A 89-year-old Ivan Myron lives in a remote village in a mountainous Zakarpattia region. He is the last living prisoner from the group of 18 OUN (Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists) soldiers who were betrayed and arrested in 1951. He was a prisoner of the Gulag for 25 years and still is not rehabilitated by Ukraine.
A steep, winding and covered with snow road leads from the village of Velykyi Bychkiv to a small mountainous village of Rosishka. We are visiting this picturesque and at once generously coy place to meet a living legend of Ukrainian patriotic movement – Ivan Myron – in March, but the snow is knee-deep. Every day this man who is still strong and active goes through the snow to a small well for water, which doesn’t get frozen even in severe frosts and never drains out when it is hot.
A steep path leads to his house. We will definitely bow as we enter it – short doors is a feature of Hutsul houses and of Myrons family house in particular. A shed is next to the house, a black curly Kudria is kindly barking nearby, it is happy to see his owner outside. Ivan Myron is squinting into the sun and extending his very strong and overworked hand for a handshake. A moment later, he’ll dash his tears away with this hand– we are giving him a red-black flag (red and black are colors of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (the UPA in Ukrainian), which is signed by young soldiers-volunteers, who are fighting for Ukraine today. He is folding the flag and straining it to his heart, this UPA flag. For a cooperation with the armed wing of the OUN, Ivan Myron was banished to Siberia.
“There was another life, there was love to the land until they came with their collectivization. People had their own farms, cattle; someone had less land, someone more, but they paid a higher tax as well… But then: you had to give away four out of five haymows you’d made on your field, and only one you could leave to yourself. How did they accept to a collective farm? They led you into a dark room, gave you a paper and a pen: write down that you want to enter the collective farm. If you didn’t want, they said, “Put your hand on a table, we’ll cut it. Once you are an invalid, you cannot enter the collective farm, we don’t need invalids there, we need working people.” Once Anna, a widow, came to me and asked if I could give her some matches. They had grabbed her land, a small piece of land. They promised her to give a cow and to find her a husband, she asked them to leave her alone. They said: put your hand, we’ll cut it, we don’t need invalids, and she put both her hands and didn’t removed them when he heaved an axe, anyway, they got scared. And I thought to myself: this woman didn’t remove her hands, and I am a man, how can I give an oath to them?
Ivan Myron will be holding the flag the whole conversation, now he is tidying his house. He returned here, to his parents’ house only in 1976. He spent 25 years – the best and the most fruitful years for a man, from 22 to 47, at hellish conditions of Stalin camps marked shortly but meaningfully as “strict regime”. From the Carpathians through Lviv in Kharkiv, Novosibirsk, Krasnoyarsk, then a prisoner transport through Yenisei to Norilsk, then “Ozerlag”, Irkutsk, Mordovia – this is the geography of that “trip”. But the story began in the Carpathian mountains, at the Zakarpattia Hutsulshchyna region…
“Here, in the mountains, people have always loved freedom. That is our feature. It was very difficult for us, it seemed like we were slaves. But collectivization was alien for us, it was like a wound, we were afraid of it. The Holy Scripture says: go forth and multiply, ye shall dwell, and the land shall be before you. If the God had given something, he would have given love as well. But when what has belonged to your family, doesn’t belong to you anymore, and you don’t work on your own land, then love fades away.”
He was arrested in May 1951 with 17 other men. He with 5 men received the harshest sentence – 25 years of strict regime (only execution was stricter), and he is the only one who served his full sentence, because he didn’t repent. That’s why he wasn’t released under an amnesty after the death of Stalin.
“Before Stalin died, we had had a very tough life: no days-off, nothing at all, shakedowns etc. Our regime was like that: we came to our barracks, then a shakedown, then we had an hour till a lockdown, at night, barracks were closed, we had a barrel as our toilette, and in the morning everything repeated: waking up, going for work, every day the same.”
He received the harshest sentence for “terrorist attacks”, “counterrevolutionary and anti-Soviet activity” and, of course, for “high treason”, because he was fighting against collectivization, he didn’t want to serve in the red army, he defended his landsmen from soviets. In sum, he was a true Ukrainian, who didn’t admit the occupation. “Could I give an oath to the enemy? The answer was evident. That’s why I came to men, about whom I knew, I understood what they were fighting for,” this is how a 21-year-old Ivan Myron, who had already collaborated with Ukrainian insurgents and carried out certain tasks, joined the underground. He became a courier of the OUN UPA in the Carpathians and carried out tasks at the Zakarpattia and Ivano-Frankivsk regions.
