ISSUE 2-2018
Роман Темников
Владимир Воронов Radko Mokryk Jakub Csabay Рафик Исмаилов
Ярослав Шимов Михаил Ведерников
Рафик Исмаилов
Владимир Сергийчук

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the articles and/or discussions are those of the respective authors and do not necessarily reflect the official views or positions of the publisher.

By Radko Mokryk | historian, Ukraine | Issue 2, 2018

The period after the death of Josif Stalin and the subsequent onset of Nikita Khrushchev at the head of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union was marked by major changes in the soviet society and culture. The speech of the new Secretary General of the party at the 20th Congress of the CPSU during the night of 25-26 November 1956 and the condemnation of the "cult of the person" began the process of so-called "Thaw" policy in society. The Soviet Union became relatively more liberal and opened to the Western cultural influences. Nevertheless, the subsequent reforms in Soviet Ukraine were much slower than in any other soviet republics because of several reasons. During the Cold war the USSR lived in permanent fear of the new war. The Ukrainian SSR, as the most western part of the Union (hypothetical attack from the West would have been heading through Ukraine), due to its geographical location, was under the special supervision of the party leadership. The second reason was constant threat of spreading Ukrainian nationalism. Therefore, the "Thaw" in Ukraine was slower and much more complicated than in other republics of the USSR.

The Khrushchev`s period still made a huge difference comparing to the previous Stalinist times. The censorship became much freer. The novels of western writers appeared in the USSR. A huge number of European artists and musicians had concerts in Ukraine also. But not only western culture became relatively available for soviet people. Some works of previously prohibited Ukrainian author were published too. Based on these conditions, the young generation of creative intelligence was formed in Ukraine, later known as "the Sixtiers". Young people have been engaged in cultural activities. From the beginning of the 1960`s, the questions of national revival, the correction of historical injustices and the defense of human rights were raised by them. The policy of „the Thaw“ has definitely ended in 1964, when Leonid Brezhnev became the Secretary General of the Communist Party. But thanks to this short „timeout“, the generation of dissenters was born in Ukraine.            

There were several waves of repressions against Ukrainian intelligence. The first one took place in 1965: "At the end of August - the beginning of September 1965, the habitual life for many of Ukrainians ended. At first, the rumors (disseminated by the officials) spread that the underground "Bandera center”, an illegal printer along with foreign money and arms, were discovered in the country. Later it turned out that few dozens of people were missing in their working places and university rooms.[1]. For the suppression of the dissident movement and "unreliable elements", on the basis of the order of the KGB head of the USSR, Yuri Andropov, a special "Fifth Department" was set up to deal with "ideological divergence" (on 25 July 1967)[2].

Another major wave of repression, known in Ukrainian historiography as "The Great Disaster", came in 1972. The pressure on intelligence in Ukraine continued throughout all period of the Brezhnev`s government. The key term of the Brezhnev period in the USSR was "stability". The state government tried to spread some sort of "socialistic consumerism" (a term well known in the Czechoslovak environment from the times of "normalization"). The main emphasis was on silent loyalty: if the citizen did not engage in political affairs, he could basically exist and build his career and social well-being. In general it could be said, that Ukrainian society behaved according to this unspoken agreement. In the middle of 1960`s, after the wave of repression, the biggest part of the Ukrainian society withdrew from public activities and did not take part in political affairs. So „kitchen” became the main place for private talks and debates where people expressed their dissatisfaction with the situation and oppositional thoughts. On the other hand, after Khrushchev's "Thaw", in Ukraine there was already a generation of people, who were ready to participate in the dissident movement and speak openly about human rights violations in the Soviet Union. But it was definitely not about a large number of activists. One of the leading dissidents, Yevhen Sverstiuk, literary critic and one of the prominent authors of the dissident articles, who was imprisoned during 1972-1983, described Kyiv - the capital of Ukraine - as "deaf and crushed to his knees."[3] This description of the situation in society can be applied to the entire period of the Brezhnev’s government. The Ukrainian society was simply scared of persecution of any opposition. That is how the conditions and social mood looked like, when the Ukrainians began to perceive the reform movement in Czechoslovakia and the first changes brought by the Prague Spring.

