ISHCHENKO Olexander Ivanovych
author: Vasyl Ovsiyenko
Ovsienko V.V.: Olexander Ivanovych is telling his story on the 7th of April 2001, in the town of Marganets, not far from his own home in the wilderness.
Ishchenko O.I.: I was born on the 15th of May 1951 in Ordzhonikidze, Crimea. My life was normal – I studied, then recruited to the military forces. I did have questions of course. I was seeing what was going on around me, all the hypocrisy, the lies and the attitude towards the government – official and non-official. Yes, I was against many official actions of the government, especially when i was young - 7th and 8th grade. That was at the time when Russian language was set as main and Ukrainian as secondary. Those were the early 1960s. I can’t say that we kept quiet about it – we discussed a lot among friends and people we knew well. The system, however, was such that people lived in two worlds – a world where you could say the truth, without the government hearing you, and the opposite side, where you would be heard no matter what you say. And that one of the reasons why it looked like everyone liked and obeyed the government on their own will. If people were forced to attend a parade – they did. That was before the army.
Ovsienko V.V.: When did you serve in the army?
Ishchenko O.I.: I started in 1969 and returned in 1972. I served in Ural, it was freezing and windy... I was part of the Interior Ministry structure. They were recruiting people for convoy forces, and if the recruit was a decent one, they kept him to serve at the Ministry. If, however, they decided that the person wasn’t decent they sent him to places where they had to harass other people. Such a recruit had to be aggressive and devoted to something negative. Those who stayed, normally, guarded industrial zones. I was, of course, kept at the recruitment point because I was known to be good at something else. But when i returned from the army, I couldn’t get a job.
Ovsienko V.V.: What job have you been fired from?
Ishchenko O.I.: In Marganets. I wanted to find a job in Ordzhonikidze but tried Marganets instead. I didn’t finish school for this reason. I had a reason though. They were forcing me to study according their communist study plans, to learn their fake history. I was forced to graduate and then go all over again. It was all political agitation, not studying. So my protest embraced the idea that it was wrong to be getting false knowledge. At that time I already saw the soviet system from within and i raised my protest.
Ovsienko V.V.: How?
Ishchenko O.I.: I made public speeches in some cafe. I didn’t think that someone would pay attention to it so I simply stood against the soviet power.
Ovsienko V.V.: When was that?
Ishchenko O.I.: This was upon my return from the army. I stood against because I saw that the system was all corrupted.
Ovsienko V.V.: Of course it was.
Ishchenko O.I.: Someone reported on me but they didn’t touch me then. They might’ve thought that I had been drunk or something. I hadn’t been drunk however. After that situation I went to the North. They say people run away from themselves and from they see with their eyes around them.
Ovsienko V.V.: You simply went away to get a job? When was that?
Ishchenko O.I.: This happened around 1973-74. I travelled throughout the Soviet Union – that was my job. I saw that Ukraine was all alert with posters and agitation notifications hanging around and Russia was all quiet – I saw few posters. So I could conclude that Russia needed no agitation – it was the heart the soviet power – all the people in Russia obeyed this power. On the other hand, us Ukrainians had to be agitated on each step, officials had to keep printing posters like “Long live!”to keep the people in tune.
I travelled a lot you know, and saw many places. I must say though, I had been Russified in the army and then additionally while traveling, because there was nowhere to hear Ukrainian throughout Russia. I did meet fellow Ukrainians but those had been single meetings and whereas Russian language dominated. I returned home around 1975-76. I was young and I had to establish myself somehow. Every living creature has to leave something after itself – children, memory. All people tend to organize their lives, so i built a house and had children. My battle was a story yet to start. I held myself back for a long time, but my patience also came to an end. I stopped hiding, stood right up and went into the crowds because I was tried of holding back...
The thing was that my children were being Russified straight from kindergarten. They simply had no possibility to study Ukrainian. All my intentions to find them a spot in Ukrainian kindergartens had no results. I came to a conclusion that mass Russification was taking place. Tha was around 1982-83.
Ovsienko V.V.: Of what age were your children at the time?
Ishchenko O.I.: Iryna was born in 1980 and Maxim in 1983. By then i was a dignified man and I was enraged that my children had to face the same I faced during my childhood – I mean Russification. So i started talking. I never said that Ukrainians were better than Russians. At first my speeches were aimed at popularizing Ukrainian language and nation. I was talking openly, the press wrote down everything I said and the location I used to say it. That was during Gorbachov’s perestroika. Sherbitsky indulged the local authorities so my speeches acquired some rights.
