Heorhiy Moskalenko and Viktor Kuksa raised the blue-and-yellow flag in Kyiv 45 years ago
Two young man, student Moskalenko and worker Kuksa, planted the Ukrainian national banner on the roof of a Kyiv National Economy Institute building on the eve of the May 1, 1966 communist parade. For their bold act, both were sent to prison camps in Mordovia. The Ukrainian Week spoke with them 45 years after they fearlessly unfolded the national flag in Kyiv amidst a sea of red.
AT THE SCENE OF THE “CRIME”
We met near the same institute which is now Vadym Hetman Kyiv National Economic University. A bronze memorial plaque bears witness to the courageous flag-hoisting act. Curiously, this is not the original plaque – the first one was put there by of some activists in the early days of Ukraine's independence. The inscription mentioned fighting against “Muscovite-Bolshevik invaders,” so the University administration replaced it with a less controversial one. However, they mistakenly named Kuksa “Vasyl” and had to make a third plaque.
“I was working as a welder and Moskalenko was studying in this institute. He is an Odessa native who came to Kyiv in 1955 to work in the construction sector and stayed. He lived in the same dorm with me. We did not really conceal our patriotic views.” Kuksa says. “Of course, it is not easy for the new generation to understand the times after the Khrushchev Thaw. Perhaps they will not be able to appreciate how significant this act was in the social atmosphere of the time. Stalinist views were making a comeback, but Ukrainian patriots tried to find any semi-legal means to express themselves. Circles like the Creative Youth Club were being set up; many Ukrainian patriots rallied around Leopold Yashchenko and the Homin choir. Samizdat editions were beginning to circulate, as well as books that were published in the 1920s and later banned. Ivan Dziuba’s Internationalism or Russification was passed around; poetry by Vasyl Symonenko, Volodymyr Sosiura and a young Pavlo Tychyna enjoyed much popularity.”
The communist system struck back. “Viacheslav Chornovil, Bohdan Horyn and Ivan Hel went to trial before my very eyes and were exiled, while Andrey Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel stood trial in Moscow. I even happened to be in the same camp with Siniavsky and have warm memories of our acquaintance. We could not sit back and watch Stalinism make a comeback. The idea of hoisting a blue-and-yellow flag was no prank. By then the Ukrainian renaissance had sent down strong roots among people living in dorms and participating in youth clubs. If we hadn’t done it, someone else would have.”
We enter the university's premises where the memorable “crime” took place. Little seems to have changed here since the 1960s. There is no tiling, unlike on the façade. The walls here are mouldy and an old fire ladder climbs a wall. This is perhaps the same ladder Kuksa used to climb to the roof with his home-made blue-and-yellow flag in hand. He used a kitchen knife to cut off a Soviet flag that was there (“not even the flag of the puppet republic Ukraine was there then!” he says, still brimming over with indignation). Both dissidents ran into more problems because of the knife: possession of cold steel was added to antigovernment activity on their indictment sheet. “You should've torn the Soviet flag down with your teeth,” the investigator said during interrogation, trying to humiliate them.
“This was standard practice at the time: apart from a political offense, indict a dissenter for some crime. For example, Stepan Khmara was charged with illegal currency exchange transactions and Vladimir Bukovsky with hooliganism,” Kuksa adds. “There was also the popular charge ‘assault on a policeman’ which was routinely added to the main alleged offense. Take Opanas Zalyvakha, for example [who was charged with this offense]. He is no bandit at all. He is a quiet, peaceful artist with his own view on the reality around him.”
Characteristically, Kuksa and Moskalenko were rehabilitated without any problem as far as the anti-Soviet offense was concerned, but it took them 14 long years to cleanse themselves of the criminal charge.
“Well, there were many strange things like that. For example, one prosecutor was enough to hand us a guilty verdict, but it took as many as 40 judges in two chambers – the Criminal Chamber and the Military Judicial Collegium of Ukraine’s Supreme Court – to clear us,” Kuksa says.
YELLOW IN SHORT SUPPLY
Kuksa climbed the ladder, while Moskalenko remained on the ground to keep watch. The watchmen and guards at the institute were drunk on the occasion of the coming holidays, so the two did not encounter any real problem carrying out their plan. The place was carefully picked: before the traditional march, columns of demonstrators lined up right by the Bilshovyk plant, almost across the street from the institute, so the flag would be seen by many. Incidentally, it stayed there longer than even the two heroes expected — the special services were afraid there was a bomb. But it was more of an ideological bomb.
The only serious obstacle to their plan was, surprisingly, a commonplace Soviet phenomenon – short supply. There was simply no yellow fabric to be found in the entire city of Kyiv. So they bought two women’s scarves and sewed them together to make a yellow strip the length they needed.
