virtual museum
Dissident movement in Ukraine

Antonyuk, Zinoviy


At the outset I would like to mention that I never formalized my real relations with the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG). 

I found out about its creation, and about the formation of the Moscow Helsinki Group, while in Vladimir Prison  from a new arrival with the help of the usual prison “post” – the drains.  The information spread through the prison like wildfire, and was an incredible lift to the general mood.

I had been sent to the prison from the labour camp zone, together with others then, right at the point of the signing of the Helsinki Accords, as though ostentatiously acting against the all-European civilized dialogue which the Accords began. Despite the demonstrative nature of those prison sentences, we accepted them with dignity, and without losing heart. Yet it would be difficult to adequately describe our psychological state on hearing about the formation in Moscow, and almost immediately afterwards in Kyiv of civic groups for monitoring observance of the Helsinki Accords. After all there was no doubt that the KGB had assiduously worked against dissidents, and yet here you had such an unexpected upsurge of public activity with the creation of legal civic structures.

After the end of my prison term, in summer 1978, I returned to zone No. 35 [of the Perm political labour camps] where I met Mykola Matusevych, one of the participants in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group from among those mentioned back in1977 through the drainage “post” in Vladimir Prison. Other members of the UHG were spread around other zones for political prisoners.  Soon afterwards Yury Orlov, Head of the Moscow Helsinki Group (MHG), arrived in zone No. 35.

We found a common language very easily, as though we’d been friends for years, if it’s possible to talk of such a personal link despite the difference in age. There was a general awareness that we would not be kept together for long and that it would therefore be a sin not to use this wonderful opportunity of the UHG and MHG being together. Both the idea and the structure for a joint document on the situation of prisoners in the USSR, intended to be issued from both Helsinki Groups, cane from Yury Orlov, as did the form-determining general article and all the delicate editorial work over other parts of the document. It was reasonably easy to raise enthusiasm for confirming ones part in the joint document. Each section which was devoted to a specific problem was loosely called a “train carriage”, with the appropriate additions – “labour”, “medical”, “camp regime” and so on.

Our presentiments about not being held together for long proved correct literally within a month. Orlov was indeed transferred suddenly from No. 35 to a neighbouring zone. However all the “carriages” had already been established which I succeeded in calling out to Yury when I ended up by chance for a second near the car taking him away.

The final version of this joint Document was made already without him, and in several copies, in case they were lost. The copies were even created by different people and the “scribe” did not always know the nature and structure of the whole document.  I had cause to become convinced that such contingency measures had not been for nothing in 1984 when I was interrogated as witness in the trial of Valery Marchenko, author of the section “on medicine”.

I am prompted to write today about that occasion of solidarity between the MHG and UHG which remains very special to me by present events in Russia.  I quite consciously want with this case from the past to draw the attention of new human rights defenders from the entire Ukrainian civic community to the fact that the old call “For our freedom and yours” should never lose their value since we are speaking of one and the same FREEDOM. Not about the “unity of the pack” for the sake of some new utopia in some Eurasian state, but about unity in the freedom of each person and through each person’s freedom.


As for a specific answer to the first question about what young people should know about the Ukrainian Helsinki Group and / or the dissident movement, here I would confine myself to a general point.

I always believed and still do that each person if they don’t unthinkingly merge in ecstasy with the mindless mob, but strive to remain individuals, are moved and should be moved by purely moral factors: a sense of human dignity, the longing and search for truth, justice, solidarity, usual human mutual assistance and the innate human gratitude for goodness. 

Young people should know all that they seek to know. And this applies not only to the Helsinki, or more widely, dissident movement, for this is vital for every young man or woman for their own natural civilized self-identification as citizens and as individuals. Free individuals. And here any specific wishes regarding topics or aspects of the past are redundant, or even inappropriate. I see the duty of our generation lying only in facilitating the access and search for information needed for such self-identification.


