27 січня 1996 р.
Марта Дичок ‒ канадійський науковець і журналіст українського походження. Викладач кафедри історії та політичних наук в Університеті Західного Онтаріо та працівник Центру європейський, російських та євразійських студій при Торонтському університеті. У 1991‒1996 працювала в Україні журналістом The Guardian and Radio Canada International і читала лекції в університеті «Києво-Могилянська Академія».
It’s January 27, 1996 and I am Sara Sievers interviewing Marta Dyczok at her home in Kiev. Marta, thanks for being here this afternoon.
Can you describe briefly when you first came here to Kiev and what the purpose of your first trip here was?
(00:01:00) My first trip to live in Ukraine was in March, 1991. I came here to do research for my doctoral dissertation on Ukrainian refugees at the end of World War II which I have since completed, successfully defended in May of ‘95, so I am now a doctor. And I decided that though although archival research is very interesting and that was my primary purpose for coming here, I wanted to do some journalism as well. So before coming out I arranged to work for the Daily Telegraph which was a British paper. I was studying in Oxford so that was my obvious place to go, the British press. I came here to do research and try some journalism, both of which were very interesting, and I ended up staying longer than I had planned to. That’s what first brought me here.
How did you go about finding a job as a journalist in this part of the world (00:02:00) and why were you particularly interested in Ukraine, I realize you were studying you thesis, but?
Why was I interested in Ukraine? Because this is where I was doing my thesis. If I had gone to another country I would have tried to get a job as a journalist wherever I had been. Why I had wanted to be a journalist at that time was because in 1991 Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union were probably the biggest news stories around and it was something that was catching the world’s attention. Ukraine was just getting there in terms of news and exposure and I thought the story was going to build. And they were going to need someone to cover it. And I was going to be there. So I called up the Telegraph while I was still in Oxford and I spoke to their Moscow bureau chief and he suggested that I call them when there were more interesting stories, or in anything happened.
The first story I covered for them was the visit of Douglas Hurt, who was then (00:03:00) the British Foreign Minister. He visited Kiev in early March of ‘91. And at the time that was really significant because he was visiting the Soviet Union, but his first stop was Kiev, not Moscow. That was the first time a Western leader had not gone [first to] Moscow [then to] Kiev . And he made a point of coming here first. That was my first story.
I then went to Moscow to do some research in the archives there and decided to approach the Guardian because that newspaper is slightly closer to my own views and political inclinations. Most British papers, all British papers in the Western press had their offices up in Moscow at that time. There were no offices anywhere in the former Soviet Union except Moscow. So I went there and offered my services and was hired on a trial basis. It was pretty straightforward at that point because very few people wanted to (00:04:00) live in places like Kyiv, or Minsk, or Alma Ata, at that time. So, somebody walking in and saying I’m going to live there and I’ll file stories for you, they were pretty receptive. It was partially good timing on my part, where I just happened to be at the right place at the right time.
What other Western press had representatives in Kiev, stringers or correspondents at the time you were here?
When I arrived there were three Western journalists working here. Susan Viets was the first Western journalist to come here and she worked for the Independent. Interestingly, she worked for the Guardian in Budapest before coming here. When she decided to move to Ukraine, the Guardian wasn’t interested. They didn’t think there was enough news happening in Ukraine to warrant a stringer here. So she then moved to the Independent. The second journalist was Robert Seely who worked for (00:05:00) the Times in London. The Independent, by the way, is a British paper. And again he had approached the Guardian in the fall of 1990 and they again turned him down saying, there weren’t enough stories, not enough news in Ukraine. So he came out for the Times. The third person to come out was Marta Kolomayets. She came out in the winter of 1990, winter 1990–91. She works for the Ukrainian Weeklyand she’s still here. She strings for Associated Press and Newsweek and various others. And I was the fourth. I got the job approaching the Guardian in the spring of ‘91. They figured there was enough news and since there were two other British news journalists there they figured right, we’ll take someone at this point.
Can you explain some of the difficulties that you encountered being a journalist here, especially one of the early Western journalists on the ground in Kiev, getting stories, filing stories, living conditions?
(00:06:00) The problems were surprising actually. They were mainly technical problems. Living here was difficult for anybody, for a Westerner or a Ukrainian. Availability of goods was pretty minimal. So, life just took longer. To get coffee or something, you had to spend the day looking for it rather than popping across the street as you would today.
In terms of finding news stories, it was more difficult than it is today because there were no networks of information set up that were open to Westerners. So for us to find out what was happening, when a press conference was going on, who was giving it, how to get into the press conference, where it was happening? This was all very difficult, and over time we managed to make it easier because once we were sort of established and our names were on all the appropriate lists then it (00:07:00) became a little easier. But initially something as basic as getting an accreditation, that didn’t exist. Susan [Viets] was the first person to ever make that request of the Foreign Ministry in Ukraine and they didn’t quite know what to do with it. And by the time I came around, they still didn’t have an idea what exactly they were going to do.
Their one request was could -they asked everybody this that went through- could we help them get a laminating machine because they wanted to issue us accreditation cards with photographs, proper accreditation. But they didn’t have the equipment and could we somehow assist them in this? This was the very, very beginning. What we initially got was a letter typed on the Ministry of Foreign Affairs letterhead saying, “This is to certify that Marta Dyczok is an accredited journalist working for the Guardian, a British newspaper from such and such a time”, and the dates. They gave us accreditation for three month periods which then had to (00:08:00) be renewed each time. And you can imagine how that little piece of paper got tattered because you would have to carry it around in your passport. You always had to show who you were so you had to have that passport plus this letter. And that often didn’t get you into anywhere, just identifying yourself. They would say, “Well, you’re not on the list here and you can’t come in.”
Also in those early days there were two very different sort of groups. There were the local journalists and the Western journalists. We were not allowed into lots of things that the local journalists were allowed to. I mean, first of all we didn’t know a lot of things that were happening, but if we happened to find out through our local colleagues very often we weren’t allowed into things. Which is no longer the case. Now, if there is a press event, anything, a briefing or press conference it is [open] to all journalists. But then, Western journalists were restricted from certain things. So those were the difficulties.
The other technical difficulties were actually getting your information (00:09:00) out. I filed over the phone and the Guardian didn’t like to accept faxes from places like Ukraine because the phone lines were terrible so the faxes would often get garbled. When you are working on a deadline and you need the story at a certain time, having to re-contact you stringer took more time that was worthwhile. So the way we had to do it was read our stories down the phone line. This was the time you couldn’t get a direct line out of Ukraine. So you had to order a line through the international operator which sometimes came through on time and sometimes didn’t. And even if it did come through, the quality of the line wasn’t always great. Sometimes the line got cut off, sometimes the person at the other end couldn’t hear what you were saying. You’ve got this copytaker in London [to] whom you’re trying to say “The leader of the Ukrainian movement Rukh” “What (00:10:00) was that dear?” “R-U-K-H”. “P-U-K-H?” Spelling names … they just loved [Vyacheslav] Chornovyl. On a number of occasions misprints occurred because the quality of the line was so bad. [There were] words that they just didn’t know, and names particularly they just got wrong and they couldn’t double check. I don’t remember any cases where I didn’t file a story. I think we all had that record. That no matter what we somehow got our call through and got the story filed. Sometimes it was for the second edition if we missed the first deadline. But yes, it was pretty interesting.
How much did you work with Ukrainian journalists when you were here and how much camaraderie was there among the Western journalists and then between Western and Ukrainian [journalists]?
