war crimes in Ukraine

The Tribunal for Putin (T4P) global initiative was set up in response to the all-out war launched by Russia against Ukraine in February 2022.

Twenty years later

I. Zakharova, Kharkov
When one is recollecting the events of twenty years ago, many of them seem quite different from the viewpoint of the present day. For example, it was difficult to see as one knot of problems the war in Afghanistan, the triumph of ’Solidarity’ in Poland and the Kharkov events of the 80s. Now it is quite understandable, that the senile rulers of the USSR were frightened by the unfavorable for them international state, and the beginning economic crisis only strengthened their panics. The war with dushmans became the war against the entire Afghani people that demanded immense quantities of money, equipment and armament. The young lives wasted in this crazy war were, as always, disregarded. The Kremlin rulers were especially frightened by the events in Poland, where they, for the first time, encountered a mighty workers’ anticommunist movement. The authority of the Soviet power was falling fast. Leftist movements abroad were falling as fast, and rightist ones brought conservatives to power in one Western country after another. The authority of the communist power in the USSR was diminishing. The Kremlin rules caused aversion and mockery, and only the lazyest did not mock at Brezhnev. Samizdat was distributed among the youth almost openly, more and more people tried to leave the USSR.

Certainly, all these events were not unnoticed by the KGB, and the Kremlin decided to take extreme measures. The first signs of such measures appeared as early as in 1979, when the USSR government practically stopped the emigration of Jews to Israel. The activists of national movements, who had been convicted by Article 1901 ’Anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ (Article 1871 in the Ukrainian Criminal Code), were persecuted and condemned again.

In 1980 we, Kharkovites, sensed that important changes are to be introduced. Those who had no illusions with respect to the Soviet power, who had similar people among those with whom one communicated, sensed it especially clearly. First of all it concerned Kharkov scientific intelligentsia. These people irritated the KGB. These people filled the ranks of ’refuseniks’, they distributed samizdat, the listened to the poems of the forbidden Kharkov poets: B. Chichibabin and M. Rakhlina. This circle was vast enough and to intimidate them was the first and main task for the KGB.

So in the 80s the new wave of repressions came to Kharkov. First of all the repressions touched those, who had sinned of decent before. In 1969-70 four people (three of them were former classmates) were condemned in Kharkov according to Article 1871 of the Criminal Code of the UkrSSR, who signed a letter in defense of general Grigorenko and a letter to the UNO about the violation of human rights in the USSR. The four men: Genrikh Altunian, Vladislav Nedobora, Vladimir Ponomariov and Arkadiy Levin got a term of three years each. Altunian was especially hated by the KGB, since, in the opinion of the party nomenclature, he, the former major and the former party organizer, before whom the brilliant career was opened, betrayed party interests. The others, non-party engineers Nedobora, Ponomariov and Levin, were never trusted by the authorities before, since from the first days of its existence the Soviet power never trusted and always suspected the intelligentsia. The four friends, having done their terms for their convictions, ’never confessed and corrected’, as it was later formulated in the court resolution that condemned Altunian for the second time. In fact, the friends went in for human rights protection, helping those, who were persecuted for convictions. Altunian, who worked as a technician in a cinema projecting company after his release, provoked them the most. Many people tried to get his advice, when the KGB started to trouble them and to extract some testimony from them. ’Refuseniks’ turned to him. Naturally the friends knew other Kharkov fighters with lawlessness. The poets Chichibabin and Rakhlina were their friends, who, having learned in 1968 for what and how their friend had been incarcerated, came to their families on their own initiative.

The KGB, in their attempts to frighten Kharkov intelligentsia, did not choose Altunian and his friends in vain, because they were a center of attraction for many groups.

On 31 May 1980 the Kharkov KGB searched Altunian’s flat. They found and confiscated books by A. Solzhenitsyn ’GULAG Archipelago’, A. Koriakov ’The alive history’, J. Medvedev ’The personality cult and biological science’ and others. Before the search Altunian had been warned that his activities were anti-Soviet, which rejected pointblank. From August 1980 the KGB began to interrogate a wide circle of his friends and acquaintances, hoping to find witnesses of his anti-Soviet activities. It was another alarming signal on serious intentions of the ’organs’. One could suppose that what was happening was not accidental: in August 1980 Zinchenko, a ’refusenik’, was arrested. He used to visit Altunian’s friends and knew him personally. Zinchenko was vague figure. He told about himself that he had attempted to defect to the West during a tourist journey, he failed, and having returned he became a ’refusenik’.

