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The Rebellious Generation of the Shistdesyatnyky

 

Myroslava BARCHUK pays tribute to the Shistdesyatnyky, the generation of courageous Ukrainian
intellectuals who sought freedom of expression and promoted the Ukrainian national idea.

 

The nineteen-sixties are often referred to as the time of the rebellious generation in Ukraine. In fact, those years were turbulent in the west as well, but the Ukrainian phenomenon of the sixties was different from that of the western sexual revolution, the hippy movement and rock’n’roll. The then generation of Ukrainian intelligentsia sparked a revival of Ukrainian culture which had been in decline since the early nineteen-thirties.

 

Freedom sparks

To a large extent this spark — or even a shower of sparks — was produced thanks to what is called “Khrushchev’s thaw” (the expression was coined after the publication of Illya Erenburg’s novel called Thaw) when the process of “de-Stalinization” of the Soviet society began. It led to a lesser state control of the arts and literature and to somewhat greater freedom of expression (the thaw did not last too long though).

The starting point of de-Stalinization is believed to have been Nikita Khrushchev’s report to the 20th Congress of the Communist Party which he delivered at night between February 24 and February 25 1956. In this report made to the party elite, Khrushchev (the then First Secretary of the Communist Party) denounced “the cult of personality” of Stalin. The report had wide political repercussions and in the years that followed it also had a positive effect on the development of science, social life and culture. The changes in society in their turn led to the growth of national awareness among the peoples of the Soviet empire. The soviet intelligentsia took advantage of the thaw to revive national culture.

The changes that were taking place in the very core of the soviet system were felt in Ukraine too. A number of young, talented Ukrainian literati and artists began to create works in which they ignored the dogmas and canons of “socialist realism.” Among them were the poets: Vasyl Symonenko, Ivan Dratch, Mykola Vinhranovsky, Lina Kostenko, Vasyl Holoborodko, Iryna Zhylenko; the prose writers — Volodymyr Drozd and Valery Shevchuk; literary critics — Ivan Dzyuba, Ivan Svitlychny, Yevhen Sverstyuk and Mykhailyna Kotsyubynska; artists — Viktor Zaretsky, Panas Zalyvakha, Alla Horska, Lyudmyla Semykina and Halyna Struk; the cinematographers — Yury Illyenko, Leonid Osyka, Serhiy Paradzhanov; the philologist Svitlana Kyrychenko, and many others.

The Kloob Tvorchoyi Molodi (KTM — Club of Artistic Youth), founded in 1960, became a place where the young Ukrainian intelligentsia — those who would be later called Shistdesyatnyky (literally: those of the sixties — tr.) met to discuss the cultural issues. With time the KTM Club grew into a cultural phenomenon around which the cultural life of the early nineteen-sixties revolved. In 1962, the Shistdesyatnyky group of young actors, theatre and film directors and poets was joined by several artists — Alla Horska, Halyna Zubchenko, Lyudmyla Semykina and Viktor Zaretsky — who assumed an active public stance. Regular gatherings at the KTM Club brought together poets, writers, actors, literary critics, artists and sympathizers who shared their ideas and mixed with like-minded people. An important milestone in the life of the KTM Club was the creation of a public commission which was to conduct an investigation into the background of the executions of a great number of people who were buried in mass graves in the village of Bikovnya which is situated not far from Kyiv. The KTM Public Commission was set up in 1962 and was made up of Les Tanyuk, a student of the Directors Department of the Theatre Institute, Alla Horska, an artist, Vasyl Symonenko, a poet. It turned out that the victims in the discovered mass graves had been massacred during the Great Terror of the Stalin times. The Commission urged the authorities to investigate the matter further and to erect a monument to the victims of the Stalinist Terror. Reaction of the soviet authorities was immediate, but instead of doing what they were urged to do, they retaliated in a typical soviet manner — the poet Vasyl Symonenko was attacked by “unknown persons” and so badly beaten that he died in hospital of the injuries that he had sustained. His poetry was banned. Les Tanyuk was removed from the presidency of the KTM Club and the Club itself was put under an increasing pressure from the state. In 1964 the KTM was disbanded and closed down. The process of de-Stalinization that had been launched from the top of the soviet hierarchy in 1956, was halted. It was Khrushchev himself who actually reversed the process that he had started. On December 17 1962 and on March 8 1963 Khrushchev made speeches in which he subjected the intelligentsia (mostly artists, poets and writers) to a rude and scathing criticism. He branded those among the intelligentsia who “deviated from the party line” as “cosmopolitans, formalists and renegades” (this soviet newspeak needs interpretation; “formalists” were those artists who “paid much more attention to the form rather than to the content,” or practiced non-figurative art; “renegades” were those did not fully accept all the soviet dogmas and canons in the performing and visual arts and literature, and those who did not show too much enthusiasm in exhibiting their soviet patriotism — tr.). Khrushchev’s words, “We are against peaceful co-existence in the sphere of ideologies,” were taken up as a battle cry in the struggle against the nonconformist intelligentsia not only in Moscow but all over the Soviet Union.

