“Ukrainian and Jewish political prisoners had a complete understanding”—Vasyl Ovsienko

Vasyl Ovsienko is a philologist who was a teacher and took part in distributing “samvydav” (self-published material illegal under Soviet law, editor’s note). He was a long-term Soviet political prisoner and spent many years imprisoned with Jews who were fellow prisoners. The interview was recorded by Vakhtang Kipiani. The project “Encounters” is made possible with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.


Vakhtang Kipiani: Greetings to all the listeners to Hromadske Radio! My name is Vakhtang Kipiani and you are listening to the program “Encounters.” This is a program about Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the historical and even the contemporary context. For a thousand years Ukrainians and Jews have lived together and separately at the same time, but they also argue with each other and study each other. Today we will talk about a very interesting part of Jewish and Ukrainian history—the times when Ukrainians and Jews were both fighting for their freedom in the Soviet camps. I invited to this talk a person who was a Soviet political prisoner for many years and who was imprisoned with Jews. This is Vasyl Ovsienko. Greetings! Vasyl, let me introduce you. You are a philologist who was a teacher and who took part in distributing “samvydav,” and who, as you said yourself, was attached to the last train that went to Mordovia. It is there you were imprisoned with many famous Ukrainian, Lithuanian, Armenian, Russian, and Jewish political prisoners? Who among the Jewish prisoners do you remember the most?

Vasyl Ovsienko: I arrived at Camp #19 in Mordovia in the village of Lisne in the spring of 1974. I was sentenced to a four-year term. It was a strict regime camp, meaning the area was enclosed with multiple fences with barbed wire. You could walk freely in the area, and there also was a work area. I remember I arrived on April 12th, and was struck by how many people were there; a nest of people, and all looked the same, wearing their gray robes. How can I tell who is who? Then I looked closer and saw that everyone had a badge with a name, department, and crew. Oh, now I would have some opportunity to tell them apart. In the evening, when the day shift returned back from work, I was invited for tea. It was a camp ritual.

There are different legends about the camps, but not all are true. The prisoners were only able to purchase fifty grams of tea per month, a small bag. But if there was some holiday, this ritual had to take place.

And of course there were people of different nationalities and it was possible to see that from their last names on the badges. I was trying to speak Russian and there was one kind-looking man, Mykhailo Korenblit, who told me: “But you can speak Ukrainian, everybody will understand you! The majority of people here are from Ukraine and even Lithuanians and Estonians understand Ukrainian because it is mostly Ukrainians here.”

Vakhtang Kipiani: And in this Mordovian time, in the middle of the 70s, was it already possible to say, as after the war, that Ukrainians comprised half of all the prisoners?

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes. It was like that in every concentration camp. There I met a group of Jews who in 1970 tried to escape this “evil empire.” They all bought tickets on a small twelve-seat plane for a flight on the pretext of going to a wedding. They were supposed to fly from some city called Priozersk to Leningrad. They were going to hijack this plane. They had their own pilot, Major Mark Dymshits. He was to replace the official pilot and redirect the flight to Sweden. But it turned out there was one traitor among them who betrayed them all. They were all arrested at the airport.

Vakhtang Kipiani: So they did not commit the crime at the end?

Vasyl Ovsienko: No, but Mark Dymshits, and also Eduard Kuznetsov, the organizer of this affair, got the death penalty. However, after protests from the world community it was commuted to a fifteen-year sentence. Others got twelve, or ten, or four years and they all spent these years in prison. However, on the tenth year of their imprisonment the world community arranged for their release. But who was left? The Russian Yuri Fedorov and the Ukrainian Alexei Murzhenko remained imprisoned. They served out their sentences—fourteen and fifteen years. Vakhtang Kipiani: This is what happens for the desire of Jews to live in their historical motherland. The Ukrainian and the Russian had to drain the cup to the bitter end.

Vasyl Ovsienko: As Fedorov once told me, he got on the wrong tram.

Vakhtang Kipiani: If you recall these people, who wanted to fly freedom in the 1970s… Moreover, they did not put anybody on the spot. The whole plane was filled with their own people, relatives and friends, and with these two, the Russian and the Ukrainian who were riding with them to Sweden…

Vasyl Ovsienko: They accomplished something huge; they created an opening through which other Jews could officially emigrate. They themselves were imprisoned, but Jews started to get permission to emigrate. And those Jews were getting letters from Israel. The painter Boris Penson once got a letter in an envelope with a stamp depicting his painting. We Ukrainians could not even dream of anything like this. Korenblit said that we live in a fortunate time. There is a Jewish state and we opened this gateway for other Jews. He said this was a good reason to sacrifice your life.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Those people who wanted to live freely, were they people who were involved in the Ukrainian or Lithuanian context? They had their own aim and it was to leave the Soviet Union and to live in their Jewish state. What talks and discussions did you have with them? Did you agree with them on everything?

