What is Independence Day all about in Ukraine, a country where no one seems to be oppressing anyone, whose residents have not experienced any devastating armed conflicts after the USSR collapsed, but where most live in outright misery. This is a notion hard to comprehend wholly and thoroughly under the circumstances. Especially for those who dedicated their lives to the cause of independence. What did they struggle for? Maybe people will understand this later?
"Write something about a given individual's destiny," I was told by the chief editor. After a pause she suggested Slava Stetsko, Chairperson of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists, a woman whose life story could make a spectacular Hollywood scenario.
I visited her headquarters and met her. A Ukrainian People's Deputy, she was wearing a dark silk costume, with a fine costly brooch on her lapel. A very nice expensive hairdo. She walked gracefully, with an easy smile. I was taken aback. The woman was supposed to be the oldest Ukrainian parliamentarian.
The interview stayed in the usual vein: ideas, tasks, and positions. But then I wanted to know about Mrs. Stetsko's life story. She was willing to answer my questions and after a while I realized that we were talking politics again. The woman had nothing else to discuss. She was the embodiment of Ukrainian independence. She had dedicate her whole self to the cause. And she was all engrossed in the process. Without end. Independence Day was a glorious occasion, but she thought what we had attained was very far from what we ought to actually have. And this was what Slava Stetsko had dedicated fifty years of her life to.
Q.: “Would you please tell The Day about where you were born, studied, what made you embark on this career which is quite unusual for a Ukrainian woman?”
A.: “I was born in Romanivka, a scenic village in Ternopil oblast. Most of the families living there (among them several Polish ones) spoke Ukrainian. I entered the sixth grade at the so-called people's school in Terebovlia, the district center. It was an old town historically ruled by Polish aristocrats. Our class master was a Polish woman, and she hated my Ukrainian. Once she hit my hand with a ruler, demanding that I speak Polish to her. I took this as a very great offense. I was keenly aware of my Ukrainian identity and that we were an oppressed nation. This disgusted and revolted me. Later, at a Polish high school, I noticed that the Ukrainian students were subjected to ethnic discrimination. Personally, I had a commendable progress card. I knew Latin, History, and Mathematics well. In fact, I was among the three top class students – meaning myself, a Polish, and a Jewish female student. My parents were true Ukrainian patriots. My older brother joined the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists. The Polish authorities would arrest him and give him a term in prison. Growing up in such an atmosphere, I could not but protest any actions aimed against our Ukrainian sentiments. In high school, I together with the other Ukrainian students organized, establishing cells composed of five or three members, headed by senior graders. We would meet out of town, in the forest when it was warm, or in someone’s apartment. We studied Ukrainian history, read from Ukrainian authors, and told stories about Ukraine to junior graders.
“In 1939, Western Ukraine fell into Bolshevik hands. To avoid arrest, I had to move to a different locality and was “legalized” as a school principal in a village called Yushkivka. I lived in another village, Deviatnyky. I took a correspondence course in philosophy at Lviv University. There was an anti-Soviet underground center operating at my school. It was a well-formed and equipped organization, including a strict chain of command and weapons. Once, when cleaning their weapons, there was an explosion. We all had to quit and go underground.”
Q.: “What did you do during the war?”
A.: “I was a member of an anti-Soviet guerrilla unit. After the Germans came, we entered Bibrka, a small Western Ukrainian town. On June 30, 1941, the Act of Ukrainian Ukrainian Statehood was proclaimed in Lviv. In Bibrka, we summoned a lot of people and they listened eagerly as we read out the historic document.
“I was 21 and quite active, studying at Lviv Polytechnic Institute. Toward the end of the war when the Bolsheviks reentered Lviv, I made a trip abroad on a mission entrusted me by the OUN: first Vienna, then Bavaria, and Munich. I spent a long time there. The Bandera wing of the OUN released Yaroslav Stetsko shortly before the Reichstag was taken by the Soviets. They wanted him to negotiate establishing a Ukrainian army. Too late. The Third Reich was finished, and one had to look for other methods.
“We got married. In 1945, Munich hosted a Conference of Oppressed Peoples. It was then that the Anti-Bolshevik Bloc of Nations was set up, with my husband heading it. I was responsible for liaison as a member of its Central Committee. I also edited the ABN Correspondence, published in English, French, German, Spanish, and Portuguese. My husband’s first name was Yaroslav. Mine was Yaroslava. To avoid misunderstanding, I started using Slava and have used it ever since.