The events of the Prague Spring have raised the hope of the resumption of the reform movement in Ukraine within the Soviet Union. There was utter enthusiasm among Ukrainian intelligentsia. According to Yevhen Sverstiuk's statement, "Everything alive in Ukraine was breathing the Prague Spring"[4]. Similar memories shared also Petro Hryhorenko, former general of the Soviet Army and probably one of the most distinguished persons in the dissident movement in the USSR (he was among the founders of both Ukrainian a Moscow Helsinki groups in the mid-1970`s). In his memoires he wrote: “Right at this time (June 1968) our civil movement was absolutely fascinated by what was happening in Czechoslovakia. At that time, the Czechoslovak newspapers were no longer openly sold. But those newspapers we managed to get, we read with great enthusiasm. The most important things, like "2000 words", were translated into Russian and spread by samizdat. We listened to what the tourists told us during those days. For us it was like a fairy tale. ... Sympathy with the Czechoslovakia was so strong at that time, that the idea of ​intervention itself seemed to be totally insane. In the subway, on the trains, in the trolley-buses, on the street - when someone started to talk about events in Czechoslovakia (and they spoke really often), everyone listened to it with unobstructed attention and sympathy."[5] Yevhen Svertiuk also adds: "Czechoslovakia abolished the censorship, and from spring to summer it was possible to speak out openly what you wanted to. ... The Czechs lived happier, the writers wrote Two Thousand Words and tried to speak openly, ignoring the rules and ideological orders. Painters began to paint what they wanted and how they wanted to. And the Ukrainian writers ... began to send and pass their poems and essays, which were banned by censorship, to the Dukla and New Life magazines[6]. It was a wonderful game of freedom, half-real and virtual."[7]

The Soviet government was aware of the public moods of the soviet society. Before the August invasion, a massive propaganda campaign for “the correct explanation” of the events that took place in Czechoslovakia was launched. While the Ukrainian society in general supported the Prague Spring, the governance of the Communist Party of Ukraine and, in particular, the Secretary General Petro Shelest was one of the main planners and supporters of the invasion of Czechoslovakia in August 1968. P. Shelest was afraid that the ideas of the Prague Spring could spread inside the Ukrainian society, that is why he played one of the main roles during the invasion. In July 1968, P.Shelest had a meeting with Cremlin`s favorite Vasyl Biljak in Hungary, and in the same way, P. Shelest arranged negotiations between L. Brezhnev and A. Dubchek in Čierna nad Tisou[8]. Even such practical things, as the transfer of the Soviet Army through the territory of Ukraine on its way to Czechoslovakia, took place with the utmost support of the local leadership of the Communist Party. Indeed, P. Shelest supported Brezhnev`s foreign policy and his visions of socialistic brotherhood.

Obviously, these reasons led to massive propaganda pursued by the Communist Party. During the year 1968 the Central committee of the Communist party sent letters to its local administrative units in Ukraine. The content of these letters gradually sharpened, but in the first half of the year these messages sounded this way: "Recently, events have led to the negative path. In Czechoslovakia, unreliable elements demand to recognize "official opposition" and show solidarity with anti-socialist views and theories. The history of socialist building is misinterpreted and the ideas of the special way of Czechoslovak socialism ... and the return to the bourgeois Republic of Masaryk and Benes are expressed”[9]. The decision to "provide help" for returning to the right path of socialism was also evident in these letters.

The messages of the CC of CP were discussed at official party meetings at various levels involving as many members of the party as possible. In the Kharkiv region the number of "trained" activists was set at 3000, in Ivano-Frankivsk 1600, in Ternopil 2620. The situation in other Ukrainian cities was similar. All these efforts aimed to form the right public opinion in Ukraine regarding the events of the Prague Spring.

