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5 April, 2011  ▪  Ihor Petrenko,  Alisa Lipolz

Protest Under the Kremlin

Dissident Valeriy Kravchenko got into the anti-communist movement at Arsenal, a showcase soviet plant

Moscow, late 1980. Before the Summer Olympics, the soviet capital was purged of undesirables: bums, hookers, black marketeers… That December 5, the city’s well-fed militia were not working too hard on duty near Spasskaya Bashnia, the Kremlin’s famous clock tower. It was snowing. Suddenly, one of them noticed a strange man carrying his coat on one shoulder. Why would someone walk around with his coat unbuttoned in the middle of winter?

A young tool-and-die maker from Kyiv’s Arsenal plant, stood in front of the wall. He took his coat off and defiantly cut his arm with something sharp. Red drops fell on Red Square and on the white snow. Valeriy Kravchenko then pulled out a poster on hooks that he had made, unfolded it and hung it up. The guards scrambled from their post and rushed to the protester. Bewildered tourists walking by the Cathedral of Vasiliy Blazhenniy read, “L.I. Brezhnev, you want my blood? Come and drink it, you bloodsucker!” But the lone man disappeared quickly, arms twisted by the militia and dragged to a small lock-up in the tower’s basement.

Kravchenko recalls the episode: “They took a statement about why I did so. I told them about the persecution of dissidents and discrimination in the Soviet Union. I mentioned human rights: ‘Why do you shut everyone’s mouths?’ I asked them. ‘Your press shows just one side of life!’ They listened to me and then took me for a psychiatric examination.”  

Cold despair

Any active protest can look like insanity at first glance. “When you go for a fair cause, it’s such an adrenaline rush!” Kravchenko jokes. Of course, he knew he would run into trouble. He may have felt despair, but he moved to the Kremlin in sound mind. “Back in Kyiv I made a stainless shank – a small one, so that the police would not incriminate me for carrying a weapon. I polished it, put it in boiling water to kill bacteria, and wrapped it in sterile plastic. Then I took two days’ family leave, bought a train ticket and arrived in Moscow next morning.”

Meanwhile, his wife was four months pregnant with their second baby. She had no idea of her husband’s plans.

Kravchenko is a common last name. His both parents were Ukrainians but Valeriy was born and raised in Uzbekistan. Later, he served in the soviet army in Ukraine, near L’viv, and decided to stay in his parents’ homeland. He got a job as a tool- and-die maker at a local plant and joined the Communist Party there. Eventually, he married.

Valeriy Kravchenko soon saw how different soviet reality was from its official image. Minor details irritated him: food and clothes had to be bought through connections. More important issues remained unresolved, too. One of them, the “free housing” promised in the Party’s platform, was receding into the very distant future, like communism, even for the families of Arsenal workers. Social interactions seemed twisted and distorted to the point of absurdity. Kravchenko criticized the situation among some colleagues: “Take it easy! Don’t wreck your life,” was their response.

In 1971, Kravchenko wrote a letter to Leonid Brezhnev criticizing the Party’s domestic policy and announcing that he would leave the Party.  

The economy of lies

It was still nine years until the march on the Kremlin. Giving up a Party card was a radical but growing phenomenon among the working class. While an army of bureaucrats lined up to get “partified” and enjoy their proletariat privileges, workers had to be dragged into the Communist Party to at least somewhat validate its claim to being the “avant-garde of the proletariat.”

Work at Arsenal was getting more and more unbearable: the management kept bothering the workers with all kinds of complaints. Meanwhile, as if some spontaneous conspiracy, workers began to discuss important, even obvious ideas about the prospects for a second party beside the CP, freedom of speech and association, competition among producers, and the drawbacks of socialism that everybody could see. Injustice angered, but opportunities to speak out were few.

The last straw, says Valeriy Kravchenko, was an incident with Oleksandr Riezvanov, another tool-and-die maker.

After its XXIV Congress, the Party ordered the entire soviet industry to “increase output by 36-40%,” although no country in the world has ever managed to achieve this kind of skyrocketing growth. Clearly, the limping economy of “developed socialism” as Brezhnev proudly called it, was also unable to do this. But local officials, worried about their positions, began to add, overstate and twist numbers in reports to not admit the complete failure of the Party’s ambitious goal.

One of the many falsifications was allocating salaries to employees, regardless of the volume or quality of what they produced. The lucky Arsenal worker would then share the extra 30-35 rubles with his foreman. Thus did over-reporting beget corruption.  