In 1988, during the gathering of teachers I stood up and openly said that I do not wish to be a translator into Ukrainian for my children. I offered them to change something around this idea. And then, when I started knocking on every door I was told that I’m not important enough to be heard because I’m Ukrainian. I was told that I’m one of those people who should simply accept what they are given.
Ovsienko V.V.: Interesting. Who told you that? Can you name them and their positions?
Ishchenko O.I.: The meaning of those words was to be executing the will of the Party. I can name the First Secretary of the town administration – Berezovsky. The conversations were like this: “Do it. You received a document stating that you are in charge of establishing Ukrainian language, so do it.”
Ovsienko V.V.: That was when the Law on languages had been in power, yes?
Ishchenko O.I.: I don’t remember the laws, but i can say they didn’t want to do anything. I don’t judge Gorbachov, but you remember what a hustle it was when talks of democracy had started, don’t you? I also took part in the communist meetings on defending democracy. The press, again, wrote down everything about my location and the idea of my speech. And that’s how it was, I was battling and they were noting my actions down. And I didn’t tell you yet about the establishment of the Ukrainian language Association and the publishing of its Statute in the “Literature Ukraine”. Thus I started establishing the above mentioned Association.
Ovsienko V.V.: When did you succeed?
Ishchenko O.I.: It was fully established in 1989.
Ovsienko V.V.: The gathering took place in Kiev in the spring of 1989.
Ishchenko O.I.: That was the preliminary gathering. We had been establishing the Association with no leadership you know. We made plenty mistakes but I didn’t trust Party leaders to have governed us. We had thoughtful Ukrainians of our own by the way. Many people rose to our idea. I was agitating, saying that our children are being Russified just like theirs. No one knew however, what future was preparing for us. We were all prepared to stand our ground.
Ovsienko V.V.: Who was part of your Association? Teachers?
Ishchenko O.I.: Different people. The thing was that the Association was an open one, it wasn’t some ultra-right organization. It was a simple Association of Ukrainian language. But when I came to the town administration – some of those people are still alive and are inside other parties now – I talked to them and said: “Look, people want this, you received the documents on popularizing Ukrainian language, and that’s what we’re doing.”. I applies a small list of people for the establishment of the Association. The Party was the head to all of us, so in fact I simply followed their idea and that was the reason came to them. You were nothing without the care of the Party at that time. So anyway, I applied the list of the members. I don’t know what happened inside of the administration but all of the newborn members of the Association went through interrogation process. Why you would ask? Because in those days, if you were a nationalist, you were automatically a fascist... And fascists or nationalists, as some may have said, had to be shot down.
There was a meeting around that time, where they frazzled me out. I applied the list of members for the organization but during the meeting I saw my fellow colleagues avoid me, so I figured they had been interrogated. I couldn’t say for sure, but that was the feeling. That was the way officials dealt with similar situations – if they saw that the victim is not backing down and continues to make new friends, they looked for other ways to bring him down, for example through psychological pressure on his surrounding.
I was working at a mining plant at that time and one day there was an open communist meeting. So I heard the rubbish they were talking there and couldn’t bare it. I decided to make a speech even though it had never been my strong skill at that point. I didn’t say much, I just said: “What are you doing people? I stood up to defend Ukrainian language, nothing more, but you’re making it look like I’m fascist.”
Other spokespeople at that meeting were prepared better than me anyway so they simply kept on their anti-Ukrainian propaganda. You know, Party secretaries don’t talk themselves, they have people for this...
Ovsienko V.V.: Errand-boys.
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes, and they were saying different things aloud... And the people at that meeting – they knew me, we’d been acquainted. I must say, I understand Stus, I understand Hvilioviy who shot him self. I understand the harm that such hounding may cause to a person.
Ovsienko V.V.: When was this meeting?
Ishchenko O.I.: In autumn 1989. The word “fascist” which they used against me shocked me the most. They called me different names there, there had been around 500 people present. The Soviet officials started all these communist attacks towards a single person who simply wanted Ukrainian language for their children. Such attitude had a strong influence on me – I didn’t know what to do. Moreover, those who stood by my side backed away, as if they feared something. After that meeting I had to visit the hospital – all this farce and humiliation resulted in a heart problem for me. Once hospitalized, I was put onto a bed and they applied a dropper to me. I fell asleep but then woke up in the middle of the night, saw the empty dropper and you know... I felt like something was wrong.
Ovsienko V.V.: They gave you something hadn’t they?
Ishchenko O.I.: They might’ve, I don’t know. I even had a thought that they took my own blood away for blood transfusion or something. Later they sent me to the psychiatric department. I was shocked to be locked up with naturally insane people, although I was totally adequate. Those who haven’t ben there would not understand...
