war crimes in Ukraine

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Memorial museum in Kuchino

V.Ovsienko, Kyiv
On 21 – 23 June 1999 a conference was held in Perm. The theme of the conference was ‘Human rights in Russia: past and present’. The participants visited the only on the post-Soviet territory memorial museum devoted to the history of political repressions and totalitarianism. The museum is located in the former concentration camp ‘Perm-36’. That was why the participants of the conference, former political prisoners, members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group Mykhaylo Goryn and Vasyl Ovsienko revisited their ‘native’ prison. During the visit they played the role of living visual aids and guides rolled together. In what follows one of the ‘guides’ shares his remembrances and ideas relative to this journey to the far away Urals.

Starting with 1972 the Soviet power has begun to move political concentration camps (in the USSR they were called by the innocent world combination ‘correcting establishments’) from Mordovia, which is not far from Moscow to the Urals. The reason was that in the sixties too much information about political prisoners and conditions of their upkeep began to leak abroad. Meanwhile the KGB was preparing a consecutive purge of the country from the ‘anti-Soviet agents’, who, by that time, openly revealed their ‘dissident nature’. Since most of them were acquainted with each other, personally or through samizdat or through the ‘Liberty’ radio, they had to be reliably isolated by sending to distant and comparatively small concentration camps.

On 13 July 1972 under the conditions of super-secrecy (even the convoy was dressed in sportive togs), the first train with several hundreds of convicts from Mordovia camps arrived at Chusovskoy district of Perm region. It took the train three nights to come from Mordovia. In daytime the train waited at some quiet sidings. In daytime the incarcerated suffered in the special carriages, because the summer was very hot, forests and peatbogs were burning around. People fainted, one died. When they at last arrived at the place of destination, many could not stand. They were distributed to three concentration camps: 35 (Tsentralny settlement), 36 (village of Kuchino) and 37 (village of Polovinka).

Another great portion of convicts of the stern regime from Mordovia came to the Urals in summer 1976.

At last on 1 March 1980 from Sosnovka in Mordovia 32 convicts kept under especially stern regime were directed to Kuchino (one again died on the way). Levko Lukyanenko, Oles Berdnik, Oleksa Tyhiy, Bogdan Rebrik and Danylo Shumuk, members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, were among the last shipment. The convicts of the especially strict regime were billeted in the wooden barrack of the former power-saw bench, which was situated about half a mile from the strict regime zone.

That was the beginning of the ‘establishment’, which became known throughout the world as ‘the camp of death’. Here eight convicts died, among them Oleksa Tykhiy, Yuri Litvin and Valeriy Marchenko died here in 1984, and Vasyl Stus died here in the lock-up block in September 1985. Here from 1 March 1980 to 8 December 1987, in different times and in different cells were punished other members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group: Ivan Kandyba, Vitaliy Kalynychenko, Mikhaylo Goryn, Ivan Sokulsky, Petro Ruban, Mykola Gorbal, and the group’s foreign members: Estonian Mart Niklus and Lithuanian Viktoras Piatkus, who joined the Ukrainian Helsinki Group at the gravest time — in 1982. Here I wasted six years of my life. Nearby, in the strict regime camp, Mykola Rudenko, the head of the Group, was kept. All in all there were 18 people. At large they never managed to get together in such quantity.

Many other Ukrainian dissidents were incarcerated here: Ivan Gel, Vasyul Kurylo, Semen Skalych (Poputnyk), Grigory Prykhodko, Mykola Evgrafov. As in any political concentration camp, Ukrainians were in majority, but Lithuanian Balis Gayauskas, Estonian Ann Tarto, Latvian Gunar Astra, Armenians Azat Arshakian and Ashot Navasardian, Russians Yuri Fedorov and Leonid Borodin spent several years in this ‘international’. Most of these people were well-known figures in the national liberation movements and human rights protection activists; after the liberation they became prominent politicians and public figures. All in all 56 convicts stayed there during 7.5 years. All of us, relative to the Soviet power, were especially dangerous recidivists or especially dangerous criminals, for whom the death penalty was substituted by 15-years terms (along with us there were several convicts accused of the cooperation with German occupants).

In fact, it was not a camp, but a prison with the super-cruel regime. In the camps for criminal recidivists the latter are permitted to leave the camp for work, but we, political recidivists, worked in our cells, and for a walk we were driven for one hour to a two by three meters yard surrounded by a metal wall and covered with barbed wire. From our cells we saw only the fence in five meters from the window and a little tent of sky. Our food was inadequate, water stenching and rusty, our hair was crop-cut, we wore striped clothes. We were permitted one meeting per year and one parcel of five kilograms once a year after completing half the term. Some of us saw no one except the guards and cell-mates for years on end.

