How would you explain the term “dissident movement” to young people? Did you consider yourself a dissident?
The regulatory mechanism of the Soviet system was not money, but ideology. An ideological format of a system implies the existence of one canonized version of the truth which contains myriads of imprints deemed normative for all specific spheres of life. As the joke went, you could deviate from the Party line only together with the Party. Those who deviated in advance without sanction from above put themselves literally outside the law and easily became the object of persecution. The “Khrushchev Spring” of the beginning of the 1960s shattered the image of one single correct official doctrine since the “denunciation of the cult of Stalin” proved that this line could in principle be faulty. The movement of the Shestydesyatnyky [the Sixties activists] was the child of such rethinking. The movement was the precursor for the later human rights movement which brought the theme of freedom from the spiritual – cultural on to an international legal plane. However both were frequently placed in one category of “dissenting thinkers”, or “dissidents”. At one time I considered such classification honourable. These days, as far as I’m aware, some former political prisoners object to being described as dissidents, considering that this term reduces their practical political activities to some wishy-washy “other thinking”. I personally don’t suffer from any terminological discrepancies and continue to see my belonging to the ranks of the dissidents as a great honour.
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?
I don’t agree that it is difficult to translate. The English “to dissent” actually means “to not agree, to differ in ones views”. It was brought into use among Church dissenters in medieval Europe and very accurately describes the situation when human conscience and creative thinking rebel against some kind of ideological monopoly. Obviously the use of this term is appropriate only for non-democratic societies where there is such a form of monopoly. Therefore, say, in today’s Ukraine, for all its problems, it would be inappropriate to term anybody a “dissident”. However in the 1960s and 1970s the term was entirely legitimate.
The demand of the dissidents of the 1960s – 1980s “Obey your own laws!” has been interpreted by many people as a ploy, since nobody believed that it was possible. There is a view however that the members of the UHG did in fact hope for some kind of dialogue with the regime. What is your opinion? How relevant in today’s Ukraine is the demand that the law be respected as a foundation for defending human rights?
Unfortunately in answering this question it is extremely difficult to avoid time causing adjustments in our views, with some dissidents inclined to present their position in those times as more radical than they actually were. One cannot in fact give a categorical answer, since the term “dissidents” covers not only human rights activists who sought to defend people who had been unfairly tried, on principle distancing themselves from the issue of changing the actual system, but also determined fighters of the system. One could theoretically envisage a situation whereby one of the dissidents was prepared to seek contact with the authorities in seeking the release of innocent people. However the problem was that the regime itself would have seen such dialogue as a threat to its ideological foundation. Therefore for those individuals who were ready for dialogue, any such attempts turned into providing information to the KGB or arrest. Although even among human rights defenders there were those who were much more sceptical than others about the possibility of working with the regime. After the regime for example, had dealt summarily with the first ten members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, among those who joined it were people who regarded any work with the regime as entirely unacceptable. As far as the present day is concerned, respect for the law is the primary basis for law and order and democracy. In the absence of totalitarianism, it is difficult to imagine human rights defence of the kind which existed in Soviet times. I assume that in Ukraine there could be a whole range of human rights organizations which specialize in specific areas of the law. However the requirement of respect for the law, that is, the guaranteeing in Ukraine of the rule of law, must apply in all cases without any exception.
What, if any, events and / or views prompted you to oppose the Soviet regime?
One can of course speak of some particular facts or events, the memory, say, of the persecution and suffering in the GULAG of members of my family, the arrests of dissidents which I learned about on Radio Svoboda [Radio Liberty], samizdat, the shaking of my worldview through the brutal suppression of the “Prague Spring”. However there were also other, more trivial things which were like steady drops until finally it all overflowed. I would therefore be more inclined to speak of the reasons which created an overall sense of the need for civic resistance. This was firstly the acute awareness of the lying falseness of the system and its lack of respect for human dignity. At that time it was already impossible to adapt to the demands of the system while retaining any self-respect. Then secondly there was personal acquaintance with those members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia who were to varying degrees being persecuted, or with the families of people who had been unjustly tried and convicted. A sense of personal affinity for them brought with it solidarity and a feeling of being together with them. Finally, the Soviet regime required total loyalty and was not satisfied with “half-love”. So its demand that you decide which side you’re on (I was warned in the KGB: “Bear in mind that if you’re not with us, you’re against us”) forced me to make a moral choice.
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?
Support from isolated individuals in conditions of total fear, and often venality, had enormous psychological significance. It was not big numbers that had impact: we were well aware that millions could not openly support us. That was why the support of single brave individuals meant so much. It was also of importance that we registered the general scepticism towards the Soviet regime, not only from the intelligentsia, but from the population generally. The silence of this scepticism was annoying, often disappointing, yet it did create the important sense that you weren’t opposing your own people, but only the administration. No less important was the support from the international community and the Ukrainian Diaspora (after my arrest also Amnesty International). At times this created a somewhat paradoxical situation since, on the one hand, the international support irritated the KGB and the Party official position, and could therefore provoke a new wave of persecution. On the other hand, however, the same support created a certain guarantee that the cause that you were suffering for had a general human dimension, that the world knew about your fate and that you wouldn’t die an anonymous death in the Siberian snow. Information about campaigns on our behalf reached us even in the camps (for me, for example, it was enormously important to learn that the Pope John Paul II – the only one of the Christian leaders! – had served a masse in 1981 for the persecuted prisoners of the GULAG.
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?