How would you explain the term “dissident movement” to young people? Did you consider yourself a dissident?

The word “inakodumets” [“somebody who thinks differently”] is difficult to translate into English. Is this a purely linguistic issue, or is such a concept inappropriate in a pluralistic society?


It was the desire to know that moved me from when I was young. The word “dissident” was not then even used, nor, of course, the rather inadequate Ukrainian artificial equivalent ““inakodumets”.  If one takes into consideration the Russian term “antisovyetchik” [“anti-Soviet person”], then a much closer equivalent to the western “dissident” would be our “heretic, apostate”. It is these words that represent in language the specific features of the relation between individual and group aspects of the human consciousness under the strict control of the group aspects as normative, say in some kind of closed theocratic structure, for example, a monastery.  And since the word “heretic” is seen these days as too “archaic” with regard to an “officially state-atheist society”, then I would be against any specific attempts to make the words “dissident”, and especially, “inakodumets” Ukrainian.  For here one is dealing with various approaches of several people involved in some kind of narrow, purely technical or technological problem – with their various, innately individual differences, “other thinking” in the course of gaining an understanding of the issue. What is involved is the relationship between the individual and the public at the level of worldview. Of course the dominance of pluralism in society removes the issue of dissidence, however it does not encroach in any way on “other thinking”, in fact, quite the contrary, it positively encourages it.

The fact that the Soviet regime was a kind of secular implementation of the theocratic dictatorial socialist model of the Marx-Engel-Lenin-Stalin state gives the appropriate grounds for using the word “dissident” about those who took part in a certain protest movement in such a state.

There was a resistance movement to this regime from the very outset, yet the word “dissident” is not used in relation to those first decades of its existence, since the movement had naturally not grown out of the dominant communist mentality but carried the inevitable traces of various “remnants of Orthodox believers”, i.e. “remnants of the old regime”, the “remains of capitalism”. Even with regard to members of various deviations within the Party milieu, the word “dissident” as a rule was not used, although here there would essentially be grounds in viewing dissidence not as an internal Party, but as a public phenomenon.

It was necessary that the communist worldview first became truly dominant, and this really took place only in the first post-War decades on the psychological wave of the victory over fascism.  This does not mean that real “single thinking” emerged, just that there was a certain legalization of the regime at the level of real public consciousness and other ways of thinking were marginalized.

I saw this even in Lviv, studying at the Polytechnic in the 1950s. That incidentally, is very aptly reflected in the Lviv aphorism well-known at that time which states: “the second Soviets have come for a long time, but nothing can be done about it[1].  Of course the psychological non-acceptance of the “Soviets” continued even after the final crushing of the armed underground and the Halychan consciousness continued to produce different groups on the model of the “underground”, and court trials did not cease. However it was impossible not to notice some kind of process of moving closer to communism among a certain percentage of the population. Even more so since the former non-acceptance of the “Soviets” had focused not on communism, but on their imperialism. And the memory of the former almost total Soviet support and attitude of extreme non-acceptance of the Polish occupation could not be totally erased.

A certain kind of indulgence towards left-wing views, towards communism, was in general typical for the Ukrainian movement of resistance to the Soviet regime, however for some reason present-day communist are extraordinarily adamant in denying this. Although the communist created well-known armed unit for defending their power, the KGB, has long known this and even used it in their efforts to render the resistance movement ineffectual. The top Party leaders of that time also knew it, as is evident from declassified Party archives. Do our present communists and most of those now active in left-wing politics in general really not understand that such a primitive position in assessing the former resistance movement in Ukraine as merely anti-communist is the most convincing evidence that they are today enacting the role of mindless anti-Ukrainian agents?  It is not surprising either that the essence of today’s left-wing is well gauged by the Ukrainian voter.

