January 26, 2018

Diaspora actions to protect the human rights of Ukrainians

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Adapted from the presentation given on  November 10, 2017, at 50th anniversary conference of the Ukrainian World Congress held in Toronto.

My thanks to the Ukrainian World Congress for asking me to present on the topic of diaspora activism in protecting the human rights of Ukrainians globally with a specific focus on the past two generations. Unfortunately, I am not able to attend this conference. Therefore I am grateful to Andriy Dobrianskiy for presenting this text on my behalf.

To speak comprehensively on this topic in a short period of time is, of course, impossible. It would require at least a book. And that’s a good place to start. There is such a book – “Negotiating Human Rights: In Defence of Dissidents during the Soviet Era” – the 2014 memoir written by Christina Isajiw, the former head of the Human Rights Commission of the World Congress of Free Ukrainians.

Given that today we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Ukrainian World Congress, it is appropriate to mention the Human Rights Commission first, which was established by the World Congress in 1969. Mrs. Isajiw was well-recognized in Ottawa and in Washington, in London and in New York City, in the world centers of human rights activism, as a relentless advocate for human rights and, in particular, as a passionate advocate for dissidents in Ukraine.

And while today’s topic also asks that I address the UWC’s support for the human rights of Ukrainians globally for the past two generations, that would also require a discussion on more topics than can be addressed. For example, there is the current situation of Ukrainians living in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, or the plight of Ukrainians now living in the illegally occupied territories of the Donbas, the response efforts of the World Congress in support of Ukrainians defending themselves, such as Patriot Defence, or, even the work of the World Congress through member organizations such as the World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations. Through their work at the United Nations in the 1990s and early 2000s, WFUWO representatives first brought to light – and then actively worked to stop – the international criminal trafficking of Ukrainian women by the post-Soviet mafia. I would also have to include work by UWC and WFUWO representatives at the U.N. today to publicize the current oppression of Tatars and Ukrainians in Crimea. All of these matters relate directly to the preservation of human rights.

So, instead of attempting the impossible, I have chosen to limit my focus on the period of the 1970s and 1980s, generally referred to as the Helsinki Movement.

One could fairly state that the line of Ukrainian dissent – whether against Poland and Russia, or against the Nazis and the Soviets – can be traced back for multiple generations – much more than two. Taras Shevchenko, after all, was a dissident, exiled to Central Asia, and Ukrainians comprised the core group that organized the 1954 Kengir uprising in the Soviet Gulag. However, the modern human rights movement in Ukraine can be considered to have begun in the mid-1960s, with the arrests that accompanied Leonid Brezhnev’s ascent to power in Moscow, and for Ukrainians, another crackdown a few years later with Vladimir Shcherbytsky’s arrival in Kyiv.

The dissident movement throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union gained momentum with the signing of several international documents – the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, first announced in 1948, was finally ratified by the U.N. in 1976. The Helsinki Final Act, with a full section on protecting and ensuring human rights was signed in Helsinki, Finland, in August 1975 by the 35 countries that belonged to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe (later changed to Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe). Included in these 35 were the United States and the USSR.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Soviet Union underwent a brief and inconsistent period of liberalization known as the Khrushchev Thaw. One year the Kremlin would loosen restrictions on cultural expression, then the next year begin a series of arrests for anti-Soviet activity. So, while in 1961, writer and labor union organizer Levko Lukianenko was sentenced in Lviv to be executed for slandering the theory of Marxism-Leninism and for agitating for Ukraine’s separation from the Soviet Union, in Kyiv, at the same time, poets and writers Ivan Dzyuba, Ivan Svitlychny and Yevhen Sverstiuk were able to establish the Kliub Tvorchoyi Molodi – the Club of Creative Youth. The club organized evenings of Ukrainian cultural events, for example, public readings of Ukrainian poets, such as Lesia Ukrainka.

By the mid-1960s, with the coming of Brezhnev, even this erratic liberalization came to a halt. A series of arrests began. Members of the Ukrainian cultural elite that by the Kremlin’s definition included anyone with even a minor inkling of Ukrainian national or religious consciousness – were detained, arrested, subjected to monkey trials and sent to the Gulag. This included dissidents such as poetess Alla Horska, journalist Vyacheslav Chornovil, Mykhailo Horyn and Valentyn Moroz.