Among the Western journalists we were best friends. We had no choice. (00:11:00) The interesting thing was, people who would probably never have become friends or even had anything to do with each other had we met in other circumstances, became very close friends here. We were stuck in a hostile environment and we had to pull resources for any of us to make it. That has really changed now. Information sharing was just standard because it was so difficult to find out what was going on where. If anybody knew anything we all told each other. There were just four of us so it was pretty easy for us to get on the phone and say, “Susan, Bob, Marta, you know, da ta da” We all packed into one car and went. We had to work together in order to produce anything. So that friendship, camaraderie, dependence formed really strong bonds that will stay for a long time.
Initially we had very, very little contact with local journalists. Partially (00:12:00) because, they didn’t … I was about to say that they didn’t want contact with us, but I don’t really mean that. Most people in Ukraine at that time still thought Westerns to be exotic, scary, slightly things to be stayed away from. And this was also true with the journalists. It was very curious that they were afraid to come and talk to you or if they did talk to you they only spoke to you very briefly, very generally. The only exception to that was Mykola Veresen that worked for the BBC. He is the first and for a long time the only Ukrainian who worked as a journalist that was very easy to talk to, very friendly and very helpful. And he actually built that bridge between the (00:13:00) Western and Ukrainian journalists. He was friends with the Ukrainian journalists, obviously, and he easily became friends with us. He convinced his friends that we were okay and convinced us that they weren’t afraid of us and that they weren’t all idiots. He was a key figure in bringing people together in that sense.
There was also a feeling that the Ukrainian journalists at the time were not terribly interesting as colleagues in the sense that they were very restricted as to what they could do at that time. I remember one incident or hearing about one incident which happened just before I came out. That was indicative of just the differences in the way they approach journalism. Again that has changed now, but then there were huge, (00:14:00) huge differences. It was during the visit of Boris Yeltsin to Kyiv. And that was when Ukraine and Russia signed their first agreement friendship treaty or something like this.
When was that?
This would have been the summer of 1990, I believe. Bob Seely was there. Susan Viets was there. I wasn’t but I heard from both of them this story and from others. Bob Seely was a somewhat aggressive, assertive go getter type. He stood up and asked a question. It was a difficult question, I can’t remember what the question was, but he asked it both to Kravchuk, and Yelstin. One of the Ukrainian journalists stood up and apologized to the two leaders on behalf of his ill-mannered (00:15:00) Western colleague for misbehaving and posing such a difficult and embarrassing question. They were very much … frightened of asking difficult questions. They did ask questions at press conferences but not difficult questions and their concept of journalistic integrity was slightly different from what it is now.
Another situation that I remember was a story that I covered because I was there and I read about it in one of the local papers by another journalist who was there and he misrepresented events totally. I knew this guy and I said, “This isn’t what happened, and you know this isn’t what happened.” And he said, “Well, you know, pretty much what happened and I just wanted to make it more colorful, interesting and dramatic.” I was like, “You can’t do that, this isn’t journalism. This is fiction.”
Were they concerned because of possible consequences of (00:16:00) asking difficult questions or writing controversial stories or was it just a lack of what we consider professionalism and attention to accuracy and detail that prompted some of these unusual stories?
I think it was just the way that they’ve been, or were at that time taught to behave. And people pretty much toed the line. That changed over time. But right at the beginning, there appeared very much to be obedient mouthpieces showing up to events. [They would ask] perfunctory questions and starting questions with things like, “Oh, Mr. Kravchuk you look very nice today”, or “Congratulations on your interesting speech the other day at Parliament”, and “May I please ask you, could you talk about this really interesting piece of legislation you’ve initiated?” Basically giving politicians a platform to speak, present themselves in a good light. They weren’t critical, analytical. It is not because they (00:17:00) didn’t have that in them as individuals, but that was just the way things were written.
Was it something that made them uncomfortable as journalists or was that considered just the job? And if possible when did you notice that starting to change?
Through Mykola Veresen, as we started to getting to know these people, we started asking them questions. And, this was a few months after we arrived and started working here, I shouldn’t say we, after I arrived because Susan and Bob were here earlier. They were not terribly forthcoming initially with answers and I’d say I wasn’t that eager to press them with difficult questions once we just started being friends. What they said after a while were things like, “Well, I’ve learned a lot since (00:18:00) then. Things have changed, I’ve changed, events have changed, my perception of things have changed.” The few people that I’d talked to about this explained it as a sort of growing thing, that this is something they were taught to do as journalists..
And something they were fairly comfortable with and didn’t question?
I never really got a good answer to those things. Because people did things because that was the way they were done. That’s the way they had always been and they didn’t want to rock the boat.
When were some key moments that you can recollect of when that started to change, that Ukrainian journalists started asking more difficult questions and started reporting in what we would consider Western style of journalism?
Events that I was present at that I thought had a real impact were the second arrest of Stephan Khmara who was a member of Parliament arrested in trumped (00:19:00) up charges of assaulting a policeman in November or Autumn of 1990. His trial came in May of 1991. He walked out of the trial; this is all recorded. He walked out of the courtroom and went back to his hotel room and the judge issued a warrant for his re-arrest for whatever that word is, defying the court or disregarding the court. And he was then violently re-arrested in his hotel room. There were a few, actually quite a few Ukrainian journalists there and the two Western journalists were Chrysta Freeland of the Financial Times and myself of the Guardian at the time.
Witnessing that and being part of it I think really was the turning point for some people, or at least it was one of the things that contributed to changes in their attitudes. In front of their eyes, someone was violently arrested. Riot police barged into the hotel room, they tear gassed up, they beat people up and (20:00) – this was in a room the size of this one. It was no longer an abstract violent demonstration that you saw from a distance. You were in the middle of it. I think also the presence of Chrysta Freeland and myself in the room, the way we reacted to the situation was probably interesting for them, although I’ve never asked anybody who was in the room. Actually, that’s not true, I’ve spoken with Mykola [Veresen] about this. I mean, we were both a) scared, b) appalled at what was happening and c) insistent on our rights. You know, we want to talk to the Canadian Embassy, we want to talk to someone in charge, bla bla bla. When someone finally came into the room to talk to us, their attitude was ra, ra, ra, ra. We weren’t afraid to stand up to them because we didn’t really have a whole lot to lose. And I think that was interesting for them to see. You don’t have to be scared of authority because there is another way of behaving. So that’s one, that arrest. The Coup itself.
The Coup in August 1991.
(21:00) The Coup in August 1991. Everybody who lived through that experienced a number of things. One of which was empowerment. That you realize things are not as they seem or things can change. You can have a different view of behave differently. I think that is probably the biggest impact it had on people that I’ve met here. The Declaration of Independence of course, the referendum itself.
In December of 1991. And those would be the key things that I remember as markers, things that happen that are clearly remembered and you remember how people react to them. There were lots of other little things along the way, but those would be the key moments.
Did you ever feel limited in any way in the kind of reporting that you could (00:22:00) do? You never felt nervous about your personal safety or about endangering your sources? You never had any negative repercussions for filing things that may have been critical to the government?
No. That actually is quite surprising in retrospect. Also, at the time, I never thought to be afraid about what I was writing. I knew, I think we all knew what everything we said on the phone, everything we wrote in our stories was well known to people who were interested in knowing what we were doing and they were.
Do you have any evidence of that? I mean did people come up and talk to you? I know many people assume that to be the case, but did you ever have any stories where people would come up to you and say, yeah, I know you said on the phone the other night such and such?
