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Dissent in Ukraine through the prism of Amnesty International

Anna Procyk
Paper delivered by Anna Procyk, Professor of History, Kingsborough College, CUNY at a conference "Nonconformism and Dissent in the Soviet Bloc: Guiding Legacy or Passing Memory?" held at Columbia University in 2011


Paper delivered by Anna Procyk, Professor of History, Kingsborough College, CUNY at a conference "Nonconformism and Dissent in the Soviet Bloc: Guiding Legacy or Passing Memory?" held at Columbia University, March 30 to April 1, 2011. 

Dissent in Ukraine came to the attention of Amnesty International through the publication of materials documenting the violations of human rights by the Soviet authorities after the brief “thaw” of the Krushchev era.   These materials were compiled by Viacheslav Chornvil who worked as a journalist for a TV station in Lviv.  The documents circulated in manuscript form among members of Ukrainian intelligentsia and subsequently reached the West in the second half of the 1960’s.  

Chornovil’s imaginative compilation of biographical sketches of arrested Ukrainian cultural activists, selections of their scholarly and creative works, labor camp correspondence, appeals to the Soviet authorities, public appearances of prominent literary figures like Ivan Dziuba’s speech at Babyn Yar on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy first appeared in an émigré weekly, Ukrainske Slovo in Paris.  Through the efforts of the same political organization, the documents were published under the title Lykho z rozumu, in 1967.[1]  A year later the collection appeared in English as The Chornovil Papers.[2]

The English edition created a stir in the Western world and not only among people actively engaged in the defense of human rights.  Courageous efforts of young men and women in Ukraine to protect their language and culture from russification and sovietization received high praise from western scholars and political commentators.  Max Hayward of London, for example observed that “…the Ukrainian opposition is striking both for its moderation and high intellectual level.”[3]  Frederick C. Barghoorn of Yale University in the introduction to the Chornovil Papers called attention to what he saw as “The community of interests among Soviet intellectuals of various national backgrounds” observing that “although the preservation of Ukrainian cultural heritage and language are central features of the outlook of many young Ukrainian intellectuals, the latter perceive themselves as struggling, not against the Russian nation and probably not against socialist principles, but rather against dictatorship and police state.”[4]   These characteristics as well as the dissidents’ strict adherence to peaceful methods in expressing their protest assured the participants in the Ukrainian dissent of a speedy adoption as “prisoners of conscience” by Amnesty International.              The arrested young men and women portrayed in the Chornovil Papers became popularly known both within and outside of Ukraine as shistdesiatnyky: the men and women of the sixties.  The majority of them were poets, literary critics, social scientists and artists who in the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, were willing to risk their careers and at times their lives by publicly protesting against policies of repressions in Ukraine.  The high quality of their works as well as their personal integrity and courage--exemplified by the poet Ivan Svitlychnyj considered by many as the heart, the epicenter of the dissent movement—served as an inspiration to the younger generation of cultural activists.  With a profound sense of filial gratitude, the somewhat younger poet-activist, Vasyl Stus wrote that the shistdesiatnyky reawakened among young Ukrainians a sense of dignity and self-respect—dormant for many years as a result of sweeping purges and long years of misrule by the Soviet regime.   “They were a glimmer of light of our higher consciousness” the poet reminisced a few years later, “they were the testimony of our awakening, our moral regeneration.”[5]

 It was probably the impressive artistic talent of the painter Opanas Zalyvakha some of whose works were reproduced in Lykho z rozumu as well as the cruelty of artist’s treatment in the labor camps that prompted the head of the newly formed American section of Amnesty International in Washington D.C. to choose Zalyvakha as one of the first “prisoners of conscience” from the Ukrainian group.  It was, of course, understood that Amnesty’s efforts on behalf of Zalyvakha implied defense of all imprisoned on charges of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in the early 1960’s in Ukraine. 