This is indeed a serious problem. A group of young Lviv (and not, let’s say, Donetsk!) students said to me recently: “Come on, Mr Marynovych! Were the Soviet times really so bad?” So if we don’t talk about the past pain the next generations will cease to understand us. So that history doesn’t pass its verdict, the crime needs to be established and the guilty sentence clearly formulated. A lot could be done by the newly created Institute of National Remembrance if it stopped being a mere paper bubble, without a serious budget, and without a “critical mass” of dedicated members of staff and without serious access to KGB / SBU archives. However the main reason for an ironic attitude to the crimes of the past is nonetheless the crimes of the present. What came to replace the creator of one of the two apocalypses of the XX century – Soviet totalitarianism was not a system of general well-being, but one of reckless cynicism. Therefore the pain experienced by the mother of Valery Marchenko who died in the GULAG is neither greater nor less than the pain of Georgy Gongadze’s mother. Immunity from both crimes is truth and faithfulness to the Law of God – the single regulating mechanism which does not allow social diseases to totally poison the country.
How do you feel about people who collaborated with the punitive bodies?
The issue is extremely serious and one needs to look at it in more detail. From my own experience I remember how little stood between me and submission to the communist evil, and I therefore on principle would not wish to stand in judgment over those people. That would mean to condemn a good third of my fellow citizens. Therefore, spiritually ready for forgiveness, at the beginning of the 1990s I was among those dissidents who were not concerned about bringing our communist persecutors to answer. Despite some attempts to begin a civic “Nuremburg-2, all ended in expectation from dissidents that yesterday’s criminals would become part of a gentlemen’s agreement: “We won’t try you, but you don’t continue sinning”. We are all aware what came of that. After Maidan, Ukraine, by not bring the main perpetrators of the new crimes against the people to answer, stepped for a second time on exactly the same rake.
In my opinion, our mistake has been in not being familiar enough with logic or the rule of law, or Christianity. Both after gaining independence and after Maidan, actions which from the point of view of formal law and commonsense were criminal, were not categorized as such in the appropriate court proceedings. As a result the criminals took on the innocent status of “political opponents”, “dissenting voices”. However, impunity makes crimes seem attractive and criminals barefaced. They not only don’t respect those who forgive them for their crimes, but on the contrary, despise them, since the forgiveness is viewed as weakness.
In its turn, quixotic all-forgivingness has nothing in common with Christian forgiveness. Pope John Paul II, coming to Agca in prison and forgiving him for the assassination attempt, did not attempt to have him released from prison. Christian forgiveness is a moral act which does not run counter to the rule of law and does not cancel out its force. Just punishment for a crime is not revenge, but the necessary elimination from the social organism of that residue which was infected by violence. Without such elimination, society turns into a huge cancerous growth. Through forgiving, a person frees primarily him or herself from the force of the law of vengeance. Just punishment of a criminal is needed not to satisfy the desire for vengeance, but so that other people do not suffer from an unpunished criminal.
In South Africa in the XX century they succeeded in almost ideally uniting both principles – the rule of law and Christian forgiveness. There the non-violence nature of the dismantling of the system of Apartheid was ensured not by corridor deals, as the result of which the main criminals were absolved of responsibility, but by open dialogue with the people, through which the latter understood the need for total cleansing. An all-nationality Truth and Reconciliation Commission was created whose members were people of unblemished moral authority. The Commission accepted voluntary testimony-confessions from those whose conscience was burdened by some crime. The fact of having made such open confessions released a person from further punishment, whereas the lack of will to voluntarily repent testified to a criminal remaining dangerous to society, and therefore needing to face the court. The success of the South African Commission was based on the fact that a reasonably effective legal mechanism was created for moral purification of the human conscience. Having voluntarily made a confession and received forgiveness from those authorized by the people, a person not only ceased to fear for his or her safety, but could also confidently take the side of good. There was no need to fearfully hold on to the criminal system of Apartheid since the past was not hanging over him or her, and the person gained the moral right to begin life with a clean slate. Each person who knows the relief of a cleared conscience will understand what spiritual strength is thus released.
What objectives did you set yourself at the time? Has your idea of freedom changed since then?
I will not try to pretend by formulating now some kind of specific aims that I supposedly had then. I wanted truth and I wanted to live with self-respect. In this I managed to find enough courage in myself to not abandon those wishes when the instinct for self-preservation spoke out loudly. The rest was achieved by the servants of the system whose actions followed a familiar principle: “When God wishes to punish a man, he takes away his reason”. As far as my perception of freedom is concerned, it has not changed. I paid too high a price for it to now doubt its value. With age however the feeling intensifies that freedom is unthinkable without responsibility. Without the latter it turns into arbitrary wilfulness. Those Ukrainians who gained freedom without experiencing a psychological need for it still need to learn this, and therefore treat it like children who become drunk on the “freedom” to torment a kitten with impunity.
What advice would you give a “new” generation defending human rights?
Human rights defence has absolutely clear dimensions, in the first instance legal, but also many others. For example even the best public initiatives fizzle without proper financing. However this carries with it certain risks since the use of international grants at times can become too great a temptation for newly-fledged human rights defenders. It is important to understand that human rights protection is not a profession (even if you receive some kind of payment for your office work). Human rights defence is a state of the soul which makes as concerned about others’ suffering. The spiritual dimension is invisible, but definitive. However, if you really respond to the call of the spirit, then be prepared for sacrifice. The hardest is the “grant of the Heavenly Foundation” which unlike grants from international foundations carries with it not money, but suffering. You don’t need to fill in an application form – it is sufficient merely to be a source of good and to become a “prisoner” of conscience …