“Language…. Angels speak our language… In Siberia, we spoke Ukrainian with each other, with others – it depended. There were different nationalities in the camp. We were on friendly terms with Lithuanians, more than with others. They are similar to us in the religion and nature. “Forest Brothers”, yo! (Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian partisans who waged a guerrilla war against Soviet rule). They always wanted to break us apart, but they couldn’t make it happen… Ukrainians stuck together, well, our organization was also “quiet”, we were helping each other. Ukrainians were rebels.”
Ivan Myron received the harshest sentence because it was he, who disarmed a guard of the village council. He took his carbine with rounds. This was determined as “banditry”. He received the sentence, which is still not abolished, in fact. As Ivan Myron, who was a proper “Banderivets”, was banished to “white bears”, he found himself in the centre of a legendary upspring in the Gulag. Ukrainians caused it.
“Do you know how the Norilsk upspring started? It started from a song! We were at our night shift (well, in fact, the sun didn’t set already as we were above the Arctic Circle, on the Taymyr Peninsula), half of the people were transferred from a working to a living section, they had an hour till a lockdown, so they went behind the barracks to sing. You know, it doesn’t matter whether a Ukrainian is sad or happy, he always wants to sing. They were singing, but a guard shouted to them in Russian, “Shut up!” But they continued to sing! The guard got mad and started to shoot, he killed one Ukrainian, someone was injured. We heard that, and we knew that when there was a shooting, someone must have been killed. Everybody who was working in two big camps (the 4th and the 5th) suddenly stopped working (we were building multi-storey houses). That’s how the revolt started: we didn’t go to the compound, we stayed at work, but we didn’t work, we dropped our tools. Those who were in the compound, didn’t go to work.
We went on strike, which transformed into the revolt, the camp administration fled away, we started to get no food. One man from the Eastern Ukraine said: we should write to the people, who may go past the camp, and say that we are starving. Andrii Skrypka (a townsman, who had been judged with Myron) said: let’s do it. So, we took a roofing felt and wrote down a message, somehow pushed it through a window and showed to people. After that, we started to receive food again. However the revolt didn’t stop. General Poniukov flew to us. He was a deputy to the Minister of the Non-Ferrous Metallurgy, he used to be the head of the Gorlag (Gorny Camp Directorate, Special Camp No. 2), – special camps for political prisoners. By that moment, three camps had already joined the revolt (these two with 4.500 – 5000 prisoners in each and one camp for women with 6800 prisoners (I knew one woman who even returned to her village then). Old prisoners knew Poniukov as these camps were launched in 1934. We agreed that we would return to the compound only if they would make a corridor and we would be safe.
Poniukov was known for his “games” at work. Old prisoners told us. The administration knew about that and when he came to the camp, they led “wasted” people to baths, but in fact, to him. He liked to shoot them, watch them dying, after that he just left. Then workers were taking away bodies and tiding after him. Then I thought: if he was able to get promoted from the Gorlag to the deputy, then, perhaps, they all are the same. In fact, they really were. They had kind of joint responsibility. For example, one our fellow who took part in a fight where only one red soldier was killed, and one was injured. Once he was taken out of the ward and put against the wall, and said: death penalty is substituted with 20 years of “strict regime”. That document was signed by Voroshylov. The system seemed to work so to involve all of them…
The revolt continued. They wanted to take foreigners out of the camp and separate German, Japanese, Hungarian (gendarmes as well as prisoners) and others. If they had taken them away, they would have dealt with us sooner, I suppose. We determined our requirements, as that regime was killing us. Japanese prisoners managed to make the administration arrange a separate brigade of foreigners. Then they said to the administration: their (our) requirements are fair, we’ll get to work only when you fulfill them. They tried to storm us several times, they enveloped the compound, attacked, occupied most of the barracks, put doors closed, but we raised a racket and started to attack them, they began fleeing in dismay. They were that scared that didn’t close the gate. In that chaos, one of their fire-engines even ran down a major. Another one got into barbed wire in “prohibited area,” and got that scared that shot all the rounds into his own trench coat. But that revolt stopped. A Moscow commission came with the soldiers and promised that they wouldn’t punish rebels and would negotiate.
