Fragments from a War Diary, Part #173
Of all the Ukrainian intellectuals whose biographies I have been studying, the one I have come to admire the most is the Soviet dissident Viacheslav Chornovil. One of the founders of modern Ukrainian democracy and an agitator for Ukrainian independence in the 1980’s, Chornovil was steadfast in his principled opposition to Soviet and Russian political domination in Ukraine and he ultimately paid for his principles with his life, in all likelihood being murdered by the FSB members within the pro-Russian government of Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma (President of Ukraine from 1994 to 2005).
Had he not been murdered, Chornovil would now be 86. His early career was an eclectic mixture of construction work and journalism, after his studies were disrupted due to political frictions within the Taras Shevchenko National University of Kyiv in the years after the death of Stalin and when Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, who was Ukrainian, was taking control of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union. At this point the University of Kyiv became a hotbed of political disputes over whether Ukraine should be independent of the Soviet Union or whether Soviet orthodoxy ought to apply, and Chornovil became immersed in these disputes in the course of his writings. However being a journalist within the Soviet Union was no straightforward business unless you were prepared very strictly to tow the party line, and Chornovil was an early advocate for Ukrainian national rights within the Soviet Union. For this he was banned from further study; lost his job; and sentenced to forced labour and time in a maximum security prison for miscellaneous quasi-political crimes, such as criminal defamation, that in modern western democracies would be classified as within rights of freedom of expression.
In 1970 he established an underground magazine called The Ukrainian Herald that argued for Ukrainian national rights and democracy, while undertaking manual labour work. He spent three years in a Russian penal colony before being released and then he applied for Canadian citizenship but the Soviet government refused to permit his exit from the country. In 1975, pursuant to the policy of détente between the United States and the Soviet Union, the Helsinki Accords created a framework for monitoring human rights in the Soviet Union and Chornovil tried to participate in that structure for which he was exiled by the Soviet authorities to Yakutia in the Russian Far East. He worked again as a labourer in a remote Russian villager, while continuing to write and he was admitted to a prestigious western club of writers.
The Soviet authorities, exasperated and infuriated by him in equal measure, in 1981 arrested him on charges of attempted rape. It has always been presumed that these were jumped up charges to try to silence one of their most vocal dissidents whose voice was heard in western circles. He spent another two years in prison in eastern Russia before being spontaneously released but he was denied the right to return to Ukraine for another two years. By 1985 he was back in Lviv, again working only as a manual labourer because the Soviet authorities blocked his occupation of professional positions.
Chornovil’s moment of glory came as the end of the Soviet Union became increasingly apparent with the selection of Mikhail Gorbachev as Soviet Communist Party General Secretary in 1985. Chornovil became the first leader of Rukh, the People’s Movement of Ukraine, a political party now often forgotten in the West but that at the time was instrumental in giving Ukrainian aspirations for independence from the Soviet Union a political voice in the West. For his efforts the Soviet authorities attacked him and his supporters with violent dogs during a demonstration in the centre of Lviv in 1988, and the ugly and impossible nature of negotiating with the Soviet Union, even under the Premiership of Mikhail Gorbachev, became increasingly manifest.
The rest is history. Chornovil stood to be the first President of Ukraine upon Ukraine’s independence in 1991, but he was defeated by the broadly pro-western Leonid Kravchuk, at the time supported by the West in large part by reason of his willingness to renounce Ukraine’s nuclear arsenal (in hindsight a blunder of monumental proportions). Kravchuk unfortunately carried with him all the incidents of Soviet-era corruption and scandal and the instruments of the Police state, and he lost the 1994 election to his own Prime Minister, the Russia-leaning Leonid Kuchma, after Kravchuk had openly advocated for Ukraine’s NATO membership. Hindsight is a wonderful thing; had Kravchuk agreed with NATO for Ukraine’s membership in the early 1990’s, recent Ukrainian history might have turned out very differently. Kuchma used dirty methods to win the 1994 Ukrainian elections, and under his subsequent Presidency Ukraine started sliding very much in the wrong direction, particularly as Kuchma cultivated relations with the Head of the Russian FSB, Vladimir Putin, who went on to become the President of the Russian Federation in 2000.
In 1999 there was another general election in Ukraine and Chornovil was standing against Kuchma on a pro-western, anti-Russian ticket. He and his chief of staff were mysteriously hit by a speeding truck as the political campaign gained ascendancy, and they were both killed instantly. This is a classic FSB technique, and I don’t believe in coincidences. At the time Vladimir Putin was head of the FSB that had thoroughly infiltrated the Ukrainian security and intelligence services. Indeed they were never separated in substance upon the dissolution of the Soviet Union; it is only during the Presidency of Volodimir Zelenskiy that the Ukrainian security services have been properly purged of insidious Russian influences. Chornovil posed an existential risk to Vladimir Putin’s vision that Ukraine be a free and independent country truly separate from Moscow, and that may well have been the reason why he was murdered. The net result was that the pro-Russian Kuchma stayed in power as President of Ukraine and Ukrainian recent history has been blighted by this outcome.
Chornovil is now regarded as a national hero amongst Ukrainian intellectuals and academics, and rightly so. More than any other Ukrainian politician of recent times, he suffered for the cause of Ukrainian independence, democracy and liberal values. In time, barely understanding the risks he faced in working against the monstrous Russian security services led by Vladimir Putin, he paid the ultimate penalty. There has never been a proper investigation into his death, but let us hope that with the dawn of a new era in Ukrainian freedom and democracy, there properly can be one. Although Mr Chornovil was undoubtedly a maverick, he was a heroic stalwart and one of the most admirably resilient, idealistic and determined Ukrainian writers and politicians that this country has had the honour to stand amongst her people.