Robert A. McConnell Recollects Personal Experience from the 1990 Election in Ukraine
1990 - Thursday, March 1st -There was considerable turmoil in the Soviet Union and the regularly scheduled elections for Ukraine’s Verkhovna Rada (parliament) were to take place on Sunday, March 4. But things were very different from past Soviet elections. Among other things Rukh, “the movement”, was pushing to have some of its members and others in the Democratic Bloc qualify as candidates which would essentially make this the first contested election in Ukraine’s Soviet history. And, Rukh had asked for international observers come to witness the election.
In Ukraine the government was trying various ways to limit who could qualify as a candidate and, indeed initially presented a law that would reserve a significant number of seats in the parliament for members of the Communist Party and for other potential candidates to be screened by an electoral commission as to their policy platforms. After a Rukh-led public outcry the draft law was modified – the Communist Party quota was abandoned and the electoral commission’s broad authority to disqualify candidates was limited. But many troublesome provisions (hurdles) remained that will not be mentioned here.
Candidates were nominated from December 4 to January 4 and could be nominated in many different ways. Candidates did not have to reside in the electoral district where they could be nominated. Many Party officials arranged to be nominated and certified in rural areas where they did not reside but where they had a high likelihood of being elected. Similarly some candidates from Rukh or the Democratic Bloc chose not to run where their resided but in more nationally conscious regions.
From January 4 to February 4 local state-approved commissions registered candidates and then the campaign was to last from February 4 to March 4. Of course, there were many nuances to this whole Party-controlled process. In the end a average of seven people were registered for each seat in the parliament. And, while this could suggest the registration process was not a significant barrier, the fact is that the multiple candidate often confused the situation and reduced the potential of particular “Democrats” to make the runoffs. Over 80% of the candidates (3,650) were Communist Party members. In fairness I do note that some of the Communist Party members who were candidates were also actively members of Rukh. But the fact was that the Democrat bloc succeeded in registering only about one-third of its candidates.
In the United States there were a number of efforts to recruit and send citizens to be election observers and numerous individuals did get to Ukraine. However, I had taken on the task of meeting Rukh’s request to have Members of Congress come to Ukraine as election observers. That effort included getting Senator Dennis DeConcini (D-AZ), who was then head of the Congressional Helsinki Committee to “sponsor” the trip (even though Dennis was not going to be able to go.) But with the Committee’s sponsorship I was able to line-up a dozen House Members to fly to Ukraine for the election. The effort also included securing the United States military aircraft to fly the Members and this was done and Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney made sure there would be a plane and there would be rights for the military aircraft to enter Soviet airspace and land in Kyiv.
Nadia and I had both received our visas – as had the Members of Congress – and Nadia had flown to Kyiv several days earlier. We wanted her to be able to confirm how the Congressional delegation would be housed and handled once in-country. The Delegation was to fly out of Andrews Air Base in mid afternoon and I was taking a commercial flight out of Dulles a 7PM as I recall. The Delegation – flying direct – would get to Kyiv on Friday. My more circuitous commercial flights would get me there Saturday PM.
As I was finishing packing I received a call from DeConcini advising me that the Congressional Delegation was on its way back to the Capital from Andrews, word had come from the chairman of the Council of the Union of the USSR Supreme Soviet that their plane would not be allowed to enter Soviet airspace and they would not be permitted to observe the election. (At the same time, another group of Helsinki Commissioners and other legislators, led by DeConcini, was denied permission to travel to Latvia and Estonia for the March 18 elections there.)
I will never forget how that conversation with Dennis ended – “So Bob, what are you going to do?’
“Well, Nadia is already there, there is no way to reach her so I am going to get on my flight this evening and go.”
“Bob, if you get back please come and see me.”
The “if” really got my attention. But I flew out of Dulles that evening.
More to come.
