Human rights activist Nadia Svitlychna through the prism of Amnesty International

by Anna Procyk

It has been almost 40 years ago that Nadia Svitlychna's name came to the attention of human rights groups, including Amnesty International, through the publication of a collection of documents exposing the flagrant violation of human rights in Ukraine. These materials were compiled by Vyacheslav Chornovil, at that time a young journalist working for a television studio in Lviv. They circulated in manuscript form in Ukraine and, as has been the case with similar samizdat/samvydav literature, through Czechoslovakia, Poland and other channels, found their way abroad. They appeared in Paris in 1967 under the title "Lykho z Rozumu" (Woe from Wit) and a year later the book's English translation was published by McGraw Hill as "The Chornovil Papers."

This publication created a stir if not a sensation in the West, and not only among people actively engaged in the defense of human rights.

Prof. Frederick C. Barghoorn of Yale University in the introduction to "the Chornovil Papers" evaluated highly the contribution Ukrainian intellectuals were making in the struggle for freedom of expression and civil rights in the Soviet Union. He singled out in particular what he saw as the "community of interests among Soviet intellectuals of various national backgrounds," observing that "although the preservation of the Ukrainian cultural heritage and language are central features of the outlook of many young Ukrainian intellectuals, the latter perceive themselves as struggling, not against the Russian nation ... but rather against dictatorship and police state." Max Hayward of London, with obvious admiration, wrote: "... the Ukrainian opposition is striking both for its moderation and its high intellectual level." What was stressed in these and other evaluations was the mature level of nationalism among the Ukrainian dissidents: their emphasis on national equality without expressions of antagonism or ill feeling toward the ruling nation.

Svitlychna's older brother and mentor, the eminent poet and literary critic, Ivan Svitlychnyi, had been considered the central figure, the guiding spirit of this group. And Nadia, after her arrival in Kyiv, soon acquired recognition as his right hand in editing, translating and disseminating dissident literature. While she was not caught in the first wave of arrests documented in "The Chornovil Papers," her name does appear on the pages of the prisoners' correspondence.

One letter in the Chornovil Papers written to Svitlychna by a political prisoner, the modernist, non-conformist artist Opanas Zalyvakha, was of particular interest to human rights activists in New York because Zalyvakha was adopted as a prisoner of conscience by the Riverside Group of Amnesty International.

It was probably the impression created by the artistic works of Zalyvakha reproduced in "Lykho z Rozumu," as well as the cruelty of his punishment - it was learned that a labor camp guard broke Zalyvakha's fingers in order to prevent him from painting - that prompted the head of Amnesty International in Washington, a great admirer of modernist art, to adopt Zalyvakha as one of the first Soviet "prisoners of conscience" in the United States. The second Soviet adoptee was the Russian dissident Vladimir Bukovsky.

At that time besides the Washington group, there was only one other active Amnesty section in the United States, the already mentioned Riverside Group, which - even though not officially affiliated - was nevertheless closely connected with Columbia University: the majority of its members were either Columbia University professors or students, including its head, a prominent scholar of Japanese culture, Prof. Ivan Morris, a British subject who joined Amnesty in England, where the organization was originally founded in 1962. Prof. Zbigniew Brzezinski - although not a member of Amnesty - was nevertheless very responsive when approached with requests of assistance in various matters, especially in efforts to publish the documents from "The Chornovil Papers" in American papers and journals.

Being the only person in the Riverside Group from the Russian Institute (now The Harriman Institute) at Columbia University, it was only natural that I would become involved in the work on behalf of the two Soviet prisoners of conscience. In subsequent years, one of my Columbia colleagues, Walter Odajnyk, joined the group and another friend, Marta Skorupskyj, being associated with a Ukrainian research center not far from the university, was very helpful in supplying information about the most recent violations of human rights in Eastern Europe.

Thus, through Zalyvakha's correspondence, almost from the beginning of Amnesty's involvement in the defense of Soviet dissidents, human rights activists became acquainted with Nadia Svitlychna. Needless to say, one could not help but be impressed by the bravery of this young woman to whom numerous prisoners were sending warm greetings and words of gratitude for her support, especially since it could be assumed that, given Soviet reality, her involvement in the defense of political prisoners would sooner or later result in arrest and deportation - which indeed would be the case a few years later.