Oleksandr Riezvanov, the Arsenal tool-and-die maker, spoke against this practice publicly: he said this was ruining the link between wages and work. Party officials began to harass the worker, calling him a “defamer” for his criticism. They took his photo off the leader board. Despite his “Master with Golden Hands” title1 and excellent qualifications, his wages kept getting cut. Effectively, the managers made him look like a good for nothing lazybones.

“Back then, everyone in the workshop talked about what they were doing to Riezvanov. And the nature of over-reporting and other things like that began to bug me more and more. Eventually, life convinced me that the system was flawed and that protesting was the matter of conscience.” Not long afterward, Valeriy Kravchenko stood in front of the Kremlin with the shank and his poster… 

In the psych ward

After a psychiatrist in Moscow examined him, Kravchenko was allowed to return to Kyiv, to the Arsenal plant. Maybe this protest did work and something would change for the better? He had seen on TV how workers protested in the US and Italy. Instead: “A few days later, my house was searched. They took my briefcase and glued a stamped paper on it. An investigator took my statement. And then he showed me the prosecutor’s order for a psycho-neurological examination.” Kravchenko was taken to the Pavlova Psychiatric Hospital.

“They gave me a shot… I was in the observation ward of Investigation Department №13, which was for people who had committed crimes and were being checked for insanity. The ward was different from a normal one, with strong window bars. They kept me there all the time as if I was already jailed. One day, some of the real criminals told me another political prisoner had arrived.” This was how Kravchenko met Mykola Polishchuk from Bila Tserkva, Kyiv Oblast.

“I came up to Polishchuk and greeted him in Russian. He invited me to sit down and said ‘How did it happen that your own mother has turned into a stepmother for you?’ I asked him to repeat it again. I’d heard him well enough, but didn’t get it. He explained, ‘You have our name, a Ukrainian last name, but speak a foreign language.’ It was his second time in there, opposing forced russification. As I talked to Mykola, I must admit, I began to think I was giving my freedom away for peanuts,” the former Arsenal worker recalls.

Kravchenko’s biography, which had included Uzbekistan, the army, and Arsenal, had turned him into a Russian-speaking specimen, typical and convenient for the communist empire. But having taken one step on the path to protesting a hypocritical system, a person would logically move towards the idea of national liberation. Kravchenko discovered it, unexpectedly and paradoxically, in a psychiatric hospital.

He was kept at Pavlova for two months. And again, just as in Moscow, doctors reported he was in sound mind. In April 1981, the Kyiv Municipal Court announced Valeriy’s sentence: four years in jail based on several articles, the major one being Art. 187-I of the Criminal Code of Ukrainian SSR, “spreading libelous claims that slander the soviet state and social order.” He was also accused of “hooliganism” and “making cold steel.”

The Age of Rehabilitation?  

Today we know about the activities of dissidents from the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. Although most soviet people did not show extreme radicalism and never took floor anywhere more public than a dinner table. Yet, opposition to the soviet regime was more widespread than that and largely spontaneous. In the late 70s, it often took on the most unexpected and impressive forms. Oleksa Hirnyk immolated himself at Chernecha Hora in Kaniv, where Taras Shevchenko is buried. Captain Valeriy Sablin started an uprising on a Baltic Fleet warship. Crimean Tatar Musa Mamut also poured gasoline over himself and immolated himself in protest against the persecution of his people. A group of Jews seized a crop-duster AN-2 to migrate to Israel because the government wouldn’t let them out of the country otherwise…

Kravchenko served his full term. Before Ukraine declared independence, the Supreme Court of Ukraine rehabilitated him “for the absence of any crime,” so he was able to help set up Narodniy Rukh and the Democratic Party. Today, Kravchenko is with an NGO that works to restore the reputation of political prisoners and dissidents. Kravchenko and Polishchuk remain friends to this day, as do Heorhiy Moskalenko and Viktor Kuksa who raised the blue and yellow flag over the Shuliavka District in Kyiv and each served several years for that. Neither has ever been officially rehabilitated.


The origin of Homo Sovieticus
At the XXIV Congress of the Communist Party in 1971, Leonid Brezhnev announced a “new historical society—the soviet people” based on “bringing all nations and peoples closer together.” He was partly right. In their social test tubes and Gulags, the Communists managed to develop that denationalized, passive-aggressive zombie, called homo sovieticus.  Active resistance can look like insanity. But dumb tolerance is doubly insane.

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