Party propaganda actively worked during the first days after the Warsaw Pact troops invaded Czechoslovakia. Already on August 21, an extended meeting of the regional party committees in the Kyiv and Lviv regions took place. The official decision accepted in Kiev defined such goal as "... using party-economic assets, experienced lecturers, political informants and agitators to clarify the necessity of the steps taken to preserve socialist success in Czechoslovakia".[10]

Party propaganda has achieved its goal only partially. There were no protest demonstrations in Ukraine alike "The eight daredevils in Moscow", but the dissatisfaction in society was quite visible. Probably the strongest impact on public opinion was the very fact of declaring military alert and the mobilization of young people into the Soviet army. In July 1968, the KGB agents informed the government that "panic moods are observed in some regions of the Republic. Citizens buy salt, matches, cans, and other items for basic needs, there are queues in stores”. Similar events could be seen in the cities of Odessa, Kaniv, Ivano-Frankivsk[11]. During August and September 1968, an extreme increase in sales of butter, salt and other basic products was also reported in the Ternopil region and in the central part of Ukraine. Ukrainian historian Volodymyr Dmytruk documents the testimony of eyewitnesses of the events during the end of August 1968 from the Transcarpathian region of Ukraine: "Without exaggeration, there is a chilling panic here. There is nothing left in stores”.[12] It is quite obvious that the Ukrainians, who still remembered the World War II, did not perceive the invasion of Czechoslovakia as "providing help" but rather prepared for a full-fledged war.

As the invasion approached, censorship of the Czechoslovak press increased. Still, soviet society (and moreover the Ukrainians, as the citizens of the most western republic of the Union) was not completely cut off from the objective news about the events in Czechoslovakia. There were several channels for a stream of information:

“People's Diplomacy": writing letters among the citizens of the Czechoslovakia and the USSR was a usual thing in the 1960s. In 1968, however, it was not only private letters, but also collective letters of employees of Czechoslovak enterprises to their colleagues from Soviet enterprises. In such letters, the citizens of Czechoslovakia usually assured their Soviet counterparts that the Czechoslovak reform movement had general support for society. (July 19, 1968, a letter from their counterparts from Vítkovice was delivered to the Zhdanov metallurgical factory, on 15th July at Zaporizhstaľ factory from Czechoslovakian Gottwaldov, a Women`s Union from Nizhhyn received a similar letter from the Women's organization of Pardubice Region on July 22nd, a letter from the Stavosklo factory appeared, etc.). After the invasion, the number of similar letters rose. Some of them have been published in the West. F. Shorm who was the Head of the Czechoslovak Academy of Sciences sent a letter to his Soviet counterpart M. Keldysh: "In the name of friendly relations between the scientists of the USSR and my homeland, the relationships I have always cultivated, as you know well ... please use your authority and do everything possible to liberate my land from the occupation of the invasion and let it ... continue building socialism by its own strength."[13]

Similar letters have been sending also to the opposite direction. Perhaps one of the most consistent supporters of the Prague Spring was general P. Hryhorenko. He was one of the authors of the "Letter of Five", which openly supported the reform movement in Czechoslovakia. When the threat of the invasion became more and more realistic, the general wrote a personal letter to Alexander Dubchek: "I did not write it in the form of open advice. I was afraid, more precisely - I did not exclude that my letter could get into the hands of the KGB. And, if this really happened, the letter should not be the reason for the accusing on treachery. That's why I wrote it not as an advice, but in the form of admiration for what he was doing. I wished him a lot of success and health, and at the end I wrote the following: I do not think the real Communists would want to interfere with your noble activities, and I do not believe in the possibility of Soviet intervention. Brezhnev is a Communist, but also a soldier. He understands that Czechoslovakia can easily defeat the Soviet invasion. Just block the main roads from East Germany, Poland and the USSR and secure airport defense - that is all that should be done for it. Hungary can be stopped by a simple threat of the revenge. Brezhnev understands that it would be more dangerous for the USSR than for Czechoslovakia [14]."

