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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

Great son of Volyn

3 December, 2014 - 17:38

The first day of winter, December 1, is the day when Yevhen Sverstiuk, a symbolic figure of Ukrainian dissident movement, passed away. There is some mystic symbolism about that, because on December 1 took place the referendum which strengthened the independence of Ukraine, a thing Sverstiuk dreamed about and fought for. Not so long ago he became one of the “fathers” of the “December 1” initiative.

Sverstiuk had a special niche in the dissident movement. During the years of independence he didn’t plunge into politics. At least he didn’t aspire to become a politician. As far as I knew him, he wanted to distance himself from politics. The enlightenment work was more important for him. Yes, he wanted changes, including the political ones, but he thought that people should be enlightened at first. Without this we can go a wrong way.

To understand Sverstiuk, one should probably understand his small homeland, the village where he was born and people who lived there. I think for the most of people the name Siltse of Horokhiv raion where the future dissident writer was born is hardly known. I have lived for some time (long ago, in the period of deep stagnation) in those places, the village Kvasiv (it is located less than 10 kilometers away from Siltse). Siltse, Okhlopiv, Kvasiv, Zhuravnyky are a kind of a village conglomerate. People here knew one another and maintained family relations. What I was impressed by in this location is an effort to stick to the old-time traditions, including the religious ones, and a special memory. Of course, it was not idyllic. But in spite of various circumstances people preserved good natural relations based on moral values.

Older people told me that “in times of Poland” their parents went to Cossack graves near Berestechko (it is about 30 kilometers away from Siltse). Polish police tried to disperse the crowd. But they still went going to honor the memory of the killed Cossacks. Stubborn Ukrainians. Sverstiuk was stubborn as well. During the war (which was called Great Patriotic War in our country) the guerillas were active in this location. Even in the time of stagnation the memories about them were preserved. For example, I learned from old-time residents that the village Okhlopiv (very close to Siltse) was under control of UPA guerillas. The Germans couldn’t get there. There were incidents when the occupants bombed this village from planes.

Like surrounding villages, Siltse is true Volyn with its black earth, picturesque forests, rivers, lakes, silent and hardworking peasants, and after all its deep culture. If you want to get to know this land a bit, you should read Volyn by Ulas Samchuk. At least when I for the first time read this epic work, I felt like visiting “my” Kvasiv, and surrounding Zhuravnyky, Siltse, and Okhlopiv.

Sverstiuk loved Volyn. Although the destiny made him go to different localities, he kept coming to his small fatherland as long as he had strength and possibility. I remember meeting him at the bus station No. 2 in Lutsk. An intelligent modest person who was waiting for a bus to Horokhiv caught my attention. Horokhiv is very close to Siltse. Those were the first years of independence. At that time Sverstiuk was a well-known figure. He could come to some oblast high-ranking official, introduce himself and ask for a car to go to his native village. No official would refuse. At that time the power respected dissidents and was a bit afraid of them. But Sverstiuk never did so. Together with village men and women he was waiting for far from comfortable bus to the land of his childhood. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Was it really Sverstiuk here, at a shabby bus station, waiting for a bus? I thought it was a small episode. But the person shows himself namely in small episodes.

Sverstiuk was a kind of representative of Volyn in the dissident movement which included people from various corners of Ukraine. There were Galicians, people from Central Ukraine, and from the far away Donbas. Everyone brought something of his own. Sverstiuk’s contribution was the defense of moral values based on traditions which for him were seamlessly connected with religious values. Even Sverstiuk’s denial of the communist system was not as much political as moral. The dissident didn’t perceive this system, because it was amoral. On the whole, amorality in politics was inacceptable for Sverstiuk. Was not this the reason why he distanced himself from politicians and political life? He didn’t accept amorality in church. He wanted to have a perfect church. Hence his religious-enlightenment work, editing of the newspaper Our Faith.

Sverstiuk’s non-involvement in politics was not always welcomed. Some people wanted him to be a “fighter,” to go together with former dissidents to “political barricades.” There were people who were discontent with his stand on the religious question. Probably, Sverstiuk was somewhat naive and unable to perceive the current state of things, the attempts to change it. Probably, Sverstiuk reminded Don Quixote a bit, a person who didn’t want to be modern and lived with his old-time moral values. In spite of naivety, this behavior deserved more respect than the pragmatic efforts to achieve success at any cost.

I remember one episode that happened about 20 years ago. A song festival was held in Lutsk. Sverstiuk was invited. Two young ladies from Kyiv came as well. They were practically not known. Now they are stars, civil and political celebrities. At a breakfast these ladies expressed their view on life. Sverstiuk was listening silently. When they left, he said, “I don’t understand these young people.”

Sverstiuk set a high standard, probably even too high for our morally degraded society. At the same time he avoided obtrusive edification. He was silently doing his work, like his Volynian ancestors silently ploughed up the field, gathered harvest, and looked after the cattle.

In fact he was a Teacher, intelligent, wise and calm. Another thing is that not everyone understood and perceived his teaching. But this is not the problem of the teacher. Rather it is the problem of foolish pupils. I think that people who have communicated with Yevhen Sverstiuk were impressed by this communication. They became wiser, more peaceful, or lighter.