During the whole of 1963, a campaign against “the formalists” was waged in the media as a preparation for a major attack on the dissident youth intellectuals. The communist party bosses kept making aggressive statements directed against the dissident artist, literati, actors and directors in the media and at the communist party conferences. Many people were accused of “ideologically erroneous views” and as a result lost their jobs.

 

Auto-da-fe

May 24 1964 saw one of the most tragic events in the history of the Ukrainian post-war culture. A fire that started in the Central Scientific Library of Ukraine, could not — or would not — be controlled and about 600,000 books and manuscripts were destroyed in the conflagration. A great deal of these books and manuscripts, published or written in the course of several centuries, were absolutely unique and as such had a great significance for the Ukrainian culture. The arsonist was promptly captured and he was identified as V. Pohruzhalsky, an employee of the library who had allegedly committed arson in a fit of insanity. The secrecy and speed with which the trial was conducted gave rise to a suspicion that it was not an act of a fire-thirsty maniac, but a purposeful destruction of Ukrainian cultural heritage.

When Khrushchev was ousted by Brezhnev in October 1964, the control over the intelligentsia that did not want to toe the party line was tightened. Only a month later, the Central Committee of the Ukrainian Communist Party sent out directives “to step up the ideological and educational work” (which, translated from the Soviet newspeak meant: brainwash them more thoroughly — tr.) among “the creative intelligentsia” (that is artists, writers, etc. — tr.) who were accused of being “nationalistically narrow-minded.”

By the summer of 1965, this “creative intelligentsia” had lost their illusions concerning “the thaw.” After “peaceful means” to get the intelligentsia under proper control had been exhausted (reprimands; expulsions from Artists’ and Writers’ Unions, firing from work, disciplinary actions, psychological pressure, and so on), the Soviet authorities resorted to tougher actions. Yury Daniel and Andriy Sinyavsky, Moscow authors, were arrested and committed for trial. They were charged with “anti-Soviet activities” and publishing — without authorization by the Soviet authorities — their books abroad. In Ukraine dozens of people were arrested in Kyiv, Lviv and Ivano-Frankivsk.

But contrary to the authorities’ expectations, the arrests did not frighten the rebellious Ukraine intelligentsia into submission — if anything the Shistdesyatnyky became even more united in their opposition to the regime. A month after these arrests were made, Serhiy Paradzhanov’s film, Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors was shown at the Zhovten cinema house on September 1965. Before the show, Ivan Dzyuba, a literary critic, addressed the audience and said that many Ukrainian intellectuals had been arrested by the Soviet authorities. Vyacheslav Chornovil, a journalist, called upon those who were against “the tyranny” to stand up in a show of solidarity and defiance; Vasyl Stus, a poet, joined the speakers (both Chornovil and Stus later were arrested as “anti-Soviet dissidents” and spent years in concentration camps; Stus whose health was completely ruined, died in a concentration camp). The management of the theatre turned the microphones off and turned the sirens on to drown the voices of the speakers, but the audience had heard the main part of their message.

 

End of “the thaw”

In 1966 another wave of arrests swept through Ukraine. The trials that caused an indignant reaction in the west and some of the leading world papers — Neue Zuricher Zeitung, The Times and The New York Times among them — published articles and reports about these trials and about the general situation with the human rights in Ukraine. A fund for aid to the political prisoners and their families was set by the Ukrainian intelligentsia in Ukraine. The authorities retaliated by expelling practically all the dissenters from work; the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine adopted a secret resolution, On Serious Drawbacks in the Work of the Kyiv Film Studio Named after O. Dovzhenko.” The Studio management was obliged to publicly confess their sins and repent, and the release of three nonconformist films was suspended. These films were: Krynytsya dlya sprahlykh (The Well for the Thirsty), directed by Yury Illyenko, screenplay by Ivan Dratch; Perevirte svoyi hodynnyky (Check Your Watches), directed by V. Illyashenko, screenplay by Lina Kostenko, and Kyivski Fresky (Kyiv Frescoes), directed and written by Serhiy Paradzhanov. Also, the authorities organized mass meetings of “workers and peasants” who expressed their “unanimous and righteous indignation” about something they had not seen, had not read and had not heard but were told to be indignant about. Vyacheslav Chornovil published in the samvydav press (samvydav — literally: self-published; clandestine publications of books and other materials suppressed by the Soviets; in most cases the samvydav books circulated in type-written copies — tr.) his book, Lykho z rozumu (Woe from Wit) which told the stories of those who had been arrested and tried in 1966. According to the contemporary accounts, this publication had a great consolidating impact upon the nonconformist movement not only in Ukraine but in the whole of the Soviet Union.

At the end of 1966, an amendment was introduced into the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic, and now Article 187 spelled out punishment for “spreading deliberately false slander which besmirches the Soviet state and its social makeup.” This article of the Code was conveniently used by the authorities at the trials of the dissidents and nonconformists which were not slow to follow.

The dissidents and nonconformists, who were not intimidated, organized the biggest demonstration of its kind in Kyiv on May 22 1967. On that day, challenging the authorities’ ban, several hundred people gathered at the monument to Taras Shevchenko to pay homage to the great poet; the police interfered and clashed with the demonstrators. Five people were arrested. The demonstrators marched from the monument to the communist party headquarters and demanded the immediate release of those arrested. The police failed to disperse the crowd and the arrested people were released.

