The most interesting perspectives on Ukrainian independence come from those who built it. Included here are excerpts from interviews with some of Ukraine's most prominent leaders of the independence movement. This material was selected by HURI from the archives of the Kyiv-based Project on Ukrainian Oral History, kindly made available by Margarita Hewko (director-Ukraine) and Sara Sievers (director-U.S. and graduate student fellow of HURI).


In the 1980s, Leonid Kravchuk was second secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of the Ukrainian SSR in charge of ideology. He subsequently became chairman of the Ukrainian Supreme Council and was elected the first president of independent Ukraine in December 1991, serving to mid-July 1994. He is now a deputy of the Parliament of Ukraine.

Q: What was your position at the time Gorbachev came to power and when did you begin to notice those processes that eventually led to the independence of Ukraine?

A: From 1980 until 1989 I was head of the Ideology Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine. That was, well, a very important position within the party's Central Committee. And one could say without exaggeration that if workers at the Central Committee receive massive amounts of information, then in the Ideology Department the mass of information was significantly greater. I would like to divide this question in two.

First, we began noticing that the position of the Soviet Union started to weaken, as the internal situation was becoming more complicated and external relations were becoming more tense because of the Soviet Union's participation in various conflicts, particularly in Afghanistan, Czecho-Slovakia, Hungary. That was the first phase, frankly speaking - the decline of the Soviet Union. This we began to notice during the so-called period of funerals of the CPSU Central Committee general secretaries. It was in the 1980s, when [Leonid] Brezhnev, [Yuri] Andropov and [Konstantin] Chernenko died literally within three-four years. This fact provided very interesting food for thought, at least for those who engaged in analysis. It showed that the leadership of the Politburo and Central Committee was a leadership incapable, either physically or politically, of providing the necessary level of analysis and administration of the state, or of increasing its power and authority. It was clear to everyone, at least those, I would emphasize, who analyzed things.

But when Gorbachev came to power in 1985, naturally, all the processes that were still quietly smoldering erupted very quickly. Initiating the era of glasnost and perestroika, he tried to resolve both internal and external problems in a democratic way. But this only brought to the surface all the negative processes that were dormant in the society.

I participated in all major meetings in Kyiv and partially in Moscow; I was a member of the Communist Party of Ukraine Central Committee, and since the 26th Congress I had been a member of the CPSU Central Committee. Therefore, I naturally knew a lot that others did not know. That was the beginning of our perception, our philosophy that the Soviet Union would not survive for long.

And, naturally, a second question emerged, the one that you have posed. And if the Soviet Union collapsed, what then? What would happen to Ukraine? What would that system, that empire, that totalitarian regime turn into? Would it lead to conflict, be resolved in a peaceful fashion, or how, how would it happen? And then, for the first time, perhaps not quite clearly defined, yet the idea of sovereignty, independence of Ukraine was conceived. I do not want to give you just empty words...

Already in 1989, on my proposal and with my participation, and in accordance with my outline, the Communist Party of Ukraine Central Committee adopted a resolution on the economic and political sovereignty of Ukraine - the Central Committee. True, that resolution wasn't exactly the one we would have preferred. But the fact of its adoption by the Communist Party of Ukraine Central Committee, nobody mentions it for some reason. But the documentary evidence confirms this. I repeat again, the fact that such a document was adopted by the Central Committee testifies that such ideas and such perceptions were nurtured not only by those who proposed such documents. I could make a proposal, but it could have been rejected. And it was adopted by the Central Committee plenary meeting, not even by the Politburo or the Secretariat, but 350, I think, people from all regions of Ukraine, and they adopted that document.

And secondly, also very important, at the same time the Supreme Council of Soviet Ukraine passed the law on the state languages, on languages of the Ukrainian SSR, where Ukrainian is recognized as the state language. This again, was a proposal made by myself and [Supreme Council member] Borys Oliynyk. It was the Supreme Council that passed this law. Earlier such questions were in the purview of the Central Committee. And thirdly, the Central Committee passed a resolution to publish a book of documents pertaining to the artificial famine in Ukraine. Here are three facts that I have cited. There could be more, but these three, all of them on record, prove that the political situation within the organs of power, including the [Communist] Party, was gaining a new content and new character. And this, I believe, is sufficient ground to claim that new processes were gaining momentum, which it would be impossible to stop.