Radio and television broadcasts were also an important channel of information, people could listen to it  mainly in the western part of Soviet Ukraine. The amateur radio broadcasts were also important for sharing unofficial information. By the end of August 1968, Soviet security service identified 68 of them. Among the traditional sources of information were BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe.

At the same time, while most of the citizens tried to get the necessary supplies in the case of war, there was a growing dissatisfaction and misunderstanding of the whole situation in certain social circles. An obvious example of dissatisfaction could be the Soviet Army[15]. S. Kaniosa, who was the senior sergeant of the Soviet Army at that time, claimed that "even the commanders of military units failed to explain clearly the purpose of the military action." Sergeant V. Savchuk also added, that soldiers did not understand why "the peace action of the armies of the Warsaw Pact provokes a negative reaction of the local population, which wants to defend itself with weapons in its hands." L. Sultajev, the army engineer commented: "Our government, probably, has nothing better to do, than to interfere to the foreign affairs. Let the Czechs rule how they want them to”. The KGB has also reported similar moods: "We have been told that nationalist moods are manifested even among the soldiers called from the reserves. ... The soldiers express their dissatisfaction with the military service, many of them demanded demobilization and spoke openly about their unwillingness to fight for strangers. Some people sang nationalistic songs at the military bases. As a result of this situation, some part of the Ukrainian soldiers was demobilized, and new soldiers were called to replace them"[16]

The official media strove to emphasize the unified support of the invasion of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet society in general and intelligence in particular. Revealed archive documents, however, point out that even the local intelligence wasn`t as united as the Soviet government would like it to be. This is, for example, evidenced in the report from March 4, 1969 made by the Head of Ukrainian KGB V. Nikitchenko,  who accused "of ideological deviations" and stressed "the tendentious attitudes of many members of the Union of Ukrainian Writers about events in Czechoslovakia". Above all, he mentioned such writers as O.Honchar and L.Novychenko[17]. The fact that P.Shelest invited the members of the Writers Union to a steamboat trip on Dnipro river attests that not everything was going according to the plan. The Czechoslovakian events were also discussed with the writers. "There were also many questions about Czechoslovakia. It is clear that this topic is very interesting and concern them much[18]", - Shelest wrote later in his diary.

There were a lot of cases, when the representatives of the intelligentsia were persecuted because of their attitude to the Prague Spring.   The radio editor from Dnepropetrovsk, V. Zaremba, was dismissed from work because of his efforts to get the unofficial information from Czechoslovakia. A scientist at the Institute of Literature, J. Smolych, was dismissed from work because of his views on Czechoslovak events. Similar processes took place in the Union of Artists of Ukraine.[19] In general, historian V. Dmytruk points to at least 77 cases of criminal prosecution, where the indictments were also accused of their misinterpretation of the events happened in Czechoslovakia.

Opposition moods could also be observed among students. At the beginning of September 1968, P. Shelest had a meeting with students of the Kiev State University, where he explained the correctness of the invasion of Czechoslovakia. After the lecture, P. Shelest wrote into his diary: "The next day after our meeting I received a letter with vulgar and insulting content. It asked why I intruded among the students, they thought, I lied about Czechoslovakia and embraced the state of affairs even in our society. ... I was painfully impressed by this letter for a long time.[20]” It was not a unique case. During the first months of the occupation letters and leaflets were revealed to encourage students of that university to strike in the name of solidarity with their Czechoslovak counterparts. At the Pedagogical University in Kremenec, in February 1969, the Rector asked during the party meeting: "How are we supposed to behave towards students? How do we have to explain them the events in Czechoslovakia? They listen to a foreign radio that misinterprets the act of Jan Palach![21]"

While the Ukrainian students were discussing Jan Palach's sacrifice, the Soviet government tried to conceal information about the same act of Ukrainian Vasyl Makuch, which he had made two months before Palach's self-immolation. Vasyl Makuch, the 41-year-old Ukrainian who participated in the partisan movement of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army during the World War II, had already spent ten years in prison and exile. After serving his sentence, he returned to Ukraine. On November 5, 1968, in Hreshchatyk – the main avenue in Kyiv - Makuch spilled himself with gasoline and lit a match. He ran on the street and screamed: "Sent out the colonizers, long live free Ukraine!", "Get out from the occupied Czechoslovakia!"  Makuch died after a few days in hospital as a result of burns. Security services have been involved in the persecution of Makuch's family and in seeking to link him to "nationalist organizations". But none have been proven.