While some Ukrainians in the diaspora knew about the different individual dissidents during this time, most did not. And the dissidents themselves were varied. Their motivations ranged from those whose sole goal was an independent Ukraine, to those who, such as Ivan Hel, fought foremost for religious freedom, to those such as Leonid Plyushch, who considered himself a socialist and simply demanded that Soviet authorities hew more closely to the guarantees of the Soviet Constitution.

However, it was the mild-mannered historian and philologist Moroz who fully galvanized the Ukrainian diaspora into awareness and action.

On July 1, 1974, at Vladimir Prison in Perm, Moroz, who had been convicted and sentenced under the infamous Article 62 of the Ukrainian SSR Criminal Code – “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” – declared a hunger strike. His wife contacted everyone she knew, who then contacted everyone they knew. Word spread quickly into the Ukrainian diaspora in North America and Western Europe and was broadcast back into Ukraine via Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Vatican Radio, BBC.

Ukrainian students, home for summer vacations, also responded quickly, organized hunger strikes in solidarity, sent information through networks such as SUSTA headed by Eugene Iwanciw, TUSM headed by Askold Lozynskyj, SUSK, Plast, SUM, ODUM, branches and chapters of the Ukrainian National Association, Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, Ukrainian Canadian Congress. Hunger vigils were held in front of the Canadian Parliament in Ottawa, at the United Nations in New York, in front of the Soviet Embassy and the White House in Washington. A lobbying effort of elected representatives was begun demanding the release of Moroz. Free Moroz committees were established throughout communities in Canada, the U.S., England.

Maria Proskurenko recalls her participation in the Moroz defense action: “I was in Winnipeg working at a Ukrainian Culture Camp … young Winnipegers with some out-of-towners decided to hold a hunger strike in a park in front of the Manitoba Parliament building, near the Taras Shevchenko monument. The hunger strike went on for 13 days … What stands out most in my mind was the participation of the greater Ukrainian community. We had a PR group working with the media, a medical group that monitored our health, community activists interceding with elected officials in the Parliament building right behind us. They could look out their windows and see us. People brought us tents, sleeping bags; they did our laundry. We gave press interviews, held daily meetings that attracted other young people, held prayer vigils. Even the Ukrainian Canadian Communist Party got involved. They sent out anonymous letters to people in the community, ‘gently’ warning them that these sorts of actions could have negative effects on family members in the ‘old country.’ At the time, this was a common intimidation tactic of the Communist Party in Canada.”

Moroz was force-fed and after 145 days ended his hunger strike. His jailers had relented a bit and eased the conditions of his confinement, although he would remain in prison for the next five years.

While Moroz was in prison, the final approval of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was completed and the Helsinki Accords came into force. This particular document inspired the immediate establishment of Helsinki monitoring groups in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union. The first one was in Moscow, quickly followed by the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. In November 1976, the founding members in Kyiv included Mykola Rudenko, Oles Berdnyk, Petro Grigorenko, Ivan Kandyba, Levko Lukianenko, Myroslav Marynovych, Mykola Matusevych, Oksana Meshko, Nina Strokata and Oleksa Tykhy. Within a short time, all were arrested, convicted and sentenced for seven to 10 years. In defiance of the crackdown, 19 new members joined the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, among them Mykola Horbal, Vasyl Stus and Vyacheslav Chornovil, and seven already in prison, among them Yuriy Shukhevych, Vasyl Romaniuk and Irena Senyk.

Orest Deychakiwsky, a long-time staff member of the U.S. Helsinki Commission, noted during his presentation last month at the Ukrainian World Congress conference in New York City, “A critical vehicle for advancing freedom, human rights and democracy, the Helsinki process would play an essential role in the dissolution of the Soviet Union and restoration of Ukraine’s independence.”

That was because at the core of the Helsinki process is a concept that was anathema to the Soviet regime: individual dignity. The entire system of human rights empowers the individual, puts the dignity of each individual in the center of political reality. In contrast, the Soviet system focused on suppression of the individual.

Dissidents in Ukraine immediately grasped the importance of this document and began to monitor and report Soviet violations of the Helsinki Accords. This information was smuggled out of Ukraine. In the West, the Human Rights Commission in Toronto, with organizations such as Americans for Human Rights in Ukraine (AHRU) from New Jersey and the Ukrainian Human Rights Committee, established by Ulana Mazurkevich and based in Philadelphia, would bring this information to the U.S. Congress, to the Canadian Parliament, to foreign policy officials in order to keep them informed of Soviet violations.