Q: In 1989, Rukh was established... What was the Central Committee's attitude to Rukh? And why is it that Rukh was not banned by the authorities right away?

A: [Ukrainian Communist Party First Secretary Volodymyr] Shcherbytsky, a majority within the Central Committee and in the party structures - in the Kyiv City Committee, and in district committees, and especially in Kyiv - viewed Rukh absolutely negatively. Negatively. I cannot say that I belong to those who immediately saw in Rukh something positive, not at all. Like everybody else, I was analyzing very carefully - well, like everybody who dealt with ideology. And I came to realize that Rukh was not simply a game, but a serious matter. This I understood after I established communications with the Rukh organizers.

Why did I understand this? Because I was in communication with them, while everybody else depended on my information. That is, in order to arrive at any conclusion, one had to look and understand what it was that those people wanted. Why wasn't it banned? Because of the fear of Moscow. When Gorbachev himself came to Kyiv, on Shcherbytsky's initiative and his own, he, Gorbachev, decided to meet with members of the Ukrainian Rukh personally. During the meeting in Shcherbytsky's office, there were present: Shcherbytsky, [member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Ukraine Yuriy] Yelchenko and myself - the three of us and Gorbachev. There were not only Rukh members, but also some representatives of the Ukrainian elite. They were: [writers] [Oles] Honchar, [Ivan] Drach, [Dmytro] Pavlychko, and also... I believe, there were six people, perhaps. They came to the meeting. And then I saw. No matter how badly Shcherbytsky tried to prove that Rukh was no good, Gorbachev kept on saying: "Do not be afraid of them, let them do their work."

* * *

Q: Where did the idea of declaring Ukrainian sovereignty come from?...

A: I think we need to go back a little bit. When Gorbachev announced a referendum on preservation, or strengthening, or improvement of the [Soviet] Union, I then proposed my own referendum question at the Supreme Council. Very few remember this, but it was very important, and the Supreme Council upheld it. Thus, it was March 1991, and in March Ukraine held a referendum with two questions: a Moscow one and a Kyiv one. Our question was already premised on the idea of sovereignty, not as explicitly as, say, in the act of August 24, 1991, but it was the idea behind the referendum question. As matters turned out, over 50 percent voted "yes" on the Moscow question, and over 50 percent voted "yes" for ours, but our question received significantly more votes than Moscow's. You see, it was very important; it was the first signal, a very serious signal with reference to the people, and this is of utmost importance: the idea of sovereignty was supported by the people.

When we voted [on total independence] on December 1, 1991, I was asked whether I had any doubts that the vote would turn out negative? And you know, the democratic forces opposed the [December 1991] referendum even more than the left. They simply considered that the Act of Independence was declared by the Supreme Council on August 24, and that was sufficient. But I knew that if we do not conduct a referendum, if we do not go through that difficult but important stage of expressing the popular will, then, firstly, Moscow might react to such independence very critically - and I put it very mildly by saying critically. And the world, oriented toward Moscow, also would regard our decision coldly and cautiously, with reservations about our decision. That was why I proposed holding the referendum on December 1.

Q: How did you manage to persuade the Communist faction in the Supreme Council to vote for independence on August 24, 1991?

A: You know, nobody was trying to persuade them... They were in such a state of shock, so active were the democratic forces... rallies, crowds march to the Central Committee, open the doors, unlock the safes. In other words, they were under such serious attack in Kyiv, and not only in Kyiv, that they understood they had to save themselves and there was only one salvation: to join their fellow deputies...

Q: The victors.

A: The victors. And to vote the way the victor wants, all the more since their colleague Kravchuk, who was one of them, tells them so, and if that's what he says, then he knows what he is saying. Therefore, I took the podium to deliver my speech on the 24th. That speech was very interesting from all points of view. The speech itself did not last too long, but it took two hours to answer questions, yes.

And from time to time... [Rukh activist] Larysa Skoryk pushed me aside from the podium, then [First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine Stanislav] Hurenko came, another side. I told them: "Please speak, ladies and gentlemen." They argued, yet we had our bottom line and that was that we had to pass the document on state independence. That was a defining line in all conversations and conclusions. There was an open vote by roll call - there was an immediate proposal for such a vote - and nobody wanted to attest himself as a conservative in the face of such upheaval in Moscow and Kyiv...

