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‘An especially dangerous criminal’ The story of Vasyl Ovsienko, who spent more than 13 years in Soviet prisons for using the Ukrainian language

Source: Meduza

Story by Kristina Safonova. Abridged translation by Carol Matlack.

Vasyl Ovsienko is a Ukrainian philologist who came of age in the late 1960s. In those years, as an advocate for Ukrainian language and culture, he found himself in constant tension with his Soviet surroundings, and his sharing of samizdat, or self-published illegal literature, eventually landed him in prison. Ovsienko ultimately spent more than 13 years in Soviet prisons, which culminated in a seven-year stay in a camp for “dangerous recidivists” in Russia’s Perm region. Meduza special correspondent Kristina Safonova tells his story.

If you go mushroom hunting in the woods near the town of Chusovoy in Russia’s Perm region, you’ll come across the ruins of prison camp barracks, says 76-year-old historian Viktor Shmyrov, who grew up nearby.

Shmyrov’s earliest memory associated with the camps is of the word “arrestee,” which is what prisoners were called in pre-revolutionary times. Though the word was taken out of official use in the Soviet era, Shmyrov’s family continued to use it. “At home, the fact that lots of people were being held in camps was discussed openly,” Shmyrov recalls. “It was clear to everyone in the family that Stalin was a criminal.” 

Shmyrov remembers going with other boys to a place by the river known to locals as Yermak Cave (after the legendary Cossack leader Yermak Timofeyevich). Along the way, he saw fallen towers and crumpled barbed wire.

"I didn't know it was a camp, but it made such an impression on me. I realized it was a place of evil, of pain," Shmyrov says. 

A philologist from a Ukrainian village

Barbed wire and more barbed wire. At least seven fences surrounded the camp in the Perm region where Vasyl Ovsienko was imprisoned from 1981 to 1987 on charges of anti-Soviet campaigning and propaganda.

Ovsienko was born in 1949 in Lenino, a village in Ukraine’s Zhytomyr region. As a child, when asked about his father, he climbed up on a bench and pointed to a calendar with a portrait of Stalin.

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Vasyl came from an ordinary peasant family: his father had gone to school for two years, his mother hadn’t gone at all. But even in his school years, he was interested in literature and wrote poetry, some of which was published in the local newspaper “Zarya Polesia.”

That was in the mid-1960s. Vasily Skuratovsky, who later became a famous ethnographer, worked at the newspaper. It was from him that Ovsienko first learned about the Ukrainian shestidesyatniki, or "Sixtiers” — members of the intelligentsia who spoke out in defense of Ukraine’s national language and culture, as well as creative freedom, beginning in the late 1950s. They chose nonviolent methods of resistance: journalism and samizdat (self-published illegal literature), literary meetings and memorial evenings, and theater performances and youth clubs.

Even so, in 1965, the authorities arrested more than 20 people involved in the movement. In response, their self-published work, which had primarily consisted of poetry at first, became more political. Though many of them had started out as supporters of “socialism with a human face,” the “Sixtiers” gradually became dissidents.

The first book from one of the “Sixtiers” that Ovsienko encountered was the typewritten diary of the poet and journalist Vasily Symonenko. In 1967, Ovsienko had just begun to study philology at Kyiv State University. “Being a Ukrainian philologist, or even just a Ukrainian in Kyiv, meant being in constant tension with your surroundings,” Ovsienko recalled. Unlike many people in Kyiv, he preferred his native Ukrainian to the Russian language, and as a result, he faced constant questions from others: “‘Are you from Western Ukraine? From Transcarpathia? I don’t understand! Speak normally!’”

Despite the risk of being expelled, Ovsienko recopied Symonenko’s unpublished poems. A year later, he began distributing “Sixtiers’” texts to students. "For five years, nobody ratted me out," he said.

After university, Ovsienko went to the village of Tashan in the Kyiv region to teach Ukrainian language and literature, but he didn’t lose touch with the “Sixtiers.” In January 1972, the Soviet authorities arrested almost all of the leaders of the Ukrainian dissident movement. But Ovsienko and two other graduates of Kyiv State University, Vasily Lisovoy and Evgeniy Pronyuk, remained active.

In the summer of that year, Lisovoy and Pronyuk were arrested. Ovsienko was taken into custody on March 5, 1973, the twentieth anniversary of Stalin’s death.

Vasyl Ovsienko in 1977
Kharkiv Human Rights Group

"They blackmailed me, threatening to put me in a mental hospital. … They pressured me, manipulated me, and I gave up. I named the people I gave samizdat to and those who gave it to me,” Ovsienko said years later.

