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19 December, 2011

Painful Memory

The Bolshevik execution of 359 fighters who participated in the UNR’s Second Winter Campaign immortalized the area which is now quietly dying

These villages – Bazar, Zvizdal and Mali Minky –are located in Narodychi District, Zhytomyr Region, and are unlikely to draw the attention of average Ukrainians. They have no future. They are in the contaminated zone and the population received mandatory evacuation orders after the Chornobyl accident. Nothing has happened here for a long while. Mali Minky has even been deregistered — no people, no village. There are hardly 500 residents here, most everyone who lives here is a pensioner. Like in all other areas of Polissia, life is hard and dull here – the same routine day after day.

There is just one diversion in the village – watching the odd group of people arriving in cars and buses from Zhytomyr or sometimes even from Kyiv once a year. The locals do not merge with the crowd, preferring to watch from a distance. They act as if it is not their business, but in fact, it is theirs and our common history.

The Bolshevik execution of 359 fighters who participated in the UNR’s Second Winter Campaign immortalized the area which is now quietly dying. A large monument in the form of a chapel, erected by representatives of democratic and nationalist parties in 2000, is a reminder of the failed attempt to restore freedom to Ukraine. The monument was sponsored by British Ukrainians – collections were made in Ukrainian Orthodox churches and in the chapters of the UPA Fighters Brotherhood.

Still, the residents of the village have preferred to forget the story of restoring the memory of the 1921 battle, as well as torture and execution in fields, some of which later became people's gardens. Two neglected graves, each several dozen meters long, are convincing proof. All the streets have the names of communist-time leaders and heroes. A thought crossed my mind: communism died, and this island of communism is also dying. But it was not always so. Bazar invited several hundred Ukrainian nationalists from Andriy Melnyk’s faction in the fall of 1941. Oleh Olzhych, an OUN leader and prominent poet, organized a massive rally on the 20th anniversary of the tragedy. People erected a birch cross and sang the Ukrainian national anthem. The next morning, the Gestapo began searching for those who had dared to act on their own without first getting consent from the occupation authorities. Historians say that over 700 patriots were killed in Zhytomyr Region alone for this. Olzhych died in Sachsenhausen several years later. Of course, the cross did not survive, either.

Soviet authorities, who never forgot to glorify their own victories, erected a red granite rock at the place of the battle with an inscription that reads: “To the fighters of a brigade led by Civil War hero Hryhoriy Kotovsky who in November 1921 routed a large group of White Guard bandits in this area. Erected to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Great October Socialist Revolution.”

For 55 years there was no monument to Kotovsky’s butchers, and then, in 1987 during perestroika, the activists who found the opportunity to commemorate the victory of the Reds were Ukrainians – “White Guard bandits,” according to an anonymous author of the inscription. That rock is still there.

Speaking aloud about the Bazar tragedy is nearly taboo in the village. There was one notable exception, though. In 1990, former political prisoner Vasyl Ovsiyenko, a native of the neighboring Radomyshl District, came to the village and recorded the testimony of Halyna Yesypchuk, an intelligent, Russian-speaking woman. In 1921, when she was 16, her father, a local judge, had a hog slaughtered and her mother gave her a piece of meat wrapped in cloth and told her to take it to the prisoners, who were kept in churches and synagogues. Halyna also brought cloth for bandages to the medical assistant, because he had a house filled with the wounded. These events were engraved in her memory for the rest of her life.

I heard on many occasions a true detective story from Ovsiyenko about how Ukrainian Republic Party and Rukh members tried to commemorate the fallen Ukrainian fighters in Bazar under the Soviets. This happened shortly before Ukraine regained its independence. The activists were met by a combination of district committee members wearing deer-skip caps (a status symbol at the time), white shirts, ties and (surprise!) brand-new quilted coats and “Afghanistan war veterans,” who claimed to be “the ordinary people.” Holding up placards “Shame to Petliura and Bandera’s Offspring!” and “We Won’t Tolerate Nationalism and Extremism!”, they blocked passage for those who wanted to visit the unmarked graves of Tiutiunnyk’s riflemen.

Relying on the force of the law and their numerical advantage, the police helped restore order Soviet-style. They took away itinerary orders from drivers; private cars were stopped and send back under various excuses. Complaints to the prosecutor's office went unanswered. Just like these days. A wooden cross brought by two patriots at night had to be hidden in the bushes, and it stayed there for an entire year. Then the political situation changed, and those who had erected monuments to Kotovsky’s fighters just a very short time earlier turned into Ukrainian statesmen before our very eyes. They learned to cross themselves and sing the national anthem.

I have not heard about any students from Kyiv or Zhytomyr being brought to this legendary place, to honor the memory of the valiant Ukrainians who fought this desperate fight. There is no museum in the village. There are only people who travel at their own expense to the village where the hope of restoring the Ukrainian National Republic was buried in the ground.

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