There are lots of little things that had happened, but one incident particularly stands out is a funny, enlightening one. The Moscow bureau chief of the Guardian, (00:23:00) Jonathan Steele, would visit Ukraine periodically for big stories. He was here on one story I believe it was the Independence, I can’t remember. He was in Kyiv covering one story. We were doing it together. In the evening we went for a walk, and we walked past the Saint Sophia. And as you possibly know across the street were the KGB headquarters. This was already after the Declaration of Independence. Nobody was sure what was happening with the KGB. They were in the process of becoming the Ukrainian Secret Service. They may have already changed, maybe not. But it was that sort of early transition period. We walked past the building just to see what was happening, if anything. And here were a few guards standing outside the door as there usually is. We decided to talk to them, because we would talk to anybody. There was one young guy there, gentleman, who was in plain clothes, and there were two or three in uniform. The guys in (00:24:00) uniform didn’t really want to talk to us. But the guy in plain clothes was very open.
We usually started by introducing ourselves and saying, “Can we ask a few questions? What’s going on? How do you feel about this? bla bla bla.” They didn’t want to talk to us. The guy in plain clothes said “Yeah, my name is such and such.” I can’t remember the name. And, “Do you work here?”, “No I quit last week.” “Why did you quit?” “Well I’ve got another job in some company somewhere.” And then I said “Well, we’re from the Guardian”. And he said “Oh, yes, I know you.” And I was like … He said, ”Yeah, I’ve seen your file many times.” Or something like, I can’t remember his wording but he said something like “I’ve seen you at such and such and such and such.” He knew exactly who I was, who I had worked for and where I’d been. And I just thought, someday I would really like to see my file and I asked him if I could, and he said “ but I don’t work there anymore. I can’t show you.” But, he was very relaxed about it. (laughs)
(00:25:00) So that again gives you the realization that they knew that we knew, that everybody knew that we were all being watched. But I never had threats or phone calls. Nobody ever said we are watching you so watch your step. But it was just this feeling that you knew. Big brother was up there watching. Curiously, nobody ever interfered. People sometimes didn’t want to talk to you, or couldn’t get into certain events, or press conferences, or couldn’t get into buildings to see individuals. But never did I experience anybody censoring or commenting on what I wrote.
Did the people Who you spoke with or you interviewed, the people that you interacted with in everyday life seem nervous to talk to you as a foreigner and as a foreign journalist?
(00:26:00) I have to say no for the most part, because the people that I became friends with were, and still am friends with, were clearly democrats, clearly Ukrainian patriots who hated the system and had been very outspoken in their criticism for a while, so they had nothing to hide and their attitude was “Hey, if you write for a Western newspaper – great! Tell them this and this and this and that.” So they were very forthcoming, very helpful, and, in fact, a lot of times, they were really important helping out and things like that. To get into this building there is this underpass and so and so. The politicians, the democrats that was also their attitude as well. Foreign press, window to the world. They were incredibly nice, helpful, friendly. In that first year, we were as much friends as colleagues because they were very, very happy to see Western journalists at any time. (00:27:00) They would tell us anything and at great length. They didn’t hold any secrets or at least not any news secrets and again they were very helpful in things like arranging something that officially couldn’t be arranged. I remember that [Serhij] Kolesnyk regularly would sneak me into places that I wasn’t supposed to be because I needed to see this or talk to so and so or hear that. And he would just wave me through and get me into places that otherwise I would have never have gotten into.
And he was with Rukh?
No he was a democrat, but unaffiliated. He was an independent.
He was a member of Parliament. He was from Donnetsk but he never joined any parties or anything. He was actually one of the youngest member of Parliament, a really interesting guy. The communists sometimes didn’t want to talk to us, (00:28:00) sometimes ignored me. You would phone and they would say no, you couldn’t have an appointment. You would go up to them in Parliament they wouldn’t speak to you. If you caught them on the street, they would just ignore you, or their security people would wave you away, but never any threats.
If we could change gears for just a minute, another interesting perspective you had was what the West was interested in hearing from Ukraine. What stories were interesting to the readers of the Guardian? What were the editors interested in hearing about from Ukraine and was it from Ukraine as a republic of the Soviet Union or Ukraine as a future independent country?
That’s a really interesting question. To explain how I got information out, when I started working for the Guardian, I used to pass my information through the Moscow bureau and they would then pass it on to London. It was only later that I (00:29:00) started filing directly from Kyiv to London. This was because I had been hired by the Moscow bureau, and this was when the Soviet Union existed. So that bureau was in charge of all news coming out of the Soviet Union which included me and Ukraine. So I would phone them and offer them information or a story. They would then take it and pass it on. That was for the first three months or so. It wasn’t until after Ukraine declared independence that I started filing directly to London. I had the perceptions of the Moscow bureau which were British journalists sitting in Moscow, as well as the foreign editor in London, who was much more removed but had a very similar perspective.
Initially, Ukraine was very much a Soviet story. It was perceived as a region of the Soviet Union. I always had to write “the” Ukraine as opposed to Ukraine. I had fights with the foreign editor which eventually I won, after Ukraine declared, or voted (00:30:00) for independence in the referendum. The sort of stories they were interested in primarily were either straight news stories like a train derailment, natural disasters, killings, that sort of thing which is general news interest. But, the political stories they were mainly interested in was what was happening to the Soviet Union. Everybody knew by ‘91 that the Soviet Union was changing and continuing to change. The question was how was it changing? Where is it going? What is going to happen? What is happening? So, what was happening on the ground in Ukraine was of interest in the context of the Soviet Union. Not as a Ukraine story, but as a Soviet story. And so almost every time I offered a story on anything, the question would be “Well, how does this relate to the Union Treaty?” When [Stepan] Khmara was arrested and (00:31:00) beaten up and all of this violence happened, I called the story in. “Oh, that’s very interesting, do write about it. But how does that relate to the Union Treaty?” (laughs) “This has nothing to do with the Union Treaty. It is a Ukrainian story about Ukrainian politicians fighting over turf. It has absolutely nothing to do with the Soviet Union or the Union Treaty.” “Yes, but do put an angle on the Union Treaty (laughter) because this must be somehow related. You know, political dissidence and fighting in Kiev. Is this going to strengthen Ukraine’s position, weaken Kyiv’s position?”
So it was always that tone. The significance of any event was always channelled to the Union Treaty up until the Coup in August ‘91. After that the big question was, What is Ukraine? Is Ukraine going to survive? Is it a communist (00:32:00) sanctuary? Is it really going to become independent? The Declaration of Independence was August 24, ‘91. That was an act of Parliament and it needed to be ratified by a national referendum. It was only after December of 1991 that there was sort of acceptance of this idea. Yes, Ukraine is a country, a state, with a government, separate. This is now a Ukraine story rather than a Soviet story. Even though of course there were relations between Ukraine and Russia. There were still really important newswise and politically. But it was recognized as a separate place really after the referendum.
How often would the Guardian run stories on Ukraine?
It depended… totally on what was happening. Sometimes it was (00:33:00) everyday and sometimes it was twice month depending on what was happening in Ukraine. The peak periods were June of ‘91 where the Union Treaty was being discussed. There was a lot then. There was a lull in July and the beginning of August because it was the summer and nothing was happening. There was another huge peak around the Coup and independence. Then there was another lull. And then there was another surge of interest leading up to the referendum.
