RUDENKO (KAPLUN), Rayisa Opanasivna
(b. 20.11.1939, village of Petrivka, Synelnikivsk district, Dnipropetrovsk region)
Permanent Secretary of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG), former political prisoner
She was born into a peasant family. Her grandfather on her father’s side, Volodymyr Kaplun (from the village of Rohizna in the Vinnytsya region) had been a victim of the campaign against “kulaks” (more affluent peasants). Her maternal grandfather, Makar Ocheretny (village of Lavrivka, Vinnytsa region) also suffered during this campaign, being dispossessed and exiled with his family to the Urals. Ten years later, Rayisa’s grandparents – Makar and his wife Paraska - were to return to Lavrivka. Her parents had returned at the beginning of the war. Rayisa’s father was killed in the War. He left three children – Rayisa, her elder brother Ivan and younger sister Hanna.
During her first three years at school, Rayisa was top in the class. However she had an accident, falling from the attic, and was in a coma for a long time, after which she didn’t recognize anybody. She needed eventually to get to know her family and learn to read and write. She was not a top student now, but she loved literature very much and attempted to write herself. After finishing school in 1957, she went to Kyiv to visit her ailing uncle and ended up staying there. She saw there for the first time how KGB officers drove away students paying tribute at the Monument to Taras Shevchenko on 22 May, the anniversary of the poet’s reburial in Ukraine. She both worked, and in the evenings studied on a training course for nurses, then for secretaries and typists. She worked as a typist, then as the head of the staffing section of the sanatorium “Koncha-Zaspa” near Kyiv. She was married briefly in 1964, but the marriage collapsed within a year. In 1968 she entered the external department of the Kyiv Institute of Culture. In summer 1969, she met the writer M. RUDENKO, whose texts she re-typed, and in 1971 they married.
Their life in Koncha-Zaspa was difficult, but interesting. Rayisa found herself in a milieu of writers, artists and actors, and listened to foreign radio stations. She re-typed in many copies the works of M. RUDENKO, and helped edit them. She soon understood the extent of the ban on his works and that there could be no question of earning any money through literary activity. In order to earn a living, while also having time for his literary and human rights work, her husband was forced to take a job as a guard. Rayisa also had no hope of being able to graduate from her institute, so her husband advised her to leave formal studies and concentrate on self-education. She was soon forced to also give up her job as head of the staffing section, this being incompatible with dissident activities. She found work as a laboratory assistant in a boiler house. However even here she was watched since she and her husband were also actively associating with such well-known Moscow dissidents as General P. GRIGORENKO, the physicist and academician Andrei Sakharov, Alexander Ginsburg, M. Landa, V. Turchin, V. Nekipelov, T. Khodorovych, A. Tverdokhlyebov. They also met Oksana MESHKO, and through her, Levko LUKYANENKO and other outstanding figures of the Ukrainian liberation movement.
On 9 November 1976 M. RUDENKO, P. GRIGORENKO, O. MESHKO and O. BERDNYK announced the formation of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG). All preparatory documents, the first Memorandum, the Credo of unity, the lists of Ukrainian patriots who had been repressed, and other documents, were all typed by Rayisa Rudenko up till her husband’s arrest. Her name was not listed among the founding members of the UHG. M. RUDENKO believed that this would help the “permanent secretary” of the UHG ward off arrest. It was necessary that somebody should remain at liberty in order to pass on information and to help those imprisoned.
Searches began on their flat in Koncha-Zaspa (there were 11 such searches in all). M. RUDENKO was first arrested on 18 April 1976, then for the second time on 5 February 1977. Rayisa visited her husband first in Donetsk where the investigation and trial took place, then in the Mordovian political labour camps ZhKh-385/19 and 385/3. During these visits she was able to smuggle out his poems and information about events in the camps. All of this she deciphered, re-typed, hid and with the help of A. Sakharov and Y. Bonner managed to have passed to the West.
From this time, Rayisa Rudenko’s life underwent radical change. There was no help from any quarter. Her small salary was not enough even for transport. The writers living in Koncha-Zaspa were afraid to even say hello to her. Only Vasyl Mynko once asked about her husband and quietly thrust 50 roubles in her hand. This was more than her monthly salary.