1990 - Saturday, March 3rd - Kyiv, Ukraine. I arrived a Boryspil International Airport. I really doubt anyone landing there today could possibly imagine Boryspil in Soviet times. There must have been 20—25 Aeroflot planes, crudely stenciled, sitting in rows. With one exception they were not being serviced, loaded or unloaded. Upon disembarking the plane – stairs to tarmac – I entered a open-air trailer behind a tactor where passengers stood (think cattle car) for the ride from the plane to the terminal passing what turned out to be the ever-present military types in uniform and armed with rifles. Once through the mandatory passport-visa check booth, we entered an area where baggage was soon dropped off in a pile on the tarmac. Once I collected my baggage I stood in line to enter a door beyond which was an inspection room. I chose the end of the line as I had, in addition to my belongings, boxes, packages for Rukh – VCR, TV, etc., and a package full of documents for Rukh. I knew from Nadia’s experience in January that printed materials were of particular interest/concern to authorities. They can be confiscated and held for days apparently while Communist authorities reviewed to see if there were dangerous ideas being brought into the country.
Given the length of the line I did not want to keep picking up and moving all these packages and then expose others to a document search. At the end of the line I could wait and move the stuff all at once. Eventually I was where Nadia could see me and she stepped forward with a document from Rukh that was supposed to qualify the TV for duty-free entry. At that point I also learned that Nadia’s bags had not arrived with her two days earlier. They included VCRs, video cameras, typewriters and other items requested by Rukh. She had been told her packages would be on my flight – they were not. After several discussions and having to pay duty on the TV despite the assurances to Rukh, I was able to leave customs without having to open all of my things including the package with the printed materials. The big question for me to answer was “Where are the Congressman?” Rukh had been told they were coming and obviously Nadia had expected them on Friday. No one had been informed they had been denied entry.
The ride into Kyiv was almost silent – who could know who the driver might be? But once to the hotel I wanted to know about the election preparations. We knew about and had experience organizing and running elections and comparing what we knew should be done and what was being done was depressing. But one name mentioned throughout the conversation stood out, Mykhailo Horyn, vice president of Rukh, member of the Helsinki Union and a former political prisoner. Horyn was a detail man but Nadia didn’t know where he was and he couldn’t be everywhere.
I told Nadia that as I was leaving Washington the media reported Moscow and Czechoslovakia had reached terms on the Soviet Army’s withdrawal from Czech territory and there was a video of tanks being loaded and moving out immediately. Given that election laws provide that the Soviet military can vote wherever they are assigned on an election day, and that Czechoslovakia is bordered on the east by Ukraine it seemed reasonable to assume they had moved into critical voting districts in western Ukraine. Word was that 27,000 troops had been reassigned to a couple of districts in the Lvov region.
That evening we had dinner at the home (apartment) of Ivan Drach, Rukh’s president. Five of us were Drach’s guests – Bohdan Futey, Walter Dudycz (State Senator in Illinois), Myron Kulas (State Representative in Illinois) and Nadia and I. This was quite interesting (and a bit strange to me). Yes, Drach was the elected head of the nationalist opposition movement and the next day would stand for election opposing a selected candidate from the Communist Party, but he was a member of the Communist Party and a member of the Writer’s Union. Who he really was amounted to a picture I was trying to bring into focus.
The apartment was modest, food good. But here it was, the night before a critical election and the head of Rukh was home, visiting with foreigners, hundreds of miles from the district in which he would stand for election. There were several phone calls – they were about the status of French doctors at Boryspil trying to clear their medicines through Customs, medicines intended for Chornobyl radiation victims. Aside from what was going on with the medicines the dinner discussion focused mostly on the arrest several days earlier of students on the steps of Kyiv’s City Hall. The students had been peacefully demonstrating several matters and were arrested.
Drach’s son Maxym, a 25-year-old doctor, drove us back to our hotel. Passing Revolution Square on Khryschatyk Boulevard (years later to be the center of the Maidan protests) local militia signaled Maxym to pull over. It turned out to be a routine documents check – apparently very normal. The Dnipro Hotel accommodations back then were I guess Soviet, it was like camping indoors.
My first day in Kyiv.
