After everything I have endured, I consider it beneath human dignity
to be a citizen of the largest, mightiest, and most perfect concentration camp
in the world.
— Nadiya Svitlychna, December 10, 1976.
The book The Universe Behind Barbed Wire: Memoirs of a Ukrainian Soviet Dissident, written by Myroslav Marynovych, is a testimony to the fact that human rights crimes were still committed in the USSR during the decades preceding its dissolution. As the author correctly highlights in the conclusion of the book, the absence of acknowledgment and condemnation of these crimes leads to new tragedies spreading across Europe.
With this concise introduction, I yield the floor to the author.
My goal is not to produce a witness statement for a second Nuremberg trial, although I have no doubt that the Communist system certainly deserves such a trial. Indeed, the world cannot evolve if it does not condemn its Communist insanities. But I am writing a memoir—not the prosecution’s closing arguments. Nevertheless, I write with the absolute conviction that my story would certainly be sufficient to find the Communist system guilty.
To be sure, to my dying days I won’t be able to fully rid myself of all the characteristics of a homo sovieticus: this “birth trauma” stays with you forever.
“I could never have even imagined that people could be such beasts.”
— A. Marynovych, around 1946.
All her life, remembering the Soviet secret police raids of her youth, she would shudder when she heard any unexpected footsteps in the hallway.
This gave me an understanding of opposites and contradictions, which is the basic prerequisite for objectivity. Therefore, at this point I can unequivocally and firmly call the Communist ideology criminal, no matter how humane some of its individual postulates might appear to some.
I grew accustomed to seeing people and society as a dynamic system, which I tended to observe from the sidelines, and to which I would apply rules that normally pertained to other realms of existence. From the scientific point of view, this approach is obviously unacceptable, but for the longest time I was fascinated with the integral unity of the world, and there was nothing I could do about this fascination—and I still cannot.
Our major “transgression” was attempting to live a normal Ukrainian life. Indeed, the Soviet system saw this as a challenge worthy of punishment.
Around this time, intellectual and artistic property was destroyed throughout the Mordovian prison camps, resulting in several protests and hunger strikes by those who were affected. For example, news came from the women’s camp in the village of Barashevo, Mordovia, that 150 of Stefa Shabatura’s paintings had been burned by the KGB.
as is often the case in our society, the concept of justice won out over the idea of the interests of the state.
During our conversation, the issue of the Holodomor was brought up, and the militiamen became angry, claiming that calling it a deliberate famine was unfair to the Soviet government because even though the farmers’ food was taken away, they had been compensated with some clothing.
The distinctive noise of the cell door slamming behind you has one other effect: you realize that you are now facing the all-powerful authorities on your own, without the friends and colleagues among whom you played certain social or political roles. You are now facing your interrogating officer and the entire KGB machine in all its strength. You have no one to lean on, just your own will and conscience.
the rationale of a typical Soviet individual for whom the primary rule for survival was not to stand out and not to get involved in any confrontations with the all-powerful regime: you would most certainly lose.
Being shut in a prison cell doesn’t deprive a person of liberty; on the contrary, it liberates you from the unnecessary ballast of unimportant concerns, thus making you free.
Just as God’s laws are written in the natural living phenomena that surround us, so too are God’s hints inscribed in the people that we are destined to meet, in the problems we encounter, and in the unforeseen breakthroughs with which God turns the pages of our life. Our task is to recognize these clues and then to properly interpret them.
It appears that the American delegation was the only one that had appealed for our release, while Europe preferred to stick to its beloved Realpolitik.
Tyrants can also be frightened, perhaps even more deeply than the rest of us. If the Western delegations had acted more cohesively, the fate of all the incarcerated Helsinki Group members might have turned out much differently.
Every political prisoner endured this moment. There comes a time when you are forced to choose: you will either be destroyed by the denigration of your human dignity, or you will tell yourself once and for all what your fellow prisoners before you had said: “No! They will not succeed in humiliating me!” You learn how to create a psychological barrier to help you endure endlessly being forced to undress, constant searches, and never-ceasing abuse. Your mindset becomes: “You can do anything you want to me, but you will not take my dignity away from me.”