The financial commitment of the diaspora in support of the dissident movement in Ukraine at this point must be noted. Many Ukrainian communities organized full-scale volunteer efforts – everything from demonstrations, to petitions, to resolutions, to lobbying elected officials and, later, providing room and board in their homes, as well as medical treatment for dissidents and their families. However, having salaried staff at the Ukrainian World Congress headquarters led by Ms. Isajiw, staff at the UCC and UCCA headquarters, representative offices in Washington of the Ukrainian National Association, then headed by Eugene Iwanciw and the UCCA’s representative office, UNIS – headed in those years by George Nesterczuk, Kateryna Chumachenko, Myron Wasylyk, Irena Chalupa and Tamara Gallo, and then in 1987-1989, paid staff at the U.S. Committee to Commemorate the Millennium of Christianity of Rus’-Ukraine – was essential to the successful involvement of the diaspora in support of the dissident movement.

These administrative costs for offices, staff and travel expenses provided continuity of action and a backbone of support. Cumulatively, over the years (approximately 1975-1990), this financial support was in the millions of dollars.

The constant monitoring by the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and other regional Helsinki monitoring groups, recorded a pattern of repression that not even hardened Soviet apologists could defend. This monitoring information trickled up to the willing ear of U.S. President Ronald Reagan who often, in his remarks attacking the Soviet Union, would cite actions reported by the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. In May 1988, during a trip to the Soviet Union, President Reagan insisted on meeting Soviet dissidents, despite Mikhail Gorbachev’s claim that these dissidents were not “the finest examples” of Soviet citizens. Of those invited, 96 attended an afternoon tea at Spaso House in Moscow. Among the 96 were Vyacheslav Chornovil and his wife, Atena Pashko, Petro Ruban, Mykhailo and Olha Horyn, and Ivan Hel. Only months earlier both Chornovil and Horyn were still imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. U.S. government estimates were that there were still approximately 35,000 Soviet political and religious dissidents being detained, exiled or imprisoned in 1986-1987. The fact that these four Ukrainian dissidents were among the 96 was a bit remarkable. That success can be attributed to an intense and coordinated lobbying effort by the Washington office of the UCCA, board members of the U.S. Millennium Committee, which was being funded by the Ukrainian National Association, and Ukrainian Americans who had connections inside the White House, the executive branch and Congress. Despite longstanding tensions between certain diaspora groups, in this instance a full effort was made to make sure that several Ukrainians met with the U.S. president while he was in Moscow.

Lists of violations were not the only information smuggled out of the Gulag and out of Ukraine. An entire system of underground writing – letters, diaries, poetry and books – were transformed into samvydav – self-published texts. Outside of prison, in order to own a typewriter in the USSR, the typewriter would need to be registered and approved by local authorities. Of course, in the Gulag, there were no typewriters. Therefore, texts were handwritten in tiny letters on small pieces of paper to be passed along from one reader to another. When a samvydav made it out of Ukraine and into the West, whether in paper format or on small pieces of film, two publishers were available to reprint the materials – Prolog, which published the journal Suchasnist, or the publishing house Smoloskyp, run out of Baltimore by the recently deceased and deeply dedicated Osyp Zinkewych.

Zinkewych’s network of contacts among the members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group was extensive. Some in the Ukrainian diaspora involved in human rights activism fondly referred to him as “Zink the Link.” In February 2016, in Kyiv, Smoloskyp published the book “Оборона Українських Політичних В’язнів” (Defense of Ukrainian Political Prisoners), a collection of excerpts from Zinkewych’s diaries from the 1960s and 1970s. Like the Isajiw book, this publication is another excellent resource on diaspora activities in defense of Ukrainian political prisoners.

In the late 1970s, Moroz was part of a U.S.-Soviet exchange – two Soviet spies for five political prisoners – Russian, Ukrainian and Jewish. In the early 1980s, the Soviet Union began to allow certain dissidents to emigrate West with the double goal of somewhat improving their international image while at the same time getting rid of trouble. Among the Ukrainian dissidents released through the 1980s were Mykola and Raisa Rudenko, Nina Strokata and Sviatoslav Karavansky, Nadia Svitlychna and Petro Grigorenko. Grigorenko established the External Representation of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group in 1980. That group became an integral link between diaspora organizations and dissidents in Ukraine. In turn, back in the Soviet Union, during this period four Ukrainian political prisoners would die as a result of the foul conditions of their confinement: Valeriy Marchenko (1983), Oleksa Tykhy (1984), Yuriy Lytvyn (1984) and Vasyl Stus (1985).

