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In Memory: Raisa Rudenko, imprisoned by the Soviet regime for her role in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group

Like her husband Mykola Rudenko and all the members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, Raisa Panisivna paid for her commitment to freedom and human rights with years of imprisonment in the political labour camps and forced exile.

Former Ukrainian dissident Raisa Rudenko has died in Kyiv after an unsuccessful operation.  Raisa Panasivna, who in a month would have turned 81, was the wife of Mykola Rudenko, the founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and acted as secretary for the Group.  Like her husband and essentially all members of UHG, she paid for her commitment to freedom and human rights with years of imprisonment in the political labour camps and forced exile. 

Raisa Kaplun was born on 20 November 1939 in the Dnipropetrovsk oblast.  Her grandparents on both sides had been victims of the campaign against so-called ‘kulaks’ (more successful peasants), and her father was killed in the War when she was still very small.  The young girl had an accident in childhood that left her in a coma for a long time, and then forced to read and write afresh.

She moved to Kyiv in 1957 to care for her ailing uncle, both working and studying at night classes.

In 1968 she entered the external department of the Kyiv Institute of Culture, and in the following year met Mykola Rudenko whose literary works she had been employed to type.  

Mykola Rudenko was a War veteran, and had long made a name for himself as a writer and poet.  He was a member of the Union of Writers from 1947 (as well, at that stage, as a member of the Communist Party).  Although he first spoke out against the system in 1949 during an attack on Jewish writers (allegedly for their ‘cosmopolitanism’), it was Nikita Khrushchev’s denunciation of the ‘cult of Stalin’ at the 20th Congress of the Communist Party in 1956 that served as a jolt and eye-opener for the young writer. He was to date his ‘dissidence’ from a speech to the Union of Writers in 1957 where he accused Soviet officialdom of a policy of Russification of Ukraine, of having created a cult around Stalin and its possible revival. By 1960 he had begun to understand that the rot in the Soviet system could not be attributed solely to a paranoid sadist like Stalin, but in, among other things, failings and errors in Marxist theory.

By 1972, shortly after he and Raisa married, his books could no longer be published in the Soviet Union.  He was expelled from both the Union of Writers and Communist Party and forced to find work as a night watchman. 

Mykola Rudenko became involved in human rights work from the early 1970s and was in contact with Moscow dissidents, as well as a member of the Soviet section of ‘Amnesty International’.  He was first arrested on 18 April 1975, but, because he was a war veteran, was released in an amnesty marking the thirtieth anniversary of Victory over Nazi Germany.

It was Mykola Rudenko and Oles Berdnyk who first raised the possibility of creating a Ukrainian Helsinki Group with 75-year-old Oksana Meshko.  The conversation needed to be outside as it could be safely assumed that her home, like theirs, was bugged.  On 9 November 1976, those three, Petro Grigorenko; Ivan Kandyba; Levko Lukyanenko; Myroslav Marynovych;  Mykola Matusevych; Nina Strokata and Oleksiy Tykhy announced the formation of UHG, which sought to hold the Soviet Union to the Helsinki Accords which it had signed in 1975 with no intention of observing.

It was Raisa Rudenko, as permanent secretary to UHG, who typed all of the Group’s documents.  She was not one of the signatories as her husband hoped that this would at least ward of her arrest, since somebody needed to be at liberty and able to pass on information.

Mykola Rudenko was arrested on 5 February 1977 and sentenced a few months later to 7 years harsh regime labour camp, and 5 years’ exile.  He was charged with ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’.  In the first years, Raisa was able to visit her husband in the labour camps, and smuggled out his poems and information about the political camps, which were passed to the West by Andrei Sakharov and his wife, Yelena Bonner.

They came for Raisa Rudenko on 15 April 1981.  She too was charged with ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ and in August that year was sentenced to five years’ harsh regime labour camp and 5 years exile.  The imprisonment was served in the women’s unit of the political labour camps in Mordovia.

After their release in October 1987, the Rudenkos were still prevented from returning to Ukraine where they would, in any case, have had nowhere to live, as their flat had been confiscated after Raisa’s arrest.  From Moscow, they left for Munich in December 1987, and the following year moved to New York.  Mykola worked for Radio Svoboda, while Raisa was a member of the editorial board of the Svoboda [Liberty] newspaper.

The Soviet Union was on its last gasp, and in 1990 Mykola Rudenko was ‘rehabilitated’ and had his Soviet citizenship reinstated.  He returned to Ukraine in September 1990, meaning he was there when independence was declared on 24 August 1991.  Unfortunately, Raisa Rudenko only returned after the Soviet Union collapsed, in September 1991, and lost her right to Ukrainian citizenship as she had not been living in the country.  The couple had enormous difficulty getting permission for her to remain in her own native Ukraine.

Mykola received several major awards in independent Ukraine, including the Shevchenko Prize for Literature.  He died in Kyiv on 1 April 2004.  His wife edited his enormous literary legacy, and was also the Secretary of the Serhiy Podolinsky Scholarly Society, created at Mykola Rudenko’s initiative in 1999. 

In 2016, Raisa Rudenko received a State award for Services to Ukraine.

She will be laid to rest on 5 October, next to her husband.

Вічна пам’ять     Eternal memory


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