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Osyp Zinkevych — a cultural figure, a publisher and a patriot


Osyp Zinkevych heads the Smoloskyp (Torch) Publishing House which used to be the mouthpiece of the dissident movement in Ukraine and now publishes works of Ukrainian authors dealing with burning issues of today. Osyp Zinkevych, a cultural figure of a great significance for Ukraine, calls himself in jest “a pensioner who has been privileged to serve his country.”


Natalya Poznyak traces the destiny of a Ukrainian who published books banned by the Soviet regime.


Fugitive from Soviets

Osyp Zinkevych returned to Ukraine in 1990 after many years of living abroad. “I have always remained a Ukrainian in my heart. Even when I declared my Pledge of Allegiance to the United States, deep down inside I felt I was Ukrainian and my allegiance was to Ukraine. In this respect, I’ve never become “a true American,” said Zinkevych upon his return to Ukraine.

In the hard post-war years Zinkevych found himself working at a coal mine in France. The job he was given did not require any qualification — he was part of a team of labourers who poured crushed stone into the sections of the mine where no coal had been left to seal them. Once, a powerful explosion caused the escape route to collapse and Zinkevych with several other labourers found themselves deep underground in complete darkness, without water or food, with the air pocket they were in rapidly shrinking. The rescue team broke through to them only 30 hours later and this harrowing experience left an indelible mark.

He was born in the land of Ivano-Frankivshchyna on January 4 1925. His father, Stepan Zinkevych, had been with the Sichovi Striltsi — military units formed in the Western Ukrainian lands — in the First World War. The Sichovi Striltsi Headquarters was in Kyiv, located in the house which still stands (24 Artema Street). In the Second World War Stepan Zinkevych fought against the invading Nazis, was captured and executed by a firing squad in the town of Kosiv. His son Osyp was raised in the spirit of Ukrainian independence, focused on the Ukrainian values.

He was drafted into the Red Army and was among the troops that liberated Prague from German occupation. For his bravery he was even awarded a medal, Za vidvahu (For Gallantry), but he used the first opportunity that presented itself to defect to the west. He found himself in West Germany which was under US control then. He knew there was no coming back for him — in the Soviet Union he would be immediately seized and sent to a concentration camp as “a traitor.” Once, it came close to his being handed over to the Soviets by the US authorities who were pressured by the Soviets to give the former Red Army men over to them, but the Ukrainian community of the German town he happened to be in at that time, stood up for him and talked to the US authorities asking not to yield to the Soviet demands, explaining what the fate of those who would be turned over would be.

While in Germany, Zinkevych spared no effort to find his mother and sister who he knew were somewhere in the country — and he did. Moreover, it was in Germany that he met a woman who would become his wife. He worked as an instructor at a youth centre of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and happened to be present at the ceremony when Ukrainian youngsters took an oath of faith in God and loyalty to Ukraine. He spotted Nadiya among others, struck up a conversation with her. They became friends but she, using an opportunity, went to Great Britain to study to be a medical nurse, and Zinkevych decided to go to France to earn some money. He had no identity card, no passport and when he was detained by the police he was given an option — either he is deported or he agrees to work at a mine for a minimal pay. He agreed to go to work at a coal mine.

There were several other Ukrainians working with him at the mine and Zinkevych emerged as a natural leader of the small Ukrainian community. At their off-work gatherings they reminisced, talked about the destiny of Ukraine. But there was very little time or strength left for anything after long gruelling hours of toil. Things took a brighter turn when Zinkevych won a grant that made it possible for him to go to study at a college in Paris. As soon as he got himself more or less established at the Institute of Industrial Chemistry, he borrowed money for a trip to Britain. He proposed to Nadiya, and she accepted his proposal. Several months later they were married and Nadiya stayed with him in Paris.


Working for the Ukrainian cause

Being a student did not mean for Zinkevych to be cut off from taking part in the activities of the Ukrainian community in Paris — quite the other way round. He set up a Ukrainian youth organization and when the headquarters of the Central Union of Ukrainian Studentship moved to Paris, he became deputy head and eventually was promoted to secretary general of this organization.

At about the same time an idea came to him to publish a magazine which would carry articles written by other fellow students. Zinkevych who lacked money to launch a magazine, turned for help to Oleh Shtul-Zhdanovych, editor in chief of the Ukrayinske Slovo, or Ukrainian Word newspaper (later Shtul-Zhdanovych headed the Melnyk Branch of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists). The editor did help and a supplement to the newspaper, called Smoloskyp, or Torch, began to be regularly published. It did not take too long for the supplement to graduate to a full-blown magazine.

In 1957, the Zinkevyches moved to the United States and Smoloskyp moved with them. Its circulation grew considerably after it was made into a bilingual English-Ukrainian magazine. A publishing house, Smoloskyp, named after V. Symonenko (Symonenko was a Ukrainian poet of the 1960s who tragically died young after being badly beaten while in police custody; his poignant poetry had a great impact on the Ukrainian readership both in Ukraine and across the ocean), was established as well.