Q: The preparations for this were made on the 23rd, as I understand it?... How was it?...

A: Well, for me it looked like this: we convene the Supreme Council and on the 22nd the decision was made for the Supreme Council to convene. I signed the summons and the telegrams were sent out to all the deputies to report on the 24th, the session to open at 10 a.m. One issue, ours: the situation in Ukraine, our attitude to what had occurred. Obviously, all thoughts centered on this issue. How? What documents? How would it all turn out?

The consultations and negotiations never stopped. They all were coming to me, members of the Presidium: Pavlychko, [Ihor] Yukhnovsky, [Les] Taniuk, leaders of political parties, movements - they all were coming, and coming, and coming to me with their proposals. The process was under way. I had consultations with the oblasts, other forces here, the military - that was a very important fact, that on [August] the 19th, when it was very difficult, everybody got frightened and kept their silence. Suddenly, a telephone rings at the reception, the "100" line, and the following: "Tell Kravchuk, that we are with them," and hangs up.

Q: Who was it?

A: The receptionist reports to me that there was a call on the "100" line, and that means someone very high up. I say, "You know, when he calls again and hangs up, you don't hang up, and in a second they will tell me who called." Another call. He goes again: "Tell him, that we will support them, we will come out. Let Kravchuk stand firm." He hangs up. That is not a problem, only I shouldn't hang up. We call the operator: "Who called?" "Kostiantyn Petrovych Morozov." Then I call him back and say "What is it about?" "You know, someone is tapping," and so on. Here is one example among many, I would like to emphasize. It was so important to me at the time to have people from the military and other officials call me with encouragement, saying to hold firm and expressing support.


Vyacheslav Chornovil, a journalist by profession, is a former dissident and political prisoner. He was elected deputy to Ukraine's Supreme Council in March 1990 as a member of the democratic bloc and that same year became chairman of the Lviv Oblast Council. He was a presidential candidate in 1991, and is now the head of the Rukh political party and a member of Parliament.

Q: How do you evaluate the following events: the significance of the March 1991 referendum and attempts by the CPSU leadership to come up with different variations of a new union treaty?

A: Well, as for the referendum, it seems to me that our democratic forces were not quite properly oriented when they supported the Kravchuk version of the referendum so actively and were pushing it in Halychyna. As you may recall, at that time the first Halychyna Assembly convened and passed a resolution to conduct their own referendum - a legal one, because it was implemented pursuant to the resolution of three oblast regional legislatures - regarding complete independence of Ukraine. Can you imagine, within the context of the [Soviet] Union, on March 17, we, the three Halychyna oblasts voted, over 90 percent, for an independent Ukrainian state.

It was no big deal to vote on December 1, when the independence of Ukraine was already declared, when the nomenklatura, for one reason or another, supported the idea of independence, out of expediency. It was very different when one had to go against Kyiv, against Moscow, and still victoriously win the referendum. I believe this had a tremendous effect on the events that followed and on the referendum that took place on December 1. As for the [first referendum]... Perhaps, perhaps it was indeed worth having a referendum on confederation, what Kravchuk had proposed that in essence was a confederation, and what Moscow proposed was a renewed, so-called federation- well, that could not be forced upon us. We in Halychyna could not vote for an independent state and for the union, even in an attenuated form, at the same time. And that was the initial little split inside the democratic forces, between the more consistent and the more conformist, that later grew after the declaration of independence.

And you know, it is interesting that at the beginning, as it happens in politics, slogans can be changed and should be changed, for there was a period when we were supportive of the union treaty, a new union treaty. This was when Moscow didn't want to hear anything about it, in the late 1980s and maybe a little into 1990. We supported the idea of a new union treaty, but when the wave of such national aspiration arose, and when the declaration of sovereignty was there, we rejected the union treaty slogan, but some democrats still held on to it through inertia...

