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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Valerii Marchenko

14 December, 2010 - 00:00
VALERII MARCHENKO / Photo provided by the author

Back in 2004, Kyiv’s school No.175 launched a museum room in commemoration of its former student, Soviet dissident, journalist, and human rights champion Valerii Marchenko. Liudmyla Hresko, deputy principal in charge of education, says both teachers and students are making every effort to have this school named after Marchenko — unsuccessfully so far. In 2008, a memorial plaque bearing his name was unveiled at 72 Shcherbakov St. in Kyiv, where Marchenko had resided for some time. Authorities say the street will be shortly named after him, too. Hopefully, an increasing number of Ukrainians will learn about this courageous man, what he did and could have done for the glory of Ukraine.

In a letter to his mother Marchenko wrote: “I returned to my prison cell and asked our Lord: ‘Why all this world, where a man like you has to suffer so much? Why then do I exist? Is it to cause my most beloved fellow humans to experience such pain?’ These are the accursed questions I am unable to answer.” His mother, Nina, would understand him and do everything she could to ease the burden on her son. She would admit: “My son is the best creation I have ever made.” And he was, though he would pay the price under the Soviets.

Valerii Marchenko was born on January 16, 1947, in Kyiv, an only child. His mother remembers him growing up “like an ordinary boy, but even then you could spot in him an urge for justice; he would never offend or otherwise mistreat his juniors. The boy would never act like his peers who misbehaved.” He stayed that way even though he had lots of friends.

Before he had turned 16, Valerii and his mother left Valerii’s father and settled in a hi-rise apartment building in the Nyvky residential district of Kyiv. In 1967, his mother, a certified teacher of Ukrainian language and literature, married Vasyl Smuzhanyts, secretary of the Academic Council of the Institute of Education. Valerii would often speak kindly of him in his Letters to My Mother From Prison. His father-in-law defended his mother even with the KGB pressure going full blast. Valerii’s grandfather, Mykhailo Marchenko, was a noted Ukrainian historian, the first Soviet-appointed rector or the Lviv University. Valerii inherited the family’s best national traditions. Above all, he learned to love and respect Ukraine.

After school, Valerii entered the philology department at the Kyiv University. It was there he discovered for himself the wealth of the Ukrainian language. The young man also showed his talent for foreign languages and literature. His mother would later confess she was amazed by her boy’s “singular laborious attitude.”

Valerii studied and worked, day and night. He did literary translations. His friend and university colleague, Inna Filippova, recalls: “We sat at the same desk, we were friends, never lovers. We had that singular liberty of relating to each other that way.” Valerii was in no hurry to get married. Inna remembers him visiting her once, saying: “Inna, Wolf Messing is visiting. Let’s go.” Inna agreed and during Messing’s lecture she noticed Valerii lost in thought. She kept watching him closely, eager to hear what he wanted to learn from the clairvoyant. When their turn came, Messing looked at her and then at Valerii. The young man’s words pierced the silence in the audience: “Tell me please: Is thought material or ideal?” Messing replied: “It is material.”

In his second year at the university Moscow started a program of student exchanges between the “fraternal Soviet republics.” Valerii was sent to Azerbaijan. In fact, the young man had developed quite a fancy for the Orient, reading and studying Ahatanhel Krymsky. His stay in Azerbaijan left Valerii very impressed. He learned and spoke fluent Azerbaijani, and made friends with the local young intellectuals, among them poets and writers, including Abdulla Abbas, the poet in charge of Ukrainian-Azerbaijan literary contacts. Above all, Valerii was impressed by the Azerbaijani principled stand and patriotism.

After graduating from university in 1970, on Oles Honchar’s recommendation, the young fellow started working for the periodical Literaturna Ukraina (The Literary Ukraine) and had about a hundred articles published before 1973, along with three books of translations: Songs of Azerbaijan, Scary Tales, and Jalil Huseyngulu oglu Mammadguluzadeh’s comedy The Corpses. Interestingly, he negotiated a stage production of The Corpses with the Ivan Franko Ukrainian Drama Theater in Kyiv, but the bureaucrats in charge of culture didn’t like the title and the project never came to fruition.