His story was suspicious, the more so that later it became clear that he concealed his past: in 1945 he somehow changed his surname by taking the name of the perished soldier. Zinchenko also told that after the attempt to defect in the West Germany the KGB first arrested him and then released. This story seemed even stranger. During the investigation and trial Zinchenko gave evidence against Altunian. The suspicion was whether his appearance was planned by the KGB to obtain needed proofs that Altunian conducted anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda for subversion of the Soviet power. This formulation enabled the court to apply against Altunian Article 70 of the Criminal Code of the USSR, according to which the most active dissidents were condemned and sent to special political concentration camps.

Altunian was an open-minded man, and many different people turned to him for assistance, nonetheless at the trial there were very few people, who brought testimony against him. This was the first obvious failure of the organs. A question appears why the KGB-men wasted their time to find witnesses? It was the peculiarity of the Soviet legislation: everyone could be blamed of the anti-Soviet activities and declared a criminal, if sufficient efforts were applied. The situation changed in the 60s-70s. The violent resolution of social problems became less and less attractive. In the 70s social problems were solved in a much easier way in rich Western countries than in socialist countries that declared social equality. The credit of trust to the first ’country of workers and peasants’ was melting as snow on a frying pan. That is why if was extremely important for the Soviet establishment to prove that the enemies of socialism are bought by Western capitalists and are conducting a real subversive work. Even communist parties of the West had to demonstrate their disagreement with the Soviet au, when the Soviet authorities were accused of repressions and willingness to suppress any political freedoms. The KGB faced a very difficult problem: to protect the power from ’insolent dissidents’ and pretend to be law-abiding. Bug they failed in Altunian’s case. By 16 December 1980, by the moment of the arrest, the KGB had had very few proofs in favor of their accusation, the evidence was even smaller. The dubious figure of Zinchenko was hardly proper for this show.

On 16 December 1980 Altunian was arrested. Simultaneously searches were held in flats of his friends Ponomariov and Nedobora (Levin in 1975 emigrated to Israel, where he soon died of a heart attack). The searches were fruitless. At the same time the KGB focused its attention on two other dissidents: a historian Evgeniy Antsupov and a psychiatrist Anatoly Koriagin. Antsupov was an original professional fanatically devoted to science. By applying statistical methods to history he, being far from politics at that time, not only predicted that the Soviet government would start the Afghanistan war, but also came to the conclusion that this step would be fatal for the state. Antsupov wrote a letter to Brezhnev, in which he warned the General Secretary of this fatal step. Of course, he was summoned to the KGB, got under the rigid surveillance and was sacked from his job. Antsupov decided to emigrate. Since that time he became one of the suitable figures for the planned political trial.

A. Koriagin came to a collision with the authorities by quite another way. Working as a doctor in an oblast psychiatric hospital in the Siberia, he observed political repressions against dissidents and the corruption among the local party elite. The communist ideology was quite alien to Koriagin before, but his personal observations made him one of the most merciless and consecutive fighters with the communist regime. Before coming to Kharkov, Koriagin offered his services to the Moscow Helsinki group and became an independent expert on political applications of psychiatric methods. Already working in Kharkov Koriagin managed to get the permission to examine several patients, who had been placed to psychiatric hospitals of various Ukrainian cities of the common type with the KGB initiative. On Kharkov proper there were no such psychiatric repressions.

In all such cases Koriagin gave the conclusion contradicting the official diagnosis. A serious campaign of protest started in the West, partly based on these conclusions. Out of all planned scapegoats only Koriagin’s actions were covered with Article 70 of the Criminal Code of the USSR (anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation directed at the subversion of the Soviet power). We never concealed that his activities were directed against the Soviet power. Neither the human rights protection activities of Altunian, nor the activities of Antsupov coordinated with this article. Perhaps, the KGB hoped, as we have already said, to get the needed evidence against Altunian during the trial. Naturally, having got no such evidence, the KGB did not reject the plan: both the trial and the verdict were predetermined.

