Georgian and other) dissidents different from Russian dissidents who often considered national movements (including the Ukrainian one) to be “not truly democratic” and “polluted with national/nationalistic demands”.

Therefore, the Ukrainian dissident movement also included those politically-oriented figures for whom the struggle for human rights was a promising instrument for achieving the main goal – the political independence of Ukraine – rather than a “religion of their soul”. They prefer even to use the term “resistance movement” instead of  “dissident movement”; they deliberately avoid  defining themselves as “dissidents” prefering to be addressed as “political prisoners” or “fighters for the independence of Ukraine”.

The Ukrainian dissident movement underwent several phases of development. The first one was the period of romantic hopes and this started in the  public sphere with the foundation of free cultural clubs at the beginning of the 1960s in Kyiv and Lviv. During their discussions, intellectuals cautiously tried to express opinions on literature and culture which were different from the official ones. This period lasted until the first arrests of 1965 used by the government to put an end to dangerous freethinking.

The second period could be called  a period of  confusion and depression. After a certain phase of public protests  by the courageous against arrests,   embarrasment and confusion arose. There was a hope (though constantly weakening) that those arrests were simply a mistake. This period lasted until the second wave of arrests in 1972-1973.

At that period, the broader name “Ukrainian dissidents” defined a diverse group of the “not-agreeing” consisting of:  a reasonable intelligentsia which dreamt, first of all, about freedom of expression; human rights activists who responded to the international human rights call; and political fighters who expressed their longing for the change of the regime and for the independence of Ukraine.

The fourth period of the dissident movement in Ukraine may be called that of Helsinki movement. It was inspired by the 1975 Helsinki Accords between the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) members, including the USSR. The first Group for Promoting the Fulfillment of  Helsinki Accords was founded on May 12, 1976 in Moscow. The Ukrainian Helsinki Group was next. It was founded on November 9, 1976 by a group of ten dissidents, myself included, headed by the writer Mykola Rudenko. The Group publisized its Declaration in Western media claiming its purely human rights, non-underground, nature and, following the example of the Moscow Group, providing names and addresses of its members.

Very soon, it became clear, however, that non-underground groups were even more dangerous for the Soviet regime than those underground. After three months of hesitation, the KGB decided to punish the Ukrainian Helsinki Group members for “spreading anti-Soviet propaganda aimed at undermining the Soviet state and social order” – the crime considered, according to the USSR Criminal Code, to be the “most dangerous state crime”. During the next few years, authorities arrested eight Ukrainian Helsinki Group members, myself included, and expelled from the country the other two. The persecutions had not frightened the “non-agreeing” – instead, they had mobilized a protesting portion of Ukrainian society. As a result, during the 1980s, the Group experienced two more waves of “kamikaze” membership which were inevitably persecuted. Today it is being suggested that there were 41 Ukrainian Helsinki Group members in total. The Group had never announced  its dissolution and continued its activities either in  prison or abroad. For the whole period of Ukrainian Helsinki Group existence, only one renunciation (Oles Berdnyk) and one suicide (Mykhaylo Melnyk) took place. On July 7, 1988 (that is,  during  the time of Gorbachev’s perestroyka) some members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group declared the foundation of the Ukrainian Helsinki Union with clear political goals. The latter, in fact, was a prototype of a political party.

At the time of the Ukrainian independence, members of the 1960-1980 Ukrainian resistance movement had become differentiated according to different socio-political orientations. Those who were working to change  the system had headed the political opposition and made political careers. They became Members of Parliament and leaders of political parties. The smaller portion of dissidents, again myself included, refused to take part in political activities and continued to defend human rights or act in the cultural or religious field. Finally, one more part of former dissidents – because of their age or health problems – withdrew from any activity, limiting themselves only to participation in some opportune public events.

Indeed, dissidents were united, first of all, in the non-acceptance of the imperial and totalitarian communist system, though each of them saw the future development of Ukraine differently.