Ovsienko V.V.: I have. I spent 18 days locked up for conducting a psychiatric expertise. The government obliged all those who were not pro-soviet to go through such medical treatment.
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes. And it effected me. They didn’t hold me locked up for long, but the premises played a role too. I felt what it was like for people to battle against the regime and I felt it from inside the battle. It didn’t take long – they just locked people up for a day or two and those who had been released would never want to talk aloud again.
Ovsienko V.V.: That’s soviet psychiatric execution in motion.
Ishchenko O.I.: To be precise, I consider my self the last person to have been inside those walls during the anti-soviet confrontations. That was during the Perestroika, so things were already changing and the government couldn’t lock up people as easily.
Ovsienko V.V.: That was at the end of 1989, right?
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes. Some of those who can prove my words are still alive.
Ovsienko V.V.: So they held you there for a few days, and then what happened?
Ishchenko O.I.: Then they transferred me to a different department in the same hospital – a place for alcoholics and others like them. They started making injections which resulted in health impairment.
Ovsienko V.V.: I heard stories from people who had been held in these places for years. They told me how they felt.
Ishchenko O.I.: As far as I could understand they used psychoactive medication on me, I even wrote down the names somewhere. They “treated” me to a condition when I couldn’t neither walk nor talk. They kept on for a month or so but then my friends helped me out. I was then transferred once again into a neurological department, spent another month on prophylaxis and was set free. Even strong medication can’t make an adequate person inadequate just like that. All this happened quickly because the news on my situation had been spread worldwide through “Radio Svoboda”. The medication they used was very strong by the way. Upon my release I wanted to get back to work on the excavator, but physically couldn’t manage.
Ovsienko V.V.: True. It takes a while to overcome the aftereffect.
Ishchenko O.I.: So there I was – nit able to work, with a wife and children... And then suddenly I was asked to go through a medical check in Dnipropetrovsk, in a psychiatric hospital. I spent around a month there. It’s a totally different story, I’m not going to tell it. I had been visited by Zaremba, from the Ukrainian language Association. It was a private hospital, and a good one. The doctors there saw that I was perfectly normal and transferred me to the somatic department, next to neurologic.
While I was there, I had a visitor... He passed away now... The guy who served a sentence of 10 or 18 years... Died at the age of 50 and was a poet.
Ovsienko V.V.: Ivan Sokulskiy maybe?
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes, him. May he rest in peace.
Ovsienko V.V.: I served part of my sentence by his side in Kuchyno, in Ural.
Ishchenko O.I.: I kneel down before this man. He was like a brother to me. He visited me, brought apples and talked with me. I must say, the treatment I had in the hospital almost killed me. It was either to die right now, or die later, during the treatment.
Ovsienko V.V.: How much time did you spend there?
Ishchenko O.I.: A month as well. I was feeling like: “Wife, take me home or I’ll die here”. Not a very pleasant memory. In some time however, I was up and going again, and continued taking part in the movement. I didn’t want to lead anyone though – I became an ordinary member of the Ukrainian language Association. Around the same, a movement called “The National Ukrainian movement of perestroika” was in the process of its creation. I also took part. I had more than just will by that time – I had anger because they, factually tortured me to take away my strength. These actions resulted in me taking part in the first gathering of the National Ukrainian movement.
Ovsienko V.V.: That was on the 8th - 10th of September 1989.
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes. I was absent at the meeting of the Ukrainian language Association but I was present at the movement gathering – we had been inviting people from the Association into the movement right there at the meeting.
Ovsienko V.V.: I know, yes. I was present.
Ishchenko O.I.: I saw Kravchuk there, and I heard his speech too. I shared the same room with Sokolsky – we had long conversations, I still have his poetry with me.
And then I cam back home and the government started at me again. They had been spying on me, they said themselves: “We know where you were and what you were doing”. As far as I understood, they spied on everyone at that meeting. I wasn’t too big of a figure but they still “worked me through”. The trick was that I took a holiday on my own cost – I stated I was going on personal matters but factually I was in a totally different place. The government officials were quite hard on me. They spied on every person on that meeting and then interrogated each one. One had to understand that they could come after him any moment, or never. Quite scary that...
Ovsienko V.V.: Yeah, I remember it. I was at home too at the time.
Ishchenko O.I.: It’s easy to talk about it now but back then I was totally positive about the fact the KGB had been taking part. It was too late for me to step back whatsoever. The first time, in Marganets, on the 1st of May 1989 I, together with two friends, took part in a demonstration and carried yellow-blue flags beside the usual red communist flag. Marganets saw these flags for the first time because we carried them. My father saw me and later said that he had lost his breath when he saw me that day at the demonstration.