It ought to be noted that Zalyvakha was arrested for his political beliefs and not because of his refusal to conform to the standards of “socialist realism” in his artistic works or to the norms of the Soviet way of life.  The fact that he was incarcerated and then forbidden to paint in the labor camp was a penalty imposed on him for his political convictions as well as for his readiness to defend these convictions even in prison.  There is a line that should be drawn between what was and continues to be understood as “dissidence, ” i.e. readiness to risk one’s life in defense of firmly held political or religious beliefs and the broader, somewhat ambiguous notion of non-conformism.  All Ukrainian dissidents of the 1960’s and the 1970’s adopted by Amnesty fall into the category of “prisoners of conscience” that is, dissidents.  Placing them side by side with non-conformism or non-conformists distorts and trivializes their firm stand on the question of human rights.  Anyone who has read the reminiscences of the recently deceased dissident Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska who happened to be sitting in the theater Ukraina next to Vasyl Stus on that memorable day when the young Ph.D. candidate at the threshold of a promising literary career jumped from his seat and with every fiber of his being announced:  “Everyone ought to protest. Today they are arresting Ukrainians. Tomorrow they will be arresting Jewish cultural activists. Later they will be arresting Russians...” Anyone familiar with this, by now well-known dramatic event—in addition to Stus, the other two individuals making similar public appeals in the theater were Chornovil and Dziuba--would immediately sense the distinction between dissidence and non-conformism.[6]

In addition to Zalevakha, the American section of Amnesty also adopted a well-known Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.  Besides the Washington center mentioned above, the only other section of this human rights organization that existed in the United States in the late 1960’s was the Riverside Group in New York.  This cluster of about fifteen human rights activists though not officially connected with Columbia University, had close ties with it: the majority of its members were either professors or graduate students at the various institutes.  The group was headed by the chairman of the Middle Eastern Department, Ivan Morris, a British subject who joined Amnesty in England where the organization was founded in 1962.  Another prominent scholar in the group was Prof. Ainslie Embree, a well-known specialist in Hindu studies.  Zbigniew Brzezinski, although officially not a member of the Riverside Group--he never attended the monthly meetings nor did he seem to be personally acquainted with the group’s leaders--was always readily available when approached with requests of assistance in defense of human rights.  It was with his help that the first documents from Chornovil’s Lykho z Rozumu--in this case Sviatoslav Karavanskyj’s appeal to Soviet authorities in defense of cultural rights of Ukrainians and Jews in the Soviet Union--appeared in an American journal, The New Leader

 Being the only member in the Riverside Group from Columbia’s Russian Institute (now the Harriman Institute) it was only natural that with my knowledge of Slavic languages I would become involved in work on behalf of Opanas Zalyvakha and Vladimir Bukovsky.  Ainslee Embree also graciously volunteered to work on behalf of these two prisoners.  Privately we agreed that it would be more effective if in our correspondence I would sign my name on letters in defense of the Russian dissident Bukovsky and he would do the same on behalf of Zalyvakha.  In later years especially after my trip to the Soviet Union in 1971--a private visit which ended with my expulsion from Kiev on account of my work in Amnesty[7]--I used pseudonyms or worked closely with people who were officially in charge of “cases” involving dissidents in Ukraine.[8]   