On 8 December 1987, just on the day when Mikhail Gorbachev was negotiating with Ronald Reagan in Reykjavik, and Gorbachev needed some partly justified pack of lies (about the absence of political prisoners in Kuchino), a team of guards was sent to the zone. At that time only 18 convicts remained. We were searched and transported to camp 35, from which by and by during 18 months we were ‘mercied’ — Gorbachev did not dare to rehabilitate us at once and make us allies in the perestroyka. We were rehabilitated only on 17 April 1991 by the Supreme Rada of the UkrSSR, which adopted the law ‘On rehabilitation of victims of political repressions in Ukraine’.

Although our barrack remained empty, the history of this ‘correcting establishment’ did not end.

Mikhaylo Goryn, released in summer of 1987, came here together with Pavlo Skochok in April 1988, directed there by the magazine ‘Ukrainskiy Visnik’, publication of which was resumed by Viacheslav Chornovil. They intended to visit us, the remaining convicts, but instead they were threatened and driven away by the prison guards. Goryn and Skochok’s report was published in ‘Ukrainskiy Visnik’ No. 13.

In May 1989 some Estonians headed by Mart Niklus came to Kuchino. They filmed the neighborhood, but the barrack was still locked then.

I came there on 31 August 1989 with the expedition of the Union of the repressed and the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, having the task to exhume the remains of Vasyl Stus and Yuri Lytvyn,buried not far,and Oleksa Tykhiy, buried in Perm. We were prohibited to do this because of the ‘dangerous epidemiological situation’. Then we observed the cells and filmed them, as well as the lock-up cell where Vasyl Stus died. Now this material can be viewed in the film by Stanislav Chernylevski about Vasyl Stus. This film is titled ‘A black candle of the radiant road’. Then I found three keys from the cell locks, and on 9 September I jingled with them from the tribune of the constituent assembly of the Popular Rukh.

For the second time we came to this unforgettable place on 17 November 1989. The Soviet power harassed us, but did not prohibit to take the remains of our compatriots to Ukraine. We had no time to come to the barrack, but later we learned that KGB mobsters bulldozed down the fence, trampled the gates and grates. After this the local population by and by carried away floor planks and roof tiles. Then we thought: let the prison disappear, that is the way it should be!

Fortunately, some Russian people understood the historical value of the last barrack of the last concentration camp. The people belong to the Perm region branch of ‘Memorial’, which appeared in 1988. They decided to reconstruct the camp and to prepare it as a public memorial. Let us agree, this is a civil heroic deed — to demonstrate the shame of their nation to everybody! They are real patriots of Russia, they understood that there is no way for their motherland to return the respect of the world community otherwise as passing through catharsis.

Since 1994 ‘Memorial’ has begun to restore the concentration camp, turning it to the memorial museum ‘Perm-36’. I was invited there in September 1996 when the museum was opened. Among other invited were Dmytro Stus, the son of the poet, as well as Volodymir Tikhiy, a son of Oleksa, historian Yaroslav Tynchenko, journalist Vakhtang Tipiani. This year the museum was visited by Levko Lukyanenko and Evhen Sverstiuk. Now several barracks of the strict regime camp are being restored, and several are left in ruins to symbolize the ruined totalitarian epoch.

The museum works rather efficiently. So, on 22 June it was visited by eleven excursions, on 23 June until 16:00 hours seven excursions came. And you must take into account that the camp is situated 250 kilometers from the region center. During June (up to 23 June) three thousand schoolchildren, students and teachers attended the museum. The museum cooperates with similar museums, such as Buchenwald, Saxenhausen, etc. Every year international conferences devoted to totalitarianism and human rights are held in Perm or nearby. Their participants (among them many political prisoners) often attend the museum. In reconstructing the camp students-volunteers work, not only from Russia, but also from Germany.

The people who ever attended this museum will never want the restoration of communism. The museum tells the younger generation about the tragic pages of the recent history of Russia and ensures immunity against the virus of totalitarianism. And we, Ukrainians, like this because in the Russian people we want to have a good neighbor, which would respect humane values, human rights and rights of nations, including us.

Leaving this place where ‘all cries of human torture’ (V.Stus), I thought: and what do we do, in Ukraine, that suffered most from the totalitarianism, what do we do to keep our historical memory awake? We do little because we permit our new Russophiles to agitate in the Supreme Rada for the liquidation of the Ukrainian state and elbow their way to the presidential armchair, wishing to tie Ukraine again to the Moscow saddle and then to drive their enemies to the endless space of Russia.
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