Smoloskyp published works by Ukrainian authors which were banned in the Soviet Union. It was Smoloskyp that released 5 volumes of Mykola Khvylyovy’s works, the largest edition of his oeuvre then available, a comprehensive edition of Les Kurbas works in a book of over 1200 pages. Volodymyr Vynnychenko’s essays on the Europe or Asia? political and literary debate that had been in the focus of the Ukrainian intellectual attention in the 1920s, was also among the more notable publications. Lina Kostenko’s poems — all of them that were available at that time — were released by Smoloskyp as well as Oles Honchar’s Sobor (Cathedral) which was frowned upon by the Soviet authorities. Honchar was then accused of “maintaining relations with anti-Soviet elements abroad” and allowing his work to appear in print in the USA published by “a most reactionary publisher.”

Smoloskyp became a natural mouthpiece of the dissident movement in Ukraine of the 1960s and of later times. It was not at all easy to smuggle the manuscripts from the “Soviet Ukraine” to the United States, and various ingenious ways were found and used to get them safely across the ocean. Even such unlikely occasions as the annual Ukrainian language seminars organized in Kyiv for US and Canadian communists of Ukrainian descent were taken advantage of. The luggage of North American “communist brothers” was checked much less thoroughly than that of “the nationalists” and ways were found to talk these people into delivering innocent-looking packages with “souvenirs” which, unbeknownst to them, contained manuscripts among the knickknacks. Some of those who were “used” in this way later expressed their indignation but, in the words of Zinkevych, “they were duped a little for a very good cause.”

Smoloskyp also published lists of those “dissidents” and “nationalists” who were arrested and sentenced to terms in prison or in “labour camps,” and names of those who needed help because they could not find work being “undesirables.” These lists were very helpful both as a moral support and a source of information for those who wanted to help. Not always this help could be rendered on time but it was good to know all the same that there was “someone out there” who knew and who cared. Besides, the Soviet authorities, knowing that the world community was aware of repression against the dissidents, felt obliged to show a little more leniency and treat their victims a little less severely. Following the information provided by Smoloskyp on arrests and harassment of dissidents, demonstrations were organized to file past or besiege Soviet embassies with the demands to “free political prisoners.”

Nadiya Zinkevych became one of the first Ukrainians among the members of the International Amnesty. Smoloskyp initiated reports at the World Congress of Psychiatry in defence of those political prisoners who were put into psychiatric asylums in the Soviet Union for their “anti-Soviet activities.” Among those who made reports was Zinkevych’s elder son Arkady. It was thanks to Smoloskyp’s efforts that the Ukrainian microbiologist Nina Strokata was made a member of the American Association of microbiologists at the time when she was serving a sentence in a concentration camp in remote Mordovia in the Soviet Union. Smoloskyp translated into English and published all the materials of the Ukrainian Helsinki Society and regularly passed them on to US Congress.

The Smoloskyp Publishing House had its office in the basement of the house the Zinkevych family lived in. When, after Ukraine’s regaining her independence, some of the former dissidents and such cultural figures as Pavlo Movchan, contemporary Ukrainian author, and Vyacheslav Bryukhovetsky, president of the University of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, visited Zinkevych’s place, they were amazed to learn that Smoloskyp had always functioned as “a non-profit public organization” with no members of the staff receiving any salaries for the work they had been doing for so many years. They were told, that such was “the principle all the Ukrainian communities abroad adopted for themselves — during the week you earn money and during the weekends you do something for the Ukrainian cause.”


Back to Ukraine

In 1990 Osyp and Nadiya Zinkevych came back to Ukraine to live, not just to visit. Their Smoloskyp moved to Ukraine with them. It continues to publish books on political science, philosophy and history as well as works of fiction and poetry. Smoloskyp also releases books for children and organizes annual contests for young writers and poets, with winners getting their works published by Smoloskyp. The financial support comes mostly from the Ukrainian communities of the USA and Canada.

Several years ago, Osyp Zinkevych decided to set up a museum in which samvydav (dissident underground publications) works, Smoloskyp books and other materials published by Ukrainian organizations in foreign countries would be put on display. All these materials sit packed in boxes at Zinkevych’s apartment waiting for a place to be fully displayed. Such a place has at last been found. It is being repaired and soon the Samvydav museum is to be opened.

Zinkevych and his Smoloskyp organize annual seminars for young Ukrainian authors and quite a few of those who attended these seminars have become the leading figures in the Ukrainian fiction, poetry and public life of today — Oles Doniy, Andriy Kokotyukha, Maksym Rozumny, Oleh Protsenko, Ivan Andrusyak, Roman Skyba, Serhiy Zhadan, Anatoly Dnistrovsky, Serhiy Pantyuk, to name just a few. They even have come to be known as The Smoloskyp Brotherhood. Zinkevych is proud that he is able to help young people to find their place in life.

“To tell the truth, many of my friends who came to Ukraine after many years of living abroad, feel very disappointed. But I have never been disappointed — I see why things go the way they do in Ukraine, and I do believe that when an entirely new generation of politicians comes to power — and it will happen sooner or later — then Ukraine will become truly Ukrainian, and Ukrainians will at last have their state the way they want it to be. That’s why I find it so important to devote my time to work with young Ukrainians,” said Osyp Zinkevych who remains optimistic no matter how gloomy the current situation may be.

Zinkevych has been awarded the Order of Merit and the Order of St Volodymyr Velyky but he thinks that his greatest award is the work that his Smoloskyp has being doing all these years and his help to the young creative Ukrainians that he has been providing.


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