Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s defiant stand against the ongoing Russian invasion has captivated defenders of democracy across the world. On this week’s Now & Then episode, “Avatars of Democracy: Zelensky & More,” Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed how other international heroes—the Marquis de Lafayette, Simon Bolivar, and Nelson Mandela—held up a mirror to American idealism. During the Cold War, another Ukrainian democracy fighter, Vyacheslav Chornovil, similarly captivated and concerned the American public. 

From August 1965 to April 1966, the Soviet authorities arrested as many as 200 Ukrainian literary figures and public intellectuals, using the new Article 62 of the Soviet Constitution, which explicitly forbade “deliberately false fabrications defaming the Soviet state.”

Vyacheslav Chornovil was a 28-year-old journalist at the start of the trials, working for a Lviv-based television branch of Kosmosol, the Communist Party Youth League. Chornovil—effectively a state propagandist—was well on the way to a successful position within the Party. 

Chornovil covered many of the trials and watched as friends of the accused risked their lives to protest in the courtrooms. Before long, the trials were moved behind closed doors to avoid dissenting scenes—a move that went against the ostensible Soviet requirement for open trials.

At one of these secret tribunals, Chornovil was called to give evidence against Mykhaylo Osadchy, a Lviv University Professor accused of distributing two incendiary pamphlets. One of the samizdat documents raised questions about Soviet complicity in a fire that destroyed 600,000 Ukrainian books at the Academy of Sciences in Kiev. The other was a transcription of former President Eisenhower’s 1964 speech at the dedication of a Dupont Circle statue depicting Ukrainian poet-hero Taros Shevchenko. 

Chornovil refused to cooperate. Instead, he wrote a 71-page open petition to the First Secretary of the Communist Party of Ukraine, Petro Shelest.

“You are indifferent to human tragedies, to the demoralizing action of fear which creeps like a cold serpent into many a Ukrainian home,” Chornovil wrote to Shelest. “Your only concern allegedly is to see that the law is upheld. Therefore, let us take a look at what is presently going on in the Ukraine, from the point of view of socialist legality.” 

Chornovil warned Shelest that the official was setting a dangerous precedent: “Again and again it will be necessary to throw behind bars those who stubbornly refuse to call white that which is black.” 

The young journalist’s petition almost immediately led to charges. In November 1967, his swift fall from Party graces was complete: Chornovil was sentenced to eighteen months of forced labor and sent to a prison camp in Mordovia. 

Before his imprisonment, however, Chornovil smuggled out a pallet of papers to Paris, where they were quickly disseminated by a Ukrainian publisher. The contents included his petition to Shelest and literary portraits of twenty of the defendants he covered during the wider crackdown. The sketches of Chornovil’s fellow dissidents contained wrenching detail of the abuse they endured at the hands of the KGB—harassment that in many cases led to their forced confessions. “If a person’s fate is decided by the KGB, why do we need the comedy of a trial at all—not to mention closed trials?” Chornovil asked in his papers. 

During the weeks of 1968, major newspapers, largely unaware of the Ukrainian crackdown before Chornovil’s work, began to publish excerpts. The New York Times published choice bits on February 9th, by which time McGraw-Hill had announced intentions to publish a book-length translated collection of the papers.

Legislators in Washington were also taking notice. On January 16th, 1968, just days after the press revealed the existence of Chornovil’s manuscript, far-right Ohio Representative John Ashbrook submitted to the congressional record quotes from Chornovil, coupled with a barbed characterization of domestic Vietnam protestors’ alleged lack of interest in Soviet repression: “Perhaps those dissenters here in the United States who have been curiously silent about Soviet abuses will choose to dissent, along with the rest of us, on behalf of the Soviet dissenters.”

In mid-February 1968, Shelest responded to Chornovil’s letter at an internationally covered Communist Party conference in Kiev. “Drivel about so-called independence, about a sort of degradation of culture and language, is rotten bait that will be taken only by a person who is politically blind,” he said of the dissident. Shelest also blamed “the governments of capitalist states, their intelligence agencies and reactionary circles” for drumming up support for Chornovil.

Polish-born Columbia University “Sovietologist” Zbig Brzezinski became the most visible U.S.-based champion of Chornovil’s text. Brzezinski was working for President Lyndon Johnson on the State Department’s Policy Planning Council and would eventually serve as President Jimmy Carter’s influential National Security Advisor. 

Brzezinski wrote the foreword to the English-language version of Chornovil’s book, which McGraw-Hill published in February 1969. Brzezinski argued that the growth of nationalist underground literature in Ukraine signaled a coming trend in Soviet society: “It is not inconceivable that in the next several decades the nationality problem will become politically more important in the Soviet Union than the racial issue has become in the United States…The combination of literary ferment and national self-assertion will be a most potent one.”

Shortly after Chornovil’s book came out in the United States, the dissident emerged from prison and began more actively editing Ukrainian nationalist poems and articles. He championed some of the works in a new underground publication, the Ukrainian Herald.