Vasyl Ovsienko: We had very good relations. The Ukrainian and Jewish communities had a complete understanding. The Lithuanians, and also the Armenians, were very close to us. As for the Russians, there were Russian democrats, but there were also monarchists from Leningrad. So with them we were not always able to agree on joint actions. They did not participate in joint demarches. With the Jews and the Lithuanians we had a complete understanding, because we had a common enemy. It was the Russian communist empire of evil and it united us. When we had to act to protect someone or to mark Human Rights Day on December 10, or the day of the Soviet political prisoner on October 30, or the day of the Ukrainian political prisoner on January 12, or Red Terror Day on September 5, then we were all unanimously writing statements of protest, and held a one-day hunger strike. Then all were thrown into solitary confinement.

Vakhtang Kipiani: But still, prison society is not so ideal. That is, often there are people who have always been against the system and against others. Were relations with the Jews straightforward? There is a popular thesis about eternal antisemitism, but because people who were imprisoned were cultured and educated, they would not have been primitive antisemites. All these Ukrainian-Jewish encounters in the camp, were they always straightforward? Were you able to convince your Jewish political prisoners that you have the right to have an independent state in which they would have their own place, and on the other hand, they would be able to emigrate and unite with their families and so on?

Vasyl Ovsienko: The Jews were taking this calmly and even with some sympathy because Ukraine’s withdrawal from the Soviet Union would have weakened this empire. There was complete agreement in this regard. Some personalities like Heifetz, who was deeply involved in our affairs, treated us with deep compassion. Others also. I remember these conversations. However, it was impossible to talk about it with some Russians. They just said, “If our government comes to power, you will be imprisoned here.”

Vakhtang Kipiani: Therefore, the change of Soviet government into a Russian one did not promise anything to you?

Vasyl Ovsienko: It promised even worse things.

Vakhtang Kipiani: But if we recall the discussion with the Jews on national issues, for example, Jews in the Cheka (Soviet secret police, editor’s note) and Russification. On the other hand, Ukrainian nationalism, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists, and the destruction of the Jewish population during the war. Was this causing a dividing line among the prisoners?

Vasyl Ovsienko: With us, political prisoners who were sentenced for “anti-Soviet agitation,” there was no tension. But in these camps there also were other people. We “anti-Soviets” were only one-third of all, another one-third of the camp were former policemen who collaborated with the Germans during the occupation, and one more third included our Ukrainian partisans, or Lithuanians, Latvians, or Estonians with whom we had the same vision. But among those former policemen were individuals who strongly advocated against the Jews. Even openly, sometimes, they were saying: “For what am I imprisoned? I was killing Jews!” I remember Lasal Kaminsky who had his four years there. It was summer and he made tea and invited us, the Ukrainians, over to say goodbye and he said: “Of course, if the visa will be there tomorrow, I will leave yesterday.” The informers swirled around and reported that Ukrainians and Jews were praying together at the table, and were raising their hands up and asking Golda Meier to liberate them. Golda Meir was the Prime Minister of Israel at the time. Vakhtang Kipiani: Vasyl, in front of you there is Mykhailo Heifetz’s book. He is a Soviet Jew who wrote probably one of the best books about the Ukrainian human rights movement, in particular, about people who were his friends in the camp. Were you also imprisoned with him?

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes, it was at Camp #17 in Mordovia and later Camp #19 in 1975, until the beginning of 1977.

Vakhtang Kipiani: What memories do you have about this person? I know his biography. He lived in Russia and was not close to Ukrainian values. He was a Soviet person and wrote scripts for totally Soviet movies. The Joseph Brodsky case put him behind bars. But he was not a Ukrainophile when he was free. He became one in prison. You witnessed it, didn’t you?

Vasyl Ovsienko: He was not really a conscious Jew until he was in the camp and met Ukrainians, including Zoryan Popadyuk in particular. I know another one—Gabriel Superfin—and Popadyuk also turned him into a Jew. Heifetz had already been in Camp #17, and I was brought there on October 30, 1975, into the empty spot previously occupied by Popadyuk. Popadyuk was sent to Vladimir Central, and that meant that he was given three more years of prison in worse conditions. The ground had already been prepared, and Heifetz started to talk to me and said several words in the Ukrainian language. I myself felt bad in this zone #17. And Mykhailo approached me and asked to speak Ukrainian. He read in Ukrainian, but sometimes asked some words. When he found himself next to (Ukrainian poet and dissident, editor’s note) Vasyl Stus, because Stus was brought to this area in 1976, he had a particularly positive attitude towards us and tried to learn Stus’s poems by heart.

