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6 June, 2011  ▪  Volodymyr Panchenko

Free In Captivity

Valerii Marchenko chose death over submitting to evil

The Ukrainian Week continues its series of articles about landmark figures in Ukrainian history and literature that were forced, under the pressure of the repressive communist government, to choose between protest and death. The first instalment was about Mykola Zerov (UW, 12/2011), the second about Mykola Khvylovy (UW, 15/2011); today Volodymyr Panchenko turns to Valerii Marchenko.

“It's hard to grasp but it's true: Valerii was happy. There, in a camp for political prisoners, he wrote the things that people were afraid to say aloud outside prisons. While he was being stigmatized as a “renegade and bourgeois nationalist” from public rostrums, he turned into a writer in the camps. He was a Ukrainian, non-Soviet writer. Not a fanatic, not a revolutionary, not an extremist – he was just like you and I. Only better.”

Semyen Hluzman


Valerii Marchenko (1947-84) spent 9 out of the 37 years of his life in prison and exile. There is no need to construct some kind of “alternative” biography along the following lines: What would be if he had not written the articles which earned him his first “6+2” (colony+exile) verdict and then “10+5” (high-security camps+exile) from the “most humane Soviet court”? Or what would be if he had repented and “stepped on the path of correction,” to use a Soviet cliché? None of that could have happened. His was a different character. He made his choice not to renounce it later.

And so one naturally asks: What made him abandon his career as a journalist, translator andliterary scholar and become someone persecuted for the truth? His mother, Nina Mykhailivna, a professional educator, said that he had an acute sense of honesty since childhood. The story of his dissident activities, his via dolorosa which began in 1973 with arrest and trial, shows that he had aтinstinctive sense of justice strong enough to be his lifelong guideline and moral imperative and, eventually, determine his fate.

Before 1972, he was known as Valera Umrylov, but he then decided to adopt his mother's maiden name – Marchenko. Evidently, it was again his sense of justice: his mother was not happy with her first husband and their marriage dissolved; she had a different last name after marrying for the second time, so her son's decision meant solidarity with his closest person and renouncing formality for the sake of connection that was important to him. His grandfather, Mykhailo Ivanovych Marchenko, was a professor of history and the first Soviet rector of Lviv University. He was repressed in 1941 and kept in a Novosibirsk prison until 1944. His life was part of what they call a family legend. Later, when he was already in a prison colony, Valerii would recount that his grandfather’s book Borotba Rosii i Polshchi za Ukrainu (Struggle between Russia and Poland for Ukraine) “taught many people to love their motherland.” “Myself included,” he would add. At the same time, the life of his father was a subject that stimulated him to reflect on real Soviet history which was unlike the textbook version.

His intellectual biography is yet to be written. What do we know about his childhood and young years and how his soul gradually matured to eventually give rise to doubts and questions that took the form of a protest against the unfair and mendacious regime? There is little we know beyond officially recorded events in his biography. Here are the dry lines from his dossier: graduated from school; enrolled in the Faculty of Philology at Kyiv University; joined the editorial office of Literary Ukraine in 1970. What were, in reality, the things this young Kyivite lived by? (Outwardly, he resembled Jean-Paul Belmondo and sometimes joked about the fact.)

As I read his articles and letters, I tried to find reflections, or recollections, from his childhood or early youth. A clear conclusion suggested itself: at a very early age, Valerii began to compare the official “truth” with what he saw around himself and the things he learned from oral history, in particular in his family. He learned that Ukraine experienced the Holodomor in 1933, but this fact could not be officially mentioned. Newspapers were proclaiming the triumph of Lenin’s policy on nationalities, while Ukraine was losing its language.

Marchenko’s dissident activities began with simple statements about the untruthfulness of official information. His instinct for justice reacted especially acutely to wrongdoings against the Ukrainian nation. In 1968, Ivan Dziuba’s Internationalism or Russification? shocked him. The things he had been considering were presented in the book in a systematic fashion and buttressed with clear arguments. The author was arguing that under the slogans of quality the Soviet Union was cruelly assimilating nations with the intention of annihilating them.

Marchenko was one of those Ukrainians who did not want this “merger” to happen.


However, his first literary attempts were not linked with dissent. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, he intensively translated from Azeri and published three books of translations. His interest in the Orient was sparked by his admiration for the noted orientalist Ahatanhel Krymsky. And then in a serendipitous turn of events Kyiv University dispatched six students to Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan to study the languages of the Caucasus. Valerii chose Baku.