For us, at that time still relatively young students, it was naturally most inspiring and gratifying to get involved in the defense of such individuals as Zalyvakha and Bukovsky. We were impressed by the paintings, writings and unbending courage of the Ukrainian artist. We were deeply moved by the bravery of Bukovsky who, in a secret interview given to a Western correspondent, boldly declared: "we are determined to break the chains of fear that have been paralyzing our society." If these words became firmly chiseled in our memory, it is because in subsequent years they were heard in dissident circles scattered throughout Eastern Europe.

In 1971, while walking with Chornovil and a group of his friends on the streets of Lviv, I was suddenly seized by an acute feeling of fear after realizing that we were followed by a swarm of secret agents. I asked my companion: "Aren't you afraid? I am scheduled to leave for New York in a few days but you and your group...?" In a most unpretentious but resolutely firm manner Chornovil replied: "Please understand that we are above fear. Our actions are dictated by our conscience; we cannot act otherwise."

This strong stand adopted by the dissidents expressed itself in different ways. In the case of Svitlychna, it was reflected through her refusal to be intimidated by the almost daily harassments of the KGB and in her readiness to provide assistance to her colleagues. In a recent obituary, the literary scholar Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska describes the comforting sense of strength that Svitlychna's presence instilled among the dissidents: "Standing next to her, one could always feel a strong, loyal arm on which one could depend, even in the most dangerous situations of life."

The principle upon which this unbending stand rested was spoken of by Vaclav Havel when he appeared before the U.S. Congress in 1990: "The only genuine backbone of all our actions, if they are to be moral, is responsibility, responsibility to something higher than my family, my country, my firm, my success."

My departure from Ukraine in the summer of 1971 was not as smooth as expected, primarily because in addition to my walks with Chornovil and his friends, I also met the wife of a well-known dissident incarcerated in the Vladimir prison. Her husband at that time was a newly adopted prisoner of conscience of the Riverside Group. Most likely because she was the mother of a young child, of all the dissidents I met on my trip that summer, on her face only, could one detect a slight shadow of fear.

Svitlychna too was a young mother of a small son when she was arrested in 1972. One can imagine the agonizing thoughts and emotions that must have seized this young woman while being taken from her child to prison. Yet later, in her reminisces of those painful years related on numerous occasions either before Ukrainian audiences or human rights groups, she stoically avoided references to her personal travails, preferring to focus on the ordeals of others.

Being away from New York for a good part of the 1970s, I did not have the good fortune to witness Svitlychna's unexpected arrival in the West in 1978. I do know, however, that she was very ably assisted and cared for in Rome where she first landed by Ms. Skorupsky, who, as has been noted above, worked closely with human rights groups.

When I returned to New York, my involvement in Amnesty once again brought me, this time directly, face-to-face, with Svitlychna. The political prisoner on whose case we were working at the Madison Group - very ably at that time coordinated by Yadia Zeltman - was the Ukrainian poet Zenovii Krasivsky, who happened to be a close friend of the Svitlychny family. Svitlychna generously provided us with invaluable information about the prisoner (and his continually harassed and maligned wife, Olena Antoniv), while through her occasional personal appearances at Amnesty's meetings, her words instilled encouragement to continue our work which, at that time, seemed to be producing no results.

The early 1980s were perhaps the most discouraging years for human rights activists working on behalf of dissidents in the Communist world. Yet, even during those dark days, Svitlychna never wavered. At a time when some Ukrainian human rights organizations began diverting their attention to matters only remotely related to the defense of political prisoners, she almost single-handedly undertook the defense of one of the most talented and most harshly persecuted figures among the dissidents: the poet Vasyl Stus, who later, mainly through her efforts, was a Nobel Prize nominee. This was the strong, always loyal arm of which Ms. Kotsiubynska spoke. This was also the arm that, I am certain, all political prisoners feel when cared for by Amnesty.

