Vasyl Ovsiyenko, former Soviet dissident and Ukrainian human rights activist on the BBC

Vasyl Ovsiyenko, by profession a language and literature specialist, during Soviet times circulated samizdat material and was a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG). He is one of the compilers of a new collection of documents on the human rights movement in Ukraine: The Ukrainian Helsinki Group: On the 30th anniversary of its creation: history and documents, which was published this year.

BBC  In the thirty years since the creation of the Helsinki Group, a whole generation of people has grown up, and not all may know what unites the human rights movement with the capital of Finland. Could you please explain for the younger generation?

V. Ovsiyenko:  In the middle of the 1970s the ideological confrontation between the USSR and the countries of the West had reached such a point of tension that it was threatening to lead to a new World War which would definitely be nuclear and mean humanity’s suicide.

In connection with this, European countries, the USA and Canada agreed among themselves to hold a conference on security and cooperation in Helsinki.

The conference negotiations themselves lasted quite a long time, but the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe was signed on 1 August 1975. It was this that served as inspiration for the human rights movement, known as the Helsinki Group or Union.

BBC  One of the founders of the Group Levko Lukyanenko wrote that after the Conference in Helsinki leading intellectuals in Russia and Ukraine wanted, and I quote, “to throw a stone to test the water” and to try out the regime in the USSR, led by Leonid Brezhnev, who had signed the Final Act, to test their real commitment to democracy. We know that that ended in a number of arrests, imprisonments and deaths. Were those intellectuals really so naïve as to believe that they could out-trick the regime?

V. Ovsiyenko  It was a brilliant idea to place our interests in the context of the confrontation between the democratic West and the totalitarian East.

By signing all the documents, including the “third basket” on humanitarian issues, and observance of human rights in accordance with the UN Declaration from 1948, the USSR took on the relevant commitments.

Of course Brezhnev’s regime thought that it had conned the West before many times, and would again. However clever people, at first in Moscow, that was Yury Orlov, decided that a special group was needed that would monitor how the states which had signed the Accords kept or DIDN’T keep their commitments in the humanitarian sphere.

The first to emerge, on 12 May 1976, was the Moscow Helsinki Group. A member of that group was (former-)General Petro Grigorenko who had already suffered repression before that.

He communicated with Ukrainian intellectuals, in particular with the Kyiv writer and philosopher Mykola Rudenko about the sense of having a separate group in Ukraine in order to highlight human rights violations in Ukraine and against Ukrainians in other countries.

This group would be led by Mykola Rudenko since he was in Kyiv.

BBC  And that group in Ukraine was created quite quickly, in a matter of a few months only?

V. Ovsiyenko  : Oksana Yakivna Meshko, whose son Oles Serhiyenko was imprisoned, told me how in September 1976 Mykola Rudenko and his wife came to her and suggested creating the Group. Oksana Yakivna had doubts however Rudenko said that the Group would work in accordance with the Final Act of the Helsinki Accords which was now deemed part of domestic legislation, i.e. on an entirely lawful basis.

BBC  So there were at that time such illusions that the regime would not obstruct the activities of human rights activists?

V. Ovsiyenko  Mykola Rudenko did indeed have certain illusions, although Oksana Meshko even then said that they would all be persecuted and end up imprisoned. However she still agreed, since she simply understood “I can’t continue like this anyway, and I don’t want to!

That’s how they, together with Grigorenko and also founding member Oles Berdnyk, became the first members of the Group.

They went to Chernihiv, to see Levko Lukyanenko who had just finished a 15-year sentence and was not able to leave the place and lived under permanent surveillance. He also agreed to become a member of the Group.

The others who agreed were: Ivan Kandyba, Oleksa Tykhy, Nina Strokata-Karavanska, Mykola Matusevych and Myroslav Marynovych. They were the first ten courageous people.

BBC  But you personally began your human rights activities even earlier, is that not right? At the end of the 1960s, as a student, you were involved in circulating samizdat. Why did you take that road? Did you understand then, at the age of 18, that it was dangerous?

V. Ovsiyenko  Certainly I understand. I grew up in a peasant family that was not political as such, but that had hard historical experience.

My parents lived through several wars, survived famine and of course didn’t want their children to have such a hard life.

However after I came to Kyiv, I received access to samizdat. The diary of Vasyl Symonenko was circulated in typed form, and handwritten copies of his poetry.

I remember a photocopy of the article by Mykhailo Braichevsky “Re-union or union?”, and then an English language lecturer at the university Feodosiy Slyusarenko gave me a copy to read of the work by Ivan Dziuba “Internationalism or Russification?”, with a photo plate from which I myself made another 6 copies.

Later the lecturer of Logic Vasyl Lisovy trusted me and constantly gave me samizdat literature to circulate.

It’s now that there are no problems with duplicating and distributing material, thanks to photocopiers, but then it was a huge problem.

I did it with the help of an old camera at my sister’s place and effectively everything that was circulated in Kyiv at the time passed through my hands: “Ukrainsky visnyk” [“Ukrainian Herald”], which was developed by Viacheslav Chornovil, Mykhailo Osadchy’s “Bilmo” [“Cataract”], Yevhen Sverstyuk’s articles, etc.

BBC  Yet how did people of your circle recognize each other?  How did they dare trust each other, like your lecturers? It was very dangerous, after all.

V. Ovsiyenko  I had a very simple test. If a person behaved decently in small things, he or she could be trusted in more important things. People who didn’t behave decently I simply didn’t trust.

In five years of university I always had some form of samizdat material in my bag. So my friends know that the bag needed to be guarded if I went out at all.

If then material had been discovered that was in my bag there would have been big trouble. Obviously I would have been kicked out of university, but maybe also arrested.

BBC  Well, you were in fact arrested!

V. Ovsiyenko  Yes, but by then I had already finished university and worked for half a year in a school. That was when the university KGB person came to have a look at me.

I knew that there was such a person, Lyushchenko, who even had his own office and a whole network of informers.

So when they arrested me, he even specially came to have a look, saying how could it happen that we didn’t know about you?  And I answered: but I knew about you!

BBC  And how did you end up imprisoned in 1972?

V. Ovsiyenko  There was the second wave of arrests of 1972,  and then after that they took people like me. I was certainly no important figure like, say, Ivan Svitlychny, Viacheslav Chornovil, Ivan Dziuba or Vasyl Stus. I just circulated samizdat, but in those times of repression they were arresting people like me as well. And I was arrested, incidentally, exactly 20 years after the death of the terrible despot Stalin, on 5 March 1973 while going to school with a whole briefcase of students’ copybooks.

BBC  Had one of the people around you betrayed you?

V. Ovsiyenko  By that time Vasyl Lisovy and Yevhen Pronyuk had already been arrested, and the investigation had been going on for several months, during which somehow my name emerged.

However they didn’t arrest me immediately. They were spreading nets to try to catch as many people as possible, those I knew or who knew me.

At that stage there were widespread arrests of so-called dissidents, and by the end of 1972 and beginning of 1973 Kyiv was literally empty, there was nobody to talk to at all

Vasyl Stus depicted the situation brilliantly. He was brought to Kyiv in 1976 from the labour camp for talks in the KGB.  This is what he wrote:

“What an unbearable foreign land,

The burned out wasteland of paradise, a desecrated temple.

You returned, but the country will not return,

Stone darkness beyond a coffin…”

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