Writer and film director Heliy Snehirov was unable to exist in the crushing Soviet atmosphere and paid for freedom with his life
The Ukrainian Week continues its series of articles about landmark figures in Ukrainian history and literature who were forced, under the pressure of the repressive communist government, to choose between protest and death. This instalment is about the life and tragic end of Heliy Snehirov.
We are used to the fact that in Soviet times and later people usually acquired a certain worldview — an ideology — at an early age and then stuck to it throughout their lives. At the same time, there were people who had enough courage, strength and spiritual and intellectual resources to undertake a revision of both their own lives and their views on the external world: societies, countries, states and even entire mother civilizations. One of these was Heliy Snehirov.
ARTISTIC CREATION IN A SYSTEM BASED ON CONFORMING
Snehirov was born in Kharkiv to the family of a writer in October 1927. He was christened Yevhen, but his given name was Heliy (helium) — a tribute to the fashion of the time. People were fond of aeronautics; air balloons and airships were filled with helium, and so his parents came up with this exotic name for their son.
Heliy was, perhaps, the handsomest man I have ever known. An athlete with an excellent figure, fisherman and hunter – he attracted women like a magnet. Oleksandr Dovzhenko once said about our ancient Slavic past: “It was the time when Varangians walked around in our villages.” Snehirov had this kind of combination of Slavic and Scandinavian traits. Perhaps this was why he found himself studying to be an actor at Kharkiv Theatrical Institute. Later, when he found in himself both the capability and desire to work in cinema and literature, he moved to Kyiv where he eventually became the editor-in-chief in Ukrinokhronika. Literary Ukraine published his submissions when he began writing in the 1950s. He was later admitted to the Writers’ Union. Heliy produced typical Soviet documentaries about the best farmers, workers and engineers in the country. In short, Snehirov was the epitome of the Soviet middle class.
And then, all of a sudden, Novyi Mir (New World), ran by Alexander Tvardovsky, published his short story Narody meni try syny (Bear Three Sons for Me) in 1967. It proved to be one of the most serious texts in the entire array of literature on the Second World War. It is a story of a female war veteran who fell in love with a young man during the war when she was young. He was killed, but she continued to love him, dooming herself to loneliness. For several months this short story put Snehirov at the forefront of the progressive literature of the time. Director Anatoliy Efros wanted to use its plot for his play. It seemed that Snehirov was destined to continue writing, reaching ever higher.
However, almost at the same time he filmed one of the first illegal rallies in Babyn Yar at which Ivan Dziuba delivered a public speech. This led to his demotion to an ordinary editor in Ukrinokhronika.
He was grieved by the events of 1968, because Czechoslovakia was a hope, a kind of chance for change. There was also the fierce crackdown on the Ukrainian intelligentsia by the republican authorities in 1965. Like most intellectuals, Heliy was irked to see it happen but did not interfere. Perhaps this was the first time he stopped and wondered: What kind of world am I living in? Why is this meanness all around? What is happening to all of us? His older friend Viktor Nekrasov, with whom he had had a close relationship since the 1950s, helped him to find answers.
In January 1974, the KGB spent several days conducting an unexpected and brutal search of Nekrasov’s apartment. When the news reached Heliy, he immediately visited Nekrasov to offer at least some psychological support. He arrived amidst the search and the KGB officers asked him: “Mr. Snehirov, would you mind if we search your apartment, too?”
He later told me that the parade of black Volgas driving up to his building probably looked like friends coming over to an outsider. He had a good sense of irony and even imagined one of the agents could suddenly say: “Guys, who is going to go buy some vodka?” They entered the apartment together and Heliy told them: “Do whatever you want.” And then he lay down on the couch and went to sleep. Meanwhile, his wife, the poet Kateryna Kvitnytska, cast some acidic remarks to the KGB men, even though she was in greater peril than her husband: the beginning of a poem about her friend Dziuba was sticking out of the typewriter. Another woman in the house, Maria, who was nearly 90, was extremely scared: she thought that the KGB had come to search for an illegal alcohol still. Snehirov was a master of distilling moonshine; his name was known throughout Kyiv and his drink was known as snehirovka. So the old woman placed herself on top of the box where the still was hidden and stayed there for the duration of the five-hour-search. What a show it was!