Despite the undeniable opposition in Halychyna to the Soviet regime, given the above-mentioned “self-alignment of the Halychans with the Soviets”, I consider that the dissident movement could not have arisen there, that it could have started anywhere in Ukraine, only not there. However it would have been unlikely to find the absolutely vital merging of human rights ideas with the national liberation movement anywhere else but in Kyiv.

I fully understood the difference between the public atmosphere in Lviv and Kyiv only when I moved permanently to the latter.

Although some in Kyiv called me a dissident before my arrest, I never used this term about myself, and most often said that I simply circulated samizdat literature and in that way dropped a stone in the social stagnation of the bog in keeping at least with such calls from the poet Vasyl Symonenko : “Be reborn, stone souls. Open your hearts and minds, so that future generations will not say of you – they were not here on this earth”, and “Do you know that you are a person?  Do you know it or not?”

Quite honestly, I find it amazing when merely the change of ones surname nowadays is presented as belonging to the dissident movement. Of course dissidents are not only those who at some point in their life ended up behind bars. Of those there were only a few hundred. There were a thousand times more of those who went through “preventive education” in the KGB, as the declassified material of the latter shows. Even if one considers the likelihood of ending up under the vigilant eye of the KGB and having such “prophylactic” treatment was around 50 – 50, even that ratio in itself was incredibly high, then the number of those who missed the KGB “prophylactic” technology will be at least one hundred times as many. Since this concerns almost exclusively people with a higher education, that does truly seem a great force, albeit that it took place within a regime of Brownian motion, i.e. without any elementary organizational or ideological structure.

This did not, on the other hand, come to more than 5% of the number of “managing and directing the force of Soviet society” Communist Party.  This demonstrates that our situation was infinitely removed from that in Poland where half of their united workers’ party joined “Solidarity”, or than in Czechoslovakia where the communist party needed to be re-created almost from scratch.

In fact, the problem was not at all in the number of dissidents.  I very much like the young boy from Andersen’s tale who says out loud what everybody else has seen, but is remaining silent about – that the “Emperor has no clothes”. And we shouldn’t be afraid of saying what we think. Spoken aloud it becomes life’s verdict,: the Leader, President or simply some boss or other can burble something to justify themselves, however for everybody after such a verdict spoken aloud he or she becomes hopelessly absurd, simply pathetic.

I would not want our dissident movement to be viewed in a cursory, superficial manner, “looking for or creating idols”. Let us leave that to honest historians. And we who are not historians should be concerned only with retaining the moral purity of that impulse in the public consciousness. It is for that reason that for all of us of never fading significance must be such a seemingly hopeless action as that by a handful of Muscovites on Red Square against the crushing of the Prague Spring. What was involved was freedom, their freedom and ours. Grateful memory for such pure impulses of conscience is always able to balance out any most cruel and seemingly unlimited state power.

3. I know about the call to the authorities to “obey their own laws”, but do not believe that it can be interpreted as merely a ploy, although some of those taking part may have seen it in that light.  The point is not whether a person believed that there was a chance of such observance, or didn’t believe: it was a logically perfectly argued position for every person who wished to deceive themselves on that road, but something stopped them since they lacked arguments. I also, and not only in conversations with the KGB, cited the law, or, more precisely, the right to justice.  Generally I cited the right to defend human honour and dignity, the right to truthful and non-contradictory information. And the discrepancies in information could be found at every step, just one such discrepancy in the assessment for example of Bohdan Khmelnytsky by Soviet pre-War and post-War encyclopaedias, where one called him an enemy of the Ukrainian people, who drowned the national movement in Ukraine in blood, while the other – an outstanding state figure and military leader.  Just this was sufficient to make one take everything that the regime used to drown out consciousness very critically. And that’s not to mention the contradictions in the “sacred” texts of Lenin depending on their year of publication.

Well argued samizdat texts undoubtedly envisaged theoretically dialogue with the regime. One often heard from various samizdat readers as their reflections on what they had read: what about the regime?  Is it really blocking its ears and remaining silent?