Vakhtang Kipiani: That is really incredible! Even if you know the Ukrainian language…the poems by Stus are not some easy rhymes; they are in some other dimension and a great pain runs through these poems.

Vasyl Ovsienko: He was a man with a phenomenal memory. We had some detailed search, during which they took everything, all the manuscripts. He was very worried that he would not be able to renew them in his memory. So after this search Mykhailo told me: “I have some of the Stus notebooks left, his drafts. Let’s memorize it and they are not going to take it from our memory.” Stus was in the punishment room at that time. I managed to learn two or three poems and was taken into the prisoner transport and was being returned in two months. Heifetz already had some of the poems written with Russian letters and he dictated some of them to me. I wrote them down and corrected them.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Does that mean that he dictated them to you from his memory?

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes. I will tell you about one more phenomenal Jew—Arye Vudka. We called him Yuri. He now lives in Israel and comes here from time to time and speaks Ukrainian absolutely fluently. He said that he did not speak Ukrainian for seven years. He was supposed to be freed in a year or so, but he was taken into Vladimir prison. He asked Ukrainians to give him some of their poems. He read them several times and memorized them. When he was to be released, they undressed him to his nakedness and did not let him take anything. He had these poems in his memory, and later on he published them in a book.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Whose poems were those?

Vasyl Ovsienko: Those were the poems of Vasyl Stus, Zynoviy Krasivsky, Oleksa Riznykiv, Iryna Kalynets. There were about eleven authors. The book was published.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Talking about Heifetz again, did he also smuggle out some of Vasyl Stus’s poems?

Vasyl Ovsienko: I do not know. Even I took quite a few poems by Stus from Mordovia. They did not pay attention to this somehow.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Did you hide it in-between your papers, in the notebooks?

Vasyl Ovsienko: I just had some folk songs in my notebook written down and some of Stus’s poems were there also. They did not pay attention to that. We could also send them in letters from Mordovia. It was when we were in the Urals that Stus’s book never made it out from there.

Vakhtang Kipiani: This is a good opportunity to remind us about that. 1980 was the year when there were the so-called “Olympic imprisonments” in Ukraine and Vasyl Stus was imprisoned for the second time. Bird in the Soul is his handwritten book, isn’t it?

Vasyl Ovsienko: This was a book written by him in the Urals. When I saw this notebook in 1984, I saw about one hundred poems written in vers libre (free verse) and about one hundred translations. In his last letters in 1985 Stus wrote that the book had 150-200 poems and about the same amount of translations. Only six poems, 39 letters, and one text “From the Camp Notebook” remained from this five-year period. This tiny written text was about our situation in the camps.

Vakhtiang Kipiani: I should note that the world was able to see this text and we could read it thanks to the internationalism and “the friendship of peoples” as they said during Soviet times. This text was smuggled out of the zone by Irene Gayauskas, the wife of the long-term Lithuanian political prisoner Balis Gayauskas.

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes, this is an example of that true internationalism. When Mykhailo was freed—after being imprisoned for four years and exiled for two and then probably pushed abroad—he heard about all these recurring arrests. Stus was arrested and I was arrested. He was thinking how could he help and in 1983 he wrote the book Ukrainian Silhouettes which was published in the Russian and Ukrainian languages. It was published abroad by the Smoloskyp publishing house. In that book there is the greatest overview on Vasyl Stus, Zoryan Popadyuk, Mykola Rudenko, and Dmytro Kvetsko. He also wrote about Bandera’s sons, the elderly saints of Ukraine.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Imagine that. If we ask our listeners whom a Jew would call saints in Ukraine…it is about the insurgents, right?

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes, it is about the insurgents. He got to know some of them and wrote very clearly about them. There is not that much information about them and thank God that this Jew documented an important piece of Ukrainian history. We Ukrainians could sit and struggle hard, but could not write about it. Not everyone had an opportunity to write about this. I am very grateful that he wrote this. This book was also published in Ukrainian. It is called The Field of Despair and Hope. Leonid Finberg published this book. The Kharkiv human rights group led by Yevhen Zakharov, also Jewish, published a three-volume set of the works of Mykhailo Heifetz and one of those volumes included Ukrainian Silhouettes in the Russian language, in the original. We also need to publish it in Ukrainian because this book came out long ago, I believe in 1994.

