Toronto pays tribute to former Soviet political prisoner

by Andrij Kudla Wynnyckyj
Toronto Press Bureau

TORONTO - The 10th anniversary of Danylo Shumuk's release from the Soviet gulag and arrival in Canada in May 1987, after a mind-numbing 42 years in various jails, prison camps and exile, was celebrated with a tribute, titled "Road to Freedom," at Toronto's Old Mill on September 28.

Seated with Mr. Shumuk at the head table was a special guest, Eduard Kuznetsov, who had been a philosophy student when he was sentenced to seven years for "anti-Soviet underground activity" in 1961. Later, after a failed attempt to hijack a plane to the West, he was sentenced to death. An international outcry prompted the Kremlin to commute Mr. Kuznetsov's sentence; thus, he came to share a prison cell with Mr. Shumuk for five years in the 1970s.

Mr. Kuznetsov, author of "Prison Diaries," an award-winning account of his incarceration, traveled from Israel where he works as editor-in-chief of the Russian-language Tel-Aviv-based daily Viesti, to pay homage to his former cellmate.

"For him the truth means the truth and nothing else," the Moscow-born Jewish activist said of Mr. Shumuk. "For him, honesty means honesty and conscience means conscience."

"For Shumuk, being Ukrainian is very important, but even if you were a Martian, and he saw that you were being wronged, he would stand up for you." Mr. Kuznetsov added.

He said it was difficult to imagine, even now for survivors, how harsh conditions were in strict-regime camps such as those in which Mr. Shumuk was held. "But the Russian proverb says, 'it's not the bars, nor the cells, it's the other prisoners,'" Mr. Kuznetsov recalled. "And so I'd tell people: 'If you end up in some camp, ask to be put with Shumuk. He will share his food, he will give you the shirt off his back, and he will never allow an injustice against you to pass in silence.' "

Mr. Kuznetsov said Mr. Shumuk and others like him managed to build a strong underground authority within the camps, and the Soviet "organs" preferred not to touch them. "This shows that if there is a group of individuals strong, clever and intelligent enough, they can resist even a powerful machine, a massive totalitarian regime," he affirmed.

In his introduction of Mr. Kuznetsov, University of Waterloo Prof. John Jaworsky (translator of Mr. Shumuk's memoirs), noted that the two men's friendship proved quite fortuitous, since Mr. Kuznetsov was an expert practitioner of "mikro," the microscopically small hand printing used by purveyors of samizdat. Prof. Jaworsky pointed out that Mr. Shumuk's memoirs, "Za Skhidnym Obriem" (Beyond the Eastern Horizon), and various proclamations were smuggled out in "mikro" versions prepared by Mr. Kuznetsov.

In concluding his address, Mr. Kuznetsov said: "If Ukrainians were to plant a grove in which every tree will honor their people's heroes and martyrs, I would very much like to plant a tree in honor of Danylo Shumuk."

Mr. Shumuk, 82, the longest serving Soviet political prisoner, was typically modest, saying the idea of the tribute made him "uncomfortable," adding that "I'm not entitled to anything, nobody owes me anything."

Characteristically, he was also unstintingly frank and morally rigorous in his address. "It is not heroic to try to live in peace with one's conscience, to respect others and to respect one's people," Mr. Shumuk said, ably assisted by translator Natalka Jemetz. "It is the responsibility of every human being."

Frail only in body, the Volhynian-born camp veteran had a message for youth, calling on them to engage in social and political activism. "The future belongs to youth, for they can avoid making the mistakes made by their parents' generation, and thus they can think and act constructively," Mr. Shumuk said.

He recalled his own "tempestuous youth," during which he was plunged into political activity, initially as a Communist. "But I found that it was an unprecedented evil," Mr. Shumuk remembered, "and I couldn't forgive myself for this error." Thereafter, he added, "My struggle against bolshevism was akin to my breathing, synonymous with the essence of my life."

Mr. Shumuk described fascism as "this century's horrific other evil" against which he also fought, but noted that fascist parties had been banned in post-war Germany when democracy was weak, while in Ukraine the Communist Party's "masked evil" has allowed it to resurface.

