Conflicts & War

Ukrainian gulag survivor reflects on the past 30 years after USSR fell

By Olga Tokariuk

Kiev, Dec 26 (EFE).- While Russian president Vladimir Putin mourns the collapse of the USSR, Ukrainians grieve the hundreds of thousands who were sent to Soviet gulags and lost their lives.

Mykola Matusevich, co-founder of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, was one of the most prominent figures in the Ukrainian dissident movement, which was one of the driving forces that led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union.

He spent 10 years in Soviet prisons and labor camps.

Today, at the age of 75, he lives in a shabby house in the small town of Vasylkiv, some 25 kilometers from Ukraine’s capital.


Matusevich says his mother’s account of the Holodomor famine under the Stalin regime, that she would whisper in his ear when he was a child, was what formed his cynicism of the Soviet regime.

“When you see injustice, when you see how your people are oppressed, you feel an urge to change it. I knew the regime would collapse, I just wasn’t sure whether I would be able to live until it would happen,” Matusevich tells Efe in an exclusive interview from his home.

Speaking badly of the Soviet regime was dangerous, so Matusevich’s only opportunity to connect with other Ukrainians was through cultural activities, so he joined a Ukrainian choir.

“I just wanted to find people who cared about Ukraine, spoke the Ukrainian language,” he said.


Years later, in 1976, along with nine fellow Ukrainians from different cultural circles including literature and philosophy, Matusevich co-founded the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, a human rights organization.

“We documented human rights abuses in Ukraine, talked to people, spoke openly about Holodomor,” the 75-year-old tells Efe.

But the Ukrainian Helsinki Group had a short life. Five months after its creation, the regime started arresting its members.

Matusevich was detained in April 1977 together with his colleague and friend, philosopher Myroslav Marynovych, under the accusation of “spreading anti-Soviet propaganda.”

After refusing to testify and show up in court, Matusevich was sentenced to seven years in prison and to five years in a gulag.

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