1990 – Sunday, March 4th- Ukraine – This is was Sunday and parliamentary election day. After breakfast (back then a story in itself) we walked a couple of blocks to Rukh headquarters a rundown building but readily distinguished by the then-illegal blue and yellow Ukrainian flag hanging from a second story window. The Rukh headquarters to me suggested maybe a 1960s fringe community center in an American ghetto – old, worn and dingy, walls covered with bulletins and notices being read by people three-deep in the hallway – a hallway illuminated by a lightbulb hanging on a single wire. The second floor had two rooms, one a conference room with a desk and a conference table forming a “T”.
People began to arrive who were known to Nadia. They conferred with young people who were manning telephones and receiving reports from the field. And with information on suspected violations, we set out for Kyiv polling places. Walter Dudycz (the State Senator from Illinois) and Myron Kulas (State Representative from Illinois) went in one car in one direction. Nadia, Bohdan Futey and I went in another with Boris Tymoshenko.
Among the problems already reported was that ballots in many polling places did not indicate candidate affiliation with the Communist Party. On its face this was not an election law violation. However, the election law does require each candidate’s name be accompanied by “positions held (occupation), and place of residence and employment…” It seems this requirement and the historic Soviet practice of listing the candidate of the Communist Party, left Rukh expecting the Communist candidates to be easily recognizable. That would have made it easy for voters to know which name to cross off (voting was done by crossing out the names of those candidates the voter did not want). Now on election day it was not going to be easy for voters to know which candidates to cross off.
This move apparently was consistent with a campaign tactic the Communist candidates had been using during the campaign. Communist candidates had in many cases been calling for reform, sounding nationalist-type themes and criticizing central control (Moscow). More than one Rukh candidate said that at joint appearances they had a hard time sounding more reform-minded than old-line Communist candidates.
Another issue at polling places was the lack of access accorded Rukh representatives (poll watchers). The law did provide for such representatives as long as they had the appropriate document but there were cases where the documents were being ignored, and poll watchers sent away.
As we drove I could not help but notice an open ditch running down the center of a major thoroughfare, The excavation was about 8’ to 10’ wide and at least 8’ deep, extending probably a quarter of a mile. There was no fence or any kind of barrier to restrict access and occasionally there was a narrow wooden plank laid across the ditch for people to use wanting to cross the street. Obviously Ukraine did not have OSHA or civil liability law suits.
At the first polling place we visited it was denoted with two flags, one of the USSR and the other the red and blue flag of the Ukrainian SSR with its golden hammer and sickle. At this location properly certified Rukh representatives had been denied access. However, when we tried to enter the doors were locked.
Eventually were found out that you had to go around to the back of the building to have access. In the back there were two doors some distance apart, one was locked and the other opened. Going through several rooms we eventually found the polling place.
There were several tables with papers that included ballots. There were signs indicating into which line one should go based on the first letter of their name. Behind the tables sat two men. There were also two or three voting booths, with Soviet red curtains, a bare table and a couple of pencils. That was it - - no other people, just the two voting officials. Boris immediately challenged the officials about improperly excluding certified poll watchers and the officials were on their feet to defend themselves. As the argument developed others – seemingly voting officials – came in and showed an interest. Things got a bit heated but the basic response to Boris’ challenge was that there is the “law” and then there are “understandings”.
While this was going on I was exploring the building a bit and determined that it was a hospital of some type and the fuss had led to action. Nadia joined me at the door and we watched a single-file line of men in pajamas and slippers cross the “lobby” from a door on the far side of the room and enter the polling place and begin the voting process. Obviously word had gone out that with “visitors” present voters were needed. Interestingly the voters did not have to sign anything or show the officials anything. They said their names and their names were crossed off a list and they were given a ballot. After they crossed off their choices, their ballots were placed in a locked box and they went outside to smoke! It was a clear day but very cold yet there they were in their pajamas smoking outside. One told Nadia this was a surgical hospital but who knows?
After we got back in the car we reminded Boris that we were not there to police the election, we had no official standing and all we could do was observe.