For me and for my colleagues, most of us still in our twenties, it was inspiring and deeply gratifying to get involved in the defense of these remarkable individuals. We were impressed by the talent and unbending courage of the Ukrainian artist.  We were deeply moved by the strong convictions and bravery of Bukovsky.  I still remember vividly the impact on us of a secret interview with the Russian dissident aired on public television more than forty years ago.  How could one forget the determined expression on the face of a young man, born into a family of privilege, uttering the words that would soon bring about his imprisonment but which would also resonate in the work of human rights activists throughout Eastern Europe: “It is our determination to break the chains of fear that have been paralyzing our society.”[9]  If these words have left an indelible mark in my memory it is because they would be heard again and again in the capitals and major cities of Eastern Europe.  In 1971, for example, while taking a brisk walk on the streets of Lviv with Viacheslav Chornovil, after realizing that we were surrounded by secret agents--not two or three as was usually the case but at least a dozen--I asked the outwardly unperturbed, high spirited Ukrainian dissident: “Aren’t you afraid? I am scheduled to leave for New York in a few days but you and your group?”  In a matter-of-fact tone, with the usual cheerful expression on his face, Chornovil—lifting his hands to make his point stronger--replied:  “Please understand that we are above fear.  In fact it is our objective to break the chains of fear that are paralyzing the conscience of our people.  In our work we are strictly acting in accordance with the law, but in our efforts to bring to the attention of the world the violation of human rights, we rely on your help…”   This said, without even stopping to catch his breath, Chornovil resumed, in his customary fast-paced manner the recitation of a list of the most recent human rights violations in Ukraine.  His speech was occasionally interrupted by a cough, the consequence of forced-feeding while on a hunger strike during his first imprisonment.  After this manifestation of undaunted courage--by no means was I in the company of a nonconformist--my only concern was to store in my memory the list of the most recent violations of human rights until I reached New York.

In the evening of the same day Chornovil managed to whisk from Ivano Frankivsk Raisa Moroz, the wife of a well-known dissident Valentyn Moroz, a prisoner incarcerated in the notorious Vladimir prison.  It was important for me to meet with Raisa because the second Ukrainian prisoner adopted by the Riverside Group was Valentyn Moroz.  It was the policy of the Riverside Group that after a year or so of no apparent progress, the case would be set aside and a new prisoner, usually with a similar background would be adopted.  The Group’s attention during this time was focused on Greece, in particular on the violation of human rights under the regime of Greek colonels, but at my request to continue our efforts, the Group agreed to extend our involvement in the case of the Ukrainian prisoner.

It was after this decision early in 1971 that I contacted the Ukrainian New York community for assistance.  Both the Ukrainian daily Svoboda and the Ukrainian Weekly as well as the Ukrainian Congress Committee responded promptly and it was with their help that a large demonstration was organized on behalf of the Ukrainian prisoner in front of the United Nations and the Soviet Mission in the spring of that year.  Moroz became the symbol of perseverance of human rights movement in Ukraine.  The Ukrainian prisoner’s photo appeared daily in Svoboda when Moroz was on a forty-day hunger strike in the Vladimir prison.  Everyone marveled at his courage.  Soon committees for the defense of Moroz were organized in US and Canada.   His writings, in particular his essays “Report from Beria’s Reserve” and “Among the Snows” received high praise for their intellectual acuity and vivid, realistic portrayal of the harshness of Soviet prison system.  The first essay noted above was praised by western analysts as one of the most brilliant and analytically most penetrating works of all Soviet dissident writings on the subject of KGB:  “The incriminating power of accusations and the incisive penetration into the psyche of the KGB, reaches the very bottom of one’s soul”[10] observed one sovietologist.   Moroz not only physically survived the lengthy incarceration in the notorious prison—even though not completely unscathed as his subsequent writings would sadly reveal--but also the hardships and ordeals in the labor camps. In 1979 he was brought to the United States in a widely publicized prisoner exchange thanks to the efforts of the already mentioned former Columbia professor to whose attention we brought the cases of the Ukrainian prisoners eleven years earlier, Zbigniew Brzezinski.

            In the mid 1970’s Amnesty groups mushroomed throughout the United States.  In those years I joined the Madison Avenue Group partly because of the group’s policy to continue working on individual cases until the prisoners in question were released.[11]  The Group was energetically and very ably led by Yadya Zeltman, who during my first visit informed us that the Group had adopted a Ukrainian nationalist, Zinovij Krasivsky.  She explained that it was specifically emphasized in the case sheet received from Amnesty’s research office in London that the prisoner himself as well as his colleagues favored this designation.  

