University Club, Washington, D.C.
October 21, 2021
Gorbachev’s introduction of perestroika and glasnost were probably the two decisions that began, what I call, The Great Unwind, a description unlike the usual depiction of the end of the USSR as a sudden collapse. The end did not happen in a day, a week or even a month. I have often wondered if Gorbachev ever read Macbeth – The Witches Chant – Double, double, toil and trouble – the double, double of glasnost and perestroika did indeed lead to toil and trouble for Gorbachev, despite his best intentions. But while major policy decisions in Moscow were being made in the mid-1980s, most people throughout Soviet Ukraine at the time were neither fully aware of, nor deeply engaged in, those changes. The explosion at Chornobyl and subsequent actions, rather inaction, by authorities shook people to the core in Ukraine, most notably central Ukraine, in the region of the capital city, as well the major cities along the Dnipro River. Combined with coal miner’s strikes, the pullout from Afghanistan, general amnesty for Soviet dissidents – each of these deeds added an element to the witches’ cauldron that soon would boil over.
Let’s do a quick jump back to 1975. Soon after the Helsinki Accords went into effect in 1975, monitoring organizations were established in several Soviet republics under the general umbrella of Watch Groups, including one in Ukraine. The Ukrainian Helsinki Watch Group, later simply Ukrainian Helsinki Group, was active until about 1981 after which many of the original members were again arrested on various charges and imprisoned. This is the period when the External Representation of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group – established in 1978 -1979 in New York by Petro Hryhorenko, Leonid Plyusch, Nina Strokata, Nadiia Svitlychna, Mykola Rudenko – became very active in the West and this is the group that helped the Ukrainian diaspora become most familiar with the dissident movement in Ukraine.
I first heard about Myroslav Marynovych, one of the original and youngest founding members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, here in Washington, D.C. in the 1980s – through the work of the External Representation – and again as a testament to the remarkable changes that we all have undergone during the past four decades, in my wildest imagination I never thought that I would be sitting in the same conference room with Mr. Maryonvych in America’s capital, 30 years after Ukraine’s independence. Our deepest thanks to his courage and commitment.
Soon after Gorbachev announced general amnesty for Soviet political prisoners in 1987, by 1988, most had been released and the former Ukrainian dissidents, this time led by Viacheslav Chornovil, established the Ukrainian Helsinki Union. While there was overlap between both the membership and goals of the original Ukrainian Helsinki Group and the later Union, one important distinction needs to be brought forth – that is, the open and overt push for Ukraine’s independence promoted by the Union.
The original Accords had what was known as four baskets of rights – with the emphasis on human dignity and the rights of the individual. The first basket, however, had to do with national rights, and one of the key points was the agreement to respect the territorial integrity of existing signatories, which then included the USSR. For those who believed in both the necessity and inevitability of Ukraine’s independence, this condition of maintaining the territorial integrity of the USSR was not an acceptable condition. While indeed, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group did protest russification and did promote Ukrainian identity – in particular, language rights – and while many members believed in the need for, and eventuality of, Ukraine’s independence, to say that it was an overt goal promoted by all the Helsinki Group members in the 1970s would be inaccurate. I cannot say for sure, but I suspect that during the 1970s Yosef Zissels never spoke openly about the imperative of an independent Ukraine, nor did Hryhorenko, or Plyusch. It is also important to note that not all dissidents at the time were necessarily members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. Yosyp Terelya, Semen Gluzman (although later he became a member of the Union), Anatoli Lupanis are just a few examples.
So while there were dissidents that openly argued for an independent Ukraine even in the 1970s and 1980s, such as Mykhailo Horyn, Stepan Khmara, Viacheslav Chornovil, Lev Lukianenko, as a goal of an entire group or of a movement, that did not openly occur until the late 1980s. This distinction is important because, in fact, it was the members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Union that most actively interacted with the leadership of Rukh and entered into the ranks of the leadership of Rukh in the late 1980s.