However any kind of dialogue with the regime could be hoped for in the first instance, of course, with regard to UHG documents since that was a legal civic structure and not “Brownian motion” because the international climate was already different.  However the “Soviet” and “universal” regime proved by its nature to be incapable of any kind of dialogue.  That was brilliantly recorded in the well-known aphorism on the subject which is attributed to member of the Politburo, Marshal Grechko: “Why should we let some mice scurry around under our feet?”

I believe that today also in post-totalitarian Ukraine, the situation with the Law, with legal awareness and a legal culture of the regime have not undergone any major changes, although such changes have already affected the public themselves, as Maidan bears testimony to.  This was largely thanks to the efforts of human rights organizations, to a lesser extent as a result of the change pf status of Ukraine from a quasi-state to a seemingly state status. In the public awareness the priority of the state over society and the individual has not been overcome and this remains a fundamental problem.


What, if any, events and / or views prompted you to oppose the Soviet regime?

It would be difficult to answer this question briefly since there were a whole range of events, some of them the apparent trivial events that life is made up of. The main moving force was a mounting sense of psychological and moral discomfort from the divide between real life in Ukraine and the inner ideal dynamic model of my Ukraine which had been imprinted in me back in Poland. I saw how much effort it cost not just one Jewish people to leave for Poland from Ukraine seemingly common for all of us. “Is it really so hopeless in Ukraine?”, came to mind. They were searching for their “Polish roots” so as to move there, while I by birth was a citizen of Poland, and even felt an obligation to act so that Ukraine was not so fettered by lack of freedom, so full of hypocrisy and injustice, did not seem so hopeless in comparison to Poland.  Nowadays I clearly recognize this “Polish imprinting”, yet then it was active somewhere in my subconscious and without accenting. I remember how, not long before my arrest, when we were walking to report in the State Department of Planning, I animatedly explained to my boss, a Russian from the Moscow region, about how the latest events were going in Poland. I remember the terrified expression on his face, how he asked me to talk more quietly, how he kept looking around to see if anyone was listening in to our conversation. To give one thing that stands out, then maybe it would be Poland itself, the memory of Poland constantly spurred me onto the path of opposition to the Soviet  way of life, the Soviet attitude to life.

5.  The main support in my life was “my motherland within me”.  Of course I gratefully hold in my memory the much valued support of various people whom I came upon on my path. There were occasions when, not sharing my position, they were able to significantly lessen the “blow” awaiting me as an “enemy”  This was te reality of our life, and it is in this way, without distortion, that we should present it to new generations, since it is not party, religious or ethnic affiliations which really determine relations between people at the personal level, but only their moral face.

I personally never particularly counted on any support from foreign campaigns in solidarity, although I would acknowledge their benefit for the movement as a whole, since in the struggle for freedom the significance of solidarity cannot be overestimated. We must not forget to emphasize this.

6  “Be not afraid!”  Christ told his followers. “Be not afraid” Pope John Paul II repeated to Solidarity.  We too: “We are not afraid of any regime, but fear lack of freedom, the return to not being free, we fear the loss of human dignity!” It is specifically about this polarity that knowledge is needed. It was needed then, it is needed today and will always be needed.

7.  In my time I’ve met very many of them. Some I felt pity for, some contempt, even revulsion. However I would not want to settle any kind of personal accounts with any of them. Nor would I wish to be their judge and establish the reasons or motives for their collaboration with the state punitive bodies. However I would also not wish to again end up with any of them in one cell, sharing prison “rations” and only through hunger strikes and the punishment cell finding release from the oppressive burden of such forced co-existence. For, in truth, it would be incredibly difficult to reconcile their cynicism and the natural sense of prisoner solidarity. Nonetheless I catch myself on the thought that I was always less tolerant of demonstrations of such cynicism from Ukrainians, than from others. Although, perhaps, that simply reflected an ordinary, unlinked with nationality issues and purely psychological incompatibility in a confined space… For clarify that  conclusion I would need additional experiments.