Commenting on the current situation in his native country, Mr. Shumuk had harsh words for those who, he said, caused post-independence disillusionment by enriching themselves while the general population's living standards plummetted. "Personally, I consider them criminals," the former dissident added tersely.

Mr. Shumuk spoke vividly about his experiences in the strict-regime Perm camp. "Death often walked in circles around me, gazing into my eyes," he said, "and I often felt that if death took me then, nobody would ever hear of me, nobody would ever hear of what befell my fellow prisoners, and what befell my people."

The celebrant thanked Canadian Prime Minister and Minister of External Affairs Joe Clark (who sent a letter of greeting to Mr. Shumuk and to the event's organizers) for repeatedly remonstrating with Soviet officials, securing his release from exile, and paving the way for his reunification with his brother, Ivan (who has since died), in Canada.

Mr. Shumuk also thanked Bohdan Nahaylo, formerly of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, and Halyna Horbach for efforts on his behalf, as well as countless Ukrainian and non-Ukrainian activists in Western Europe, North America, Australia and Asia who sent appeals to various Soviet institutions and leaders.

Mr. Shumuk offered special thanks to Amnesty International (AI), which adopted him as a prisoner of conscience in the 1970s. "Amnesty International's efforts saved me from certain death," he asserted.

Mr. Shumuk said when he learned that a Swiss AI group had written over 400 letters to the camp commandant where he was being held, he could hardly contain his happiness. "These were people who kept the flame burning inside me, a flame of hope that maybe I'd survive after all." He grimly noted that the commandant, a certain Maj. Zhuravkov, committed suicide after the death of Vasyl Stus in 1985.

The chair of Amnesty International's Toronto branch, Lina Anani, delivered a moving tribute to Mr. Shumuk, speaking for the activists who petitioned Soviet leaders on his behalf. "It is a rare pleasure and opportunity to meet with one of the noble people for whom we work," Ms. Anani said.

Addressing Mr. Shumuk, the AI representative said: "Perseverance, dignity and courage are your hallmarks. You exemplified the spirit of Amnesty International's symbol - the candle entwined by barbed wire - you never allowed your candle to be blown out."

In a moving gesture, Ms. Anani presented the celebrant with a copy of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, a copy of Mr. Shumuk's AI case file and "the sunflowers you love."

An audio-visual presentation by Andrij Semotiuk, a man very active in the Canadian human rights movement of the 1970s and 1980s, offered a wide-ranging perspective of the world events that Mr. Shumuk's incarceration spanned and of the efforts undertaken to secure his release.

The Humber Room, where the patron's reception was held, and the larger Brulé Room, where the banquet took place, were adorned with over 65 watercolors, charcoal, pencil, and pen-and-ink drawings of camp scenes done by fellow gulag veteran Hryhorii Herchak. In a far corner of the Humber Room a mock cell was set up, which featured various documents and photographs of Mr. Shumuk during his incarceration and exile, and following his emigration to the West.

The tribute was emceed by "Kontakt's" Olia Szczuryk, and its honorary chairman was former Member of Parliament Michael Starr. It was attended by over 200 people, including fellow former gulag inmates, human rights activists and community leaders, and was sponsored and organized by Amnesty International's Toronto Branch, Media Watch Ukraine, the Ukrainian Research and Documentation Center, the Ukrainian World Congress's Human Rights Commission, the Ukrainian Canadian Congress' Toronto Branch, the Ukrainian Professional Business Association's Toronto Branch, the Ukrainian Canadian Professional and Business Federation, the Ukrainian War Veterans' Association, the Basilian Press, the "Kontakt" and "Svitohliad" television programs, and Air Ukraine.

Despite the afternoon's considerable success, there remained a telling, black irony. Not a single official representative of the country for which Danylo Shumuk sacrificed his youth, his health and his freedom chose to attend.

Danylo Shumuk: a prisoner for 42 years

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, October 19, 1997, No. 42, Vol. LXV

| Home Page |