The next stop was in a residential neighborhood that included single family dwellings as well as apartment houses. Sidewalks were bordered by bare walls, fences if you will, about 8’ high. Individual dwellings were only visible as roofs above and beyond the wall. The only color was provided by people on the sidewalk otherwise dull grey was it. The complaint here was also the denial of a Rukh poll watcher and when the poll watcher arrived before the voting began the ballot box had already been locked – of course the question was had it been empty?
The polling place itself was some type of community center and very busy. There were a number of tables covered with voter lists, ballots, identification signs and manned by a full compliment of voting officials. Once the voters identified themselves – in some cases maybe with identification papers -- they received a ballot, waited for a vacant polling booth, entered, voted, exited and deposited their ballot in a locked box and left the building.
We stood in the middle of everything going on unapproached and unquestioned talking in English and I took a video.
Boris discussed Rukh’s concerns with the lead official who then came outside to discuss things further. Boris was given a explanation for what happened but I do not know whether the explanations – one suggesting that the poll watcher did not have the proper documentation. I don’t know if that was checked by Rukh.
Nadia and Bohdan visited with several voters leaving the polling place and were told they had known who they wanted to vote for and had had no trouble doing so. One young woman did say there had been improper activities used to influence the election but did not want to elaborate. Another said that the most problematical activities are not done in the open but behind the scenes (of course) and there had been such activities.
The next polling place stop was back in the center of the city on Gorky Street across from Drach’s apartment. There was a steady flow of voters at this location. Interestingly, many of the voters here went into the polling place, got their ballots and came back out into the hallway and sat in a long row of chairs going over their ballots. Eventually they voted and went back into the polling place and deposited their ballots in a locked box. There was no evidence of anyone urging these people to come into the hallway nor anyone hanging around to watch or talk to these voters – if you discounted the three Americans who appeared to be the only ones out of place. Most of the hallway voters seemed to be parents trying to keep track of young children who accompanied them to the polls, or older people seemingly wanting to make sure they were doing things correctly with their adult children – but this is conjecture though the scene appeared completely relaxed and friendly. I was not sure why this polling place was chosen for a stop. The only person who took any interest in us was the building supervisor who was anxious for us to come to his office for a drink.
The drink was brief – water with cognac under a picture of Lenin. (Lenin was present everywhere on that first trip to Ukraine.)
Back at Rukh headquarters we learned that one significant concern was that no representatives or watchers were being allowed at any polling places inside military compounds. The election law drew no distinction between polling places on military property and any other polling places but today these polling places were being completely controlled by the government, in Kyiv and across the country.
Rukh’s three telephones were in constant use taking calls from the “field”. Reports we received – including from “our” other group (Myron and Walter). These reports included Rukh representatives being forcibly excluded from polling places, posters of the Communist Party candidates being posted on the walls inside the polling places. Hearing all this with us was Rick Inderfurth, ABC’s Moscow Correspondent who had come to the headquarters with his team.
We then left in three vehicles – ABC in their van and the rest of us in our respective cars.
The polling place was in School No. 130 in what was a sightly upscale area of apartments. Voting was on the second floor. On behalf of Rukh, Boris took the allegations of violations to the election officials. Immediately ABC began videotaping the discussions.
We stood back to get a perspective of the entire room – the activities were busy and seemed smooth. The voters were using both the polling booths and chairs along one wall similar to the last polling place – family members visiting about their votes and parents baby-sitting while voting. While obviously there were and had been election law violations, there was no appearance of direct intimidation or violations of desired secrecy. Interestingly, the ABC producer asked Nadia if we “really thought (the government) was trying to influence the election.” Dumbfounded, Nadia could only reply that she was astonished by the question. I could write pages on the subject focusing on this specific election – which, of course, would include the process for qualifying as a candidate, the campaign process and then, finally, election day but will not here.
We left Boris at the polling place and returned to the hotel for a quick, late lunch comparing notes. Everyone had seen instances where people were allowed to identify themselves without showing proof of identify. At no polling place had we seen voters required to sign for a ballot or provide evidence they had received a ballot; a line was simply drawn through their name as they received a ballot. Further, there was no real control over the ballots themselves. No polling place was certain how many ballots they had been provided at the beginning of the day – there was no count to check or verify. Ther s nothing to prevent someone voting “remaining” ballots at the end of the day. There were no poll watchers allowed! When one member of Rukh had tried to vote he actually found that someone had already voted in his name. One polling place ran out of ballots mid-morning. Additional ballots were brought to the polling place by the Communist Party.