His friends were summoned for interrogations; some lost their jobs, while others were kicked out of the university. Mikhail Yakubovsky, a former roommate to whom Ovsienko had lent Dzyuba’s work, spent 11 months in a psychiatric hospital. 

Lisovoy and Pronyuk were sentenced to seven years. (Lisovoy also received three years in exile, while Pronyuk got five). Ovsienko was sentenced to four years. Subsequently, he retracted his confession.

"I had no complaints, and still have no complaints, against Vasily Lisovoy for regularly giving me samizdat, but I do lament that no one taught me how to behave when we were arrested,” Ovsienko said years later. “There were no such instructions. Except the moral law inside me. And in me, that law turned out to be weak. This weakness was exacerbated by the fact that I didn’t consider my actions criminal and couldn’t help being surprised that the investigation treated them as crimes.”

He spent his first term in Mordovian political camps among "especially dangerous state criminals”: "anti-Soviet" people who had participated in national liberation movements in Western Ukraine and the Baltic states. 

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Ovsienko’s first year in the camps strengthened his resolve. “I quickly came to my senses in this environment, and by the end of 1974, I was already participating in the protests [such as strikes and hunger strikes] that were taking place there,” he recalled.

Ovsienko returned to his native village in 1977. In November of the following year he was arrested again, this time for allegedly resisting a policeman.

This occurred after Ovsienko, who was under KGB surveillance, was visited by Oksana Meshko, the head of the human rights organization Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG), and Olha Babych, the sister of the imprisoned dissident Serhiy Babych

Later that day, Ovsienko, Meshko, and Babych were arrested without explanation. A week later, Ovsiyenko was told that he had “hindered police officers in the performance of their official duties,” “insulted them with obscene words,” and tore two buttons from an officer’s coat. He was sentenced to three years in prison. This time he served his sentence in criminal detention units in Ukraine’s Zaporizhzhia and Zhitomir regions.

Ovsienko received his third conviction just six months before he was slated to be released. KGB officers initially tried to get him to testify against other dissidents from Ukraine; when that proved impossible, they charged him with spreading anti-Soviet propaganda. He was sentenced to ten years in minimum security camps and five years in exile. As a result, in 1981, Ovsienko was found to be a "particularly dangerous recidivist," and ended up in VS-389/36, a prison near the Chusovaya River that was notorious for its harsh conditions.

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The camp was divided into two parts: one for inmates of the cell block, the other for inmates who were allowed out into the yard. Ovsienko belonged to the first category. His barracks was surrounded by a three-meter fence. "Apart from this fence, you could see nothing from the cells except — if you stood on a stool — the tops of trees half a kilometer away in the woods," he said.

There were between two and eight people in the cell, and not much space. There were bunk beds, a table, two heavy benches or stools, sometimes a small cupboard, a washbasin, and a raised toilet in the corner.  

“It’s psychological torture,” Ovsienko recalled. “They re-educate you into human cattle.” Almost every prisoner had intestinal problems. The cells always stank, and there were sometimes water shortages.

Vasyl Ovsienko’s registration card, issued in 1981 at the Perm-36 camp

The daily food ration included cereals, potatoes and cabbage, 15 grams of sugar, 5 grams of fat, 20 grams of meat or 50 grams of fish, and 600 grams of bread. The water was "dirty, swampy, and stinky,” Ovsienko said.

Prisoners were allowed to spend up to an hour a day in a small courtyard surrounded by a high fence with barbed wire on top. Much of their time was devoted to work, such as assembling parts of electric irons and attaching them to cords. If the guards wanted to punish someone, they could easily find a loose screw.  

There were constant searches. Osvienko said he was often strip-searched three times a day. Dust in the cell, an unironed collar, or failing to be "frank in conversation" were considered violations. 

The punishment was 15 days in an isolation cell — and after that, you could immediately be sent back for another 15 days. It was always cold in the punishment cell, Ovsienko recalled, and prisoners were not allowed out to exercise. If an inmate was taken out to work, he was entitled to hot food, but “without fats and sugar.” If he didn’t work, he received hot food every other day. The rest of the time, he ate bread (450 grams per day), salt, and hot water.

After two or three such punishments, they might send a prisoner to solitary confinement for a year.

A photograph of the Perm-36 camp taken secretly by Ivan Kovalev in 1977 when he came to visit his father, Sergei Kovalev, a scientist and human rights activist who was sentenced to seven years in prison and three years in exile for anti-Soviet agitation
Ivan Kovalev

After that, the court could impose an additional sentence of several years in prison. "All this is against us, as especially dangerous state criminals, especially dangerous recidivists," Ovsienko said.

A historian from a ‘convict district’

Viktor Shmyrov hadn’t intended to study Soviet repression. His academic interest was medieval Russia. "I was studying the history with the least amount of lies," he explains. 