They promised to provide an 8-hour working day, that they will reconsider sentences and release the innocent (I still say – they meant those professors who were sentenced by “special committee” to 10 years for refusal to “cooperate”). They promised 4 days-off per month etc. I was in the first prisoner transport from the 5th to the 4th camp. I don’t know where those foreigners disappeared, but we saw from the barracks how people were sorted and taken away – they didn’t keep their word. The 5th camp was taken by force. There were 100 killed and 200-300 injured. The third “katorga” camp also prompted a revolt, it was also taken but only in two months. People were told, “Don’t listen to any banderivets!” There was a teacher called Hrytsak in the 4th camp. He began controlling all the processes, created a committee, they decided to go down without a fight. The administration made groups of 100 people in each and spread us across the tundra. Then we were returned and sorted in groups of five people. We were beaten badly by our inmates who were helping wardens. We called them “bitches”. We were taken to another camp, “Nadezhda” (“Hope”), we met there those who had survived in the 5th… That’s how we were sent to a penal camp to a coal mine, others were taken to Kolyma. Then they were storming the third ”katorga” camp without tanks, with high-bordered cars, guys, when a car was driving past them, saw that rifles were enchained to soldiers’ arms. Because when there was a fight in the 5th camp, our guys weren’t going to drop back, red soldiers started to attack, there was a fight, our daredevil grabbed a rifle, but was the first to fall down…
That’s how the Norilsk upspring was prompted. There was the second phase after the first… However, the regime changed. We got four days-off per month, and the situation with letters improved as well: earlier we were allowed to get only two letters per year (but didn’t get any, actually). My townsman let my family know about that, so I began receiving letters… So, I was sent to a penal camp, then to a coal, then to a labor town, and then, as I was a “wasted’ person and invalid, on the continent, in the Irkutsk region.”
Other political prisoners mentioned Ivan Myron in their memories. These are terrible stories. For example, how a man didn’t greet a security officer, saying “who enters the room, greets the first”, and was sent to a solitary confinement for four days without any food and water. His comrades then tried to make him drink much tea and were holding his swollen tongue, which filled all his mouth, with a spoon. Or how wardens didn’t manage to take a baptismal cross off his neck – they just couldn’t touch it, as the priest said, who was also imprisoned, “nobody will take off your baptismal cross, be sure.” “Belief. It rescued us,” that’s what helped them to stay alive in torturous soviet camps, as Ivan Myron says.
“Belief helped us. While we are with God, God helps. Who lost belief in God, defected to the enemy’s side, there they were espousing “God doesn’t exist”. We believed. And lived. Someone was often protecting us while we were in camps or on the road. Vasyl Hrytsak who stayed after we had been taken away and others were killed, told that once he was in forest carrying out a task, stopped to have a rest and felt asleep. A little squirrel started to jump on his chest until he realized that something was wrong. He woke up, left that place and then saw how a task force enveloped the place where he had been sleeping.”
Ivan Myron remembers Levko Lukianenko (Ukrainian dissident and human rights activist), brothers Horyn… Then he was sent to the camp in Mordovia. He says, ‘By that time, the Sixtiers were already put to the camp. They were nice guys…”
“In 1956, Khrushchev, who wasn’t respected in the world as Putin now, had to release thousands of political prisoners. After the death of Stalin, they released criminals who were convicted of robberies, mugging and killings. As for our political prisoners, only those who had sentences less than 5 years were released. We had such a man in our case, who was convicted only of that “he knew but didn’t say”. Accomplices and those who had given in also could be released. I didn’t give in, the only way for me was to repent. But I didn’t do so. They asked me in Russian, “Why don’t you resent your past?” I answered that I didn’t consider defense of my nation as a crime and I didn’t see my guilt. “Wow, what a defender! Ukraine is free now, it doesn’t need to be defended.” I answered that if Ukraine had been free, I wouldn’t have been kept in Siberia and Mordovia. And added, “India doesn’t send its prisoners to Great Britain to serve their sentences there.” “You are not a political prisoner, you are a prisoner of state!” In short, after my arguments, I stayed. Well, there were several of us, who were still there when the Sixtiers were put to the camps.”
Now Ivan Myron is a priest at local church, he is always happy when guests come. Every year he visits celebrations in honor of the Carpathian Ukraine events, other public activities and schools. Despite his age, he still works in the garden. He also has some cattle: his goat has just given birth to some cubs. He never eats from iron or aluminum plates – enough for him after 25 years eating from a bowl. He can’t stand herring and fish in general: it resembles him a rotted food in camps.