It was amazing to me that while Rukh’s poll watchers could not get into polling places we were having no trouble walking in and actually videoing activities inside the polling places. Indeed, at one of the stops “officials” engaged Nadia and Bohdan in conversation as they spoke the language and I thought we might be stopped so I simply walked past them camera going (sometimes not understanding was is being said is helpful) and entered into a polling booth and filmed one person casting her ballot. On no occasion were any of us seriously questioned about our right to be there.
As we continued on our “observations” we were seeing much of Kyiv and the ever-present statues of Lenin.
Standing almost alone was the ancient St. Andrew Cathedral, no longer a church, it was maintained back then as a museum. Only blocks away all that remained of another major basilica was the outline of a stone foundation. Stalin had it destroyed. He allowed St, Andrew to stay because it had been designed by or in affiliation with a French architect and one of Stalin’s advisors had suggested destroying it might unnecessarily upset the French. Next to the foundation of the destroyed church Stalin ordered the construction of the Communist Party Headquarters – large, government-issued and dull.
We also passed St. Sophia’s Ukrainian Orthodox Church then occupied by the Russian Orthodox Church – a significant symbol of the Kremlin’s efforts to Russify Ukraine.
Kyiv’s KGB Headquarters was serving as a polling place – I am not making that up.
Eventually we freshened up at the hotel and then went to dinner at Boris’ home. In addition to the American contingent of observers, other guests included Oryna Hrushetsky, a writer from Chicago and Alexandria-Noutet and Narie-Laurence Simonet, two of the French medical team who had their medical supplies confiscated. The objective of their trip had been a follow-up to an earlier trip to continue gathering evidence in order to provide certain types of treatment to victims of the Chornobyl disaster. ( Here I should note that Maxym Drach, the 25-year-old doctor who had taken us back to our hotel the evening before had been involved with these doctors and was dedicated to treating victims of Chornobyl. Maxym died a few years later from complications from Chornobyl’s radiation.)
After dinner it was back to Rukh Headquarters. Nadia, unable to squelch all of her American election night past, had organized an effort to get food and drink brought in for the long night.
The activity was intense – trying to keep abreast of the results of the election had been turned over to the youth within Rukh and they had people at the tallying places all across the country trying to report results. Even with all the limitations (including only three phones) the tallies were showing the Democratic Bloc to have been a force in the election. In the first round – which this was – very few candidates won an outright majority and were elected, not having to face a runoff. But of the twenty or so nationwide who had won outright on this March 4, every single one had been supported by Rukh! Ivan Drach had won in Lvov. Mikhail Horyn had won in Lvov. Horyn’s brother, Bohdan, the leader of the Helsinki Group in Lvov had won. All of the high leadership of Rukh had won outright! Not winning was the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Volodymyr Ivashko. Ivahko was not seriously opposed by Rukh, but was only able to make the runoff in his Kyiv district.
Eventually we would learn that 84% of the electorate voted on March 4.
Sometime after midnight we left and returned to the hotel.
1990 – Monday, March 5th - Ukraine – In Ukraine the Monday after Election Day – Worth noting that very early in the morning an operator called with a previously requested call home and we were able to talk briefly to our children, Andrij and Deanna, and Nadia’s mother who was with them. During Nadia’s week-long trip in January to participate in the Rukh organized human chain we never had been able to place a telephone call successfully – Soviet reality. After breakfast we proceeded to Rukh headquarters.
The place was very busy with the young people continuing to gather information from voting districts, analyzing next steps, etc.