The referendum itself in December of 91, post referendum, the CIS meeting which I had to go to, just a horrible, horrible trip. I’m never going to Minsk again. That was the sort of the last big thing. After that it was what is happening in Ukraine. But [there] wasn’t [a] big surge of interest. I would get a call (00:34:00) everyday pretty much, saying “Okay, what’s happening, anything interesting and could you tell us about this or that?”
I’d like to go back to one event that answers a question that you had asked me earlier and I’d forgotten about. This was the violent re-arrest of Stephan Khmara which I have already mentioned. This happened early summer of 1991. End of June (00:35:00) beginning of July, probably July. Just to recap the story, he had been arrested. He was a member of the democratic forces, [a] leading, outspoken figure.. This was a political arrest. They were trying to discredit the democratic movement. They arrested him on trumped up charges on assaulting a police officer. The trial started in May of ‘91. It was recessed for a while. Restarted again. He walked out of the courtroom and the judge issued a warrant for his arrest, re-arrest. He then stayed in his hotel room which was in the Hotel Kyiv, I’m sorry, Hotel Ukraina on Boulevard Tarasa Shevchenka. And with him were members of his family and people from his constituency in Western Ukraine from Chervonohrad. He had miners with him who were acting as body guards. There were a bunch of older women who were also (00:36:00) around and a group of journalists.
The way that this whole incident started, I’m just going to recap briefly and then talk about how it was important. When he walked out of the courtroom and the judge issued the warrant for his re-arrest, immediately all of the journalists followed him expecting the arrest to happen immediately. It didn’t happen. We all waited around for a day and nothing happened. And then we decided to set up a rotation system since we couldn’t all be there all of the time. I was again very lucky that something happened on my rotation. And the reason that we had two Westerners was that Chrysta Freeland’s rotation was finishing and mine was beginning. I came to relieve her and we got the word from Mykola Veresen once again saying that something was about to happen. We stuck around and we both were there.
Khmara was very violently re-arrested. And this was a (00:37:00) long lead up to events. The first thing that happened was the phone lines got cut off to the hotel room. The next thing we noticed, we looked outside, there was a balcony in the hotel room. The whole block was cut off and a police cordon was set up. People started gathering on the other side ,shouting. So we thought, okay something is going to happen. They then set up a trampoline outside the balcony. And, I’m still not sure why, I guess they expected us to jump or something. And this whole sort of attack was spread out over a few hours. There was this building of tension. The phones get cut off, the cordon was set up, the trampoline. This was summer, it is hot. There are about twenty of us in room about this size that is about twenty square meters. It was also his daughter’s birthday. She was there and a some other family members.
Then he decides to barricade inside the room when all of this starts (00:38:00) happening. Outside in the hallway are these old ladies from his constituency who were there to help him and protect him and defend him. Then in the foyer of the hotel room, there were miners who were acting as bodyguards and a few miners were inside the hotel room along with journalists and relatives. At some point we hear noise and we hear shouting. And we hear the women shouting. What we learned later was the first line of attack, which was those women, were removed from the outer hallway. The door between the hallway and the foyer was broken down. We hear noises. The door was broken down with axes. And then we hear the fight between the miners and the riot police, the OMON troops, which lasted for quite a while. We could hear all sorts of screaming and shouting and stuff.
Later, when we were eventually released, we saw blood, the (00:39:00) toilet had been totally demolished, it was smashed. The next thing that happens is they come to the inner door which is leading to the hotel room itself. There was a knock on the door “Open up.” and then tear gas had been put under the door. We were all like…..
Who was in the room?
There… Khmara, a few of his political advisers, colleagues. There was one other member of Parliament , Larysa Skoryk. There were a few members of his family, his daughter, another relative that I don’t remember, and some journalists.
Ukrainian journalists, people I remember, Mykola Veresen. Volodymyr Skachko, Dyma Ponamarchuk, Efraim Lukhatsky, a photographer. Those are the people that I remember by name. Oh, Skachko’s girlfriend was there because they had planned to go see a movie after this and she ended up getting stuck in all of this (laughs). So she was just an innocent bystander as it were. And then Chrysta Freeland from the (00:40:00) Financial Times and myself.
So, they were telling us to open up. Khmara says don’t open up. Tear gas comes. The next thing we hear. “Open up or we will shoot.” At which point, Khmara says “Let them in.” OMON riot police burst into the room with their helmets and with their shields and their batons. It was maybe 30 seconds, maybe a minute. They just barged into the room and barged out again. And I happened to be standing next to Khmara so I saw the baton go whack on his head, him falling to the floor and him being dragged out. This all happened really quickly. Then the door was shut and it was over And we were slightly shell shocked by what had happened.
The first thing we did was we looked around the room to see who was gone. And, Khmara obviously, another…. one of his advisors whose name I can’t remember, but I’ll (00:41:00) look up. A few people were missing, but none of the journalists. The only journalist who got out was Efraim Lukhatsky who photographed everything. So that’s were I gained a lot of respect for him. That he was there ch, ch, ch. and he sneaked out. The rest of us were stuck there. The first thing we do is call our newspapers, but the phones were cut off and the phones remained cut off. And the room was full of that tear gas. It was really, we were all crying because of the tear gas plus the emotion plus it was very hot. And there were a lot of us in this room.
What happened was we were stuck there, they wouldn’t let anybody leave. For about four or five hours. It wasn’t until about one in the morning that the door finally was opened. Someone from the local police came in and said, “What are you all doing here. We are all taking you down to the station. We are going to get a report on everything that was going on here.” And we said, “No. You’re not taking us anywhere. We are going home, bla, bla, bla.”
You mentioned during the break that this was a time, one of the few times (00:42:00) if not the only time, that you felt you were limited in what you could file. Could you expand on that a little bit?
That was one of the most scary experiences in my life. Because it was the first time I felt what it is like to be physically threatened and unable to do anything about it. The way it affected my work was that the phone lines were cut off which meant I couldn’t file the story. I also couldn’t phone anybody to tell them what was going on. I couldn’t call the Embassy, I couldn’t call a friend, nothing. And it was just that feeling of, I’m here, something really important has happened. Something dramatic to me personally, but important newswise and I’m stuck here. And I can’t even go to the bathroom.
That was the only time that I couldn’t file my story. By the time the phones got reconnected at some point during the night, it was way past the filing (00:43:00) deadline. We eventually did get in touch with the Canadian Embassy official up in Moscow. But it was clear that they didn’t want that story breaking that night, because, the only way you could get the story out was by phone and the phones were cut.
Why the timing was important to them? It was going to come out at some point.
That’s the part that doesn’t make sense, because the story broke the next day. But the way it is with news stories is if it doesn’t break the day it happened, the next day something else has happened. So it lessened the impact of the story. For Ukraine that wasn’t a big deal because the next day it was just as important. For me the Guardian was less interested because it was old. They still took the story, but they took a small story. And that’s when I was asked the famous, “So how does that effect the Union Treaty?” (laughter) I was like, “I’ve been tear gassed, I’ve been threatened, and the Union Treaty!
(44:00) The other important thing that happened in that whole horrible incident was a friendship or camaraderie developed between Chrysta Freelend and I and the Ukrainian journalists in that room. Because we were all stuck. And at that point it didn’t matter where you were from or who you worked for or anything like that because we were all being threatened and tear gas doesn’t respect any barriers. So we were all choking and helping each other out.
And I remember that as a really important turning point particularly with my friendship with Mykola Veresen. Because we needed to help each other and we did and then after that it was like oh, yeah, we’re friends now. The same happened with, Dyma Ponamarchuk and Volodymr Skachko, afterwards. We were survivors of this horrible incident. There was lasting friendship that (00:45:00) developed as a result of that. Like the Western journalists earlier on, thrown into a difficult situation where you have to help each other out becomes the basis for friendship and understanding and cooperation.