Actually, we did everything, as if foreseeing that this putsch would occur, not to allow the signing [of the treaty]. Besides, Kravchuk then also began to act - and here was the beginning of Kravchuk's transformation, his shift to the statehood position, when he also procrastinated. They were pushing and squeezing us to have the treaty signed that summer, and he used various excuses to delay, waiting for something. We should give him credit for his instincts as a politician. That was the summer of 1991, yes.


Lev Lukianenko, who spent over 25 years in prison, labor camps and exile under the Soviet regime, was a founder and head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and later the Ukrainian Republican Party. In March 1990 he was elected to the Ukrainian Supreme Council. He ran in the presidential election of 1991, and then served as independent Ukraine's first ambassador to Canada from 1991 to 1993. Currently he is a deputy in Parliament.

Q: What were opinions among democrats, and were they all immediately and unanimously prepared to accept this Act of Independence of August 24, 1991?

A: Look, approximately on the 20th or 22nd [of August] it became clear that they [the Moscow coup leaders] lost completely, and on the part of the Communists who participated in the conspiracy there was the awareness of guilt, and they didn't know how it all would turn out for them. They... their coup had failed. Thus, the 22nd passed, we were still at the Union of Writers, we would go to the Supreme Council, back and forth, here and there, yet the Supreme Council did not convene. We would go to Kravchuk, various negotiations were held there, inconclusively. We kept thinking, what should we do next?

On the 23rd we first came to the Supreme Council, at 10 a.m. - the National Council [the democratic faction in Parliament] convened. I considered it a unique moment. Well, what should be our agenda? We understand that they had lost: they, the Communists, are flirting with us and this is a moment when we could pass a good resolution. So, the task for the National Council was to prepare drafts of resolutions or laws, and so [Les] Taniuk proposes one such resolution, someone proposes something else, and then I stood up and said this is such a unique moment, that we should resolve the main issue: declare Ukraine an independent state. If we do not do this now, we would probably never do it. For this period of confusion among Communists is a short period - they soon came to their senses; and they are the majority, so we have to do it now. I expressed my willingness to write it, and then I was authorized to do so.

I asked [Leontiy] Sanduliak: "Let's go together," well, just not to be alone. He agreed and we went. We agreed - it was 10 o'clock then - we agreed that the National Council would reconvene at noon, and we would present our draft. We went to a separate, well, corner, where there was a desk, and I told Sanduliak: "There are two approaches to the document that we can write: we can make it long or we can make it short. If we write a long document, it will inevitably arouse a debate; if we make it short, there is less chance to create a debate. Let's write as short a document as possible, to give them the least chance to argue about where to put a comma, what to change. He agreed with this idea. Well, I began writing - we wrote, corrected.

By noon we returned; the National Council had already reconvened. And then I explained to the National Council the concept behind the draft, that is, the Act of Independence, that it must be as short as possible in order to gain the maximum number of votes and not debates. And they agreed. I remember [Serhiy] Holovaty made some amendments, so the text was somewhat amended and we then approved it. So on the 23rd, at noon, or shortly after noon, that is, we convened at noon, made some corrections, approved the text and forwarded it to the Secretariat to have it printed and disseminated it. By the 24th the text was already disseminated, and then the National Council authorized me to read it... at the session of the Supreme Council. So the text was already in the [deputies'] hands, it was distributed to everyone, and everyone already knew the text.

Then we convened on the 24th, and - here, well, we should thank Kravchuk that he did not reject the idea, for it could have been torpedoed completely, or it could be said now was not the time and propose another issue for discussion. He went ahead with the business. But then [Volodymyr] Yavorivsky took the platform, he... so to speak, he did not follow the resolution of the National Council, and gave it a formal reading.

Then the Communists, that is [First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine Stanislav] Hurenko, said they needed a recess. They asked for a recess and went downstairs where the movie theater is. The Communists gathered there, and he asked them: "How shall we act?" "What shall we do?" Someone said: "What fault did we commit that we have to declare Ukraine an independent state?" See? But the prevailing atmosphere [in Kyiv] was very dependent on what was happening in Moscow. [Boris] Yeltsin spoke in very tough terms against the Communists. And there was a notion hanging in the air, would there be a hunting down of Communists, as happened in Hungary, in Budapest, in 1956? They were hunted down in the streets then and knifed to death, and they would lie on the pavement until after a couple of days their corpses would be removed. In fact, secret police agents would have their documents placed on them and they were knifed right through their documents. There was a hint of that hanging in the air. So he [Hurenko] after a pause of reflection, said: "We will vote for this act."