We met with Viachesla Budenko, head of Rukh in the city of Nityshyn and part of the environmental wing of Rukh. He presented a constant flow of facts and statistics on the ramifications of Chornobyl. He also told us about a Chornobyl-like atomic power station in the Khmelnytska region. It had been closed down 32 times during 1989 alone! Yet, between the shutdowns and currently the power station was kept running at high capacity. There was much more to the discussion but it amplified the very strong environmental dimension of the Rukh-Democratic Bloc movement and its fear of the Soviet nuclear power industry which was totally controlled by “the center” (Moscow).
I could but won’t here say a lot more about everything we heard about Chornobyl, Moscow’s coverup, public distrust of “the center” and how strong the sense was that Chornobyl was a linchpin in the relationship of the popular movement to the people of Ukraine. [Here is might be worth note that throughout or stay and discussions there were constant references, derogatory references, to “the center”. The overwhelming attitude was that the problems being faced were do to the center and that things would be better if Ukraine had control over Ukrainian affairs – freedom from Moscow.]
We also met Serhiy Holovaty of Rukh who had made the runoffs in a Kyiv district. Holovaty was young, thoughtful and even, a scientist academician often called a lawyer or jurist because he drafts many of Rukh’s “legal” positions.
In the early afternoon we met with a significant delegation of the Rukh leadership at the Writer’s Union which was a few blocks from Rukh headquarters. In walking there we passed a very large building apparently built in the early 1900s as a Center for the Arts. The building itself was now, at the time, the center of some controversy. In 1937, a large number of intellectuals and leaders in support of Ukrainian Nationalism were rounded up by Soviet authorities and taken to the building. (The estimates we heard ranged from 800 to 1,200.) There, in the basement, they were all killed and buried, basement sealed. Their remains are still in the basement. A number of groups were pressuring authorities to dedicate the building as a memorial to the dead but, to date, no success. (I do not know if they ever succeeded.)
Even before the meeting at the meeting at the Writer’s Union came to order the unique and contradictory qualities of Rukh – the lives the different individuals have led over the last forty to fifty years, their differences and commonality – came into focus.
To be a member of the Writer’s Union a certain level of professional standing has to have been achieved. Members also had to be members of the Communist Party. Once a member of the Union, a writer received a stipend, pay for being a writer, guaranteed whether or not works were written or published. Additional compensation came from production. The Union building had the feel of a private club and members seemed to have offices, secretaries and, in the context of the Soviet system, perks of status. Rukh benefited from having members of the Union and access to the facilities for meetings, but there was quite a contrast. The members of the Writer’s Union were at home in these surroundings. But at the table were also non-Communist and more distinctive, members of the Helsinki Union, men and women who refused to accept Soviet rule, Communist domination, and Russification, individuals who were imprisoned and isolated for their views and activities - the Gulag.
Nevertheless, here they all were, in a great room on the second floor of the Writer’s Union to discuss future plans. Joining them was our little group (Nadia, Bohdan Futey, Myron Kulas, Walter Dudycz – the two Illinois legislators -- and me) and several other Americans, the Lozynskyjis from New York, Ulana Mazurkevich from Philadelphia and an Australian, Basil Chamula. A few members of the press – VOA, Reuters – had heard about the meeting and also came. Interviews were freely granted by members of Rukh.
[Interrupting here I really should share a story about Walter Dudycz from last night – Election Night. Yesterday I noted Nadia was determined to get food to the Rukh Headquarters for all the workers busy manning the phones, etc. Well, we had gone to the hotel and wanted the kitchen to make up trays of food, drinks and deliver them around the corner to Rukh. Although the workers were still in the kitchen they insisted they were closed no matter how longingly Nadia pled her case. Then Walter pulled out of his pocket a number of ballpoint pens. On the sides of the pens were pictures of attractive young women. But, when he turned the pens upside down the clothes they were wearing flowed off and the women were naked. Promising the workers each a pen Walter got the kitchen open and Nadia’s orders filled. I doubt Walter would have – or at least show these pens today, even in Ukraine, but they worked.]