The KGB did not confiscate anything significant in Snehirov’s apartment except for his “dubious” prose, a fiery letter to Stalin from the Soviet diplomat, “non-returnee” Fedor Raskolnikov, and tape recordings of Alexander Galich’s songs. The KGB could have dropped the case, but Snehirov was summoned and asked to testify against Nekrasov. He refused. After a short while he was expelled from all professional unions: those of cinematographers, writers, journalists and even hunters. And, of course, he lost his job in Ukrinokhronika. Within several months, without any good reason and only because he had refused to sever his ties with Nekrasov, his social biography was completely destroyed. He was absolutely declassed.
From the moment of this incident, Snehirov undertook a brilliant literary enterprise: he meticulously and at the same time with excellent imagery wrote down everything he endured. This is how his Roman-donos (Denunciation Novel) appeared. It is the astounding story of a society that found itself in a dead end, a society constructed on the foundation of terror, individual and collective humiliation and lies about the past and the possible future. The book contains facts and nothing but facts, as well as hundreds of real characters from Kyiv, Moscow and the provinces – Snehirov’s close friends, acquaintances and the entire Soviet system in general. It combines large dimensions with a purely individual existence. I also appeared in this novel as one of Snehirov’s closest friends – first under my real name and then as Valentyn. The author opted for an alias in order to avoid putting me in danger, as I said some very critical things in the novel. For example, at one point I declared in Snehirov’s apartment that we were living in a world that was more horrible than the Nazi state. This novel essentially documented our existence. To me, it is one of the most interesting and revealing texts of the 20th century. Western literature did not have this genre and it was a novelty in our society.
Snehirov also wrote other things. He was a nephew of Vadym Sobko, an officially approved writer who was a decent character in everyday life but wrote exclusively to please the regime. Once, Sobko invited Snehirov to see him and asked the writer: “What are you doing? It didn't start yesterday and won't end tomorrow. It’s enough to think about what happened to my sister, your mother, who testified as a witness in the SVU trial.”
Snehirov was greatly impressed by this conversation and asked me what I knew about the Union for the Liberation of Ukraine (Spilka vyzvolennia Ukrainy, SVU). While still a child, I heard in different villages where we lived that in one place a teacher was arrested in the case and in other places a priest, storekeeper or just an ordinary man was put in prison. They were arrested and shot. But no-one knew what this case was about. People remembered that it was some kind of national incident in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
So Snehirov researched the life of his mother, a teacher. She had a pronounced pro-Ukrainian orientation and was friends with the Zerov brothers when she went to school and later in KINO (Kyiv Institute of People’s Education, now Taras Shevchenko Kyiv National University). He learned that she did in fact testify during the trial and that caused her great distress. It was one of the reasons why she died at a fairly young age.
The transcripts of the SVU trial were published and then removed from libraries. So I obtained a copy for Snehirov from Hryhoriy Kochur and also introduced him to Prof. Andriy Biletsky who knew a thing or two about the trial from his father, Academician Oleksandr Biletsky. During that period and until the beginning of the Second World War, the latter would always keep a bundle with 30 rubles, some underwear and cigarettes by his bedside in case he was arrested at night. Then Snehirov began to find eyewitnesses and victims himself.
Together, we glimpsed into that terrible abyss and saw that there was no real plot, but all of it was a Cheka provocation on an incredible scale. Literally, thousands of KGB men were involved and many thousands of completely innocent people were framed. We discovered how people were humiliated; how the investigators yelled “All of you Ukrainians need to be shot”; how a professor was forced at gunpoint to testify against others and later, when he met them, would bow down to the earth and say: “Forgive me, people.”