They came back and voted together with us. After that, of course, we rushed outside. There was a huge crowd there in the square, a mass of people hugging each other, you know. Here and there someone was lifted, I was lifted, and people carried us aloft. And then to Independence Square, there we had a long rally; and later about 5 p.m. we came to St. Sophia Square, where before a large, large gathering of people, I read this act.


Ivan Pliushch, whose political career began in the Communist Party of Ukraine, became first deputy chairman of Ukraine's Supreme Council in June 1990. He was independent Ukraine's first chairman of Parliament from December 1991 to May 1994, at which time he ran unsuccessfully for the presidency. Presently he is a member of Parliament.

Q: What do you think about the vote for the declaration of independence? There is a notion that the majority of Communists voted for independence in an attempt to distance themselves from the brutal anti-Communist actions of Boris Yeltsin in Moscow.

A: No, absolutely not. I want to tell you that in that Supreme Council there were about 375 or 376 Communists. I do not recall now the exact number who formed the "Group of 239," if we can call it that. So, some 130 did not join the "group." Here is the picture: these 130, and then 120 or 130 democrats, already this amounts to 260. And to pass a resolution 226 was sufficient. And our logic often is such: if we oppose it or not and a resolution will pass anyway, why should I miss the boat?

So, I would vote "yes" then. So if my vote can only do me harm, I would not vote. So sensing that the resolution would pass anyway, that the balance of power in the Supreme Council was such that the resolution would pass anyhow, the orthodox faction of Communists, about a hundred in all, voted, I will state frankly, just in case, to reserve for themselves the room to maneuver later. Many of them who voted for independence afterwards did everything they could to get rid of it. There was, I can tell you, such an element. I do not want to name names, for this would be wrong, it would look like a denunciation, and I do not want to do this. But, I would like to tell you it was a time, right after the putsch in Moscow, when it was obvious that there were 250-260 members of the Supreme Council who would vote for independence no matter what. So this one hundred - I think that was their logic, that they felt investigations might follow and so on, and they wanted to distance themselves from such a Central Committee, from such a leadership, from such a Politburo, from such orthodox [Communists] - They did this both from fear and also, just in case. I will be bold enough to say that.

And when it was all over, when it happened that a large part of the population showed dissatisfaction with independence, they do not recall their vote with pride. But I do remember with pride what we then accomplished. It was a fateful decision, and I keep on repeating, and repeating, and repeating it: that Ukraine is fortunate in this. Some people, individuals, write to me: "It's you who is fortunate." But that does not mean that I am happy, or we are happy and so on. I am happy that there is Ukraine. See, I am materially secure today, I am in a better situation [than many]. But I was well-off in the old system as well.

I have had conversations with people who are not as secure in material terms as I am today, understand? And when I ask them: "What did we need Ukraine for, if today you can't afford to buy an undershirt? If you cannot dress properly? If you can't feed yourself properly, and so on?" And they tell me: "Mr. Pliushch, we will go without clothing for another three years, so long as there is a Ukraine." I understand these people, I am happy for them, as much as I am happy for myself.


The Project on the Oral History of Independent Ukraine has conducted lengthy interviews with dozens of participants in the process that led to the establishment of Ukrainian independence. Full transcripts and videotapes of these interviews will be available to the public in major archives and libraries in Ukraine, the U.S. and elsewhere. This effort is supported by the generous contributions of John, Margarita and Maria Hewko, the Yale Center for International and Area Studies (Council on Russian and East European Studies), the Chopivsky Family Foundation and the Embassy of the Netherlands in Kyiv. Special thanks to: Ambassador William and Suzanne Miller (U.S. Embassy, Kyiv), Prof. Rudiger Dornbusch (MIT), Katya Khulnikova, Dmytro Ponamarchuk (Rukh press), Mykola Veresen (BBC Kyiv office), Oleksandr Tkachenko and Andriy Slobodyan ("Nova Mova" television company), and Baker & McKenzie Kyiv office.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, August 18, 1996, No. 33, Vol. LXIV

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