He distributed anti-Soviet leaflets, burned the Soviet flag, and set up public organizations. Today Pavlo Otchenashenko is active in Odesa’s Ukrainian movement
Pavlo Otchenashenko lost his parents as a child and was raised by an aunt in Odesa Region. At the beginning of the 1960s, he finished a Russian-speaking secondary school and went on to a vocational school in Odesa to train as a construction worker. “My birth certificate stated that my father was Ukrainian, and so was my mother. But when I got my passport, I found out that I was Russian,” smiles Otchenashenko. However, raised in the spirit of internationalism, the young man just overlooked this “ethnic paradox,” as he believed it to be a mere formality.
On completing his training, he went to work at the construction of a sugar refinery in Kotovsk near Odesa. Later he also worked at the construction of the Illichivsk sea port and at the same time studied part-time at the Odesa Construction Institute.
SLAVES OF COMMUNISM
The then leader of the USSR, Nikita Khrushchev, released millions of GULAG prisoners — the slaves of Communism who had been building the country’s power at gun point. This humane act caused considerable problems for the Soviet economy – a source of free workforce was no longer available. Then, the “a-maize-ing innovator” from the Kremlin (Khrushchev was known for his desire to see corn become a cash crop in the USSR) got down to the noble cause of improving socialism by declaring economic reforms meant to increase citizens’ well-being. His government tried to solve every problem with propaganda, urging the young to demonstrate heroic work in the mines, on the virgin lands of Kazakhstan and in Siberia.
In 1961, the government undertook a currency reform. The devaluation of the rouble was profitable for the state, but it badly affected the population. Food prices kept growing. In 1962, workers in the southern town of Novocherkassk rallied, demanding prices be lowered, but the peaceful demonstration was met with fire, and dozens of people were killed. Apparently, the same government was responsible for the shooting.
The young Otchenashenko had a critical set of mind. He soon realized that the rhetoric about “the leading role of the working class” was a mere disguise for the selfish interests of hypocritical Communist functionaries. And that was exactly when he chanced to meet the Soviet Union’s leader in person.
Otchenashenko was working with a youth construction team at the time. “I was delegated to a conference of ‘shock workers’ in Moscow. There were four of us from Odesa. The whole thing was held at the Kremlin Palace of Congresses. We were under close supervision. During the lunch break there were tables set for the meal and they even served some good wine. A man in plain clothes ordered us to fill our glasses because Nikita Khrushchev was going to visit our table.
“And so he walked in and came up to the tables where the boys from the BAM (Baikal-Amur Mainline, a huge railway construction project in the Soviet Far East. – Ed.) were sitting, then came over to some other delegations, and eventually got to our table. ‘Congratulations, Odesites!’, he said and clinked glasses with each of us.”
Khrushchev did not impress Otchenashenko as a reformer. On his return home, the young construction worker took a closer look at the people’s economic well-being and the political system in general. He gathered a group of critically-minded young people, discontent with the omnipotence of the CPSU and their own abject misery. They decided to draw cartoons of the First Secretary and hang out anti-Khrushchev slogans in Odesa and Illichivsk. On September 13, 1963, they hung out their first leaflet which read, “Comrade! Demand the resignation of Khrushchev’s party! Soaring prices. Lower wages. Failure in agriculture.” A few days later, they scattered 12 more leaflets with anti-government slogans in the streets.
Otchenashenko drew several cartoons on the backs of Soviet propaganda posters he bought at a local bookstore. Ironically, the KGB was able to track him down via that very store as there were very few people who actually bought Bolshevik propaganda.
He remembers the team of the KGB officers in charge of his case: Major General Kuvarzin, investigator Ryzhko, and Major Vodopianov. The young man was thoroughly cross-examined at the Odessa office of the KGB: “Who are you working for? Who provides your funding?” The well-fed officers of the totalitarian repressive apparatus must have been quite well aware of the ridiculousness and weakness of their activity even in the context of Soviet justice, so they were anxious to implicate Otchenashenko in something criminal. He draws cartoons? So, he is an artist? Then he should be interested in the nude – then we can frame him up for pornography. The KGB often employed such methods to discredit their opponents. The accused on political charges tended to be framed up for something dirty, usually involving morals. However, this did not work in Otchenashenko’s case.
In December, 1963, the young dissident was tried in court. “The judge was apparently working for the KGB, as was my defense counsel. I refused his services, but he still sat next to me, just like the two submachine gunners.”
The trial lasted just half an hour. “Do you admit the authorship of these leaflets?” Otchenashenko did. “Do you repent, or don’t you?” “No, I earnestly think I did that consciously and it was the right thing to do.” The court sentenced him to four years in prison.
Otchenashenko was sent to prison camps, but on his way there was a sudden stop. “There were no explanations. I was just surprised to see that at one railroad station all the prisoners were packed in Black Marias, but I was led to a Volga. They ordered me in, and amazingly, I wasn’t handcuffed. On either side sat two men in plainclothes.”
However, Otchenashenko wasn’t really surprised by this sort of “red carpet treatment”: he had come across such treatment of political convicts before. The KGB demonstrated special respect for a handful of dissidents who gave jobs to a host of Soviet secret police informers.
“The side windows were covered, but through the windshield I could see we were in Moscow. I recognized Red Square. Was it the Kremlin gate we just passed through?”