Ukrainians have often been acknowledged as having been the largest group of dissidents imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag. In the West, however, knowledge of the struggle of Ukrainian dissidents, along with the struggle of dissidents from the Baltic states and republics such as Georgia, was overshadowed by publicity about the Russian dissidents based in Moscow, who had direct access to foreign correspondents, and Jewish refuseniks, who staged protests outside foreign embassies. While almost every Ukrainian dissident would acknowledge warm, even deep, relationships with fellow dissidents regardless of nationality or religion, information presented in Western media at the time made little note of dissent in Ukraine. On the part of the Ukrainian diaspora, an enormous amount of effort on the local and national levels was put into publicizing the efforts of Ukrainian dissidents, usually with little success.

Among the negative aspects for the Ukrainian diaspora of support for Ukrainian dissidents was the absolutely relentless disinformation, lies and genuine threats of violence and harm perpetuated by the Kremlin – all of which drained hromada energy and resources.

In the United States, maybe one of the most, if not the most, important positive consequence of the activist network that evolved from the first Free Moroz committees was the strong relationships developed with elected representatives in Congress. These relationships of trust later led to a bill to establish the U.S. Commission on the Ukraine Famine in the 1980s.

Beginning in 1989, many now former Ukrainian dissidents began to travel to the West, on trips sponsored by Western governments and often with the help of the diaspora. Myron Waslylyk, a former director of the UNIS office in Washington, was working at the U.S. State Department in 1990 for Assistant Secretary for Human Rights Richard Schifter and recalls the meeting between his boss and Chornovil: “I remember feeling so proud that the messages Chornovil was delivering at the meetings were so much in sync not only conceptually but also in terminology with the U.S. human rights narrative at the time. These universal concepts had taken root in two very different societies.”

When they traveled to the West, Ukrainian dissidents, who were familiar with such documents as the U.S. Constitution and the Helsinki Accords, could comfortably relate to and discuss Western political concepts with political leaders. In many ways, they were Ukraine’s best representatives prior to independence. They sent a message to our leaders in the West that in Ukraine there were people who understood and admired the West, and were willing to be partners.

Another positive outcome of diaspora work with dissidents was when Rukh, the Popular Movement of Ukraine, was established in 1989. Ukrainians in the diaspora already had almost two decades of work with the dissident movement to develop skills, networks, contacts and gain experience. These attributes were then transferred to the establishment of Rukh support committees throughout North America. Support was also provided to the Ukrainian Republican Party, which had been founded in Kyiv in 1990 by former political prisoners such as Stepan Khmara, Lukianenko and Horyn.

As the 1980s ended, Moscow began to release political prisoners from the Gulag under a general amnesty announced by Gorbachev. One of those prisoners released in 1987 was the dentist and author Khmara. In November 1990, the same month during which he became a co-founder of the URP, he was again arrested on criminal charges of assault, attempts to seize state property and abuse of authority. These were charges that observers from Amnesty International, who had come to watch his trial, stated were obviously trumped up simply to stop and silence Khmara, a very outspoken opponent of the Communist Party.

His trial, which began in January 1991, was dragging into its eighth month when the coup began on August 19. When Ukraine declared independence on August 24, he was still in prison. Immediately afterwards he was released and given amnesty. Stepan Khmara, in fact, was the last and final Soviet Ukrainian political prisoner.

In 1991, at the invitation of former dissident and then member of Ukraine’s Parliament Mykhailo Horyn, Irene Jarosewich arrived in Kyiv to manage foreign media relations for Rukh – the Popular Movement of Ukraine. Her two-year tenure included the August 1991 coup, the declaration of Ukraine’s independence and the dissolution of the USSR. Afterwards, she remained in Ukraine for several years, serving as the director of public relations for the AT&T subsidiary UTEL. She is the former editor-in-chief of Svoboda (2000-2007) and a former editor of The Ukrainian Weekly (1996-2000). Since 2009, she has been accredited as an NGO representative with the U.N. Department of Public Information from the World Federation of Ukrainian Women’s Organizations. She extends deep thanks to colleague Orest Deychakiwsky for his insights on this topic and for identifying oversights in this presentation.

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