Former UPA fighter shares his story of struggle against the Nazis and NKVD, GULAGs and return to Ukraine
Semen Soroka, an 86-year-old Kirovohrad resident, is a man whose biography is a legend. Already at the age of 15, he was a courier for the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), with Yasen (Ash) as his nom-de-guerre. When he served a term in Stalin's GULAG, he had no name and no alias, with just a camp number instead: B9965.
I noticed him back in the late 1980s, when the first "smell" of democracy was felt in Kirovohrad, and the first anti-Soviet rallies began. Semen Soroka, a short elderly man in UPA military uniform, always rallied with a Ukrainian flag, which at that time was still "illegal."
For the KGB, which always kept a sharp eye on the former UPA fighter, Semen Soroka was someone who has never laid down arms. The one who never surrendered and never repented.
U.W.: A well-known Ukrainian dissident Yevhen Sverstyuk once said in an interview that his mindset was shaped by the Decalogue of a Ukrainian Nationalist. What about you?
My mindset was shaped by my family. My ancestors have Cossack roots going back to the 17th century. My grandma Olena proudly told me that one of her ancestors, Dmytro Hresko, served under Ivan Bohun. I often think of her. She was the one who taught me from early childhood that the most important things in life were God, Ukraine, and family. She was literate, and read many books from the Prosvita library in our village of Krychylsk in Rivne Oblast. That library had about 30,000 books! In 1952, the Soviets burned it down.
My father's life story is also amazing. In 1916, he was mobilized into the Tsarist army to fight in the World War I. But already in March 1917 he returned home. He was a member of the Communist Party of Western Ukraine. In 1934, under Jozef Pilsudski's government, he was sent to a Polish prison camp Bereza Kartuska. When Hitler's troops came, they arrested him also. So, my father went to join insurgents in the woods.
In June 1943, when UPA announced a campaign to destroy railroads to get in the way of Germans taking the pillage and the youth out of Ukraine and to prevent SS and SD death squads from moving around. So my brother Panteleimon and I joined the UPA fighters, and I became Yasen the courier. In April 1944, NKVD special task units came to our land to root out the UPA underground in Rivne Oblast. One of the fights with the NKVD took place on May 6. I rarely took part in combat operations, but this one I remember very well.
FROM SEMEN SOROKA'S MEMOIRS:
"In the morning of May 6, a reconnaissance detachment of NKVD troops counting 32 men came out of the wood near the village of Horodets and went along the edge of the meadow near the village of Svaryni in the direction of the villages of Borky and Rykhta near Krychylsk. When the enemy was level with Kucher's defense base, it suddenly came under machine-gun fire. Only the lucky few managed to escape from the embrace of eternal rest. [...] UPA fighters did not shoot at unarmed soldiers... In a while, planes started circling around in the air, dropping bombs on us. NKVD units that followed opened intense fire from guns and mortars. Losses on both sides were great. For a whole week, Red Army soldiers were carrying the dead and the wounded from Horodets wood to Antonivka station and then to the city of Sarny...
After that, NKVD changed its tactics: units appeared dressed in insurgents' uniform. They totally annihilated the Ukrainian population. They raped, threw people in wells, burned them alive, or buried them alive in the woods... All Western Ukraine burned in fires and was turned into a battle front..."
U.W.: Did your parents know about your life in the woods? What did they say? In 1943 you were still a teenager...
There are things that parents should not know... When UPA's armed resistance was over, I found myself in the town of Dubno. I decided to study there. At the same time, I established a youth unit of OUN in the town. On February 22, 1952, I was arrested and taken to the internal prison of the Ministry of State Security Interior Troops of the Carpathian Military District in Rivne. I had to go through torture. I remember especially well the "bath" that the prisoners had to take. We were released from isolation wards and scalded with water that was at least 60ºC hot. After that, they poured icy water on us. Interrogations would start at 6 p.m. and continue through the night, until 6 a.m. We had to "keep vigil," tied with chains to a metal stool, with handcuffs on our hands. I still remember the names of the investigators: Semykoz, Zabroda, and Ermakov.
On August 26, I was sentenced by the "troika" of the court martial under the Articles 54-1a, 54-11, and 20-54-8 for spreading nationalist literature, being a member of UPA "bandit" organization and creating a youth OUN unit. I got 25 years in jail.
On October 24, 1952, we were taken to the North, to Inta station. There I ended up in the 6th camp servicing the construction of the 11th and 12th mines. I lived in barrack No. 8 on the upper bunk. Being physically exhausted after long interrogations, I was assigned to the Black Hundred charged with cleaning the mine's territory. Our "allowance" was simple: a plate of soup with rotten sprats, 200 grams of bread, black as soil, and a cup of boiled water without sugar.
U.W.: How did you learn about Stalin's death?
On the radio. There were people who cried, "What will become of us now?" I jumped on the table, shouting, "Thank God he croaked!"