Thanks. If we could back up to when you first came to Ukraine again and start going through some of the stories that you think were particularly interesting that you filed from Ukraine. I know there was a referendum that hit just before you got here, the All Union Referendum with the questions on Ukrainian sovereignty and the future of the Soviet Union or some sort of similar confederation. If you want to start talking about that, your perceptions and the impact of that?
Sure, I’ll outline the main stories that I did then talk a little bit about each of them. The Union Treaty and everything connected to it was the big story from before (00:46:00) I got here but when I got here in March through to the summer of ‘91. The next big story was the Coup, Declaration of Independence. And then the immediate future of Ukraine: Was it a communist sanctuary? What was happening in Crimea and so on. The military aspect became important in the fall of ‘91 and then the Ukrainian referendum on independence in December of ‘91. So, those are the main stories. Everything else was in between, important, but those are the highlights.
The first story I ever filed was on Douglas Hurt’s visit. Douglas Hurt was British Foreign Minister at the time and he was travelling through the region to talk about or to see what was happening on the Union Treaty, visiting Kyiv, Moscow and other cities. In March of ‘91, the referendum on the Union Treaty was held by (00:47:00) Gorbachev. This was significant for Ukraine because this was the first indicator that I personally saw and witnessed. where Ukraine was very vague on its commitment to the Union Treaty. The Union Treaty, I think everyone remembers, it was how the Soviet Union was to like into the future. But it was in the process of reorganising and changing itself politically. This was Gorbachev’s proposal of how this change was to happen. He had a referendum in March ‘91, where he asked the population of the Soviet Union: “Do you support the Union Treaty in the form that I proposed it?” What happened in Ukraine was the democratic faction the Narodna Rada got a second question put on the ballot in Ukraine. The second question was “Do you support Ukrainian sovereignty?” or something along those lines. The word sovereignty was used. (00:48:00)
Ukrainians were asked two questions, “Do you support Gorbachev’s Union Treaty?” which meant the Soviet Union existing and “Do you support Ukrainian sovereignty?” And both questions got approximately the same result, it was high 70’s, low 80’s. 78–81 percent for each question. Which meant that yes, they support the Soviet Union staying together and yes, they support Ukraine being sovereign. So what does that mean? Nobody knows. But it was clear that the sovereignty question was on the agenda in a big way. The people were not saying “No, No, No, We don’t want sovereignty.” They were saying, “Yes, we want sovereignty.”
What do you think understood by the word sovereignty?
Well, that’s the million dollar question. I think the individual voters interpreted it in many different ways. And I think the democrats, Rukh, Narodna Rada used that word very deliberately. By March of ‘91 the democrats were very clearly (00:49:00) pro-independence and they were saying this everywhere. However, they didn’t have wide support through Ukraine. And the word sovereignty had been sanctioned in July of ‘90, the Declaration of Sovereignty. The Ukrainian Parliament had approved Ukrainian sovereignty. It was a word the people in Ukraine were familiar with and accepted.
Now sovereignty could mean independence. Sovereignty could mean autonomy. Sovereignty could mean a number of different things. But also, it could be independence. I think using that word was a very clever political move to get wide spread support which then could be channelled in any way. It was a dangerous game because Kravchuk could have turned around and say, “Well, they didn’t mean independence, they meant autonomy.” And Rukh would turn around and say, “Well no, they meant independence.”
But, whatever the interpretation of anybody that voted, they were not opposed (00:50:00) to this work. And that’s where you could really see that Ukraine was not going to sign the Union Treaty in the way that Gorbachev wanted them to. Gorbachev didn’t use the word sovereignty anywhere. He used autonomy, coalition, federation, co-federation. Lot’s of different words, but not sovereignty. Sovereignty was not something that was going to happen in the republics according to Gorbachev. And yet, according to what was happening in Ukraine, it was happening already.
What were the different points of views in Ukraine and who represented them, vis-à-vis the Union Treaty? What were the objections that different groups had? Was there any way that the Treaty could be negotiated tinkered with or worked with so that Ukraine – had the Coup not happened, would have been in support of the Treaty ? And where such efforts made by Moscow, by Gorbachev?
My perceptions on what was happening in Ukraine, mainly in (00:51:00) Kyiv but also in the regions…. There were two pretty distinct camps. One was the democrats who were pushing for independence and were very opposed to the Union Treaty. By March of ‘91, they were holding rallies, demonstrations, strikes, opposing the signing of the Union Treaty on the grounds that Ukraine must be an independent state. Signing the Union Treaty would keep them as a prisoner in the Soviet Union in one guise or another. That is putting it pretty crudely, but that was the jest of their argument.
The second group was official Ukraine which is anything from Parliament, to the communists, to bureaucrats, and they were pretty vague. They were participating in the process, but I don’t remember statements in (00:52:00)wholehearted, strong support to the Union Treaty or Gorbachev. They weren’t opposing him. In Rukh, the democrats were vocally opposing the Union Treaty.
And there is the big establishment that is playing in the game. Going to the negotiations saying, ”Yes we must find something that’s going to work for all of us. But Ukraine is a very separate case and we have democrats pressuring us and we have got to keep stability. And they weren’t from my recollection coming out very clearly. Kravchuk -who was the Speaker of Parliament since I’ve been here- was constantly hedging. He went to all of the meetings, participated. And then kept saying, “Well, I’ve got to get back to my Parliament and I’ve got to get this approved and ratified.” He wasn’t making commitments.
Why do you think that was? For, was it more than the pressure of the nationalists breathing on him or were the nationalists an excuse that he could (00:53:00) use to pursue a policy of not supporting the Union Treaty, which he wanted to support, a policy which he wanted to support on his own?
I don’t know what he thinks, because he has never given me a straight answer. My opinion is that he was not interested in signing the Union Treaty in the way that Gorbachev was proposing it. By March of ‘91, I think he was astute enough to pick up that Ukraine was moving in a direction that was still undefined, but was breaking away from the Moscow line. That they were pursuing some [an] independent path somewhere. The “where” and the ”how” were still vague which is why he was hedging. (00:54:00) But he clearly saw that he had a role that he could play as an important political figure that was not a “yes man” to Moscow. And I think that to a large degree he used the nationalist opposition to explain his actions as he went to these meetings. I don’t know to what degree he actually believed, or wanted, or felt. I think it was just a political judgement. That he felt, “Okay, the wind is blowing this way. I’m not going to oppose it because I’m going to just become another “has been,” and he just rode the wave.
What ended up happening with Ukraine and the Union Treaty?
It was pretty funny actually. It became pretty irrelevant. And I feel really sorry for the people that wrote their masters or doctoral dissertation on this because it became totally irrelevant. What happened, I just remember there were a series of meetings where this was discussed, various proposals. The last one was held I believe in June of ‘91 and Kravchuk once again did not make a commitment. But said, “I have to go (00:55:00) back to my Parliament on this particular draft.” Took it back to Parliament in Kyiv. And there was opposition, very organized opposition from the democrats saying, “Don’t sign the Union Treaty.”
And what percentage of Congress, or of Parliament were they?
One third, if that. I mean they were strong enough to make an opposition, but not strong enough to vote something down. They were very vocal. Students were threatening to strike and they actually did put up a little sort of tent village in front of Parliament, saying “If you sign the Union Treaty we will reactivate the student strike” which they had successfully done in the previous fall. Minors were threatening to strike. So the democrats were saying, “You sign the Union Treaty and we will bring this place to a halt.”