Vakhtang Kipiani: Twenty years ago. There is a new generation. This book is missing because in the stores now there are so many more books than before on the history of the very tragic but also heroic 20th century. This history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations is some type of tuning fork for our Ukrainian 20th century. At this time Jews were building their state in their minds at first and only then they were doing it with their hands and guns, as Ukrainians are doing this now. The idea to become independent first came to mind, and now it is time to defend it on the battlefield…

Vasyl Ovsienko: I want to mention that at that time some anti-Ukrainian magazines, such as Zhovten (October), which was published in Lviv, and also Radyanska Ukraina (Soviet Ukraine), were publishing feuilletons about the union of the trident and the Star of David that was being formed in the West. Even at the magazine Perets (Pepper) there was a colorful cartoon where the ravenous wolf is walking with a sly fox.

Vakhtang Kipiani: The wolf is a Ukrainian?

Vasyl Ovsienko (laughing): It showed Stus and Heifetz. But in fact, that union of the trident and the Star of David was in our concentration camps and it was also in the West. There was then some convergence between the Ukrainian diaspora, and people were talking about the recognition of Andrei Sheptytsky as one of the Righteous because he was saving Jews during the war. It was Yakov Suslensky—another true Ukrainian patriot of Moldovan background I believe—who was imprisoned by the Soviets with Ukrainians and spoke Ukrainian. In 1992, already after independence, he organized for us—Ukrainians—a trip to Israel. At first it was just going to be a dozen or so people. But then there was a full plane of 69 people, including those Ukrainians who were recognized as the Righteous, those who saved Jews during the war. They were sponsored for the trip by Israel, who honored them. Earlier they would plant trees for each of the Righteous but there was no room so they made memorial plaques to commemorate each of them. There we met with Heifetz, and Korenblit. We were hosted by Kuznetsov. We were hosted very nicely there. There was a two-day conference and then Suslensky took us on a trip around Israel for five days. I thought that I would never really visit the most sacred Christian places by myself. We even went to the Garden of Gethsemane, the Church of Corpus Christi, and the Via Dolorosa. We went into the cave where the body of the Lord was buried. I remember we went there with Yevhen Sverstyuk, and he took off his shoes and so did I. You can enter and drop on your knees and go to where the body of the Lord was placed. I never would have been able to come to all these places on my own. My road to Jerusalem ran through Mordovia and the Urals.

Vakhtang Kipiani: You were imprisoned for thirteen years?

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes, something like thirteen and a half years.

Vakhtang Kipiani: That is interesting, one might even say, the Via Dolorosa from Mordovia. One of your publications about Ukrainian-Jewish relations in the camp is called Mordovany Soyuz (Mordovia Union).

Vasyl Ovsienko: Yes, the name comes from Mordovia. Why? You know, there was a thaw in 1976. One of the Jews, Boris Zernikov, got a letter addressed to Mentovskaya ASSR, Dushegubskiy rayon, poselok Parashevo. (The fake address is Russian word play, with the letter sent to the “village of Toilet in the Lost Soul district of the Cop’s Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic,” editor’s note) It was the Mordovian village Barashevo. And a letter with such an address made it through because there was a warming of relations with the United States and such letters were let through!

Vakhtang Kipiani: How very interesting! We were talking about the camps, but ended the talk with a joke because people remain people. Thank God that in 1970s there were some bright pages in the history of Ukrainian-Jewish relations because even in the camps people were writing poems, smuggling the poems out, getting funny letters, and were thinking and dreaming about the time when there would be a normal and good Israeli and Ukrainian state. These countries would have good relations and then we would be able to visit each other. That was Vasyl Ovsienko, Ukrainian political prisoner, philologist, and a person who was imprisoned in Soviet camps for thirteen and half years with fellow prisoners who were Jewish nationalists, Hebrew teachers, pilots, and Soviet people who became Jews in prison. This is an experience we should know about. Thank you!

Vasyl Ovsienko: Thank you.

This was the program “Encounters” that is made with the support of the Ukrainian Jewish Encounter. Vakhtang Kipiani was with you at the microphone.

Originally appeared in: https://hromadskeradio.org/programs/zustrichi/mizh-ukrayinskymy-i-yevreyskymy-politvyaznyamy-bulo-povne-porozuminnya-vasyl-ovsiyenko

Translated by: Olesya Kravchuk, journalist, interpreter

Additional translation and editing by Peter Bejger