While still a student at Perm State University, Shmyrov was hired to head the museum of local history in Cherdyn, an ancient Ural town in the north of the Perm region. “It’s an exile-convict district. There are dozens of camps all around,” he said.

Shmyrov spent seven years in Cherdyn. Afterwards, he taught and became dean of the history department at the Perm State Pedagogical Institute. In the late 1980s, old friends of Shmyrov’s opened a branch of the human rights group Memorial in Perm. “I helped them however I could, including with archives, and with advice on what they could find and where, since I'm a historian,” he said. He also arranged for them to use the institute's assembly hall for meetings. 

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In 1992, Shmyrov was asked to help set up a museum at Camp VS-389/35, now known as Perm-35. Since the early 1970s, it had been one of three high-security facilities in the district for political prisoners. After 1991, it remained as a penal institution for criminals. Journalists were eager to visit, and so the head of the Perm Internal Affairs Department proposed opening “a museum of some kind,” Shmyrov said.

"We were given two rooms in the hospital of this camp. We made a small exhibition," he recalled. The artist Rudolf Vedeneyev, who served two years in the camp, made a memorial plaque.

After that, the “memorialists” held a conference near Perm-35, inviting former political prisoners to attend. Someone suggested visiting the two other institutions that made up the so-called Perm “troika” of camps: Perm-36 and Perm-37 (or VS-389/36 and VS-389/37).

Shmyrov was struck by what he saw at Perm-36: "I know what camps from the 1960s and 1970s look like. But here I saw a different zone, archaic barracks. It occurred to me that perhaps they had been standing since the time of the Stalinist Gulag, the one Alexander Solzhenitsyn described. And it's not one or two buildings, but a whole complex!”

He was right.

A photo of the Perm-36 camp, taken by Ivan Kovalev from the exterior staircase to the second floor. "I let my escort walk ahead, I coughed (to muffle the click of the photo shutter) and paused," he recalled.

Correctional labor colony No. 6 in the village of Kuchino was founded 76 years ago. It was a typical gulag zone, of which there were tens of thousands throughout the Soviet Union. Its prisoners were forced to do hard labor, such as felling timber.

The colony was given its new name — VS-389/36, or Perm-36 — in 1972. It also received a new, thoroughly vetted staff, as well as new prisoners — opponents of the Soviet regime, for whom conditions of maximum isolation were created. 

The 1953 amnesty, which was declared shortly after Stalin's death and took place against the backdrop of uprisings in the camps, freed more than a million people. However, relatively few political prisoners were released, as the amnesty did not apply to those sentenced to more than five years for “counterrevolutionary crimes.” 

In the 1960s, a large number of these prisoners were held in Mordovian political camps. It was easy to smuggle information out of those camps because there were corrupt officials. Concerned that a dissident movement was on the rise, the authorities set up the Perm camps.

During the camps’ existence, 985 prisoners passed through them, Shmyrov says. Most were Ukrainians. Official records list 268 Ukrainian prisoners, more than any other nationality. Additionally, there were another 162 whose nationalities are not specified in available records, but many had Ukrainian surnames.

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Repressive policies in Ukraine had been particularly harsh since the early 1970s, says Alexander Daniel, a researcher on the history of dissent in the Soviet Union. While “anti-Sovietists" in Moscow would get in trouble, their Ukrainian counterparts would get stiff sentences for similar activities.

Ukrainians also predominated among the prisoners in the high-security division of Perm-36, which operated from 1980 to 1988. This was where "political repeat offenders" such as Ovsienko were held, as well as those sentenced to death for treason.

Ukrainian prisoners helped smuggle information about human rights violations out of the camps. Writing in fine calligraphy on extra-thin paper, they described searches in their cells to confiscate “extra” warm clothing; lack of ventilation in the workshops; being denied visitors for refusing to speak in Russian rather than their native language; lack of medical care; and illegal detention in isolation cells. 

The paper strips were wrapped in special plastic film capsules that were swallowed by prisoners preparing to leave the camp, or by relatives during visits. Information about these violations was published in Russia and Ukraine, and broadcast on Radio Liberty and Voice of America. This was uncomfortable for the Soviet authorities, who had embarked on perestroika reforms. In February 1986, Mikhail Gorbachev even assured the French newspaper “LʼHumanité” that there were no political prisoners in the country.

On Dec. 8, 1987, Ovsienko recalled, “a whole gang of cops” arrived at Perm-36 and moved all the political prisoners to Perm-35. 

KGB officers asked the prisoners to write statements that could provide grounds for a pardon. Ovsienko and many others refused, because they did not consider themselves guilty. Nevertheless, he was released in August 1988; the Perm-36 political camp ceased to exist.