So what Kravchuk did, clever man that he was, said, “Well, summer is (00:56:00) coming and Parliament is about to recess. This is a very important question and we can’t rush this through. Let’s just leave this to the fall session. Let’s just go to our vacations and have a good think. We’ll come back in the fall and we will decide. Here is a copy of the thing. Read it carefully, make your suggestions, submit it to the committees and we’ll reconvene in the fall and discuss it again.” So that is where it was left which meant, we’ll see, we don’t know. Then the coup happened and it became irrelevant. So that was the fate of the Union Treaty.
Perfect segway into the next big story which was the Coup itself.
The most exciting thing that has happened in my life.(laughter).
But I think you definitely need to start with Chervona Ruta. Explain what it is.
Yes. Summer is a slow time for journalists everywhere because not much news happens, people go on vacations. It is hot. Particularly political news, Parliament was (00:57:00) in recess. Everybody was on vacation. Foreign journalist corps, or press corps, pretty small as it was, very little to do. We were working hard to find stories. Some friends of mine are musicians. They invited me and told me to invite all of my Western journalist friends and everybody to come to a musical festival called Chervona Ruta which happens every two years in Ukraine. And it is where Ukrainian musicians get together and compete, perform. So they come from all regions and they have a competition and the best ones get selected to perform. And then for the whole week, again they do performances. There is a panel of judges who select the best ones. Then there is a concert at the end where the best bands are granted awards and that sort of thing.
We all thought, “well, slow news week. Why don’t we go down.” And all of us went down to this festival that was happening, in all places Zaporizhia. Which is not a (00:58:00) beautiful place. What was interesting newswise is this [took place] when the presidential elections had been announced. The decision had been taken that a Ukrainian president was to be elected in December. People were beginning to campaign. Chornovyl … The campaign hadn’t been officially started, but people were beginning to campaign. So we knew Chornovyl would be there. We knew some politicians would stop by the festival. Crowds of thousands, what better place to appeal to voters. That is how we sold the story to our papers. We are going to cover the pre-election stuff.
We went down there. Wonderful festival. Great music. Wonderful time. After the last concert we all celebrated the end of the nice weekend. Had nice huge parties. And we woke up the next morning planning on going back to Kyiv. We filed stories on what had happened there. Minor little things. We woke up Monday morning. Hung over terribly most of us, only to be informed that a (00:59:00) coup had happened in Moscow. This was a bit of a disaster, that the entire Western press corps of Ukraine is hung over in Zaporizhia when there is a coup happening (laughs). Fortunately for us, John Stepanchuk, who was the Consul or Charge d’Affaires of the American Embassy was also at the festival enjoying himself. I suspect, also hung over but, I’m not sure. Chornovyl was there. They helped us get access to phones. We had [already] checked out of our hotels and were going to get on this bus and go home. So we started phoning around. We were instructed to immediately get back to Kyiv. Getting out of Zaporizhia was no that easy because everybody was afraid. Nothing was moving, no train tickets, no plane tickets. We spent hours sorting things out.
Eventually, we decided we had to get there somehow so we hire a taxi. So by (00:1:00) this time Chrysta Lapychak was already here. She worked for the Weekly, Stephen Mulvey from the Telegraph, Susan Viets from the Independentand myself and this poor taxi driver We started on our big trip up to Kyiv by car. Susan, bless her, had a little short wave radio with her. So every hour on the hour we listened to BBC broadcasts.
You and Gorbachev as it turns out. (laughter)
Yes, there was a total news black out here so all of the local stations on the radio said nothing. I remember Susan sticking this little antenna out the window listening. And our driver nervously asking us, “So what are they saying? What is happening?” I’m sure people remember at the time the broadcasts or reports were mixed. There were reports of shootings happening outside the White House. And then the next hour ”Sorry, that was a misreport. That was just cars backfiring.” (01:01:00) So we really didn’t know what was happening the whole trip up. And finally we got back to Kyiv.
Fortunately it had been quiet on the first day of the coup here in the capital. We didn’t miss any big stories. Then we all started working again. The other little ironic thing is because it was summer, it is a slow news time. A few of the Western journalists had gone on vacation and missed the coup. They missed the biggest story ever which was really unfortunate for them. For me it was slightly fortunate, because Robert Seely that worked for the Times was in London at the time and he called me and gave me updates on what was happening. The only information we had was what we could get on BBC and Radio Liberty broadcasts. He was in London watching CNN and everything (00:01:02)else. That is how I got some of my information: phone calls from London telling me what was happening in Moscow, even though I was geographically much closer.
What was happening in Kiev?
Nothing, nothing, nothing.
Well, can you run through some of the people and various political figures and what they were saying? I mean, Crimea was the sight of Gorbachev’ s…
The thing that was really frustrating was that we all new something very important was happening. Very scary, very dramatic and it was quiet. People went to work as if nothing had happened. There was a total news black out. There were, I shouldn’t say nothing. There were a few things that did happen news wise or information-wise. Kravchuk, Speaker of Parliament, called a press conference. I believe on the second day of the Coup, and he invited Western journalists which was curious, because only Western journalists were invited to this press conference. And he gave us his take on the coup.
(01:03:00) Which was, he had been woken up at six o’clock in the morning by a phone call or someone had come to the door. And it was General Varennikov and somebody else who had informed him by what had happened.
Can you describe General Varennikov’s role in all of this briefly?
I don’t know what other roles he played, but he was the messenger who informed Kravchuk as to what was going on. He must have been a member of the coup or perhaps he was just a functionary. I don’t really know who he was. Kravchuk was visibly shaken at that press conference. That was the only time I have ever seen him not look in control. And he looked clearly … I wouldn’t say scared, but shaken. It was pretty clear, we all agreed that we all saw him looking … he hadn’t know the coup was coming then. That it had taken him by surprise and he didn’t (01:04:00) know what to do. And he didn’t do anything until the coup was pretty much over. He made a statement on public television, again hedging. Saying “everything in Ukraine is calm. There is no emergency. There is no violence, bla, bla, bla.” He didn’t denounce the coup, neither did he pay tribute to it. He just sort of, (laughs), tried to ignore it.
Did Rukh come out with a statement?
Absolutely. Rukh came out with statements immediately. They held press conferences around the clock throughout the whole coup. We missed the first day. But on the second day, Dyma Ponamarchuk who was and Irena Yarosevych, who were the press secretaries or information officers for Rukh, were on the phone to all of us that there is a press conference at the Writer’s Union. Every three hours they had press conferences, at nine o’clock, twelve o’clock, three o’clock, six o’clock. We were running to the Writer’s Union, seeing what Rukh was (01:05:00) saying. Running around and going back there. They were giving us updates on what they knew was happening and their position. They immediately denounced it and in Lviv they organized a demonstration in opposition to it. Then the three western oblasts, Lviv, Ternopil, and Ivano Frankivsk were in democratic hands. Chornovyl was the head of the council that the three oblasts formed. They immediately sent out a statement denouncing the coup and organized demonstrations in opposition to it. So Chornovyl came back to Kyiv.