The importance of the dissident movement, at least in Ukraine, lies in the fact that just as a chemical particle can crystallize an oversaturated solution, the appearance of dissidents allowed the crystallization of people’s expectations and their disobedience.  As Andrey Amalrik accurately said, they  “… made a brilliantly simple thing – in a country that was not free they began to act as free people and, because of that, started to change the moral atmosphere and the traditions that ruled the country”.  Their merits in this are invaluable and beyond doubt.

The Ukrainian dissidents were not able to overcome this wall in principle.

Difficulties of subsequent decades lead me to the conclusion that the task of all Ukrainians who want a better country must lie in the creation of an intermediary body that will not allow destructive conflict to pull apart both civilizations rather than in a mechanical transfer of Euro-Atlantic models of democracy into a qualitatively different Euro-Asian civilization.  This would permit the fulfillment of a two-fold task.  First, in this way the unity of the Ukrainian nation – which is predestined to exist on both sides of the “barricade” – may be safeguarded.  Secondly, by fulfilling this national task Ukraine at the same time may fulfill the civilization task of harmonization of two cultural worlds.

Values of dissidents and the present time

Today Ukrainian dissidents may, at the same time, be proud of their participation in obvious  national democratic achievements but also be in despair about not less evident moral failures.

One of the most important values supported by fighters of the movement of resistance was freedom: civil, national, religious freedom and the freedom of self expression. These goals were mainly achieved though everything can be understood relatively. 

Until the year 2010 the level of civic freedoms was much higher than that in Soviet times.  In the country there was real freedom of the press though it was based not on the existence of the middle class, which is relatively weak in Ukraine, but rather on the reality of political clans.  The big achievement of Ukrainian democracy, especially after the Orange Revolution, was the freedom of elections though electoral legislation had some holes that made some falsification and manipulation of voices possible.  Finally, the fate of Ukrainian democracy seems to be that of all weak democracies.  As a result of the year 2010 free elections, those who came to power are actively changing the legislation to avoid losing power in the future.  Therefore, weak democracy has logically been transformed into an imitative  democracy.

Violations of human rights did not disappear – they only changed their character.  Ukrainian authorities still traumatize human dignity in a different way, and that leads to the diminishment of the scope of people’s rights and the level of citizens’ responsibility.  Corruption is destroying the state system of justice and the courts.  Thus, the former dissidents cannot rest on their laurels.

In this case the concept of the geopolitical security of Russia does not presuppose the true independence of Ukraine.

Inter-ethnic peace is being maintained in Ukraine and the freedom of ethnic minorities is mainly safeguarded.  In this sense, the goal of the dissidents has been fulfilled.  However, the inertia of the previous Soviet model “Russian and Russian-speaking majority vs. non-Russian minorities” is still considerably present.  According to this model, Ukrainians were a discriminated minority.  After twenty years of independence Ukrainians have not succeeded in the realization of their status of ethnic majority and in safeguarding their cultural rights in certain regions in Ukraine, that is in the East and South of the country and in Crimea.  Moreover, after the 2010 elections the counter-offensive of Russian-speaking politicians began to take place.  In order to safeguard the comfort of a one-language (Russian) regime they demagogically insist that there are two official languages in Ukraine – Ukrainian and Russian.  In addition, these political forces attempt to misuse international mechanisms developed for defending weaker, or vanishing, languages to safeguard the monopoly of the Russian language which is strong even without this ploy.  This not only brings to nothing the expectations of dissidents that in the independent state Ukrainian culture and language will develop freely.  The counter-offensive of these Russian-speaking “extremes” move Ukraine away from balanced harmony between the titular nation and ethnic minorities which was also the dream of dissidents.