FROM SEMEN SOROKA'S MEMOIRS:
"In the barrack No. 8, under my bunk were the bunks of Mykhaylo Polyansky, Volodymyr Slutsky and Viktor Soldatov. Polyansky was a former spy of the Soviet intelligence service (GRU). In 1948, he was withdrawn from Italy to Moscow and convicted by the "troika" of "high treason." He was sentenced to 25 years in prison. He perfectly knew everything about UPA and had a great respect for UPA fighters. He often said that UPA soldiers should be not in the Kremlin's concentration camps, but at large in Ukraine, fighting for the Freedom of their people."
U.W.: Tell us how you managed to escape.
It was thanks to Mykhaylo Polyansky. I have never met another man like Polyansky. He spoke English, French, and Italian fluently. And also Ukrainian. We became friends. He once said to me, "You are not afraid of anything." I told him, "What is there to be afraid of? All that matters to me is Ukraine." "To me too," Polyansky answered. He helped me get a job at the mine. This is where we began preparing our escape. There were six of us, a whole organization. Polyansky wanted to flee to the West, to Europe. But I was against it. I believed that I had to be at home and build Ukraine here, and not "over the hill." Finally, when it came to escaping, he didn't go with us, because I refused to go to the West.
U.W.: How did you flee from the mine? Was it through a tunnel?
Yes, we made a tunnel at the depth of 70 meters, 130 meters long.
We threw it with the coal. It took us seven months to dig the tunnel. With coal picks. At first, all went well, but then the frozen clay started. It was terrible. Nevertheless, we dug a hole with an exit to the tundra. We crawled into the tunnel. I was the third.
U.W.: What was the plan?
To get home and keep fighting. When we got out of the hole, each of us (and we were five) went in a different direction. Unfortunately, four got caught. When asked, "Where is Soroka?" they answered, "We ate him" (I was short and thin). Two were executed. When we were preparing for the flight, Polyansky gave me a green vest and a cap, so that I could pass for a military man. He also gave me a TT pistol, 20 cartridges and a knife. Where did he get all this?! Probably, being a former member of the Intelligence Service, he still had connections with local investigators.
U.W.: So, you broke free. Then what?
I went to the Inta train station and found some tea room. A field office of the KGB was just around the corner! However, nobody noticed me in that tea room. A sat there for two days drinking beer, even though I hate it. No one paid attention to me. Probably, they took me for a member of the military. Then I walked home (I only traveled by train for about 20 kilometers, not more). I had a map that Polyansky gave me. It took me five and a half months to get home. I walked three thousand kilometers in total. All kinds of things happened on the way. At Kotlas station I noticed a "tail." But I escaped. I slept in all kinds of places. But I only managed to sleep indoors for two nights. This was at Mikun station (in Komi Republic). I went to a shop there and met a woman who was from Ternopil Oblast originally. She offered me a job there. But I went home. I came on April 17, 1955.
U.W.: How was the homecoming?
No one was waiting for me there. The district police officer would sometimes visit my parents to encourage them, "Don't cry. If he were dead, the KGB would have informed me."
The first person I met in the village was Pavlo Bonatsky. He saw me and sat down. "Do you know how much your head costs?" he asked. "Twenty thousand. I read it in a newspaper. You're a dangerous criminal."
When it was still light, I went to the cemetery, where the bushes are. My grandmother is buried there. I lay on the ground next to my grandmother, Olena Hresko, and she protected me until the night. At about half past eight, I returned home. I entered the house. Mom and dad were having a dinner. They looked at me, and mom started crying, "Oh, I thought I would never see you again."
They hid me in the attic. The next day, my father made a hiding place for me between the house and the barn.
Several days passed. "Why am I lying here?" I thought. "I could be lying in jail just as well." So I went to Lviv and Ternopil oblasts to find old connections. But I didn't find anyone. I returned home, stayed for another week and took off! I went to Lviv again.
On the train, I met captain Zabroda, who was an investigator in my case. I rushed to the door and managed to jump from the moving train. Zabroda did not pursue me, though. All of them, those KGB guys, are cowards.
After a while, I moved to Kirovohrad Oblast, which I was already familiar with. I went to the village of Petrivka, Khmelyove County. Some of our people could be there: I was sent there back in 1945.
I found a job, building silo pits. I managed to get a passport. In a few months, I moved to Kirovohrad. I started working at the Red Star factory as a carpenter. I lived in a dorm...
U.W.: So how did they "get your number"?
They found out that I came from Western Ukraine. They gave a shake-up to everyone. I went home, to Rivne Oblast, to visit my parents. And when I came back... I was walking along the Karl Marx street. And I saw six people standing there, waiting. They took me and clapped irons on me on the corner of Marx and Shevchenko streets. They took me to the KGB. There, in cell No. 3, I spent some time. On March 7, 1956, I was sent to Kyiv. I still remember some of the names of "my" KGBists. For example, Chernomorets, whose real name was Hnyda. He was not such a bad person after all, and during the investigation, he even helped me a little bit... I also remember Lieutenant Huzyeyev... Anyway, the result is well known: Vorkuta again, only this time not for long, because the "thaw" had already started, and GULAG was decreasing in size. So, in December 1959 I was already free.
U.W.: When were you scared?