From those days of the coup, I remember a few individuals who I respect to this day who were the most active, courageous and just felt very much like they were on the forefront of what Rukh was doing and saying. The two that stand (01:06:00) out, or three are Chornovyl, Fylenko, who was the deputy head of Narodna Rada, and Ivan Zaiets. Those three guys were at every press conference and you could just see how tired and exhausted they were. They were the ones making statements, answering questions, giving out information. The others were all there, Drach, Pavlychko, Poroski, Horyn. They were all there. Not at each press conference, but their presence was very much there. But they were hedging. They were denouncing the coup, by they weren’t the ones saying, “ Okay, now we’ve got to do something.” or “This is the latest statement.” But they were there.
From the establishment’s perspective, aside from Kravchuk’s press conference, did anyone come out in favor of the coup, against? Did any Ukrainian public official take a stand … that was clear?
(1:07:00) Officially no. Unofficially, Hrynyov played a key role. Volodomyr Hrynyov who was then Deputy Speaker to Parliament. He is the one that allowed us, us journalists access to Parliament because it was sealed off at the time. We couldn’t get in. But he gave us passes. He let us use his office and he gave us whatever information was available. And his assistant, Mr. Bai. I can’t remember Mr. Bai’s first name. He was also incredibly helpful. He had his office in the back wing of Parliament. He could issue us passes to that so we could get into the building. Once we were in the building we could try to find people and talk to them and see what was going on. He let us use his phones, the television. I mean he was incredibly helpful. Although he did not officially say anything. He never went on the record saying “I opposed the Coup”. You know, “I, Hrynyov, Deputy Speaker …”
Did the Ukrainian communist party take any key stand?
I don’t remember them doing that. I think they were quiet.
(1:08:00) Crimea, where Gorbachev was held was part of Ukraine, still is, (laughter) probably still will be in a few years.
Hopefully by the time this makes it to the Libraries. (laughter)
Were there any interesting perspectives from Crimea that you heard about?… or was that information sent directly to Moscow?
Interview date: January 29, 1996
(00:30:00) Today is January 29. I am Margarita Hewko with the Project on the Oral History of the Independent Ukraine. And we are delighted to have you, Marta, for the second time. We are going to continue with the questions [from] our previous interview.
We were discussing the week of the Coup in Moscow. You had (00:01:00) just finished telling us about the press conference that President Kravchuk had organised for foreign correspondents. And from that event, we would like to move on to Independence Day. That is Saturday, August 24. And we would like you to tell us your impressions of that day. What happened to you? How did you see that day?
The time between the coup or the press conference during the coup and Independence day, not very much happened. So Independence Day, we were all waiting to see what was going to happen. The coup had happened. The coup had failed. An emergency session of Parliament had been announced. And everybody was waiting to find out what was going to happen at that emergency session scheduled for the 24th [of August] which was a Saturday. [It] was unusual for the Parliament to meet on Saturday. It was still the summer, so a lot of people were still out of town and people had been coming back into town. So there was a feeling of building up to that day.
(00:02:00) The day itself, I remember clearly, was a beautiful summer day. The sun was shining. The sky was very blue. It was a perfect late summer day. And, I remember walking to Parliament that day, for the special session. I lived very close to Parliament so I could walk there. And lots of people were heading up towards Parliament. It was unusual for the streets to be filled and it was just this movement of people, very calmly, very slowly in the direction of Parliament. That added to the feeling of anticipation. Something important is going to happen on this day. And that is the feeling I remember at the beginning of the day, this anticipation.
The day itself of Parliament was very, very long. The session started as usual at ten in the morning, and it went on until six or seven in the evening. So the number of hours we were actually inside, watching, listening. Independence was proclaimed after 5, it was like 5:20 or something like that. (00:03:00) So from 10 in the morning until 5:20, again that feeling of tension, anticipation, “What’s going to happen?” continued building. As we all know, Independence was proclaimed.
The interesting things inside Parliament that day were the feelings that what we were picking up on the attitude of the communists. They still had the majority in Parliament and we all suspected, figured, knew that the democrats were going to table a motion for Ukrainian independence. But how were the communists going to react to this? That was the big question. Were they going to vote for it? What the outcome of this would be? And there was an awful lot of negotiation inside Parliament. As always, the important stuff happens not in the chamber but in the hallways outside. So we were busy running around asking people to give us quotes. “What do you think is going to happen? What is happening? What do you think?” The democrats, as usual ,were very forthcoming in telling us what was going on. (00:04:00) The communists were cagey as always. They didn’t want to say very much.
The interesting thing that happened in mid-afternoon. The communists announced a caucus that was open to Western journalists. Every faction had caucuses throughout any session of Parliament. We were always invited to come to the democratic caucuses when they would plan their strategy. This was the first time the communist faction had invited everybody to participate. Of course, we all went there. Watching the debate within their caucus was also fascinating. Moroz, Olexander Moroz, who is now Speaker of Parliament, was very strongly arguing for voting for independence. There were other people who were saying, “No, what is this independence nonsense?” That was the tone of the debate. The outcome of that caucus was that they decided that the Communists Party would in fact (00:05:00) vote to support the motion for independence.
The other interesting thing that was happening throughout the day was there was a huge crowd of people outside of Parliament. Bigger than I’ve ever seen. And they were outside surrounding Parliament the whole time. They had this big flag that they held just in front of the main door. It was as if all of these people were just waiting, expecting something to happen. I remember speaking with one of the democratic leaders, Voldymyr Fylenko who was then Deputy Head of Narodna Rada. I said. “So, what do you think is going to happen? What is the outcome going to be?” He pointed outside at the crowd and said, ”Those people are making the decision for us. The communists feel the pressure of the people. And they know that if they vote against it that Parliament will be stormed. Those people are helping us push independence through.” There was very much that feeling inside Parliament that day.
(00:06:00) The other interesting bizarre thing that happened that day was journalists were not allowed to enter the building. Usually access to the building is free. If you have your pass, you can come and go as you please. That day, they were not letting us out of the building. Once we came in, you had to push through the crowd to get in, they didn’t want to let us leave. It was always interesting to pop out and talk to the crowd to see what people on the street were saying to put into your story. They refused. All of the doors are sealed. When I said to the guard, “I have to go outside.”, “Oh, no. We can’t let you out for your own safety. The mob will just destroy you. Those people are vicious. We have to protect our foreign journalists. We can’t let you leave the building for your own protection.“ I then went up to the second floor of the Parliament where they have windows overlooking the square in front of the Parliament. It was summer so I opened the window to hear what the crowd was shouting. (00:07:00) They were constantly shouting slogans and it was interesting to hear what they were shouting. Was it “Down with Kravchuk” or “Vote for Ukrainian independence”. And again, the guards came up and they shut the windows and said “You can’t have the windows open.” And I was like, ”Why?” And they said “Oh, because you might fall out of these windows. And again we have to worry about your safety. We can’t have any accidents happening in Parliament.” So they weren’t even letting us hear what the crowd was saying. So we could hear something being shouted, but we couldn’t make out what it was.
I first saw the actual act of proclaiming Ukrainian Independence from a Ukrainian politician from Ivano Frankivsk. His name is Yaku Vyna. He is now or recently was the Deputy Minister of Culture. At the time he was the head of Ivana Frankivska Oblastna Rada. I had met him through friends. He is an artist. I have some artist friends. We had met socially before. He was in Parliament as many other (00:08:00) politicians were, sitting in the press gallery. This was mid afternoon. He says, “[Do] you want to see something interesting?” And of course I said, ”Yes.” He opens up his papers, shows me this sheet of paper and says “ Akt Prokholozhenia Nezalezhnosti Ukrainy ” [Act of Declaration of Independence of Ukraine] in the text. I of course immediately wrote it down, because at that point, it hadn’t been distributed to the journalists. [By] the way he did it, I thought, he knows it is going to happen. And sure enough, very shortly afterwards, and the big tense moment, the vote.