However, even though former dissidents entered the leadership of Rukh, the Popular Movement of Ukraine, earlier on, it’s very important to underscore that Rukh was not a product of, nor a result of, the dissident movement. A reminder that in September 1989, during the First Congress, the full name agreed upon was Narodnyi Rukh Ukraiiny za Perebudovu – Popular Movement of Ukraine for Perebudova or Perestroika. The initiative to set up such “official” popular movements was part of Gorbachev’s campaign to promote his ideas of restructuring the USSR along the lines of more openness and transparency, of glasnost. At the time, these efforts were strongly opposed by hardline Communists, of whom there were many in Ukraine. But there were also the “soft” Communists, the writers, artists, scientists that needed to be Party members to have a career. Unlike almost all of the dissidents, most of the members of the Kyiv Organizing Committee of the Rukh Congress, the engine that drove the First Congress, were members of the Communist Party – Ivan Drach, Dmytro Pavlychko, Volodymyr Yavorivskyi, Yuri Shcherbak, Vyacheslav Bruikhovetskyi, to name only a few. They all were also members of the Writer’s Union of Ukraine because that was Gorbachev’s plan – to popularize his policies using the skills and publications of the writers’ unions in the various republics. The two strongest such groups were Rukh in Ukraine and Sajudis in Lithuania.
While the hardline communists in Ukraine were opposed to perestroika, Rukh had an unlikely behind the scenes friend in Leonid Kravchuk, then chief ideologue of the Communist Party of Ukraine. While vocally and publically opposed to Rukh – known for the comment that he would “sooner grow hair on his palms than let Rukh become a success” – he quietly supported the First Congress because making these movements a success was a directive from Gorbachev, at the time chair of the CP USSR and defacto, Kravchuk’s boss. So, Leonid Kravchuk, in keeping with his reputation of dancing between raindrops, played all angles, including not impeding Rukh. It is with Kravchuk’s approval that the program of Rukh was published in the official newspaper of the Writer’s Union – Literaturna Ukrayina – and his approval was given to hold the founding congress in the student auditorium of the Kyiv Politechnic Institute – a location just within the city limits of the capital, but also not a grand facility. Kravchuk was the epitome of the canny politician identified by Francis Cline, Moscow correspondent, The New York Times, 1990.
Outside of Kyiv, local and regional Rukh committees were being organized to participate in the First Congress. The largest local organization was in western Ukraine, the Lviv Regional Council of Rukh, under the direction of Viacheslav Chornovil, who was also head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Union. This was the first major overlap between the two groups’ – dissidents and Rukh organizers – organizational infrastructure.
A second place of overlap was existing resources. While Rukh had the nominal backing of the government, the dissident movement had developed, over two decades, an extensive personal and political network of individuals and organizations in the Baltics, in Poland with Solidarity, and with some western organizations. It is this network that helped with the dissemination of information about, and in support of, Rukh. While Kravchuk gave the thumbs up to have the program of Rukh published in what was basically a Party-approved newspaper – and by way of note here, the actual language of the Helsinki Accords and many of the principles in the Rukh founding document are quite similar, another overlap between Rukh and the dissident movement – even though Kravchuk allowed publication of Rukh’s founding document in an official Communist newspaper, many Ukrainians neither read this paper and/or simply did not trust or believe that Rukh would be a good thing precisely because it was promoted by the Communists. Furthermore, many local Communist bosses outside Kyiv would not allow the publishing houses in their districts to print publications or newspapers in support of Rukh. This is where the experience of dissident activists came into play. Their experience with samovydav – self-publishing in the underground – and their friends in Lithuania and Poland came to the rescue. Colleagues of mine in Kyiv such as Serhiy Naboka, also a dissident, Ilya Kucheriv, founder of Democratic Initiatives, Serhiy Odarych of Rukh, told me stories of how they, or university students, or other seemingly nondescript innocent young people would travel to the Baltic capitals with empty backpacks and duffle bags by overnight train, meet up with Ukrainian colleagues there to pick up bundles of printed materials for distribution and take an overnight train home to Ukraine. Here, I would like to thank my colleague Marta Zahaykevych in New York for reminding be about contacts with Solidarity and thank Luda Wussek, who now lives in California but then was head of Ukrainians in Latvia, as well as a personal friend of Mykhailo Horyn, for sharing details about how Ukrainians outside Ukraine worked with Rukh, or more specifically, worked with the dissidents who had decided to throw in their lot with Rukh since they saw Rukh as a vehicle through which to promote their main cause – that of Ukraine’s independence from the USSR.