Ovsienko V.V.: That was one serious step, yes.
Ishchenko O.I.: I thought that we would be arrested as soon as we get to the end of the street but nothing happened. So I guess the perestroika process had already began by then. But that’s the first part of my story.
Ovsienko V.V.: What do you mean? You had suffered other repressions?
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes, but that was after Ukraine gained independence.
Ovsienko V.V.: What happened? But please be quick because we don’t have that much time left.
Ishchenko O.I.: Firstly, I was organizing independent trade unions at work and I had to battle every time for everyone not just myself. That was in 1993-95. Anyway, I had been fired having two underaged children. The trade union, of course, agreed with the decision to fire me. I’m quite sure that it had all been planned. It meant a lot to get fired then. I even protested a bit because I was used to battling in other people’s interests but my personal motives were also strong... I had told them I had children, I had told them that firing me was against the law – nothing worked, they just kicked me out. I worked there for 10 or 13 years and I was simply kicked out. The reason was that I was the organizer of independent trade unions. After some time I began working as a guardsman and I did trade union organizing there too. I organized these trade unions wherever I went and I keep doing it now. And the trick was that I had been repressed wherever I was organizing those trade unions. The most recent situation required the prosecutor’s assistance to calm the company director down.
Ovsienko V.V.: However you suffered no arrests or beatings, right?
Ishchenko O.I.: Correct. All the trade unions I organized – in Marganets, in Lviv, elsewhere – all of them still work, and I hope they will keep on working.
Ovsienko V.V.: Are you currently employed?
Ishchenko O.I.: Yes. I work at the “QuasarExcavation” as a guardsman.
Ovsienko V.V.: May I ask you for a favor? If you find any printed materials of yourself – please send me a copy.
Ishchenko O.I.: Ok. I even have the speech of the first secretary of the town administration – Berezovskiy, published in the “Agitator” magazine in 1989.
Ovsienko V.V.: Below the reader may find the ending of the interview by Oleksiy Krestianov on our way back from Marganets to Nikopol.
Krestianov O.: I met Alex Ishchenko in 1989. We tried organizing the Ukrainian language Association here in Marganets. I had been sent by mr. Volodydmyr Zaremba, who had been the head of the Ukrainian langauage Association in Dnipropetrovsk at the time. I was one of his deputies then and he had three. I was responsible for southern regions of the right-bank Dnipropetrovsk region. And then, at the gathering of the Ukrainian language Association, the first secretary of the regional administration (I don’t remember his name but I’ll give it to you once we come to my place), declined any possibility of such an Association. And what could’ve happened if we stood against? Execution, I guess. So the Association failed the voting – people voted against it. It was wrong from the very beginning to have gathered people, who were mainly neutral. They should have invited only those who liked the idea.
The authorities however, paid special attention to Ishchenko, because they saw that he was still planning organizing the Association and decided to lock him up in a psychiatric hospital to be on the safe side. The guy had been locked up with violent patients for a few days, then transferred to a calmer environment and treated with intensive medication.
In 1989, during the elections to Verkhovna Rada and local administrations, some candidates were part of the Movement and the Ukrainian language Association. During one of the meetings I offered to collect some money for Ishchenko as he suffered a lot for a righteous idea but couldn’t work normally after the psychiatric treatment, even though he had been released by then. We collected 434 rubles, I brought them to his wife and took a written note from her which I then gave to Zaremba. What I saw was awful – Alex hardly recognized me. He was walking around holding his head, bursting into scream from time to time. His wife told me he had strong headaches. Later, he told me personally that back then it felt like his skull was being teared out of his head. Basically he suffered these tortures to force pro-Ukrainian thoughts out of him.
He was made invalid and couldn’t get employed for a year after that treatment. Moreover, he couldn’t work, not just find it. I kept visiting him from time to time – it was my responsibility to keep an eye on him. He was totally invalid for work – that’s what the KGBs had done with him. I guess the KGB did it on purpose – they wanted him neutralized.
The Marganets Ukrainian language Association appeared after 1990 – later than in all other towns where the Association had been present, like Ordzhonikidze, Nikopol, Pavlograd, Dniprodzerzhinsk and Kriviy Rih. But Margantes had been neutralized and the Association appeared only after 1990. And that’s the story.
Ovsienko V.V.: That was Oleksiy Krestianov adding information about Olexander Ishchenko on our way from Marganets to Nikopol.