“Moskalenko printed on the flag ‘Ukraine has not yet perished; it has not yet been killed’ and painted a trident. Later they identified us based on this writing. The entire staff of the institute was checked to see who wrote it,” Kuksa says.
Moskalenko adds: “I was summoned to the military registration office and asked to fill out a form allegedly needed to go abroad, and they asked me to print. I was mildly surprised, because no one was inviting me to leave the country. But I filled it out anyway and was caught.”
After a brief investigation they stood trial and received the expected guilty verdict. But the punishment made little sense. Moskalenko, who only guarded his companion, was sentenced to three years in prison, while Kuksa, who actually planted the flag, received two years. The latter explains the confusion by the fact that he was a worker, while his companion was a student, i.e., a representative of a potentially oppositionist social class.
“It is perhaps impossible to re-create now the atmosphere of those years when many, even in the law enforcement agencies, seriously believed that the Soviet Union was the kingdom of the proletariat. A general even came to my cell once to talk to me. He was surprised that a worker could be a nationalist. I told him frankly: my parents and grandparents were eyewitnesses of the proclamation of the UNR, then the Holodomor and the Bandera movement.”
Moskalenko learned the words of the Ukrainian national anthem while in elementary school. He later pondered Ukraine's constitutional right to withdraw from Soviet Union. But how did the idea arise that raising a blue-and-yellow flag was a crime against the Soviet Union?
“From the contemporary standpoint, this makes no sense. But for a prosecutor at the time the red flag was Soviet, while the blue-and-yellow one was anti-Soviet. It was very simple.”
Once they were put behind bars, the young men found themselves in the company of people with similar mindsets. “In addition to the Vlasovites and the Banderites, there were dissidents and nationalists from Ukraine, the Baltic states and even Western Belarus,” Kuksa says. “I was sent to a camp in the Mordovian village of Yavas where I met Ivan Hel, Bohdan Horyn, Mustafa Jemilev and Siniavsky. A total of about 500 people were kept there many of whom were intellectuals, artists, poets or teachers. So there were no conflicts there. We may not have been fed well, but we were young and hopeful. At the time, a person could feel more human in a political camp than living in Soviet realities on the other side of the barbed wire. I never heard anyone use offensive expletives. We even read books, but later they limited our access to the library when they saw that reading did not help change any of the dissidents.”
Kuksa also remembers the Vlasovites: “There were few ethnic Russians in the dissident movement, even though people who served in Vlasov’s Russian Liberation Army were still in the camp completing their terms.” Incidentally, they were the first in Soviet times to start using the tricolor which is now Russia's national flag again.
Moskalenko adds: “As we were moved to Kharkiv, I saw arrested Russian nationalists from the underground organization run by the People’s Labor Union. I was struck by the fact they were all young and proud of being convicted for their beliefs. I don’t know which camp they were placed in. There were Jehovah’s witnesses, Pentecostals and some other religious prisoners whom the camp administration openly humiliated. The investigators would ask them one question only: Do you renounce religious superstitions? Those who did not were handed another sentence. But the prison was a good school: there were many intellectuals there and representatives of national movements from other republics. We talked about politics every day. UPA fighter Stepan Mamchur was there; I feel I did not talk to him enough during those three years.”
The adventure with the national flag wrought havoc in the lives of both men. Even after they were released, they were kept under close surveillance by the KGB.
“In 1969, after I was released, I grasped how huge a structure the KGB was,” Kuksa remembers. “It had countless operatives, clerks and detectives, while I was the only nationalist in the entire district. I sensed how wary my colleagues were – I don’t know what they had been told about me at party meetings. They watched every step I took. Vasyl Stus was still free at the time, so I went to see him. The next day I was summoned to the KGB which was already informed of my visit.”
Moskalenko fared no better. “After release I could not find a job anywhere or even get a housing registration. Wherever I went, I needed a permission slip from the State Security Committee. Every trip to the committee meant attempts to recruit me as a secret agent — it was moral terror. I was expelled when I was in my fifth year of studies; they didn’t even let me complete my diploma. Re-enrolment without permission from the KGB was out of the question. I never obtained a higher education and eventually found a job as a plumber in Kyivspetsmontazh.”
Now both men are retired. Moskalenko says that the regional pension fund turned down his application for a pension raise as a victim of repressions. Kuksa was more fortunate — he received an additional UAH 200 per month. But apart from that, the two men have the feeling of their moral justice, medals recognizing them "For Courage" and a memorial plaque on the wall of Vadym Hetman University.