The Ukrainian poet's name was first brought to the attention of Amnesty's London headquarters by Victor Fainberg and Anatolij Radygin, two former Soviet political prisoners who in 1974 had the good fortune to emigrate to Israel.  Fainberg befriended Krasivskyj in 1972 at the Serbsky Institute, a notorious Soviet psychiatric prison for dissidents.   While speaking in an interview about the men he met at the institution, most of them liberal intellectuals and philosophers, he painted a vivid portrait of the Ukrainian prisoner: 
"I would like to tell you about my first meeting with Krasivskyj because this was not an ordinary meeting.  This was at the Serbsky Institute in the winter of 1972.  At the fourth division directed by the infamous Dr. Lutz, there were several political prisoners of the most diverse political views.  There was, for example, my friend, a wonderful human being, Vaclav Sevruk.   He was a liberal-Marxist.  There was a young Moscow engineer who was incarcerated for a letter to Brezhnev, a typical Moscow liberal.  There was the philosopher Devletov, a Tatar from Kazan.  He considered himself a left-Communist.  A very interesting individual, a courageous man.  We conducted disputes, discussions.  One day a rumor was heard that a Ukrainian nationalist will be brought [to the prison].  One of the prisoners asked: 'What am I going to discuss with a Ukrainian nationalist?'  But when Zinovi Krasivskyj arrived,  his very appearance, his manner of address, the intonation of his voice elicited a sympathetic response: he conquered us all from the first appearance.  And whoever questioned what one could discuss with a Ukrainian nationalist, would find it difficult to leave his room.  Zinovyi Mikhailovych Krasivskyj became for us the highest authority on the question of ethics.”[12]

Krasivskyj was arrested in 1967 for his involvement in an organization known as the Ukrainian National Front.  This group represented one of the more radical faction among the Ukrainian dissidents for it campaigned for Ukraine’s independence, that is Ukraine’s separation from the Soviet Union, a right guaranteed by the Soviet constitution.  The designation “nationalist” was understood, by Krasivskyj and his colleagues in its pristine, original form, in other words: an individual who believed that every nationality has the right to an independent existence.

            The Madison Group’s efforts on behalf of Krasivskyj spanned for more than a decade and this perseverance, persistence and ultimate success has been unique in the history of a human rights organizations.  The Group’s activities were largely responsible for keeping the prisoner alive in psychiatric prisons, labor camps and the bleakness of exiles in Siberia until the cracks in the Soviet system surfaced at the end of 1980’s.  A telling moment in the work of the Group was the receipt of the first response of the prisoner to the person in charge of his case, Iris Akahoshi after more than a year of enforced silence in the psychiatric prison:  “Dear Iris:  In front of me are thirty one of your letters.  This is my reply to the first one.  The responses to the rest will follow....”  And indeed they did flow, one letter after another.  I remember them very well for they were written in Ukrainian and I was the only one in the Group who was familiar with the language.  The fact that Krasivskyj was a talented writer and a very sensitive human being did shine through even through my occasionally very hasty translations.   His gratitude to the group, in particular to his most devoted correspondent, Iris was expressed in a moving letter of sympathy to her husband after her death in 1987:

“Iris has come to me at a moment when I was at the lowest point of my existence--when it appeared that there were no windows or doors of escape from my condition….I had no doubt that she was sent to me by Providence as a ray of hope, as a bar of salvation for a drowning man….I resurrected and Iris became for me a bright star that did not cease to glow for many years to come.  I have not known anyone who would embody so fully the best humanistic ideals as did Iris.  Time may bring about change, but the idea of hope, the consciousness of something permanent and firm would never leave you because of Iris.  She was like the light within you.  Blessed be her name.”[13]

During the dark days of Brezhnev era of great value in terms of boosting the spirits of human rights activists in the West were reports and reminiscences of former political prisoners who through various channels managed to find their way to the West.  The impressions of Zinovij Krasivskyj penned down by Yosef Mendelevych corroborated fully the image of the prisoner as it was emerging in our midst through his letters. “Zenovij often talked about the psychiatric prison, and his listeners were often traumatized by the horrors [he described].  One needs to be a person with nerves of steel, with a strong psychological state of mind and with a chaste soul in order to return from there with an unscathed mind.  What is most striking about Zenovij is the integrity of his soul.  He is like an ornament carved from a solid piece of gold….Very soon I became aware that Zenovij has the ability to sense the most subtle tremors of the soul.  A very good poet--whose poems were smuggled out of the Vladimir Prison by my friend Vudka[14]--he could be both a poet and an astute political realist, quite a rare combination of traits.”[15]