“When my brother visited me for the last time, he said: take at least something. I said: I am not allowed. He asked to take anyway. So, I took five pears, 50 grams of Indian tea and box of baking soda, Mykhailo Zhurakivskyi from Yasen needed it badly because he had problems with his stomach. We were the only one who served 25 years, he died in 1,5 years after he had been released… I took all that in my hands, I needed to change clothes – to give trousers and coat and take your clothes back. There was a woman, I was standing in front of her with pears, tea and soda in my hands, she said, “Take it back, it is forbidden,” she closed the door. I didn’t go, she opened the door and said, “Don’t ask, don’t beg, it is forbidden.” The third time she let me enter the room, I put everything on a table, started to change clothes, she took everything from the table and threw it away. That was an attitude…”
Black tea and black chocolate are the best gifts for him: he still likes strong tea. Mistress Khrystyna offers black tea to guests as well. She is happy that now there are many guests in Myron’s house. After Myron had been released, he was a recluse, people didn’t tend to communicate with a jailbird and enemy of the people: they didn’t sit beside him in a bus on the way to work. But gradually life was resuming its natural course. An educated (he was a school teacher in youth, always liked reading, moreover, he learnt English in camps), friendly and modest man was welcomed in the community again, despite his strange behavior: he could get surprised with TV, he said: what the box is it? Or he could stop in the middle of a sentence and shrink into himself.
“Every third day in a solitary confinement you could get a cooked meal. On others day, you received only 300 grams of bread and water – for the whole day. You are sitting there in pants and shirt. I often sat in a solitary confinement. Because I didn’t submit. However, I never complained. Neither of inmates nor of wardens. What was the use of complaining of one warden to another? Once one inmate gave me his food as a gratitude, because I was lighting rod for wardens: as they punished me, they paid less attention to others.”
After he had been released, he became a stoker and married to a woman from a neighboring village. However, they have never had children. Ivan Myron is the last in his Hutsul-Ukrainian family, however, he is no the last in the ideological family: he calls everybody who fights for Ukraine his sons. The legion of Ukrainian Sich Riflemen has inspired him since the childhood. He joined the underground, the OUN, because he followed his elder friends – activists of the Carpathian Ukraine. Naturally, we asked Ivan Myron whether he wanted to tell anything to those who are defending Ukraine now. “Let God be with them. They have to remember that fighting for Ukraine isn’t an obligation but an honor. I’d like to be with them. I’d go there If I could,” Ivan Myron says.
“What was the hardest in camps? The imprisonment itself. Some news from Ukraine could comfort you but you didn’t receive it. The hardest thing is that feeling that you have to submit whether you want or not. And work, the fact that they made you work. And those eternal shakedowns. I wanted to write a dairy but I couldn’t. There were many interesting things I wanted to note…”
Ivan Myron is a local living legend. But he is still… a criminal. He is the only one living not rehabilitated political prisoner of Stalin in the Zakarpattia region. In the end of March, activists initiated the beginning of the rehabilitation of Ivan Myron. They sent documents to the Region and General Prosecutor Office, into the establishments, which confirmed the sentence in 1955. They refused to abolish the prosecution, they just changed “high treason” into “treason” according to the 1961 Code. They said that those who fought for Ukraine with arms could not be rehabilitated. However, Ivan Myron has never angled for farthings nor repented, nor applied for rehabilitation. However, the government admits all the people who defended Ukraine in the XX century as fighters for Ukraine’s liberation.
“Then commissions were launched, which could release people on parole. They considered 50 cases a day. Some people were really released. Some guys who applied to that commission, made such things that I couldn’t even imagine… I had no desire to take my hat off to them.
“Myron, why did you do it?” – “Because of the times.” – “Only imagine! This man is a teacher! You can go!” That time I also stayed. As many times before. I didn’t repent. They made us slaves on our own land. I didn’t accept it. Why am I guilty? Because I defended my land and my people? That is not quilt, it is honor!”
Will Ivan Myron learn that he is already not an “enemy” at least on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of the Carpathian Ukraine? It will be also his 90th birthday (March 9, 2019), which by the way, coincides with the birthday of Taras Shevchenko, a Ukrainian national poet, whom Ivan Myron adores. Ivan Myron always jokes with his guests that he is going to live till hundred years, as he has a proper training. To prove it he strongly shakes hands, and we are hugging him…
Interview by Alla Haiatova
Photo by Serhii Hudak and from materials in the case and of archive, courtesy of Ekzyl magazine