An open letter signed by 139 people, was sent to the Secretary General of the Soviet Communist Party Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet premier Aleksey Kosygin and head of the Soviet parliament Nikolay Podgorny in early 1968. The letter expressed concern of those who signed it over “the violations of the norms of socialist democracy in Ukraine.” The Soviet leaders were particularly disturbed by the fact that among those who had signed the letter were not only Ukrainian artists, authors, actors, film directors but also scientists, journalists, students and blue-colour workers. All of them were dealt with separately — the students were expelled from colleges; the scientists were fired from research centres; members of the Unions of Artists, of Writers and of Actors were expelled from their respective unions (and the expulsion automatically meant that they lost their studios, official commissions, and any government support). Those among the people who had signed the letter happened to be members of the communist party, were expelled from the party and that meant they would face great difficulties in finding new jobs — nobody would want to hire them. Not only those who had signed the letter but many other nonconformists lost their jobs and had to work as labourers, street sweepers or security guards in order to survive (in those times the least paid jobs; “security guards” were unarmed and their job consisted in being locked in, say, a kindergarten for the night; in case of trouble, they were supposed to try to scare the burglars off by their mere presence, hoping the bandits would not harm the unarmed former students or researchers — tr). The Russian popular musician Boris Grebenshchikov, in one of his songs, called the nonconformists of the late nineteen-sixties “the generation of janitors and security guards.”

At about the same time, the samvydav press released Dzyuba’s book Internatsionalism chy rusyfikatsiya? (Internationalism or Russianization?) which dealt with the policies of Russianization conducted in Ukraine by the communist party. Later, this book was published in the west.

In 1970, the samvydav press in Ukraine which before that time had mostly published letters and large articles without any regularity, started releasing a periodical, Ukrayinsky visnyk (Ukrainian Herald). It was edited by Vyacheslav Chornovil, with Mykhailo Kosiv, Yaroslav Ksendzyor, Olena Antoniv, Lyudmyla Sheremetyeva and Stefania Hulyk as members of the editorial board. A section of the Visnyk was devoted to the trials and persecution of nonconformists in Ukraine. In 1971–1972 five issues were released, four of which found their way to the west. The periodical played a significant role in the nonconformist and dissident movement in Ukraine.

The invasion of Soviet troops into Czechoslovakia in August 1968 (the then Ukrainian communist party boss Petro Shelest “warmly welcomed” this act of aggression to suppress the democratic changes in the neighbouring country) marked an end to the “thaw” in the Soviet Union which anyway had had long begun to “congeal” into a cold spell. Starting from early 1969 the process of de-Stalinization was completely reversed and turned into “re-Stalinization.” Both Shelest and his KGB chief Nikitchenko were dismissed (they were suspected by the authorities in Moscow of being “soft” on those who were called by the Soviets “Ukrainian bourgeois nationalists” — tr.). The new KGB chief installed by Moscow was much tougher and he immediately began to be putting Ukraine “in order”, KGB style. It was at the early stages of his rule in Ukraine that Alla Horska (see an article about her in this issue) was murdered.

In 1972 the Soviets were all set to deliver the crushing blow to the rebellious Ukrainian intelligentsia and the samvydav press. Within twelve months over a hundred people were arrested, tried and sentenced to long terms of imprisonment (mostly in the gulag concentration camps) and exile. Ivan Svitlychny, whom the Soviet authorities regarded as being “particularly dangerous” was sentenced to seven years in the gulag and five years of exile.

What the Polish historian Henryk Wereszicki wrote about the victory of Poland over the Soviets in 1920 could be applied in a certain sense to the situation with the Shistdesyatnyky: “Our very existence as a nation was made possible thanks to that war; if we had lost it we would have been in a situation similar to the one the Ukrainians find themselves in — for several successive generations their [cultural] elite was being destroyed so that the Ukrainians would not be able to establish their own statehood.”

 

The Shistdesyatnyky had a tragic destiny — the soviet power used all of its crushing repressive weight to do away with the best representatives of the Ukrainian intelligentsia — talented artists, authors and others — who were called upon to save, preserve and develop Ukrainian culture but who, instead, were put into concentration camps. The price they paid for their courage, loyalty and faithfulness to the Ukrainian idea was very high indeed. They were denied work, they could not express themselves, they were put into prisons and concentration camps, they were exiled; they were murdered, they died in the inhuman conditions they were forced to live. But they carried this national idea on through the darkness and stagnation of the Brezhnev times, they were paragons whose example encouraged others to follow. Their sacrifices were not in vain since they passed their principles and ideals to the new generations of Ukrainians. There is a saying in Ukraine, The blood spilled for the native land doesn’t go dry which can be rightfully applied to the heroism of the Shistdesyatnyky.

 

In writing this article the author, in addition to other sources, has used information to be found in the book Bunt pokolinnya (Rebellion of a Generation) by B. Berdykhovska and O. Hnatyuk published in Kyiv in 2004 by the Dukh i litera Publishers.

 

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