I can't remember ever being scared. I remember in October 1954, when I was walking home after the flight, there were two wolverines following me. We went together as far as the Usa River. The river was shallow, but it was in flood. I walked across the river, and the wolverines stayed behind. On another occasion, a wolf followed me all the way to Kotlas. For about 30 kilometers. There was already snow on the ground. You walk, and something is cracking behind you. You stop, and there's no sound. That wolf followed me at a distance of 10 meters. And so we came to the North Dvina. The river was about 80 meters wide. I made a raft and left. When I pulled out, the wolf started howling! I waved him goodbye, and my hair stood on end. God sent that wolf to protect me.
In general, I am not afraid of death. But I do not want to die.
U.W.: After getting out of jail for a second time, you finally acquired a higher education. How did it happen?
In 1962, I entered the Kirovohrad Pedagogical Institute to study Biology. In 1964, I transferred to the evening department of Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. It had a department of Biochemistry, in which I was interested. I "served" for three years in the library, reading boring books. There, in a sometimes half-empty hall, I was noticed by professor Ferdman, the author of the textbooks that I was reading. We became friends. He even invited me to his home.
U.W.: Were you affected by the wave of the Ukrainian national revival in Kyiv in those days (1964-1967)?
No. I lived a lonely life. I studied at the evening department, lived in a dorm, and on weekends I went to Kirovohrad, where I already had a family. I studied, making up for the lost time. Later, I worked as a teacher. First, in the village of Dobre in Vilshany County. I did not stay there for long, though, because I could not stand the headmaster, who happened to be a scoundrel. Staff director of the Kirovograd Oblast Board of Education sent me to Pavlysh to work for writer Vasyl Sukhomlynsky. He was already famous at that time. He received me very politely and kindly, and we started to talk. Sukhomlynsky said that we needed to develop villages, and that a good teacher was the one who prepared the youth for the village life. I believed, however, that students had to prepare for universities, to become first-class specialists. So, eventually I ended up in Ustynivka County in the south of Kirovohrad Oblast. There I worked as a teacher of chemistry, in the village of Sednivka.
U.W.: You mentioned your family...
I married a girl from my home village. She is a true friend to me. We share the same interests. She rescued me many times. The KGB never left me alone. Several times they came to our place looking for weapons. So my wife would tell them, "Don't come in, he (that is, me) is in such a state that he can do something to you..." She scared them away. Now she is ill, unfortunately. We have two children: son Hryhoriy (he worked at a chemical factory and now lives in Kyiv) and daughter Lyudmyla. She teaches at a college in Kirovohrad. My son was also under pressure, because of me.
U.W.: How many former UPA fighters still remain in the region?
There are only five combatants left: Volodymyr Karatash, Lyudmyla Hryhoraschenko, Anastasia Drobot, Oleksandr Koval and I, Semen Soroka.
U.W.: All who know you agree that "Soroka is an incurable optimist." Is it so?
Certainly. I am sure that Ukraine will have a future.
Semen Soroka was born on August 3, 1928 in the village of Krychylsk in Rivne Oblast to a family of farmers. From June 1943 to 1948, he took part in the national liberation struggle of the Ukrainian people against the Nazis and the Bolsheviks in the Northern Polissya. He served as a courier of a UPA detachment led by Kucher (Danylo Kulish) under the alias of Yasen. He took part in the battle with NKVD Interior Troops in Horodets woods in late May 1944 (Sarny County of Rivne Oblast). In 1948-1952, he studied at an agricultural college in Dubno. Arrested in 1952 by the Security Service of the USSR. Sentenced on August 26, 1952 by the court martial of the Carpathian Military District under Articles 54-1A, 54-8, 54-11 and 54-20 of the Criminal Code of the USSR to 25 years of correctional labor. In 1954, he managed to escape from the concentration camp and return to his home village. He visited Donbas, where former political prisoners worked. He later got a job in Kirovohrad, where on March 7, 1956 he was again arrested by the Soviet security service. He served his second sentence in Inta and Vorkuta. He was released in December 1958.
Since 1959, Semen Soroka has been living in Kirovohrad. He worked in construction and studied at the Kirovohrad Pedagogical Institute and at Taras Shevchenko University in Kyiv. Since 1988, member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Group. On April 30, 1990, headed the regional branch of the Ukrainian Republican Party. In 1992, along with other former political prisoners (Dmytro Ambrozyak, Ivan Zadorozhny, Anastasia Kytsko, and Fedir Ukhan), established a regional branch of the All-Ukrainian Fellowship of UPA Fighters named after General Roman Shukhevych (Taras Chuprynka), which is made up of two sections: combatants and fellows. The former includes immediate participants of the Resistance movement within the Ukrainian Insurgent Army that operated in 1941-1945 in the territory of the Kirovohrad steppe region, while the latter consists of those who did not have a chance to fight for the independence of Ukraine with arms in hand. In 1997, Semen Soroka and repressed rebel fighters founded a society of political prisoners and repressed in Kirovohrad oblast.
Semen Soroka is currently engaged in human rights activities
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?