“ABN included representatives of all the oppressed peoples of the USSR and Communist-controlled Central Europe. Our immigrants were scattered across the world – in the Americas, Australia, the Middle East, and even in Indonesia. We had one goal in mind: putting together a Ukrainian ethnic community and developing contacts with other oppressed nations. Hence, my husband and I traveled extensively, covering a very large ground, including Canada and Australia where we would spend half a year. We would appear with lectures, organize news conferences, meet with local youth and statesmen. We did our best to encourage an interest in and sympathy for Ukraine. We wanted to persuade other nations to support emigres from the Communist-controlled countries morally and politically. We were met with understanding. Canadian Premier Diefenbaker, head of the US delegation Stevenson, and Felix Serrano of the Philippines spoke in defense of the Communist-oppressed nations at the United Nations.
“We told them about the Stalinist prison camps, the strikes at Temirtau, Norilsk, Vorkuta, and Karaganda. We spoke about the inhuman measures taken to suppress the Kingiri revolt. Ordered by Moscow, the local authorities used tanks against the peaceful demonstrators. 500 Ukrainian women, clad in national attire, marched ahead, singing patriotic songs. Everyone was sure that no harm would be done to women. Wrong, the tanks never stopped.
“We used eyewitness accounts by people representing various “Soviet nationalities” who had been fortunate enough to escape from the Soviet evil empire . On an anniversary of the man-made famine of 1932-33 our youth took seven coffins (seven because it was generally believed that the Bolsheviks had murdered seven million in the course of the famine; later, we would learn that the number was somewhere in the neighborhood of ten) and tossed them over the fence of the Soviet embassy in Canberra (Australia). ABN youth protested against the Soviet regime in front of UN buildings, Moscow diplomatic missions, in a number of capitals across the world. They put up posters, distributed brochures and other publications, and tried to penetrate foreign embassies with messages demanding the release of Soviet prisoners of conscience such as Chornovil, Lukianenko, Pliushch, Valentyn Moroz, and others. Ours were long-term and multihued projects, but everything we did was geared to help make Ukraine independent. In general, I consider that I have lived an eventful life.”
Slava Stetsko first received her Ukrainian passport in Lviv in 1991. She came to celebrate the Act of Statehood’s fiftieth anniversary (read out by Yaroslav Stetsko on June 30, 1941). Then she had to leave for Munich and then came the abortive Moscow putsch. She was back in Lviv and then went to Kyiv. In October 1992 she was elected Chairperson of the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists. In the spring of 1993, the party was officially registered in Ukraine. Slava Stetsko could have became a Ukrainian MP in 1994. She vied in the campaign, but then it transpired that she was not a Ukrainian citizen. The passport she had been issued in Lviv meant “honorary citizenship” only. Another Ukrainian bureaucratic whim befalling a unique utterly Ukrainian woman who, heading the Ukrainian Nationalist Congress, had never accepted any other citizenship, always striving to become a citizen of a genuinely free independent Ukraine. She had traveled far and wide as a displaced person.
In March 1997, there was a run-off in an Ivano-Frankivsk constituency. Slava Stetsko collected 86.6% of the votes. Before she was to take her Deputy’s oath she was warned that there would be catcalls in the audience and that she should pay no heed. She did exactly that and followed suit when swearing in the new Ukrainian Parliament this May.
One of Ukraine’s youth newspapers described the swearing-in situation under the eloquent title “Half the Audience Flourishing, the Other Half Fading.” Slava Stetsko stood her ground unswervingly. To her, all this Red opposition was kid’s play, compared to what she had been forced to endure.
Q.: “Suppose we digress from politics. What about your personal life? How do you plan your daily schedule?”
A.: “I get up at 6:30, do a few morning exercises, take a bath (there is no shower in my apartment), have breakfast — a cup of coffee and a plate of porridge — and go to Verkhovna Rada. If no committee sitting is scheduled, I return to the Congress of Ukrainian Nationalists about midday. I spend an hour, maybe an hour and a half there. Then back to Parliament. I start receiving visitors and going about party business at 6:00 p.m.. Usually, I end at about ten. Back home I watch the news and read the papers. Then I go to bed and fall asleep almost instantly, like a baby.”
Q.: “Falling asleep like that after a busy day implies a clear conscience, doesn’t it?”
A.: “I have no guilty conscience, except one thing: that swearing in May this year. Of course, it was an historic event. For me personally as well as for all the other people sharing my persuasions. However, I disagree with those who referred to the event as an ‘honorable culmination.’ No, I don’t want a culmination. I want to work further for the good of my Ukraine.”