To Snehirov the SVU process was a picture of the entire Soviet system — a structure did not have the right to exist, because its people did not even lead an existence in it – they were dead. This led him to write book initially titled Nenko moia ridna (My Dear Mother) and then Naboi dlia rozstrilu (Cartridges for Shooting). The book was printed abroad in the Russian-language magazine Continent. Snehirov wrote it both in Russian and Ukrainian. After that he produced more than a dozen individual manifestoes in which he declared that the Soviet system was not only unfair and despotic but also absolutely hopeless.
He was not a fighter; he did not go to the barricades. He was a lone wolf who perceived the meanness of what was going on around him and at a certain point he could no longer live in this environment. Snehirov’s activity came later than that of other dissidents. By the time he challenged the regime most of them were already behind bars, while others were under close surveillance. Nevertheless, I know that he had a connection with General Petro Hryhorenko, Ludmila Alexeeva and, via intermediaries, Andrey Sakharov. I remember we had an argument and I said that in those circumstances Ukraine could not be independent – it would have had to have happened earlier. Snehirov replied that Ukraine would be a sovereign, independent country, because the Soviet Union would certainly fall apart some day. The conversation took place in the summer of 1975.
Eventually, Snehirov renounced Soviet citizenship and sent his passport to Brezhnev with commentary.
Quote: “Hereby I renounce Soviet citizenship. I have made this decision now that you are carrying out a so-called discussion of the draft new constitution. Newspapers, the radio and rallies are shouting their approval in unison. In the near future, the draft will become law to the accompaniment of a loud “Hurrah!” everywhere. Your constitution is lies from beginning to end. It is a lie that your state expresses the will and interest of the people… Your election system is deceitful and shameful and is a laughing stock for all people… Your state emblem is deceitful and shameful – it shows ears of wheat that you are importing from the United States…”
Excerpt from Snehirov’s letter to Leonid Brezhnev (1977)
His human rights activity culminated in 1977. He was the most popular dissident figure spoken about by Western radio stations. He was constantly in the center of attention: they would first mention his name and than Sakharov’s. Solzhenitsyn inquired about him and Nekrasov spoke in his defense. Then Snehirov was arrested and put in a pre-trial detention unit – the KGB prison on Volodymyrska Street. There he fell seriously sick and, while he was in this grave condition, they gave him a paper in which he promised not to engage in political activity anymore and he signed it. He died in October Hospital in Kyiv where, almost completely blind and totally paralyzed, he had been moved from prison.
I remember that the current president of Ukraine said in his campaign speeches: “We come from a great country.” What greatness did he have in mind? That this country killed millions of its citizens? It is time to put Soviet mentality behind us. Now one can learn absolutely everything about this era – not in the least through Snehirov’s biography and his books, as well as the story of the tragic events this extraordinary, and extraordinarily kind, man experienced in life.
Several years ago, they put a memorial plaque on the building where Snehirov lived. I believe that a street named after him will one day appear in Kyiv. But the main thing is that he exerted a certain mental and psychological effort and changed his worldview. Despite his seeming physical defeat, he came out victorious.
Heliy Snehirov was a Ukrainian dissident, writer, film director, script writer and journalist. He graduated from Kharkiv Theatrical Institute and joined the Kharkiv Academic Drama Theater. He headed the department of political writing and fiction in Literary Ukraine and was the editor in chief in the Ukrainian Studio for News Films and Documentaries.
1927 – born in Kharkiv
1954 – embarks on his literary career
1966 – films a documentary on an illegal commemorative rally at Babyn Yar
1974 – expelled from the CPSU and artistic unions and fired from his job
1977 – arrested
1978 – dies on December 28 in Kyiv and is buried in Baikove Cemetery.
Coming issues of The Ukrainian Week will feature articles on Oleksandr Dovzhenko, Yuriy Yanovsky and Hryhoriy Kochur.