In 1972, Valerii wrote two features, Kyiv Dialog and Under the Guise of Ideology, using the penname Valentyn Rozum. He put the manuscripts in a desk drawer and called a secretary in downtown Kyiv to type them out. They agreed on a meeting, but the girl was there and Valerii was getting late. Then a foreigner approached her, asking for directions. She told him where to go. The foreigner was tailed by KGB men, a standard procedure at the time, so they decided to check out the girl, just in case. She was detained and frisked, and they found in her purse several manuscripts in Valerii’s hand. He was arrested on March 25, 1973.

Marchenko was sure the KGB had only his Kyiv Dialog manuscript, so he wrote to Volodymyr Shcherbytsky, then First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, complaining about his arrest and the long term he would have to serve on charges of anti-Soviet propaganda. The next day, the interrogating officers demanded that he explain his other manuscript, Under the Guise of Ideology. The situation was going from bad to worse. Forced to re-read his manuscripts, Valerii found himself haunted by the macabre idea that none of them would become public knowledge. He would write later: “This was an excruciating experience. I returned to my prison cell with a throbbing headache, thinking that all my previous efforts were in vain. I was up against the wall, facing a long term in a prison camp; this would be the end of me, what with my ailing kidneys, and I had nothing to throw back at my tormentors.” He was charged with oral and written anti-Soviet propaganda, including the dissemination of copies of Ivan Dziuba’s Internationalism or Russification? On December 29, 1976, he was sentenced to six years in maximum security prison camps and two years of exile, under Section 1, Article 62, of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR.

After three weeks on rail, all the way from Kyiv to Chusov raion, Perm oblast (Russia) he found himself an inmate of a prison camp, along with Ivan Svitlychny, Mykola Horban, Semen Gluzman, Ihor Kalynets, and others. At first he wasn’t trusted, for the KGB had spread word about him being a stoolie, but after a while he was recognized as one of their own and accepted as a member of the local community of prisoners of conscience.

Says Yevhen Sverstiuk, former political prisoner: “I had heard about a journalist from Kyiv, that he specialized in history. Once I found myself in the camp’s infirmary where you were treated with less cruelty than in the tough Zone 36. It was Zone 35, a bit more on the human side. Valerii was among the patients. I was taken out for my ‘constitutional’ and then heard his calling from behind the grated window: ‘Mr. Yevhen!’ This was most unusual, for every inmate was closely watched by the camp guards and speaking out loud was against the rules. Anyway, there he was, looking through the window at me, apparently because the overseer on shift was absent at the moment. ‘I’m Valerii Marchenko, do you happen to know my mother Nina Marchenko?’ he shouted. I said no, I didn’t. I knew Lesia Marchenko. Valerii said she was his mother’s sister who had also worked at the Education Institute: ‘But you must have heard about Nina Marchenko!’ There was something about the way he said it that I couldn’t but say yes, I certainly do, the more so that he added, dead serious: ‘She is my mother, the whole world must know her name.’ Then he asked how I was faring, but his guard had come and started dragging him away from the window, the young man resisted and I recognized him as one of the courageous young musketeers of my time who would never succumb to circumstances. That’s why I remember him so well.”

The camp administration also remembered him. In the summer of 1974, he was allowed to be visited by his mother. He was ailing and the camp’s chief warden had a long talk with Nina Marchenko before she saw her son. She was politely advised to straighten out her son, that if he agreed to become an informant his term would be cut short, otherwise his six-year term could have a totally unexpected, tragic outcome. Did Valerii accept the tacit proposal? The best evidence is his letter, one of many addressed to his mother: “Teacher, you have always taught a principled stand among many other human virtues that make a decent communal member… You still have a son who loves his mother the way few others have loved, whom this love — and other virtues instilled by his beloved mother — has helped sustain the hardest of ordeals and win the right to call himself a man. My beloved mother, this is your accomplishment that weighs far more than anything you had to tell me when we met. Forget it; this isn’t worthy of my mother. You and me, there’s a long time to spend in this world, so let us be worthy of its beauty with our feelings and deeds.” The son was teaching his mother.