The punitive system in the camp was so all-encompassing that the human psyche could not always cope with it. In such cases, a person needs simple answers that bring psychological comfort and comprehensibility, providing answers to virtually all stressful situations.
The sixty of us “especially dangerous state criminals” were guarded by seven layers of barbed wire and apparently some 120 guards and administrative personnel.
at least some of our oppressors were fully aware that they were dealing with innocent people—in other words, they knew perfectly well what they were doing.
people always find themselves helpless before the will of God
To my amazement, I discovered that the zone was not necessarily just a place of tragedy and suffering. We laughed and joked, and poked fun at each other, and mercilessly made fun of the guards.
Generally speaking, the prisoners’ struggle to try to ensure even the most basic medical services throughout the penal facilities was next to impossible.
I remember standing by the lathe and mentally composing a secret greeting to Solidarity in Poland, which had grabbed the world’s attention at the time. We were captivated by their struggle and wanted to congratulate our distant ideological comrades and offer them our support and solidarity. I still do not know if our telegram ever reached the Polish strikers, but I am certain that our efforts must have been duly registered up there in the heavenly spheres.
I was in a foul mood, and I realized for the first time how quickly a person loses his stamina when he is not totally convinced of the moral justification for his actions.
This is how Eduard Kuznetsov remembers it:
"I knew that as soon as the KGB notices your weakness, they will immediately start to cajole you and attempt to break you down so that they can mold you into a rag, one of their slaves. In other words, you have no way out. If in your folly you join the ranks of heroes, stay in the upper echelons of the struggle, you have nowhere to go. You cannot withdraw, there is no middle of the road, there is no way back. This is how the regime spawns its own enemies, and then pushes them into a corner, without any chance for them to withdraw. Whether you like it or not, you have to be heroic to the end. Or else become a collaborator."
the struggle itself, and then the ensuing punishments, were inseparable elements that penetrated all aspects of camp life for every prisoner.
when you have to pay the price of your freedom and the suffering of your loved ones, any idea you might believe in ceases to be strictly theoretical or tactical.
The tiny planet Earth, you yourself, and God formed a triangle. How could you be lonely?
The zone was like a little Tower of Babel, not only in an ideological sense but also in the national sense. Although in general, as is well known, Ukrainians predominated always and in every camp:
"The Soviet Union’s nationalities policy is reflected in the national profile of political prisoners as well. In the Mordovian and Ural prison camps, Ukrainian prisoners make up thirty to forty percent, often even more; thirty percent are from the Baltics. Russians and other nationalities make up less than thirty percent." [Svoboda, September 28, 1979]
V. Balakhonov, "To the Presidium of the USSR Supreme Soviet" (1 August 1978): "Behind the Soviet Union’s trampling on this most important principle of international law [the right of nations to self determination—Chronicle] lies the unyielding, constant and never weakening ambition of the Russo-Soviet colonial empire, an ambition determined by the internal laws of its existence and posing a mortal threat to mankind—at all costs to preserve, strengthen and expand itself, eventually to the limits of the earth itself, thus bringing about the death or complete degradation of civilization in conditions of ideologically regimented, collective slavery on the Soviet model."
Gorbachev had initiated a transformation of the political and economic systems, but people still maintained a Soviet mentality, attitude, and lifestyle. Thus Ukraine, like all other post-Soviet countries, still had to undergo a spiritual transformation—a reverse mutation of sorts.
Communist stereotypes cast their influence on the populace, and they weren’t even aware of it. They were convinced that all you had to do was change the flags or adopt nationalistic rhetoric, and those former Communist methods would lose their menace and become totally acceptable.
But sooner or later that clandestine evil had to emerge as the seed for a new world conflict. The demonic evil power at the core of the Communist system had to sooner or later metastasize; the world had to reap what it had sown. … when a former KGB chief became president of the Russian Federation, the West, in all its political correctness, didn’t even blink. As a matter of fact, has anyone in the West ever recognized the KGB as a criminal, terrorist organization?
The West will try to avoid the possibility of a Third World War at any cost, betraying their basic values and principles, but in so doing they are actually bringing this war that much closer to their doorstep.