The Ukrainian society, after the repressions provided by L. Brezhnev`s government and its massive propaganda, was not ready for the big and strong protests. The situation in Ukraine was quite similar as in other socialistic republics, individual protests took place also in Poland, Bulgaria or Baltic states. But even under these conditions, local manifests of dissatisfactions were rather numerous. Most of the protests were local and included just a few people, but there were hundreds of such individual protests. The suppression of the Prague Spring had also a significant impact on the dissident and human rights movement within the USSR. There is no doubt that the most known protest against the occupation of Czechoslovakia was the demonstration at the Red Square in Moscow on August 25, 1968. The following trial on the demonstrators significantly revived the human rights movement in the USSR, in which it is quite easy to find Ukrainian traces. In 1969, the Human Rights Initiative Group in the USSR was set up to take part in the defending of the participants of the August 1968 demonstration. Among the founders of the group were Leonid Pliushch from Kyiv and Henrich Altunian, who was the activist from Kharkiv. The latter was soon sentenced to prison for three years for his activities. One of the key figures of the human rights movement was the Crimean-Tatar leader Mustafa Dzhemilev.

Dzhemilev was one of the activists, who did not only conceal his attitude regarding the occupation of Czechoslovakia, but his signature stands under all the most important documents of the initiative group. In September 1969, M. Dzhemilev, as well as H. Altunian, was arrested and accused of "compiling and distributing documents of defamatory content about the Soviet government." On the basis of this charge, Dzhemilev was sent to prison for three years. This case of the Crimean activist had a symbolic continuation in 2014. After the Russian annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in March 2014, Czech President Milos Zeman became perhaps the only head of the EU state that de facto recognized the occupation of the Crimea. At that time, billboards with Mustafa Dzhemilevs's photo and his statesmen appeared in Prague: "I was imprisoned for three years for public disagreement with the occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1968. Today the President of the Czech Republic asks me to accept the annexation of the Crimea to Russia."

All hopes and expectations that the Ukrainian society and dissent put into the reform movement in Czechoslovakia were in vain. The invasion of 21 August 1968 became a huge disillusionment for Ukrainian civil society. "An August morning, 21th, the Warsaw Pact's half-million army entered Prague. That day became the end of illusions about socialism for me. Brezhnev's regime became illegitimate and morally unacceptable to me"[22], - recalls Yevhen Sverstiuk. The invasion has become a turning point not only for those citizens who have already been skeptical towards socialism in USSR, but also for citizens who have continued in party activities. The remarkable figure of the Ukrainian human rights movement, Mykola Rudenko, who became the founder and the head of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group in 1976, underwent a great personal transformation - from a loyal stalinist to a convinced oppositionist. In his memoirs[23], Mykola Rudenko recalls that the illegitimate use of the army in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 greatly contributed to his personal transformation and disillusionment of Soviet state organization.

In the sense of the civil movement Ukraine could not offer much before the suppression of the Prague Spring. The whole power of Brezhnev`s era was traced by considerable restrictions on civil rights and freedoms. The vast majority of Ukrainians who participated in protest activities were arrested and imprisoned in 1965-66. On the other hand, the young generation still remembered the relative freedom of speech from the reign of Nikita Khrushchev. The reform movement in Czechoslovakia became one of the most discussed topics in society and raised great hopes for the possible liberalization of social relations within the Soviet Union as well. The subsequent invasion of Czechoslovakia faced misunderstanding in Ukraine. In spite of the fact that the official government tried to create the impression of uniform public support, it`s clear, that dissatisfaction was reflected in a series of manifestations of disagreement among workers, students, and Ukrainian intellectuals. Probably, the most symbolic gesture of disagreement and protest moods was the self-immolation of Vasyl Makuch in November 1968.

