I am delighted to provide my answers to your questions regarding my part in the struggle against the Bolshevik regime
1. What would you like people to know about the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and more generally about the dissident movement?
They should know what the Helsinki process was, why the UHG was created and who the founders were, and what happened to them. It’s important that they understand that it was after 1975, i.e. after the signing by the USSR of the Helsinki Accords, that the active disintegration of the Soviet empire began, and that it was specifically that process which led Ukraine and other subjugated nations to Independence and statehood. It was for this reason that the role of the UHG and the dissident movement as a whole in opposing the communist-Bolshevik regime was decisive.
2. One often hears people who were on Maidan in November – December 2004 say that they simply had no choice. For you in those earlier years, was there a choice?
For me personally between 1960 and 1980 the choice was between collaboration, slavish submission and silence or real active opposition to the totalitarian regime in Ukraine. I chose the third option, fighting from freedom, albeit with words and not with a gun. And that was the only right choice, as life proved. As for the Maidan path, I consider it to be flawed and harmful for Ukrainian independence.
3. Did you consider yourself to be a dissident?
No, I didn’t although I sometimes used the term. I always saw myself as a fighter, inheriting the goal of gaining statehood for my people.
4. 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?
The term is indeed inappropriate in a pluralistic society.
5. The demands made by dissidents “Obey your own laws”, “Give us freedom of speech” and others can indeed be explained as a ploy since we all understand that the regime would not do this. However it was necessary to draw the attention of our society to those issues, so to speak to reveal them to our people and to focus the attention of the world community on the real situation in the USSR. That means it was important to show the real face of the Bolshevik regime both to our people and to the world, and to prepare them for the total liquidation of the “empire of evil”. This regards the question of whether the members of the UHG hoped for some kind of dialogue with the regime. What kind of dialogue and who with? Of course they didn’t. In today’s Ukraine the demand to respect the law as the foundation for protecting human rights is no less important than in the USSR.
6. Events that spurred me to take the path of opposition to the Soviet regime.
I developed as a citizen in the period of Khrushchev’s democratization, i.e. on anti-Stalinism. The beginning of the process to have Stalin “rehabilitated”, as well as the beggarly existence of the working people, especially rural people, forced me to think about what was happening around me and in society as a whole. I consciously chose the path of fighting evil.
7. You opposed a powerful and repressive regime. One finds all too often in life that people let us down even when little is effectively at stake. In those days it was even dangerous to help a person out of favour with the regime. How much support did you have? Was it of importance to you (in fact did you know) that there were campaigns in other countries in defence of political prisoners?
Yes, I was against an extremely powerful and particularly repressive regime, and I was very well aware of that. I didn’t count on any help from friends and people close to me since even expressions of sympathy could cost them dear. All the same there were some people who tried to help me, at least in material terms, two or three people. The majority of my friends and people who’d been close testified falsely against me and helped the KGB crucify me. Nowadays they’re the most worthy “nationalists”, have put on orange jackets and make noise like crazy. They even say they “froze” on Maidan. Incidentally the present regime valued the feat of these “patriots”, awarded them honours.
Regarding support for us, political prisoners, from people in other countries, this was for us a very big thing. It raised our spirit, gave us hope, strength and energy to continue the struggle. For a long time we only heard about support from the world community from our relatives who came to visit us, and from meagre newspaper articles. But then in the second half of the 1970s we began receiving letters of support from different countries.
8. For young people in Ukraine and people in the West it’s hard to understand the fear that reigned in society, what it could cost a person to put his or her signature to an appeal or even simply to write to political prisoners. Is such knowledge needed? Is there any chance that such knowledge could at least a little act as some kind of “vaccination” to prevent the loss of freedom? What in your view creates and strengthens immunity both of the individual, and of society as a whole?
Young Ukrainians and people in other countries definitely need to now the fear that was rampant in Soviet society, the price paid for signing appeals or simply corresponding with political prisoners. Everybody needs to know this. And this knowledge, as you put it, can provide a “vaccination” against the return to a lack of freedom, to slavery. It is only the sacred truth, proper appreciation of what a person made of his or her life that strengthens the immunity both of the individual, and of society as a whole.
9. To people who collaborated with the punitive bodies I have a negative attitude, however I would divide them into two categories. The first are those who quite consciously collaborated and did a lot of harm both to an individual person and to society in general. The second were “trembling animals”, as Dostoevsky wrote. The Bolshevik regime existed for 73 years as a result of both those categories. If there hadn’t been that regime, maybe the second category would also not have existed.
10. My understanding of freedom has not changed. And the objective which I set myself has been achieved – a Ukrainian Independent State (which I had the fortune to proclaim) has existed now for 15 years. Now the most important task is to be able to hold on to Independence and Unity [Sobornist].
11 What advice would you give a “new” generation defending human rights?
- First and foremost society needs to be informed about the existence in Ukraine of a human rights movement;
- The leaders of the movement should meet with the public;
- Involve active, highly intelligent and patriotic young people in your work;
- Inform the mass media about human rights activities;
- Publish a history of the human rights movement in Ukraine, now while there are participants alive still, and do not confine yourself to just a few names;
- Do not let society forget the names of the people who in the name of truth issued a challenge to an inhuman totalitarian system of evil and paid for their act through captivity, suffering and some with their lives.
Unfortunately I don’t hear or see human rights activities. Only sometimes one hears Yevhen Zakharov’s voice. Incidentally, the situation is no better with regard to former political prisoners. There is an organization with its head, Yevhen Pronyuk, there is a Presidential Decree on supporting political prisoners and victims of repression, but absolutely no specific work. In this it would be worth learning from the Russians.
Incidentally, on 30 October all the political prisoners of the GULAG commemorated the Day of the Soviet Political Prisoner. On that day, there was a hunger strike throughout all the camps. For some reason that date has been forgotten.
This issue has for no reason not been studied, and irresponsibly forgotten. It’s sad. This is our history, after all. It’s a shame.
Bohdan Vasylyovych Rebryk, former political prisoner and “repeat offender”, member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, State Deputy of Ukraine from the 1st Democratic Session