The two plainclothesmen led the convict past the merloned redbrick walls and abandoned him in a room. There he was kept for what seemed to be hours. Suddenly the door opened and Khrushchev walked in.
“He was just curious to know why a young guy would protest against him. Perhaps there were not so many cartoons of him back then.” Otchenashenko smiles. “But I think Khrushchev was a little under the influence. He came up to me and asked, ‘Why are you talking trash about me? Do you want to be behind bars? Ok, you'll get it.’ He could barely speak. Then he abruptly turned and walked out without letting me say as much as a word. Then the guys led me out, put me in a car and drove to a prison, and from there I was transported to Mordovia.”
Khrushchev used virtually the same – albeit milder – methods on his opponents as Stalin had, despite all the hype of exposing Stalin’s personality cult.
THE UKRAINIZATION OF A UKRAINIAN
Otchenashenko did time at prison camp No.11 in the Mordovian village of Yavas. Himself a Russian speaker, he was astonished by the numerous Ukrainian “diaspora” which constituted about a half of the local political convicts.
“At the camp Vasyl Pidhorodetsky came up to me. ‘Hey, you’ve got such a great Cossack name, how come you speak Russian?’ Since then, we only spoke Ukrainian. He was a wonderful person.”
Otchenashenko started working together with Pidhorodetsky at a powersaw bench and got to know him better. This Lviv man was a Banderovite veteran. After the outbreak of the Second World War, he joined the OUN youth network. In the middle of 1948, he got a new assignment and was sent to work in Eastern Ukraine where he explained who nationalists were and what they sought. During this service, Pidhorodetsky moved to Donbas. In February, 1953, he was seized by the NKVD in Stalino (now Donetsk). He was sentenced to 25 years in prison and five years exile. Overall, he spent almost 32 years in the camps of Omsk, Irkutsk, Mordova, and the Urals. He never gave in to the regime, and he never missed an opportunity to show it. For example, in 1954, during the pompous official celebration of the 300th anniversary of “the reunification of Ukraine with Russia” on the all-Union scale, he and several fellow inmates hung out a black flag with the inscription, “Three hundred years of slavery.”
“He would tell me of the liberation movement, insurgents, and how the secret police in Banderovite disguise robbed and killed people to provoke the population. Also, he would tell a lot about Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych,” recalls the dissident.
It was only in the years of independence that the former fellow prisoners were able to meet at a congress of the Society of Victims of Political Repressions. “We hugged each other heartily and talked. Pidhorodetsky had never been married: he was a bit of a humpback, and he was well advanced in years when he was released from the camps. And he died almost a destitute man.”
When Otchenashenko was released, Khrushchev was no longer at the head of the country, having been removed from power by Leonid Brezhnev in the Kremlin coup of 1964. The young dissident was banned from Odesa now. “In the Odesa passport office I was told that I couldn’t reside within 100 kilometers of the city.”
Disability without any formal reason, just via the so-called “telephone law,” was used on many dissidents who had already served their time in prison and were released. So Otchenashenko found a job in Bilhorod Dnistrovsky, where a residential area and a resort were being built. He also tried to resume his studies at the Odesa Construction Institute, but he was denied. The reason — he had refused to collaborate with the communists. Who knows, maybe he would have had to repeat his trip to the north, because the regime now had a conscious enemy in his person.
In the spring of 1990, he masterminded another openly anti-Soviet escapad with Petro Chernyshuk. The latter, a well-known local Rukh member (The People’s Movement of Ukraine, then a civil political movement, now a political party. – Ed.), “had some time before beheaded the monument to Lenin in the public garden, hacking the head off.”
The office buildings of the town executive committee and the communist administration were in the center of the town, on the main street (of course, named in honor of Lenin). A red flag fluttered on the top. Chernyshuk climbed the fire escape to sneak to the roof and tore the banner down. Otchenashenko and several friends were keeping watch. Then the activists went out into the square in front of the administration building, waited for more people to assemble, and set fire to the red cloth. Artemenko, head of the town administration, threatened to initiate criminal proceedings against them. But the regime was about to collapse, and the Soviet Union was falling apart. The party functionaries had to save their own skins — it was not the best time to worry about flags.
DISSIDENTS FROM ODESA
Besides Otchenashenko, there were other well-known dissidents in Odesa who openly opposed the communist regime: Sviatoslav Karavansky, Nina Strokata, and Vasyl Barladianu. The Ukrainian idea there is still voiced by Oleksa Riznykiv, a Soviet-era dissident. Today, branches of the All-Ukrainian OUN – UPA Brotherhood and the All-Ukrainian Association of Political Prisoners and Victims of Repression operate in Odesa. Yet the main foes of Ukraine’s independence in the South — former communist functionaries — still have the money and the power.
“Teaching at all Odesa universities is in Russian, even at the Pedagogical University,” said Otchenashenko. “I asked why students from Ukrainian-speaking schools have to switch to Russian at the university. The answer was that there was not enough textbooks in Ukrainian. Yet me and Oleksa Riznykiv have a schedule for visiting all schools, especially at the secondary level, to give talks there. Besides this, we often travel around the region.”
I asked how the local authorities, led by the Ukrainophobe Oleksii Kostusiev, treat the former dissidents and victims of repressions. “We are never invited to take part in celebrating Independence Day. The festivities are held at the Odesa Opera House. The veterans of WWII are invited to sit on stage, but we are always ignored.”