            To corroborate the soundness of Krasivskyj’s political realism and the prisoner’s unusually keen foresight--closely paralleling the line of reasoning held at that time by the Czech dissident Vaclav Havel--it is sufficient to quote from a letter Krasivskyj wrote on the eve of Ukraine’s independence, a feat that was being put together with the cooperation of the former Communist Party leadership: “We all know that the Soviet state represented nothing but a band of usurpers, but we pretend that a democratic system can be constructed here, even a parliamentary form of struggle….Adherents of moderation do not want to recognize that they are falling in the direction of compromise and thus are permitting themselves to be led into a blind alley.”[16]

            When hope of any kind of relief began to wane in the Andropov-Chernenko days, Amnesty’s efforts received a dose of encouragement from new arrivals from the Soviet camps, among them two prominent dissidents, Nadiya Svitlychna and Petro Grygorenko. Both readily accepted invitations to attend Amnesty’s meetings.  Their presence in our midst was invaluable because while most members continued to work with great dedication and zeal, with the apparent hopelessness of the situation, brought to our attention by the widely-publicized Shcharansky case, some of us began to doubt the effectiveness of the human rights effort in the Communist bloc.  This did not apply to individuals like Iris Akahoshi who with her aversion to politics and with only a vague knowledge of the Soviet system--perhaps precisely on account of these factors--never wavered, never interrupted the regularity of her letter writing and other efforts to publicize the plight of political prisoners both in the East and the West.

            Nadia Svitlychna knew the Soviet system perhaps better than any western sovietologist, yet she never wavered in her efforts to bring to the attention of the world cases that appeared to many to be beyond hope—the case of Vasyl Stus is an example. This sense of solidarity, this firm stand on the part of this courageous woman was summed up by her colleague-in-arms, the literary scholar Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska in a moving obituary on the occasion of Svitlychna’s death in 2007:  “Standing next to her you always sensed a strong loyal shoulder which would be there in the most dangerous situations of life.”[17]    The value of this support, this cohesiveness among the dissidents irrespective of their background or nationality partly explains their ability to survive under the most trying circumstances.  In view of the tight controls which the totalitarian system imposed throughout the state, it was primarily through the Soviet capital, the seat of foreign embassies and the only base for foreign journalists, that information regarding political prisoners could be transmitted to the West.  This reliance on Moscow human rights activists, in particular on Aleksandr Sakharov and Liudmila Alekseeva who transmitted crucial information regarding hunger strikes and other daring acts of courage to western journalists, has been vividly described in memoir literature.  These efforts have been recently brought to light in the reminiscences of Raisa Moroz.[18]

With respect to the question raised in our day whether the dissident movement had a lasting effect or represented just a passing phenomenon, the events of the last two decades in Ukraine testify that the impact of the human rights endeavors have unquestionably left an indelible mark on the succeeding generations.  Such events as the recent Orange Revolution would be unthinkable without the memory in the public mind of the courageous non-violent struggle for human rights kept alive in the darker days by the dissidents.   Mojsej Fishbein, one of the most prominent contemporary Ukrainian poets and the recipient of the prestigious Stus prize for literature as well as a distinguished honorary award for “intellectual courage” echoes in his works some of the lofty thoughts and noble ideals of men and women whose fearless stand in the face of repressions and persecutions has brought about the birth of Amnesty International almost half a century ago.  His acceptance speech upon the receipt of the last named award is a testimony of this:

It was said: “For Intellectual Courage.” I don’t know what this means.

Is it courage not to betray and not to sell oneself? Is it courage to say what you think and act as you say? Is it courage to act according to God’s commandments and one’s own conscience? Is it courage to create in accordance with the talents that the Almighty has endowed you with? Is it courage not to push aside the Lord’s Hand, on which reposes His gift—the godly, God-given, and God-granted Ukrainian Language? Is it courage to hear in the Ukrainian Language God’s symphony and to convey this symphony to others?