Next to her indefatigable work in the arena of human rights, Svitlychna perhaps is best remembered as a mediator, as a consummate conciliator. It was truly remarkable how she succeeded in bringing to her cause people from the most diverse walks of life, from the most diverse national and political backgrounds. It has been said that she learned this invaluable skill from her brother Ivan, but I think that also very influential for the development of her world outlook was the philosophy of Stus with whose poetry she became most intimately acquainted through many years of editing his works.

A few lines of one poem will be sufficient to bring to light this point:

How good it is that I've no fear of dying
Nor ask myself how ponderous my toil
Nor bow to cunning magistrates decrying
Presentiments of unfamiliar soil,
That I have lived and loved, yet never burdening
My soul with hatred, curses or regret...

The issue of anger and hatred as impediments to human progress in the sphere of human rights was discussed by Havel during an interview he gave in the early 1990s. When the host of the program, Jim Lehrer, raised the issue of former enemies, the Czechoslovak president calmly responded that the most dangerous enemy is the enemy within you: the thorn of hatred in one's heart.

Resisting anger and hatred, of course, did not mean collaboration or compromises with the former oppressors. Vaclav Havel understood that democracy in Czechoslovakia could not have been built with the cooperation of former party bosses, Jindra, Bilak and others, and he stubbornly resisted pressure to do so. Similarly, one could not have expected to see democracy's foundations constructed in cooperation with the former secretary of ideology of the Communist Party of Ukraine.

We are witnessing the sad consequences of this illusion, even though there are still some who try to convince us that yes, indeed, all is well in the house constructed with the help of Leonid Kravchuk and Leonid Kuchma.

Svitlychna avoided political issues, most likely because she knew that her involvement would interfere with the principal task she had set before herself after the collapse of communism: the publication of works by her dissident colleagues, especially those who in the 1990s were no longer alive. For this reason, it seems, she did not even care to participate in the debate on the marginalization of the former dissidents after the collapse of the Soviet Union, an issue raised at a number of conferences at Columbia University.

Here it would be of interest to note how during the first presidential campaign in Ukraine, the former dissidents who, as we have seen, were so highly praised by Western political commentators for their moderation, intelligence and political tact, had been consistently smeared by the opposition as ultra rightists whose election would inevitably lead to war with Russia. Even here in the West, these slanderous remarks were often repeated and, on occasion today, the dissidents and their younger admirers are sometimes irresponsibly placed side-by-side with the Zhirinovskys.

In spite of her public reticence on political issues, in early 1991 Svitlychna did send me a copy of a letter with a highly political content written to her by Krasivsky. It is my impression that some of the ideas may have reflected Svitlychna's own views as well: why would she otherwise send it to me - at that time Krasivsky was already a free man.

The following excerpt brings out the central theme: "We all know that the Soviet state represented nothing but a state of usurpers, but we pretend that [with the latter's cooperation] a democratic system can be constructed here, that even a parliamentary form of struggle is possible ... Adherents of this line of reasoning do not want to recognize that ... they are allowing themselves to be led into a blind alley."

It is known that Svitlychna's efforts could not save Stus, and in the early 1980s, hardly anyone's could. But how many lives she did save beginning with her simple letters of encouragement and parcels assistance! This type of activity was the mirror image of Amnesty work during those decades. The efforts of both, Svitlychna's and the human rights organization are best summed up in the title of Jeffrey C. Goldfarb's recent book: "The Politics of Small Things: The Power of the Powerless in Dark Times."

What started with letter writing and care packages in the dark ages of the Soviet era ended with nominations of prisoners for a Nobel Prizes and ultimately with the fall of the Berlin Wall. It is an effort which, if pursued with persistence and responsibility, produces results that are capable of being carried only on the shoulders of giants.

* * *

Editor's note: Nadia Svitlychna would have been 70 on November 8.

Dr. Anna Procyk is professor of history at Kingsborough Community College of the City University of New York. This paper was delivered at the sixth annual Grigorenko Readings at Columbia University on October 10.

Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, November 5, 2006, No. 45, Vol. LXXIV

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