But a year later, Ovsienko returned to rebury the bodies of his fellow Ukrainian prisoners Vasily Stus, Alexei Tikhogo, and Yuri Litvin, who were among nine people who had died at the camp. The Ukrainian dissidents who survived the camp were “more fortunate than their predecessors,” Ovsienko said later: “They saw an independent Ukraine.”

Researchers have confirmed that Perm-36 is the only surviving complex of buildings from Stalin's Gulag. It remains almost fully intact, though it’s been damaged by weather and by local residents who scavenged window frames and roof slate for their homes. 

“When I realized that I had a rare monument in front of me and that it would disappear in a few years if I didn't take it, everything was decided right away," Shmyrov said.

The view from a second-floor room where Ivan Kovalev and his mother Lyudmila Boytsova were waiting to be admitted to see Sergei Kovalev. "That time it all worked out, no one noticed," Ivan says about the secret photoshoot. “But a few years later in Mordovia, I was caught doing this and threatened with Article 64 of the death penalty. A few years later, in 1992, I was free to go and shoot whatever I wanted, and no one cared."
Ivan Kovalev

Shmyrov soon abandoned his doctoral dissertation, his position as dean, and his teaching career. Together with Memorial members and social activists, he created the Memorial Center for the History of Political Repressions at Perm-36 and became its director.

Working with former political prisoners including Ovsienko, Shmyrov documented the crimes of Soviet authorities at the camp. The museum opened in 1995. Shmyro ran the center until it was taken over by Russian authorities 20 years later.

The ‘territory of freedom’

The last time Ovsienko and Shmyrov saw each other was in 2013, at an annual festival at Perm-36 that had become a major attraction in the region since it was first held 2005. "We had a slogan: 'Perm-36 is the territory of freedom,'" Shmyrov says. The program included exhibits, films, concerts, and public discussions on political topics. Speakers included the human rights activist Sergey Kovalev, the opposition leader Boris Nemtsov (who was later murdered), and Russia’s then-acting Commissioner for Human Rights Vladimir Lukin.

Perm Krai authorities initially supported the project. But in 2012, after former Regional Development Minister Viktor Basargin replaced Oleg Chirkunov as governor of the Liberal Party, the festival began to suffer funding cuts and government interference with its programs.

After the destruction of the festival, there was a struggle for the museum. The administration of the governor decided to make it entirely state-run.

In May 2014, the Perm region’s culture minister dismissed the museum’s interim director, who had taken Shmyrov’s place while he underwent heart surgery. After coming home from the hospital, “I found that we no longer had a museum,” Shmyrov recalled.


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Changes were made in exhibits. Some were hidden from visitors or altered; a display about Ukrainian prisoners, for example, was changed to accuse them of sympathizing with ultra-right-wing Banderites. There was even some discussion of a display honoring the “effectiveness” of the camp staff, though this has not been done so far. The group Memorial was designated by the government as a “foreign agent,” ending its involvement in the project.

Shmyrov has heard about the changes, though he hasn’t been to the museum since 2014. "It all hurts me. They tell me what they say on the tours. How the tour guide starts giggling,” he says. “People died in this camp from lack of medical care.”

Shmyrov is also concerned about the condition of the buildings. Under his leadership, they were largely restored, but were not finished with plaster. “And they are still standing unplastered,” he said. “Without plaster, they rot.” 

Meduza asked the center’s current director, Natalia Semakova, about Shmyrov’s remarks, but had not received an answer at the time of publication.

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The start of Russia’s full-scale war against Ukraine last February shocked Shmyrov. But while he has maintained contact with some former Ukrainian prisoners at the Perm camps, he hasn’t discussed the war with them. “I don’t know what to say. Those trite words: ‘I’m with you’? I’m not with them, they’re being bombed,” he explains. He wrote to Ovsienko but got no reply; mutual friends told him Ovsienko was “very sick.”

Ovsienko, now 73, lives in Kyiv. He has no wife or children. When he was released from prison, he devoted himself to social and political activities and to preserving memory: he wrote about his life and the Ukrainians who died in prison, and collected stories of those who came back alive from the camps and from exile. They are published on the website of an online museum created by the Kharkiv Human Rights Group; Ovsienko is its coordinator.

Ovsienko does not pick up the phone right away. When he does, he complains that he does not feel well, and that his memory is no longer the same. He advises Meduza to look at his past interviews, articles and books. "I think that what should have been written, I have already written," he says. 

Ovsienko doesn’t believe he will ever visit the Perm region again. “A lot of good people were left there,” he says.

Story by Kristina Safonova

Abridged translation by Carol Matlack

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