The Almighty gave me a soul—a tiny part of Himself. Is it courage not to profane one’s soul—a tiny part of the Lord?[19]

Both Mojsei Fishbein and the men and women adopted by Amnesty International represent individuals who stand far above mere non-conformism.  They have been and continue to be noble defenders of human rights endowed with the courage and strength not to stray from the path dictated by their conscience.  They could be best compared to the Augustinian monk who at the beginning of the sixteenth century nailed his 95 theses announcing without fear: “Here I stand! I cannot act otherwise.”




[1] Lykho z rozumu, (Portrety dvadtsiaty “zlochyntsiv”) compiled by Vyacheslav Chornovil (Paris: Persha ukrainska drukarnia u Frantsii, 1967).



[2] The Chornovil Papers, compiled by Vyacheslav Chornovil.  (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968).



[3] Ferment in the Ukraine: Documents by V. Chornovil, K. Kandyba, L. Lukyanenko, V. Moroz and others.  Michael Browne, ed. (Woodhaven, N.Y.:  Crisis Press, 1973) p. xi.                                                                                            



[4]The Chornovil Papers, p. xi.



[5]Vasyl Stus: Vikna v pozaprostir (Kyiv: “Veselka” 1992) p. 52.     



[6]To me and my colleagues the dissidents on whose behalf we were working in Amnesty International had very little in common with the long haired, unwashed nonconformists—my next-door neighbors in the East Village of the 1960’s.



[7] In a lengthy article under the title “Otruine zhalo voiazheriv” written by the journalist Shpytal and published at the beginning of June 1971 in Vechirnij Kyiv I was accused of working on behalf of Ukrainian nationalists and Jewish Zionists.



[8] My identity was firmly sealed so that when the correspondence between one of the Ukrainian dissidents and Amnesty International was published in Ukraine in 1995, the editor of the publication, Myroslav Marynovych was baffled by the name Laura Parker.  The prisoner in question, Zinovij Krasivskyj, was overjoyed when at the end of the 1980’s he learned of “our long acquaintance.”



[9] These words are quoted from memory.  The interview was made during the summer of 1970 by Bill Cole, the CBS correspondent in Moscow.  It was aired in the US later that year. 



[10] Raisa Moroz, Proty vitru: spohady druzhyny ukrainskoho politviaznia (Lviv: Vydavnytstvo “Svichado” 2005) p.138; Peter Reddaway, Uncensored Russia (New York: American Heritae Press, 1972)  pp. 286-287).



[11] The Madison Avenue group is still functioning today as Group 11.



[12] Zinovij Krasivskyj file, Archive of Group 11, Amnesty International, New York.



[13] Perehuk dvokh nad bezvistiu: lysty ukrainskoho politviaznia Zinovia Krasivskoho z chlenom Mizhnarodnoji Amnistii amerykankoju Ajris Akahoshi, edited by Luba and Myroslav Marynovych (Kharkiv: SP “Ihart” 1995, pp. 151-152.



[14] Yadia Zeltman, the leader of Group, was able to establish contact with Vudka who emigrated to Israel.  He corresponded with Amnesty and supplied valuable information about the Ukrainian prisoner.



[15] Yosef Mendelevych, “Spohad pro ukrainskykh politviazniv” in Zhaha i terpinnia: Zenovij Krasivskyj u doli ukrainskoho narodu (Kyiv: Diokor, 2005) pp. 32-33.  



[16] Zinovij Krasivskyj to Anna Procyk, January 20, 1991, Zinovij Krasivskyj file, Archive of Group 11, Amnesty International, New York.



[17] Krytyka  2007 or 2008?



[18] Raisa Moroz Proty vitru: Spohady druzhyny ukrainskoho politviaznia  (Lviv: Vydavnytstvo “Svidchado, ” 2005).







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