A third area of overlap was the spring 1990 elections to the Verkhovna Rada – Ukraine’s parliament. Spring and summer 1990 in Ukraine alone are worthy of an entire conference, and there was an excellent webinar hosted this past spring by the Washington, D.C.-based US-Ukraine Foundation on this topic of the spring 1990 elections. I encourage everyone to find it online, but a key point for our purposes today is that these elections offered the opportunity to establish the Democratic Bloc or DemBloc election coalition, candidates for the spring 1990 elections, who were never members of the Communist Party – dissidents such as Iryna Kalynets or Mykola Horbal – or were no longer members of the Communist Party since by then most of the members of Rukh that had belonged to the Communist Party had either been kicked out or quit. These spring elections were where the line between dissidents and non-dissidents functionally disappeared. Just for a perspective – Mykhailo Horyn was released from the Soviet Gulag in 1987 under Gorbachev’s general amnesty. By May 1990, former dissident Mykhailo Horyn was a sworn member of Ukraine’s parliament along with former Communist Party member Serhiy Holovaty, and, at the time, both also were in leadership positions with Rukh. After the election, the DemBloc candidates along with other unaligned members formed the Narodna Rada parliamentary coalition, which had, at various times, between 25-30% of the parliament as members and was a dynamic force in shepherding through Ukraine’s 1990 Declaration of Sovereignty.
The fourth area of overlap, which personally I believe might be the most important, was the personal relationship of trust between Mykhailo Horyn, who had spent most of his adult life in the Soviet Gulag, and Ivan Drach, Ukrainian writer and poet who was the head of Rukh from 1989 through 1992. Their history of friendship, both personal and between their families, went back to the 1960s, to the era of the Shestodesiatnyky, and apparently longer between their wives – Olha Horyn and Maria Drach. It was Horyn, a vice chair of Rukh, who convinced Drach to take the risk and to agree to the motion to remove “for Perebudova” from the name of Rukh during the Second Congress of Rukh in autumn 1990 and agree to the definitive declaration – and change of course away from Gorbachev’s plan – that Ukraine’s full independence was Rukh’s ultimate goal.
Horyn visited the United States in the fall of 1990 and those in the audience who remember the Washington, D.C. Rukh support committee – Ukraine 2000 – may remember his presentation to the community during which he confidently predicted that, in keeping with the name, Ukraine would be independent in ten years. During this trip, Robert McConnell, now with the Washington, D.C.-based Friends of Ukraine Network, organized several high level meetings with Cabinet officials during which Mr. Horyn made the same prediction. Whereas, during the community meeting Mr. Horyn’s prediction was met with enthusiastic applause, during meetings on the Hill and with representatives of the Bush Administration, this prediction was met with skepticism. Ten years? It’s not going to happen said our experts. Well, Mykhailo Horyn was right, except that it took only one year to achieve independence, not ten.
Returning to Francis Cline’s comment about Ukrainian politicians, while Leonid Kravchuk could definitely be described as canny, Mykhailo Horyn was smoother, more subtle. Both were smart, but Kravchuk did not care that he was obvious. Mykhailo Horyn, on the other hand, worked hard behind the scenes to remain unnoticed. I remember sitting with him one afternoon in a minibus that Rukh used as a shuttle to transport staff quickly around Kyiv to get documents signed, to deliver information without having staff wait for public transportation. The minibus driver pulled up in front of KGB headquarters in Kyiv and Horyn readied to disembark. I had a look of horror on my face. KGB headquarters? Really? I asked him if everything was OK, and what he was doing He reassured me that all was well and with a smile said, “Well, at least nowadays I’m allowed in the front door. Years ago they would have blindfolded me and hurried me out the back.” Today, I can recall this moment with a wry grimace, but then I was still quite unsettled. So, before he left he gave me a very practical look of reassurance and said, “You never know where you can find friends, and right now we need to have friends everywhere.” That was his core strategy: quietly to find friends everywhere.
After years in Ukraine and now, after years of reflection, I believe that it is these two men in tandem, the canny Communist ideologue, Leonid Kravchuk, and the deft Soviet dissident, Mykhailo Horyn, that probably did the most to ensure and secure Ukraine’s independence.