He wrote several interesting articles about Krymsky’s heritage. The largest one was titled “Ahatanhel Krymsky as a student of Azerbaijani literature” (1970) and was, on paper, a student report. However, it was in fact something much more important and deeper than that. Marchenko studied a great number of sources and archived data and was presumably intending to pen a bigger work.

In general, his articles on Krymsky evidence the author’s desire to seize the opportunity and say something important about Ukraine’s problems at the time in the language of Aesop. But then a time came when he spoke straightforwardly. In 1971, he published articles “Behind the screen of ideology” and “A Kyiv dialog.” The former was devastating criticism of Soviet cliché-ridden literature. The author also spoke about Ukraine’s lack of freedom, the 1933 famine, and books by Volodymyr Vynnychenko, Mykola Khvylovy, Mykhailo Hrushevsky, and Dmytro Yavornytsky which had been “taken out of circulation”. The latter article was about the critical situation with Ukrainian culture and language in conditions of creeping Russification. It was written as a conversation between two young Kyivites – “Little Russian” Alik who was content with everything and a conscious Ukrainian who revealed the horrifying picture of national culture and language being destroyed from 1929 until the early 1970s. This dialog has not lost its relevance even today.

On June 23, 1973, Marchenko was arrested. Several days earlier, a Komsomol meeting in Literary Ukraine, where he worked at the time, stripped him of membership in this organization. His articles were added to the case as “anti-Soviet documents.” He was charged with criminal activity aimed at “undermining and weakening the Soviet government” and “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” On December 29, 1973, a judicial board for criminal cases in Kyiv Oblast Court sentenced him to six years in colonies and two years in exile under point 1, Article 62 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR.


Once in confinement, he analyzed his experiences, rebuked himself for a deplorable lack of experience in a duel against “trained investigators,” and tried to understand the conduct of his former friends who spoke to the KGB as sincerely as if they were in a confessional (article “Ordinary fear,” 1975). He mentioned a flight attendant, Maryna Pervak, who “signaled” to the KGB about his “suspicious conversations and articles” (“My fair lady,” 1975).

Meanwhile, Marchenko had to get used to his new life. His saga in prison and exile spanning 1974-81 is best represented in the letters he wrote to his mother, which were published in book format in the 1990s. He wanted to spare her, so you will not see the whole truth about camps in these epistles. They sound cheerful and witty. Most frequently, he mentioned the books he had read and joked at one point: We have an entire PEN club here. Indeed, he met true friends there, a marvelous brotherhood of Soviet captives. “Walking monuments to humanity” is what a former UPA fighter, Stepan Mamchur, called them. (Marchenko was deeply impressed by the unvanquished spirit of UPA servicemen.)

Semen Hluzman, himself a former prisoner of conscience, is right: Valerii felt happy in a camp for political prisoners. Paradoxically, there he had freedom – freedom of thought. Internal freedom became to him more important than life itself. And he fought. He wrote many articles which made it outside the prison walls and were published in the foreign press.


Could he have possibly agreed to write a renunciation when in 1977, at age 30, he was brought to Kyiv and put in the KGB’s pretrial detention unit? They tried to influence his mother and talked to him directly about the need to “repent.” There, at 33 Volodymyrska Str., he wrote to his mother a letter than cannot be read calmly for it is brimming over with love and anguish and, at the same time, a clear understanding that a betrayal would be a burden too heavy for both mother and son: “Mother, please forgive me! I drove away the haunting thoughts which asked: How do you love me? What do I mean to you in your life? Otherwise my life would be hell. I drove these thoughts away and then for the first time, suddenly and in plain view like an open wound, I saw you crying and, believe me, I had never suffered bigger torment as long as I remember myself. I returned to my cell and asked God: What is this entire world for if a person like you is suffering? What am I for? To cause pain to the most loved being I have? These are cursed questions to which I myself cannot find answers. I am agonizing over them, and one more thing: How can I keep my respect and love for mother and avoid ruining myself for the sake of our most wonderful relationship? I do not want to join the large number of those who, unable to stand the test and having left the path of morality, resort to the saving argument: Others are the same. You are the only one I have, and I do not want to listen to anyone or anything that says that for the sake of biological existence next to your mother you can kill yourself as a spiritual being. I believe that upon thoughtful consideration you will agree with me. Does a mother need a moral pervert who, when asked “Have you lived as a hypocrite the past 30 years?”, is forced to gag his conscience and agree, mumbling something about disease and unbearable conditions? Is this the kind of life a mother would wish for her son? I don’t believe it! I do not know any friend of mine who would adore his mother this much. But I know that you are worthy of the best and loftiest praise. I do not want these words to come out of a foul mouth. As much as I can, I will make sure it does not happen.”