Back to the Rukh meeting - - quite interesting to me was the fact that when Drach called the meeting to order, even with seats at a premium, he saw to it Nadia was seated right next to him and that Bohdan Futey was seated across from him next to the person I had heard so much about, Mykhailo Horyn. Not speaking Ukrainian I intended to sit in the back of the room and had done so, but Drach emphatically had me sit next to Nadia. It became clear he wanted us to be a part of the discussion, and we learned the meeting had been scheduled so we could join in. [Given my comments above about the differences between the Communist members of Rukh’s leadership and the members from the Helsinki Union, Horyn became increasingly a unique and interesting figure. Even though he had spent years in the Gulag – including a “death camp” – he seemed to fit comfortably into any situation – a measured thinker, a strategist, a pusher but a consensus builder.]
Over the next three hours essentially Rukh, and specifically Horyn, sought to reach agreement on some issues, goals and objectives for the upcoming months. They talked about the changes in the Soviet Union. Gorbachev’s desires in seeking the presidency. There was clear opposition to Gorbachev. (My own reflection on this view focused to a significant degree on Gorbachev’s demonic reactions to Chornobyl and how it was seen and felt by the people of Ukraine.)
The discussion included notions of independence, possibly a “union of nations but not a Soviet Union”. Horyn saw a need for a President of Ukraine “but not two, one in Moscow and one in Kyiv”. Clearly the group stood in opposition to a President of the Soviet Union.
Independence was discussed, and various views were heard. An out-and-out declaration of independence was suggested. Greater autonomy within the federation was discussed. Horyn made it clear he felt a choice for Ukraine to be part of a federation could only be made by a free Ukraine - freedom would have to come first. Rukh is for independence.
At one point one of the students who had just been released from the Kyiv jail came into the room to report on the conditions of the other students, especially those still in jail. Among the issues the students had been protesting had to do with military service. Ukrainians were against serving in the military outside the territory of Ukraine. A huge movement existed of mother’s opposing “the center” putting their children being put on the front lines in Afghanistan – a war Ukrainians wanted to have nothing to do with. The student protesters were arguing this position.
The symbolism of the student protest and the issue of Ukrainians having to serve in the context of Moscow’s conflicts and imperial desires was an issue of intense interest and implications went far beyond a refusal to perform military service outside Ukraine’s borders.
Nadia and I were concerned about the extraordinary openness Rukh exhibited to the press. Among other things the Russian-speaking, Moscow-based VOA reporter was taping the entire proceeding. Nadia finally persuaded Drach in private that it would be better if the press was given the opportunity to ask any questions of the group and then excluded. Drach took the advice and after several questions, all answered, the press left. [In this context it is also worth noting that the leaders of Rukh accepted that there was or were “moles” among them and in their meetings but they refused to have that limit their discussions or actions. It was a specific decision made by the leadership.]
In a wide-ranging discussion of this sort anything other than simultaneous translation leaves the linguistically challenged – me – at a distinct disadvantage. However, I was keeping up with general concepts. And, one notion of special interest was their understanding of an emerging American theory that the opening of Eastern Europe would be akin to unleashing of freedom to hate – Czechs versus Slovaks, Bulgarians versus Turks, Romanians versus Hungarians, etc. Someone put forward the proposition that the strife in Azerbaijan was stimulated, presumably by the KGB, in order to demonstrate to the world that honoring nationalism in the Soviet Republics would lead to chaos. I could not understand all of the points made but it was clear that this possibility was thought to have significant merit and that, of course, the “American” view was being fed by propaganda from the center.
The conversation touched on the importance of getting U.S. and Canadian consulates in Ukraine. Rukh leaders felt it would be very difficult to achieve this goal while American leaders were so enraptured with Gorbachev.
Time was spent on the importance of the upcoming fourth anniversary of Chornobyl, April 26th. The discussion included how important it would be to focus attention on the problems with the Soviet bureaucratized atomic power industry and the environmental destruction that is the by-product of the Soviet center-driven system.
Entwined in the discussion were references – with extraordinary vehemence – to Armand Hammer and Occidental Petroleum who was said to strike deals with Moscow to build chemical plants in Ukraine that would never be allowed to be built in the United States.