Former friends also did not dare have any dealings with her. And in fact she herself avoided such meetings so as not to get their families into trouble. She had contact only with the wives and relatives of political prisoners and with dissidents who were still at liberty. These were Valentyna and O. BERDNYK, Y. BADZIO, S. KYRYCHENKO, V. LISOVA, Lyudmila Lytovchenko, Halyna Didkivska (Pronyuk), Dzvinka Serhiyenko and Lyuba Murzhenko. Officers of the KGB, in particular, Ivan Kotovenko, tried to persuade Rayisa to condemn her husband’s “anti-Soviet” activities in the press, and to renounce him. She was threatened with arrest, however she continued to stand firm. More than that, on 9 May 1978 she held a demonstration outside the Lenin Library in Moscow with a banner “Free my husband, the War invalid, M. Rudenko!” She also wrote letters in his defence: on 7 March 1979 to the Prosecutor General of the USSR, and on 25 December 1980 to Leonid Brezhnev.
Rayisa Rudenko was arrested on 15 April 1981 and on 20 August was sentenced by the Kyiv Regional Court under Article 62 § 1 of the Criminal Code of the UkrSSR (“anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”) to 5 years harsh regime labour camp and 5 years exile. She was charged with distributing samizdat and passing abroad letters from her husband and his friends which she had smuggled out of the camps in Mordovia. In September 1981 she was taken to the women’s unit of the camp ZhKh-385/3, where on the other side of the fence her husband was being held. The next day, to avoid any communication between them and in order to deny them their right to meetings, her husband was moved to the Perm political labour camps. Rayisa Rudenko was held in the same camp zone as O. POPOVYCH, T. Velikanova, Tatyana Osipova, I. RATUSHINSKAYA, O. HEIKO, Halyna Barats, Lagle PAREK, Lidya Doronina and others. She suffered from problems with her kidneys, so she had to be very careful in her behaviour – the punishment cells would have killed her. Nonetheless in 1963 she took part in a hunger strike called in protest against the condition of prisoners deprived of their rights. In spring 1984 she was taken to the detention centre of the KGB in Kyiv where they tried to get her to “repent”, which she emphatically refused to do.
She was scheduled to serve her term of exile in the Krasnoyarsk area, however after the insistent demands of her husband who appealed to the head of the KGB. Chebrikov, in April 1986, Rayisa was taken to the village of Maima in the Altai Mountains Autonomous Region where M. RUDENKO was already living in exile.
It was only in October 1987 that the Rudenkos found out that the decree on their release had been signed back in May. They left for Moscow since they were not allowed to return to Ukraine. In fact they would have had nowhere to return to as their flat had been confiscated after Rayisa’s arrest. In December they left for Munich, and in April 1988 moved to New York. M. RUDENKO worked for Radio “Svoboda” [Radio “Liberty”] while Rayisa became a member of the editorial board of the newspaper “Svoboda” [“Liberty”].
At that time it seemed as though the USSR would survive a long time and that they would never be able to return to Ukraine. However, in 1990 M. RUDENKO was rehabilitated and his Soviet citizenship reinstated, and in September of that year he was able to return to Ukraine. Rayisa was to come only in September 1991 after the USSR had collapsed, and thus lost her right to Ukrainian citizenship as she had not lived permanently in Ukraine over the last years. After 4 years of dead-end struggles to resolve the situation, Rayisa was forced to take on US citizenship. In summer 1998 she retired. She had enormous difficulty getting permission to live with her husband in Kyiv.
Mykola Rudenko. Naibilshe dyvo – zhyttya. Spohady [The greatest miracle is life itself. Memoirs].— Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies. — Kyiv.— Edmonton — Toronto: Takson, 1998, pp. 343-528.
The Ukrainian Helsinki Group. 1978-1982. Documents and Material.— Toronto - Baltimore: Smoloskyp, 1983, pp. 607-610, 618-621.
Ukrainian Helsinki Group. On the twentieth anniversary of its creation. — Kyiv.: URP, 1996. – p. 22
Put together on 4 December 1998 by V. Ovsiyenko, based on a text and interview with Rayisa Rudenko