The trial over Aktunian chaired by judge Karpukhin started in the end of March 1981. Before this Aktunian was held for three months in a preliminary prison. Usually the trials over dissidents were closed to the public. Aktunian’s case that was considered in the oblast court attracted the attention of many people, who partly were unacquainted with him. In this case the KGB broke some of its own rules. Not only relatives of Aktunian, but also some of his friends were admitted to the courtroom. Several friends, who were known by the KGB as tough and uncompromising, were barred from the courtroom. The process was partly opened, because the KGB wanted to frighten the public. But here the efforts of the KGB specialists failed.

First, it became obvious at the trial that the case could not be linked with Article 70. Many understood that Aktunian was tried not for his actions, but for his convictions and his prominence. Scarceness of evidence enabled Vladimir Korabliov, Aktunian’s advocate, to disprove some accusations and insist on his client’s innocence. Secondly, those in the courtroom, among whom there were many younger people, did not conceal their sympathies to the dissident and were not afraid to demonstrate them.

In the end of the trial, after the verdict was pronounced on 1 April, the present got to their feet and cheered Aktunian. Five women threw bunches of flowers at him, the flowers were immediately confiscated.

The moral superiority of Aktunian was so obvious that all the action could be regarded as a failure. The KGB understood this and never admitted the public, except the nearest relatives and witnesses, to the courtroom at the following trials. Aktunian was condemned to the maximal punishment stipulated by Article 70 part 1: seven years of incarceration and five years of exile. He did about six years and was released one later after the Gorbachev’s perestroyka.

A. Koriagin was arrested in February 1981, when the investigation of Altunian’s case was completed and the case was passed to the court. Soon after Altunian got his verdict E. Antsupov was arrested too. Both Antsupov and Koriagin were tried by the same oblast court. Judge Navalny chaired the court at Koriagin’s trial. Koriagin did not take part in his own investigation and trial, having refused to give any evidence. Kharkov judges did not entertain the public with the diversity of verdicts: everybody tried by Article 70 got his 7 years of incarceration and 5 years of exile. Zinchenko was a witness not only in Altunian’s case, but in Antsupov’s case as well. His efforts were futile, he got his own term too: 6 years of incarceration and 5 years of exile.

In August 1981 ’refusenik’ Paritskiy, who tried to leave the USSR for several years, was condemned to 3 years of the common regime colony. He was tried according to Article 1871. In March 1983 the same article was applied to Yuri Tarnopolskiy, a ’refusenik’ and a chemist by profession. Thus, the KGB touched all the circles of Kharkov intelligentsia.

But did the authorities reach their main goal – to intimidate the public? Now, twenty years later, one can assuredly answer that this goal ignominiously failed. The society changed. These political processes provoked great indignation, especially among younger people. Some of those, who had delimited themselves to reading samizdat and talking in their kitchens, started to help actively to dissidents’ families, collect and pass to Western journalists information about the KGB activities. The process of Altunian was transcribed by some people present in the courtroom. This record was published abroad, which enabled Western analysts to assert that a new wave of repressions is rolling in the USSR: Article 70 began to be applied not only for actions but also for convictions. It became clear that in order to frighten and pacify the public, against which the ideological dictate became inefficient, massive repressions were needed. There existed an alternative way – democratization. The author of this lines thinks that the USSR in that time became economically dependent of the West, and the power by and by began to understand that changes were necessary. Besides, massive repressions in the society that awoke from an ideological shock usually had no executioners, since they are not sure of their future and so not resolute enough. Only an ideological and economic crash could make communists refuse from the catching reflex. Otherwise, knowing the structural viscosity of the Soviet system, we may say that the perestroyka would never happen.

The dilapidation of the system began long before the revolutionary years of 1985-86. But then we could not guess the future, and were waiting for the return of our friends and relatives from concentration camps and exiles.

Thank God, the Kharkov dissidents, condemned at these trials, returned alive. Although E. Antsupov returned from the camp as an invalid, one year later he would await the lot of V. Marchenko, Yu. Litvin, V. Stus, O. Tykhiy… Antsupov died of a very sick heart in Germany, to which he emigrated in 1987. He was comparatively young… Sometimes six years is a fatally long term, longer than later twenty…

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