One of the most obvious achievements of Ukrainian democracy was (and, hopefully, still is) the progress in the sphere of religious freedom.  Thanks to some parity between different religious and confessional groups this freedom demonstrated an ability for self-stablization and self-adjustment.  Certain dissidents played an important personal role in the revival of previously-persecuted religious organizations and in initiating inter-religious and inter-confessional cooperation. During the year 2010 there was also an attempt of pro-Russian forces to turn this situation back to the past by giving some preferences to the Moscow Patriarchate.  The idea of the “Russian world” developed by Patriarch Kirill I of Moscow is being used by the Moscow Patriarchate and its supporters in state authorities to make the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate the established church of Ukraine and press back all of its rivals. Religious rights of some Orthodox rivals of the Moscow Patriarchate are obviously violated. However, I do hope that to put the religions genie back into the bottle of the Third Rome will be most difficult.

Thus, in many determinative parameters of national existence, the dissident mission was successful enough but it has not become irreversible and has not received the necessary legislative and system guarantees.  Therefore, the question of its future importance for the nation is still open.

There are two spheres, however, in which this mission underwent deadly failure: the dissident belief in establishing the rule of law and in the post-communist revival of social and personal ethics.  The injustice and immorality of the communist period has been copied under  different ideological slogans but, at the same time, has even been strengthened in certain areas.  The old mechanisms of regulating injustice and immorality have lost their efficiency, but new ones have not been developed.  The court system has become the instrument of the ruling authorities for settling accounts with the opposition.  Mass corruption undermines the self-confidence of the nation in the possibility of influencing the course of events and make social recovery possible.  The Orange Revolution managed to revive the hope of part of the nation in their own abilities, but not for long.

The Solzhenitzen old slogan “not to live a lie” remains a dream.  In spite of all achievements in the sphere of freedom of speech, modern Ukraine doesnot live the truth.  As we mentioned before, freedom of speech and press is based on a variety of clans each of whom, according to its own interests, speaks only a part of the truth adding some part of propagandistic lie.  Therefore, a whole set of semi-truths are interacting in the country and this causes confusion among the people and is accepted by them as one big untruth.

Few people in Ukraine nowadays believe in the possibility of  building  a just order.  The weakness of civil society allows uncontrollable economic and ministry misuse.  The crisis of the court system causes a feeling of being defenceless.  Thus, the dissidents’ hopes of  establishing  the rule of law have not been fulfilled.

As a result, legal nihilism has developed in the nation, and the national discourse easily adapts to clan loyalty and servility. Untruths and cunning behavior are tolerated.

One more belief of all the Soviet opposition also failed, that is the belief that post-communist governments would be wiser and more intellectual.  In Ukraine nowadays intellectuals try to formulate new and prospective strategies of development, but the latter cannot be fulfilled because of the closed nature of the ruling powers.  The authorities use intellect only for their political egos.

Voices of rare moral authorities (for example, the voice of Eugene Sverstiuk) are also less effective.  Because of the self isolation of the ruling elite in the fortress of power these voices are crying in the desert in vain.  The weakness of their voices is caused not because the nation allegedly does not share their conclusions about the moral degradation of the ruling elite. According to some studies more than 55% of those surveyed mentioned moral degradation as the main reason for the present social problems of Ukraine.  The real problem lies in the fact that people are not eager to be in opposition to legal and moral highhandedness because it seems to them that without people’s solidarity it would be too dangerous, unprofitable and, consequently, unattractive.

Under these circumstances Ukraine needs a new solidarity civic movement – a movement for the implementation of the rule of law and for the moral recovery of the society.  The ability of former dissidents to initiate such a movement is limited:  some of them are too old;  others, because of political compromises of previous years, have ceased to be moral authorities for the nation.  So the question remains open as to who will lead this, in my opinion, inevitable civic movement in the future.

Instead we may rather firmly state that former dissidents laid down the main precondition for that – the life of freedom.  During the last two decades the Ukrainian nation moved through  a valuable school of freedom.  And even if the experience achieved is partially negative, it is still invaluable for the ability of an individual to mature from the totalitarian “vise” to the level of a responsible citizen.

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