Without writing too much here there was quite a discussion about what could be planned for the Chornobyl anniversary and eventually we – Nadia and eventually me – commented about the lack of time available to plan and execute events that would attract the international attention they sought, the anniversary was only a month and a half away.
As the meeting moved on the meeting focused on what Horyn called “nation building”, the setting of priorities and establishing agreement on what items Rukh wished us to provide them so they could continue to improve their effectiveness.
Eventually the meeting broke and the non-Helsinki Rukh leaders left and the more Helsinki Union people joined the Americans in the same room. Horyn remained as he was both Rukh and a former political prisoner.
This group of individuals looked the part of dissidents who would face prison in order to express their views – it could have been a collection of faces out of Dickens. The beards, the mustaches, the hair, the eyes - - always the eyes.
Mykola Horbal appeared to be the leader among those who joined Horyn at the table.
These were not men and women who quickly or easily control their views and feelings. The “discussion” ranged far and wide, animated with grievances and the need for Americans and others to provide direct support to the Helsinki Union because Rukh does not freely share the movement’s Xerox machines.
It was a frustrating meeting in many ways.
- For years the Helsinki Union had been the focus of Ukrainian nationalism. They were the political prisoners who sacrificed their families, their freedom and sometime their lives for the cause. They were the focus of foreign campaigns to publicize the plight and repression of their countrymen. Now they seem to be experiencing displacement by many in Rukh who these former political prisoners felt had lived “privileged” lives.
- As organization and public relations emerge as critical elements for the future many of these people lack the skill sets needed.
- The unflinching stubbornness that fortified them when they stood alone against societal repression and Soviet guards is not necessarily an endearing quality needed to build coalitions striving toward national consensus. In many ways some of these heroes were seeing their cause develop beyond their ability to contribute effectively and their names – which should be revered – were being replaced by others, some of who they did not see as worthy.
- And, as in so many fields of tension, the minor slights, the unavailability of a Xerox machine, the Rukh overuse of the fax, get blown out of proportion. (Interestingly, in Lvov later in the week we were told by Rukh leaders that the local Helsinki Union was monopolizing the fax and Xerox machines.)
- Horyn had argued the importance of nation building, the need to come together with an agenda for the new legislative body now being elected. He then had to leave for another meeting and the focus of the meeting essentially deteriorated.
- Almost at the same time the lights in the Writer’s Union flickered and then went out. It was dusk outside and soon the great room was almost dark yet speakers continued to make points, argue, emphatically and loudly denounce this slight or that. There was talk of Helsinki going its separate way and there were some supportive comments from certain of the American contingent who sought to verify their long-time loyalty to the Helsinki Union cause. There seemed to be a bit of pandering to me, essentially not helpful to what I saw as the greater issues and the need to unify not divide. Squinting in the dark to try to identify which shadow stood to make a point sort of equating the use of a copying machine to achieving national independence was leaving me exhausted.
I agonized as did Nadia and I believe Bohdan, Myron and Walter as these dynamics were very real, understandable and important with no easy solution. The bottom line was that this was a very interesting and informative meeting providing a needed perspective.
That night Walter Dudycz prepared to leave – he was heading to Lvov earlier than the rest of us. Myron, Bohdan, Nadia and I dined at the hotel. Back then there really were no other options. We invited two young Canadians to join us. They had spent much of the day at Rukh headquarters helping Rukh youth get imported computers thought to be malfunctioning into operational order.
It was not a restful night. The meeting with Rukh had been frustrating because of the swirling, unmanaged energies. The Helsinki Union seemed to perceive directional differences and a need to assert its own and separate, truer vision. Yet in explaining its views collectively the Union seemed to me to lose focus in a passionate cloud of emotions. I was getting the sense that each day, each meeting had the potential to be pivotal in the history of Ukraine and its quest for freedom. Every meeting could be either a long sought watershed toward cohesion, or an explosion of emotions that could snatch away from generations the realistic possibility of independence. The experience was exhilarating, depressing and exhausting. The whole thing was an emotional roller coaster ride and this was only Monday night – I had been in Ukraine for about 48 hours!