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3 July, 2012  ▪  Oleksandr Syrtsov

Yaromyr Mykytko — Third-generation Political Prisoner

His earliest childhood memory is a long gloomy corridor in a barracks. Yaromyr Mykytko was born on 12 March 1953 in Prokopievsk, Kemerovo Region. When he was three, his family returned to Galicia but his parents kept their Siberia experience to themselves for a long time

FAMILY CAMPS

Mykytko’s relatives did not get along with the Soviet authorities from the very beginning. His father’s father, Hryhoriy, was elected village elder in Ostriv (now part of Shchyrets, a town south of Lviv) under the Germans. He informed his fellow villagers about requisition campaigns the Germans planned and won people’s respect. When the Soviets returned to Galicia, they exiled Hryhoriy to Siberia. Mykytko’s other grandfather, Ivan, also had a bitter experience. In 1941, the local castle in his native Zolochiv turned into a veritable NKVS torture chamber. The Germans later allowed the locals to search for the bodies of their relatives in the castle’s dungeon. Ivan was among those who arranged for the victims of Stalinism to be reinterred. When the Soviets returned to the city in 1944, he was exiled to Siberia for his efforts.

The children of these two men, Oleksiy and Volodymyra, met in Kemerovo Region, and Yaromyr was born to them in 1953. In 1956, after the 20th Communist Party Congress, Hryhoriy and Ivan were partly rehabilitated and were able to return to Ukraine. However, they were prohibited from settling in Lviv Region and chose Sambir instead, which was in Drohobych Region at the time.

THE YOUNG UNDERGROUND ACTIVISTS

There was no armed underground in Galicia anymore, but the Soviets were unable to eradicate the region's patriotic spirit. Yaromyk happened to be in the same class with Zorian Popadiuk who was a major influence on him. His mother taught German in Lviv University and was friends with many dissidents: the Kalynets couple, Stefania Shabatura, Viacheslav Chornovil and others. Only hopeless romanticists could fight the regime back then, and that is exactly what Zorian and Yaromyr were. But they also knew just what that entailed, Mykytko recollects.

In 1971, Yaromyr entered the Lviv Institute of Forestry Engineering. That summer, six friends gathered together at Popadiuk’s place in Sambir and founded the Ukrainian National Liberation Front (UNLF), an underground organisation for Ukraine’s independence.

Despite the Front’s underground status, Zorian made a seal, sowed together a blue-and-yellow flag with the organisation’s logo and purchased a used Ukraina typewriter with money contributed as membership fees. The young men used the Ukraina to type the first issue of the Postup (Progress) magazine and a large number of leaflets. In 1972, they distributed 75 leaflets dedicated to the fourth anniversary of the events in Czechoslovakia. The friends would board a bus headed from Lviv to Ivano-Frankivsk and posted them at every major station. However, part of the leaflets were printed on a typewriter in the reception room of the first secretary of the Turka District Party Committee. Zorian earlier happened to make an acquaintance with his son, who was a student and agreed to give a helping hand.

Dissident organisations were few and far between, but they kept in contact. The UNLF cooperated with an underground discussion club run by history majors in Lviv: “They prepared and discussed reports on ‘grey areas’ in Ukraine’s past. Our activity was more political in nature; we stuck to national-democratic ideology,” Yaromyk recollects.

A PROSECUTOR IN AN EMBROIDERED SHIRT

In 1972, a wave of repression swept across Ukraine. In January, the KGB arrested a large group of Ukrainian dissidents, including Olena Antoniv, Iryna and Ihor Kalynets, Chornovil and Liubomyra Popadiuk. The formal grounds for the arrest – a Christmas nativity play – was not too convincing. So the KGB carried out a special operation: anti-Soviet literature was found in the baggage of a Belgian student of Ukrainian origin named Dobos who was crossing the border and so the dissidents were charged with having connections to foreign intelligence services.

The UNLF was shut down some time later. On 27 March 1973, Mykytko posted leaflets that spoke about a ban in holding a Taras Shevchenko soirée in Lviv University. It was raining that day, so when there were only 10 sheets of paper left in his pocket, he went home, to his relatives’ place in Levandivka where he lived at the time. He immediately went to bed but did not have much chance for sleep – just a few minutes later, men in civilian dress rang the doorbell, entered and began a search in his room. They did not find anything and never thought about checking the jacket. But nevertheless they ordered the young man to get his things and follow them. Fortunately, there was another jacket in the hallway, so the key evidence was not found.

Six days later, his UNLF friends began to be released. Finally, it was his and Zorian’s turn: they were identified as the key figures in the case. General Poluden, KGB chief in Lviv Region, only asked during an interrogation: “Are you revenging your grandfather?”

Yaromyr and Zorian were handed a guilty verdict on 23 August 1973. Yaromyr’s attorney, a one-legged WWII veteran, only encouraged him by saying that Ivan Dziuba had received a conditional sentence. Prosecutor Antonenko, who appeared in court in an embroidered shirt, spoke exclusively in Russian and related atrocities allegedly committed by Ukrainian nationalists. He called the two young men murderers and traitors of the Fatherland and pressed for maximum terms for both. The court declared them to be especially dangerous state criminals and found them guilty under Articles 62 and 64 – anti-Soviet activity and propaganda. Yaromyr was sentenced to five years in a maximum security penal colony and Zorian to seven years in a penal colony and five years of exile.

GULAG GEOGRAPHY

From a solitary cell in the Prison on Loncky Street, Yaromyr was taken to the Lviv cargo train station and put on a prison train. The carriage had shuttered windows and a barred compartment into which 40-year-old repeat offenders, 15 all in all, were packed like sardines. “How many people have you killed to get that especially dangerous state criminal sentence?” asked an elder. When the criminals heard that Yaromyr was imprisoned for leaflets, they began to sway the carriage forcing the train had to stop. “Have you started throwing kids behind bars?” they yelled. He travelled with these old criminals to Kharkiv where he stayed in a transit prison. From there he was taken north, and on the way there his fellow travellers, this time young criminals, took away his clothes and food.

Yaromyr began to study the geography of the GULAG – station by station. Finally, they arrived at the 17th camp. The political prisoners were kept in separate barracks from the criminals there, so the atmosphere was calm. But they were moved to a different camp every year. Yaromyr sowed tarpaulin gloves in the 17th camp, felled wood in the 19th, tailored and worked metal in the 35th and installed metal-working equipment in the 37th.

The fear which gripped his heart on the way to the camps was soon gone – he met people there who helped him mature as a person with established principles and views. The blossom of the intelligentsia was behind bars at the time. A school principal from Boiarka helped Yaromyr learn English. He also found former UPA fighters and Baltic “forest brothers” there. He met many Ukrainian, Russian, Jewish, Moldovan and Armenian dissidents. There were also democrats from the Bukovsky group, monarchists, Marxists and Jews who had renounced Soviet citizenship.

RETURN

In 1978, Mykytko returned to Sambir. He was kept under supervision for six months, but his main problem was finding a job within three months. Otherwise he would have faced imprisonment again, this time for parasitism. The “political” article under which he had been sentenced was nothing short of a curse, so his father had to appeal to a district party committee, no less, after which Yaromyr received an entry-level job in a forestry company. Six years later he obtained a college diploma through a distance course.

Popadiuk returned to Sambir a few years later and was elected mayor in 1990. He immediately invited his old buddy to be his councillor. The ideas for which they had served time in prison and the independent Ukraine of which they dreamt were becoming a reality.


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