It was a biblical story of a son converting his mother to his faith.

After keeping Marchenko in a pretrial unit for six months and failing to obtain a renunciation from him, the KGB sent him back to camps in the Perm area, to “death zone” No. 36.


Despite a serious kidney condition and the inhuman conditions of the camp, Marchenko survived his “6+2” sentence. There is a marvelous page in this story – his acquaintance by correspondence with an Italian student, Sandra Fappiano and their ensuing exchange of letters. She obtained his address from Amnesty International and began writing to the village of Saralzhin in Aktiubinsk oblast (Kazakhstan) where he was in exile. Their dialog continued for three years, from October 1980 until October 1983. She dreamed of having Marchenko come to Italy for medical treatment after his release.

Where are the theater directors who would recreate the wistful and pure story of Valerii and Sandra in the language of art? Their correspondence was recently published as a book with a preface by Myroslav Marynovych, who was in exile in the same village, and Valerii’s mother. Sandra has also been found – she is now researching the history of Soviet “martyrs of communism.”

In 1981, Marchenko was released. It took him a long time to find a job. Eventually, he was hired as a night watchman, but in a totalitarian state men like him were doomed to find themselves behind bars again. He continued his struggle. He maintained connections with dissidents and shipped banned materials abroad. He wrote. His mother remembered that in Kyiv he “turned to God and started going to church.” In the fall of 1983, he was arrested again and his correspondence with Sandra ended. The court sentenced him to “10+5” – 15 years of captivity.

He was transported under guard along a secret route a high-security camp in the village of Kuchino (Chusov rayon, Perm oblast). The trip took 55 days and brought him to the same zone — No. 36) — from which Vasyl Stus never returned. This new crime committed by the communist leadership of the USSR evoked a wide response in the world. The Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Böll demanded that Valerii be sent abroad if he was deemed so politically disloyal inside the USSR. It was never to happen. Marchenko had to be eliminated. On October 5, 1984, suffering from a bad case of nephritis, he died in a prison hospital in Leningrad. U.S. President Ronald Reagan and the U.S. Department of State reacted by issuing statements.

His mother was forced to literally snatch his body from the KGB and eventually return it to Ukraine. He was buried near his grandfather in a village cemetery in Hatne, near Kyiv. His mother found her last place of rest there in the spring of 2011. Marchenko was rehabilitated on October 12, 1990, by the Plenum of the Supreme Court of the Ukrainian SSR. The political situation was rapidly changing, so the plenum quickly repealed the 1984 verdict and closed his case “for lack of corpus delicti in his actions.” Legal arguments were promptly found: the cased lacked evidence that the accused “intended to undermine or weaken the Soviet government,” while his articles and letters “could not be viewed as incitement to struggle against the Soviet government.”

This means, in principle that everyone who was involved in this murder would have had to stand trial without being able to shield themselves with the excuse that they had just followed the law effective at the time. The 1990 acquittal was based on the same law.


The next day after Easter Holiday in 2011 I went to Hatne to pay my respect by the grave of a person whose moral imperative prompted him to choose death rather than submit to evil. It was not hard to find it in the small cemetery, and the white cross on his grave was easy to spot from afar. The inscription on the tombstone read: “Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” On the day of his burial, a few dozen KGB agents were all around the cemetery, trying to have the zinc casket buried as soon as possible. But it happened otherwise: his casket remained in the church for several hours after the requiem service. And the KGB officers could do nothing about it.

What were they afraid of? Speeches? Demotion for oversight? This was merely a case of guards zealously serving their regime, which was about to perish ingloriously. Fear of the dead was a symptom of its last agony.

Marchenko did not have the slightest doubt that the “empire of lies” would fall apart sooner or later. He also knew that he would hardly live to see this epic historical act. He had no regrets. He was content to have the truth and righteousness on his side.

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