During the six years spent in the prison camp Valerii Marchenko became a brilliant journalist. He was actively in contact with other inmates, writing down their recollections and samizdat articles. The young man’s sincere attitude and concern about others won him the nickname Camp Chronicler. He was thrilled by the truth about the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), but there was the big problem of conveying to Ukraine what he had learned behind barbed wire. Once again his mother lent a hand, helping him establish contact with human rights champions and concerned citizens in various countries, conveying her son’s hair-raising stories about Soviet prison camp realities.

With time the West became interested in the little-known Soviet Ukrainian journalist. His articles were translated and carried by North American and European periodicals, broadcast by the BBC, Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. Amnesty International started a campaign for correspondence with the prisoner of conscience. Marchenko began receiving numerous letters from abroad. In fact, his correspondence with Sandra Fappiano came out as a book entitled Valerii and Sandra.

Released from the prison camp, Valerii served the exile term in Saralzhin, a settlement in Aktyubinsk oblast, Kazakhstan. He quickly made friends with local residents and was allowed to stay there. In fact, his KGB “friends” said he should get married and live there, for they didn’t want him in Ukraine.

Marchenko returned to Kyiv in 1981, a very ailing man but much wiser than his age normally prescribed. He was finally a free citizen, but his life didn’t differ much from that in the prison camp; he was constantly tailed by KGB men, his phone was tapped, all letters opened and read before finding their way to his mailbox. He was ordered to report to the local militia precinct on a regular basis for a year. He had to be at home at 10 p.m., which was also verified. However, during the years spent in camp he had found the strongest support man can fathom, that of Jesus Christ. He wrote an article entitled “Nothing but Faith.” It reads: “I have been trying to figure out my coming to understand our God, and why I am in favor of spiritual enlightenment. I hope that my conclusions will be shared by my fellow countrymen, for this is high time we toppled our idols, discarded all that misleading communist propaganda, and finally breath in the life-giving air of Faith and build our life on the truly human principles.”

His faith helped him because he was physically unable to fight his enemy. He had a hard time looking for a job; no one wanted him with his criminal record. After walking up and down practically all Kyiv streets, he found himself hired as a greenery watchman, not far from his home. It was then he wrote his most important articles “Mykola Hulak” (1982) and “Down in Kyiv Caves” (1983).


Marchenko was arrested again on October 3, 1983, this time on charges of having conveyed his articles abroad, along with his commentary on the ukase of the Ministry of Education of the Ukrainian SSR, placing emphasis on Russian studies at the grade schools, tagged by Marchenko as an “upgraded Valuev Circular” [referring to the secret decree made by Russia’s tsarist Minister of Internal Affairs Pyotr Valuev (July 18, 1863), whereby a large portion of the publications (religious and literature used for school training) in the Ukrainian language was forbidden – Ed.]. This time, being a hardened criminal in the eyes of Soviet law, he received ten years in the camps and five years of exile. Given his physical condition it was a death verdict. Marchenko’s arrest and indictment made headlines in the ethnic media overseas, echoed by other periodicals and channels. The Pope, US President Reagan and congressmen came out in his support. The Soviet government kept a poker face. Marchenko spent 55 days in a train getting to the prison camp at Kuchino, a settlement in Perm oblast (Russia). Needless to say, the trip did nothing to improve his failing health. Three months later, barely alive, he was transported to a prison hospital in Leningrad where he died on October 7, 1984. This, however, wasn’t the end of the suffering endured by Valerii’s close and dear ones. The KGB had made every effort to conceal his death. Nina Marchenko, with the mother’s gut feeling, flew to Leningrad with her sister, Alla, and was shown her son’s body several days later.

He was buried at Hatne, a settlement near Kyiv, on October 14, 1984, near the graves of his beloved grandparents. The burial took place only after overcoming bureaucratic hardships, since under the Soviet law dead convicts were to be buried in the vicinity of their jail or prison camp. Miraculously, his relatives got through the KGB red tape. The funeral was mainly attended by his friends, outnumbering his relatives two or three times, as the latter feared the ceremony would attract undue official attention with the attendant consequences. He was buried quickly, after a recital of Lesia Ukrainka’s poem and a prayer. Since then his mother and his friends have been paying homage to his grave on the date marking the Protection of Our Most Holy Lady. Nina Marchenko has been ailing of late, she can hardly step out of her apartment, but she keeps working on her son’s writings, preparing them for publication.

By Ihor SAMOKYSH, The Day