May 15, 2020

Zinoviy Antoniuk, Soviet political prisoner, Ukrainian voice of conscience, dies at 86


Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group

Zinoviy Antoniuk (1933-2020)

Zinoviy Antoniuk, former Soviet-era dissident, publicist and human rights defender, has died at the age of 86, after many years of illness.

He was not one of the most prominent of the former dissidents, but was a very original and deep thinker and would invariably speak in defense of the persecuted, including during the regime of Viktor Yanukovych.

Antoniuk was born on December 24, 1933, in Kholmshchyna, then part of Poland. His education, including a doctorate, was as a production engineer. His life changed dramatically in the early 1960s, as he met some of the first Ukrainian dissidents and became involved in the samvydav movement.

It was especially Ivan Svitlychny who was to have a huge influence on Antoniuk’s thinking. Svitlychny died in 1992; he had been very ill for almost 10 years after serving a 10-year sentence in the notorious Perm-36 political labor camp. In a text about both Svitlychny and what he meant for Antoniuk – titled “If Not Me, Then Who?” – Antoniuk wrote that, until 1962, he had been quite passive in his attitude toward life. He wanted changes, but assumed they would somehow just come. He did not understand that real inner development comes “through overcoming any ideologizing of consciousness, through development of your individual self.”

“I understood for the first time that real patriotism, not that which is for show alone, is always quiet, always serious and always civic, and not ethnic in a narrow sense,” he wrote,

“Ukraine has only with difficulty recognized the need to intertwine its struggle for liberation into a global context of universal principles of respect for human rights. Mentality and the habit of subordinating oneself to mythical higher national interests and, mainly, ignoring individuality got in the way. Even after decades in which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has been widely circulated in Ukraine, the understanding is not firmly entrenched of the self-sufficiency of the individual with unconditionally innate freedom, as well as the values of the freedom of the individual per se, of the individual who observes clear moral principles,” Antoniuk shared.

Svitlychny’s arrest during the first wave of arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals in 1965 had a devastating effect on Antoniuk, but did not silence him. He continued actively duplicating and circulating samvydav material, the very dangerous but only way of circulating truthful information and “dissident” views at a time of mass censorship, when the KGB stood guard at photocopying machines.

The continued samvydav activities were also a way of trying to help those arrested in 1965. As Antoniuk later explained: “The most important thing was samvydav. It was vital to convince the leadership that they had chosen the wrong people, that samvydav activity was continuing without those arrested.”

Antoniuk was arrested on January 13, 1972, during the second wave of repression against free-thinking Ukrainians.

His “trial” – supposedly open, although in fact closed to his friends – took place in the first half of August 1972. He was found guilty of so-called “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” (under Article 62 § 1 of the Ukrainian SSR’s Criminal Code) and sentenced to seven years in a harsh-regime labor camp, followed by a further three years in exile.

He was imprisoned for the entire sentence in Perm-35. He was in very ill health, and kept being placed in the prison hospital, only to be sent back to the normal barracks on the orders of the administration or KGB.

Despite his poor physical condition, Antoniuk played an active role in the struggle for political prisoner status, including hunger strikes. He was also one of the key figures in ensuring that information about the camp and its political prisoners was smuggled out. Antoniuk would write out in minuscule handwriting the majority of messages providing information about the situation in the camp and other material. Andrei Sakharov showed these notes, prepared by Antoniuk, to foreign correspondents who, unfortunately, published copies of them. This enabled the KGB to identify their author, and Antoniuk was sentenced to three years in the even worse conditions of the Vladimir Prison.

After serving that three-year term, he was sent back to Perm-35, where he was diagnosed as having tuberculosis. Although a medical commission recommended that he be sent to a specialized hospital in Leningrad, this never actually happened.

Antoniuk was one of the authors, together with Yuri Orlov, Valeriy Marchenko and two others, of a well-known Moscow Helsinki Group document on the position of prisoners in the Soviet Union.

Antoniuk returned to Kyiv from imprisonment followed by exile in December 1981. His persecution did not stop then. Although he found manual work (with all roads to anything better effectively closed to former political prisoners), he was imprisoned in 1982 again on trumped-up charges of “parasitism.”

In independent Ukraine, from 1992 to 1996, Antoniuk served as a member of the Kyiv City Council’s commission to reinstate the rights of “rehabilitated” victims of the Soviet regime. He was also on many other councils and boards, including the editorial board of the Kharkiv Human Rights Group’s bulletin Human Rights in Ukraine.

He was a man of very strong ethical principles, and somebody who would always add his voice in support of victims of any inhuman regime.

Zynoviy Antoniuk died in Kyiv during the early hours of April 28. He had consistently rejected any state honors and, for that reason, will not be buried in the special row of honor at Baikove Cemetery.

May his memory be eternal.