What Should We Know About Ukrainian Dissidents of the 1960s [Shistdesyatnyky]?

January 12, 2024
Vaclav Havel once said that "Truth and love must triumph over lies and hatred." These values were also very powerful among the Ukrainian cultural movement of the 1960s.
Photo credit: Encyclopedia of Ukraine

UkraineWorld spoke with Radomyr Mokryk, historian, author of the book Rebellion Against the Empire: The Ukrainian Sixtiers. Key points in our brief, #UkraineWorldAnalysis

How had the intellectuals who opposed socialist realism appeared during the totalitarianism of the Soviet Union?

We have to understand that the period of the so-called thaw under Khrushchev was rather chaotic, and it is often defined as somewhat of a vague democratisation.

In fact, after Stalin's death and Khrushchev's secret speech at the XX Congress, a certain kind of controlled chaos began.

The party leadership and Khrushchev exhibited a modest grasp of what Soviet culture should actually look like, thus, giving rise to a certain ‘space’ in this chaos.

However, during that period, ties with the West were opened to some extent.

If to look at the memoirs of the Sixtiers, they often write that, at that time, writings of Remarque, Hemingway, Kafka, and Camus were readily available, with various exhibitions and concerts being held.

Young people shared this European culture, which, in turn, shaped their preferences in the process.

The thaw was really very short-lived. In fact, we can say that at the end of 1962, intensive censorship and repressive actions started to return. However, there were several years of conditional freedom.

And at this moment, a new generation, born in the interwar period, enters Ukrainian culture.

These were people in their 20s who didn’t have any direct experience with terror, and so they just started creating in a manner that outpaced or eluded the swift and stringent reactions of the censors.

And so was the space of the Sixtiers generation created. When they started to be persecuted, in particular in 1963-1964, they rejected these rules of the game, staunchly defending their right to create freely, and thus many of them turned into dissidents.

Ivan Dziuba characterised intellectuals as those who consistently carried out ethical protest, which partly turned into political protest. So, how did this happen in practice?

The Sixtiers and dissidents are primarily an ethical movement, as Vaclav Havel once described it very aptly.

The point is that a person doesn't typically make a deliberate decision to join the opposition and become a dissident.

Usually, a person in a totalitarian system instead tries to follow their moral and ethical convictions, that is, to be true to themselves and to their own conscience.

It was only over time that this person, who decided that they just wanted to be morally pure and merely follow their ethical compass, found out that they were engaged in anti-Soviet activities.

Their biographical paths were very varied: they could be cultural figures, writers, and later moving on to human rights activism.

In totalitarian societies, nothing is outside politics and nothing is outside the state.

Therefore, if you, for example, told something to your students in class, wrote poetry and got published, or signed a protest letter, it all manifests into politics involuntarily, even if you had absolutely no desire to be involved in politics.

That is why Ivan Dziuba characterised intellectuals as those who consistently carried an ethical protest that partly turned into a political one.

Can we somehow characterise the continuity of the dissidents' culture, combining the names of the 1920s, the Executed Renaissance of the 1930s, and the dissidents of the 1980s?

There is no doubt that the Sixtiers were the heirs of the Executed Renaissance [generation of intellectuals of the 1920s and early 1930s in Ukraine who were arrested and executed by the Soviet government].

Firstly, they admired the cultural heritage of Kurbas, Pidmohylnyi, and others, and this shaped their preferences and goals.

Secondly, it created a sense of responsibility, because in addition to the cultural heritage, the Sixtiers started asking themselves why the previous generation was killed?

Why were they destroyed? This caused a sense of responsibility for the executed figures, as written by Lina Kostenko, Vasyl Stus, and Les Taniuk.

When the Soviet system was weakening somewhere, for example, during the times of Ukrainisation and the thaw, Ukrainian culture automatically gravitated towards European models.

Mykola Khvylovy wrote that we should focus on psychological Europe. That is, at the time of maximum emphasis on the collective, the Sixtiers emerged with their humanism.

What life stories have impressed the most?

I had a conversation with Lydia, the wife of Mykola Vinhranovskyi, and she told me how Vasyl Symonenko used to bring potatoes from Cherkasy to Kyiv.

And this is a vivid detail - how the poet Vasyl Symonenko brought potatoes to Vingranowski on the Cherkasy-Kyiv train so that they had something to eat.

In addition to bright everyday moments, the story of the Helsinki movement of 1976-1977, when the idea of founding the group arose, is also etched in my memory.

Most of the active people were already imprisoned, i.e. in 1972-1973, Sverstiuk, Chornovil, Stus, and Svitlychnyi were already imprisoned.

A new initiative emerges, led by Mykola Rudenko. Together with Oles Berdnyk, another co-founder of this initiative, he went to Chernihiv to visit Levko Lukianenko to join the movement.

We have to understand the context: Levko Lukyanenko was first sentenced to death, then to fifteen years in prison in 1961, and in 1976 he was released after fifteen years in the camps.

I can just imagine two men appearing on his doorstep and saying that he needs to join this organisation, even though he knew the dangers of being imprisoned again.

There is no doubt that a human rights initiative would have led to an arrest. And in his memoirs, Rudenko says that Lukyanenko asked for half an hour to think.

Berdnyk and Rudenko were walking down the street, and Lukyanenko was behind them for half an hour. After that, he caught up with them and said that he was ready to join.

I was terribly interested in what Levko Lukyanenko was thinking during this half an hour.

And I was frankly expecting something like Kiekegaard's deep existential motifs, but Levko replied that he was just making a schedule in his head, remembering what other self-publishing he had, what he still had to deliver and print, and trying to work out how quickly he would be arrested.

Levko Lukyanenko ended up serving 26 years in prison. So it wasn't even a question of whether to join or not. It was a commitment to one's beliefs, bordering on sacrifice.

Why is it important to talk about their struggle in these times of uncertainty?

In 1991 we didn't reassess our values. We are only now just beginning to realise the importance of these dissidents, the Sixtiers.

The dissidents of the sixties are a part of the war that Russia has been waging against Ukraine for many years.

If we had been better orientated back then, we would have actually conducted some kind of revision of our memory.

Perhaps we would have been far better armed, in every possible sense of the word, at the beginning of Russia's aggression against Ukraine.

The Sixtiers is a story about the victory of critical thinking in incomparably more difficult conditions than we have at present.

These are people who grew up under total censorship, total propaganda - when school, work, kindergarten, universities, newspapers, and even families usually did not provide truthful information, and yet these people, that small shopt, as Vasyl Stus said, managed to fight.

Their critical thinking was multiplied by civic engagement. Our nation is rooted in a commitment to ethics and culture.

Daria Synhaievska
Analyst and journalist at UkraineWorld