8.  I did not have specific “aims” then, trying only to hold to certain value bearings in my actions.

My understanding of freedom has virtually not changed since it is in the first instance an inner category. It was and always will be.

9.  I don’t regard myself as competent to give advice to the “new” human rights activists. Except perhaps that it would be wise for them to always heed the voice of their own conscience.


And finally my answer to the second of the first two questions (Did you feel you had a choice?)

In fact, there is always a choice, since our whole life is made up of constant choice between different alternatives. The question is simply what such alternatives are from the point of view of morals and values.

In autumn 2004 the alternatives were “freedom” and “lack of freedom”. And the individuals with whom we linked these alternatives were purely secondary, and not definitive.

Furthermore, in the very process of choosing between alternatives, there was, incidentally, another choice.- to succumb to the temptation of a forced cleaning out of the “regime and nomenklatura stables”, or to rely on the good will, commonsense and decency of representatives of the future regime, their real readiness –  which they assured us of throughout their unprecedented vigil on Maidan – to carry out a self-cleanup of the regime in accordance with the spirit of Maidan. At the time there were a fair number of supporters at the purely verbal level for the forced variant of cleaning up the regime, yet Maidan as an extraordinary integrated whole chose moral expectations of the naturalness of a self-run cleanup of the regime.

However the “Maidan oaths” of the candidates for power very soon proved to have been disingenuous scheming. The latter began with a readjusting of the essence of the very “Maidan vigil” with it looking as though we had been with them, rather than they with us. It turned out even that it was the highest worthy figure who had allowed others to stand up for him… That was the “starting point” of terrible, shameful lying by the worthies in power!

And we didn’t need to await the statements from those in power about it being unnecessary to carry out lustration of the liars and criminals in the echelons of power, we didn’t need to wait for the artificially created petrol and meat and sugar crises, we didn’t need to wait for the corruption scandal and dismissal of the “best government”, and the fateful Yanukovych – Yushchenko Memorandum, in order to understand that the new team in power was made up largely of the same liars as the former regime.

No, it wasn’t necessary to wait so as to grasp that. However we so wanted, so hoped for an end to the era of lying! And the “hangover realization” that the new regime had cynically conned Ukrainian citizens as far as the major part of their “Maidan expectations” were concerned, the realization that the moral essence of the “Maidan community” was in fact absolute alien for the new regime, could not fail to arouse a new wave of public frustration.

One can understand the depth of human disillusionment over such lying re-interpretation by the new (or in their moral nature, old) people in power of the real essence of Maidan, claiming that it was not Ukrainian citizens on Maidan who denied the moral right of the old regime to continue their medieval polic and supported the promises of the new regime to carry out modern, civilized, pro-European policy, but as it were, the new regime had allowed citizens to stand behind them and around them on Maidan, quite in keeping with the former Soviet model of “permitted unity of the Party and the people”.  What disillusionment can be heard from many despairing utterances like “Did I really freeze for so long on Maidan, protesting AGAINST LIES in the Kuchma era in order to hear lies again, only in a slightly changed lexical form?  Why is the new regime still ignoring the real choice of citizens, still distorting its results, regarding its citizens as cattle despite all their assurances of their commitment to the values of Maidan?”

These questions regarding the regime are in fact directed not at a lying regime, but at each one of us who was on Maidan and is after it against lies.

And yet citizens of Ukraine have not lost their born and legitimate right to an informed, responsible choice!  And they will not lose it, if they do not lose their human dignity. So, the next responsible choice now awaits us. Let us be clear in our minds that we need to radically change the people in power, through renewal with adherence to a purely value-based approach: the least moral rot of a candidate for power should give them no chance of getting in.  That will be the implementation of our European and civilized choice.

And we are worth it!



[1]  There is a play of words in the Ukrainian [translator’s note]

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