The development of the events in Czechoslovakia was very patiently monitored by dissidents. How can the influence of the dissident movement be assessed on the situation in the state? M. Dzhemilev himself does not overstate the influence of dissent on the policy of the USSR[24]. On the other hand, there is no doubt that the activities of dissent, propagation of samizdat, public letters published in the West influenced people’s opinion in the Soviet Union. The events of August 1968 not only set many citizens of the Ukrainian SSR against Communist rule, they have also become the driving force for the development of the human rights movement in Soviet Ukraine as well as throughout the USSR.

[1] КАСЬЯНОВ, Григорій: Незгодні, укpаїнська інтелігенція в русі опору 1960-1980 рр. с.48

[2] В’ЯТРОВИЧ, Володимир: Історія з грифом секретно. Харків: Клуб сімейного дозвілля, 2017. с. 399

[3] MOKRYK, Radomyr: Činnost Ukrajinského helsinského spolku na konci osmdesátých let 20. století v Ukrajině. Oriens Aliter, №3, 2016, s. 35-49

[4] Interview with Yevhen Sverstiuk 21.05.2013

[5] ОБЕРТАС, Олесь: Генерал Петро Григоренко. Спогади, статті, матеріали. Київ: Смолоскип, 2008. с. 591.

[6] Dukla and New Life magazines played significant role in cultural life of Ukrainians in Czechoslovakia. Both magazines were established in the 1950`s and created space for publishing the texts of Ukrainian authors. “Dukla” was the official magazine of the Union of the Ukrainian writers of Czechoslovakia. During the Prague Spring a lot of the texts, that were prohibited in the USSR, were published in these two magazines.   

[7] СВЕРСТЮК, Євген: Вранці 21 серпня 1968 року ввели в Прагу півмільйонну армію Варшавського блоку. Dostupné online (12.02.2018)

[8] ШАПОВАЛ, Юрій. Петро Шелест. Харків: Фоліо, 2013. с.62

[9] ДМИТРУК, Володимир: Україна не мовчала:  реакція українського суспільства на події в Чехословаччині 1968 року. с.36

[10] Ibid. c. 41

[11] В’ЯТРОВИЧ, Володимир: Історія з грифом секретно. c. 401

[12] ДМИТРУК, Володимир: Україна не мовчала:  реакція українського суспільства на події в Чехословаччині 1968 року. с.107

[13] ДМИТРУК, Володимир: Україна не мовчала:  реакція українського суспільства на події в Чехословаччині 1968 року. Ст.59.

[14] ОБЕРТАС, Олесь: Генерал Петро Григоренко. Спогади, статті, матеріали. Київ: Смолоскип, 2008. c. 593

[15] ДМИТРУК, Володимир: Україна не мовчала:  реакція українського суспільства на події в Чехословаччині 1968 року. c. 116.

[16] В’ЯТРОВИЧ, Володимир: Історія з грифом секретно. c. 405

[17] ДМИТРУК, Володимир: Україна не мовчала:  реакція українського суспільства на події в Чехословаччині 1968 року. c. 127

[18] Ibid. 126

[19] Ibid. 129

[20] ШАПОВАЛ, Юрій. Петро Шелест. Харків: Фоліо, 2013

[21] ДМИТРУК, Володимир: Україна не мовчала:  реакція українського суспільства на події в Чехословаччині 1968 року. c. 135

[22] СВЕРСТЮК, Євген: Вранці 21 серпня 1968 року ввели в Прагу півмільйонну армію Варшавського блоку. Available online (12.02.2018)

[23] РУДЕНКО, Микола: Найбільше диво – життя. Спогади. Київ: Кліо, 2013

[24] МУСАЄВА, Севгіль, АЛІЄВ, Алім: Мустафа Джємілєв. Незламний.  Харків: Vivat, 2017. c. 36

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Владимир Воронов
Jakub Csabay
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