In January 1972, Chornovil was arrested in an even larger crackdown on Ukrainian nationalist intellectuals. He was charged with possessing several samizdat books and poems. 

One tract was fellow dissident Ivan Dyzuba’s Internationalism or Russification? The book decried the Soviet move away from Leninist principles of international cooperation toward a more chauvinistic Russian posture.  

Chornovil also kept poems by Iryna Senyk, who spent the decade following World War II in Siberian prison camps for her nationalist works. One of the poems that Chornovil possessed included passionate denunciations of the gulags: “They say, our truth / Is in Mordovia and Norilsk / While here day in and day out / Are outrage and evil deeds.” 

In March 1973, after a drawn-out trial, Chornovil received a sentence of seven years of prison labor plus five years of exile. The intellectuals whose works he read and amplified also received steep terms. 

In all, around 560 Ukrainian intellectuals went to prison between 1970 and 1973.

Over the course of 1974, Ukrainian-Americans mobilized on Chornovil’s behalf. “Appeal to American People: Treatment of Ukrainian Political Prisoners in Soviet Union Concern of Civilized Humanity!” read a June 1974 Washington Post display ad by the non-profit Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, who also announced a massive protest in front of the same statue of Shevchenko where Eisenhower gave his samizdat speech almost a decade earlier. 

The U.S. government was beginning to listen and to get more involved in securing free speech rights for Soviet citizens. On August 1st, 1975, President Gerald Ford spoke in Helsinki, Finland, at a 35-nation Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe. Ford used the forum as an opportunity to decry Soviet repression across the U.S.S.R., arguing for a long list of cultural and legal reforms: “A freer flow of information, ideas, and people; greater scope for the press, cultural and educational exchange, family reunification, the right to travel and to marriage between nationals of different states; and for the protection of the priceless heritage of our diverse cultures.” 

At the conclusion of the Conference, the nations—the Soviet Union included—signed a “Final Act” document that very broadly agreed to “respect human rights and fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of thought, conscience, religion or belief, for all without distinction as to race, sex, language or religion.” 

The same day as Ford’s address, Chornovil penned an open letter from prison to the President. Chornovil pled for Ford to bring up with Soviet Premier Leonid Brezhnev the prospect of open emigration from Soviet Republics for him and fellow dissidents: “I would want to believe, Mr. President, that in your real concern for the fate of international detente, you will, in your meeting with Brezhnev, or by other means, bring the question of free emigration from the USSR to the attention of the Soviet leaders. This will underline the impossibility of relaxing international tensions so long as the USSR continues to crush all critical opinion.” 

Ford was not able to secure this lofty goal at the Conference. 

Almost a year after his Helsinki pledge, on April 2nd, 1976, Ford appeared before Eastern European heritage groups in Milwaukee. Anxious attendees peppered the President with questions about Serbia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. One asked: “Mr. President, Americans of Ukrainian descent in this country are deeply concerned about the persecution of the Ukrainian intellectuals in political prison in the Soviet Ukraine. Under the interpretation of the Helsinki Conference, or for purely humanitarian reasons, what can our Government do to help them to get freed?”

Ford asked for the names of the political prisoners in question. The asker shot back with a list including Chornovil and then followed up: “They suffer inhumane treatment for the crime of no more than writing three novels. Now, does the Helsinki Conference guarantee their right of speech for free expression or religious feeling?” 

Ford answered in the negative, admitting, “It does not involve that particular aspect. It does involve the reuniting of families. It does involve some of the other humane things, but it does not seek to interpret or to change local laws in that sense.”

The frustrated American mood around human rights in Ukraine would linger for another decade-and-a-half, even as further intellectual dissidents captivated the minds of democracy advocates.

After battling further charges in the early 1980s, Chornovil emerged—as Brzezinski had predicted back in 1969—as an electric political force as the Soviet Union collapsed. He led the pro-democracy Rukh party during the thaw of the Gorbachev years and ran for president as Ukraine gained independence in 1991. He lost to the more Kremlin-friendly Leonid Kravchuk and spent the following years unsuccessfully urging Ukraine’s leaders to think twice before giving up the nation’s nuclear arsenal. 

Chornovil died in a car accident in 1999 while mounting a challenge against Kravchuk’s successor, the notoriously corrupt Leonid Kuchma. Chornovil’s family and a former high-ranking prosecutor continue to assert that Chornovil was murdered. 

Now, as President Zelensky both inspires the United States and challenges the country to commit further support to Ukraine, the often-inspired, often-hamstrung American response to Chornovil and his fellow Ukrainian political prisoners takes on a fresh and wrenching relevance. 

In addition to the Chornovil Papers, glance at a few archival issues of The Ukrainian Weekly, the oldest American-Ukrainian periodical, which is available here in PDF form dating all the way back to 1933. And head to the Twitter account of author and Now & Then Editorial Producer David Kurlander for supplemental archival threads on each Time Machine piece: @DavidKurlander.

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