The counting of the vote, the announcing of the vote. When it became apparent, clear that it had been passed by a huge, huge majority, that feeling was something extraordinary again. It was this huge chamber full of members of Parliament, the diplomatic corps, the press, guests. Everyone just rose up on their (00:09:00) feet for this huge standing ovation that went on and on. Gosh, I’m getting (tearful) just remembering it. (laughter) Then somebody started singing the Ukrainian national anthem. And that was the first time it was sung in Parliament. Everybody just joined in. It was somebody from the democrats from the floor of the house, as everybody was standing clapping suddenly … Gosh, this is five years later, six years later and I can still remember that feeling that this is a moment in history.
When an event like this took (00:10:00) place in Ukraine I’m sure that your bureau in London had many questions to ask you. Could you describe us their reaction towards this surprise independence of Ukraine?
Surprise is probably the best word to use for everybody. I had been here and witnessed it and I was surprised. The democrats I think were surprised although they probably won’t admit it now. Everybody was surprised that this had actually happened. When I filed my story that night they didn’t ask me, because often they check, “Have you got your facts right?” and stuff. The sort of accepted it, because at that point there [was] so much news coming in and they were just taking the stories and writing them. But a few days afterwards when things calmed down a little bit the questions were. “Okay, what does this mean? What kind of independence is this? Have the communists, because they all voted for it, plan to set up a communist Ukraine to rebuild the Soviet Union? Are they planning to stop the reforms? What’s (00:11:00) happening in Crimea? After all Gorbachev had been held in Crimea which is in Ukraine. The same people were still in power there. [Nikolai] Bagrov who was the head of the Communist Party, the head of the oblast was still very much in control. Is Ukraine becoming the communist sanctuary? Is Crimea the new power base for the resurgence of communist power in this part of the world?” Those were the questions.
To answer them, I thought it would be best to go to Crimea to see what was happening. Because in Kyiv, there wasn’t a strong feeling of communism at all. In fact, the communists were in retreat. A few days after independence the Communist Party was banned. And then their headquarters was impounded. An interesting story, but I would like to move on to Crimea. Mykola Veresen from the BBC and I planned a trip down to Crimea a few weeks after independence -this would be mid September 1991, I can’t remember the exact date- with the aim to find out what (00:12:00) was going on in Crimea. To see where the actual, not coup had happened, but where Gorbachev had been held. We flew down to Yalta which was not a problem at the time. And we didn’t actually go into Foros which is where he was held. But we drove past it. It was very calm there.
Interesting things we picked up just by being in Crimea. People in Crimea said that during the coup itself they didn’t think things were that bad. They told us little stories which made it into my reports that the second day of the coup, a workmen went to the dacha where Gorbachev was being held to fix the windows because the windows, or some minor thing needed to be fixed. He made it all the way into the dacha only to be stopped already on the premise of the building. These (00:13:00) [buildings] have these private roads. There wasn’t a big fortress around. There was very much a feeling of calm in Crimea itself. And for instance just outside of Yalta. People in Yalta said, there’s not enough water here, prices are going up, these are the issues. None of this coup, communist, who cares. That was very interesting to see. On the ground there people didn’t take it, it’s not that they didn’t take it seriously, but it wasn’t that much of an issue for them. Oh, there’s been a change, Ukraine declared independence, well, yeah, but what are we going to do about our water situation. And that was the big concern because there is a problem with water there.
Did you have any contact with the military on that trip?
Yes, we decided to go to Sevastopil which was and still is the base of the Black Sea Fleet, which is the military base in Crimea. Yalta is a resort town. Simferopol is the political center. Mykola says to me, “Do you want to go to Sevastopil. Let’s (00:14:00) check out what is going on there.” And I said, “Yeah, sure.” not thinking that this is a closed military zone, and we’ve just had a coup, independence has been declared. I just thought, “Yeah, sure, Sevastopil sounds good.”
He has friends that live in Sevastopil. He’s a professional tennis player and she is a biologist. They came to Yalta to visit because they were very good friends and they said “Oh well, we’ll drive you to Sevastopil.” I though, “Great, well, we have transportation arranged. We were driving along and then in the car they say, “Right, well, when we get just outside Sevasotpil you guys are going to have to get into the trunk of the car.” At which point I was like, “What are you talking about?” Because that is when it became clear to me that I couldn’t just drive into Sevastopil. So we made arrangements. We had a trial run to see if both Mykola and I could fit into the trunk of the car. They took out all of their stuff and we fit in there. And we drove through the check points. For people that have never been to Sevastopil, it has guards all around on all of the major roads. You get stopped (00:15:00) and checked upon entry into the city. But people who live there come and go freely because they just show their resident stamps. It was a pretty intense few moments. Getting into the trunk of the car. It was dark, crowded and thinking, “I’m breaking the law going into a closed military base.” Feeling the car stop thinking, “Are they going to check the car?”, and the getting through and going, “Whooow.”
The first thing we did when we drove into the city was we went to city hall to do an interview with the mayor of the city. And within a few minutes, well in a short time we were able to have a meeting with him. And this was really interesting because it again gave me a feeling of what it felt like inside. The mayor whose name I have forgotten showed us into his office. There was a big portrait of Lenin behind him. He said, ”Hello, nice to meet you.” We introduced (00:16:00) ourselves. And he said, “Well, I won’t ask you how you got here. What questions have you got for me?” I thought, interesting. Clearly he knew that BBC, the Guardian coming into the city without any prior information means we snack in. He didn’t do anything about it. We talked to him. He gave us a very relaxed interview basically saying things here are calm. Yes, there has been a change of government. And, that is fine and again went to like water problem, this and that. And very logistical details.
During that trip we managed to interview commanders of the Black Sea Fleet. [We] asked them how they felt about what was going on, the changes and so on. They (00:17:00) were very cagey, they didn’t want to talk. They were happy to meet with us, but they didn’t want to say very much. They didn’t want to say their names, they refused to have interviews recorded which Mykola and I thought [was] quite funny. We were sure that all of these official buildings were bugged. Government buildings in the Soviet Union in a military zone, and yet they refused to give us their names. Of course they are going to know you talked to journalists! It was a very strange feeling of uncertainty that they had. They weren’t quite sure how much had changed. They were willing to talk, but not really talk.
When I called the Guardian from Sevastopil, they were shocked because Western journalists had never been in there before. And they said again, “We won’t ask you how you got there, but what interesting stories have you got for us?” And so I filed on that.
So that was pretty much the first story filed by a Western journalist filed from Sevastopil.
(18:00) From Sevastopil, yes, because at that time they weren’t letting journalists into the city or Western journalists in any case. So that was a big accomplishment.
Did you have a feeling that even though they didn’t speak a lot to you of what was their position regarding the coup or they were not very clear?
The interesting thing was, they didn’t think it was that big of a deal. It was very calm but uncertain. They didn’t sort of say, “Yes, we pledge allegiance to Ukraine” or “Yes, the coup was terrible”. They didn’t make any strong statements on anything. They were very sort of accepting of everything. “Oh yes, the coup happened, and Oh, yes that was too bad wasn’t it.” and “What is the position of the Communist Party?”, “Well, you know, it has been banned.” It was very non-confrontational. They didn’t express any strong feelings or opinions on any of these issues. (00:19:00)They are waiting to see what was going to happen. Since it was so unclear where it was going, they were just riding it out and not offending anybody.
I would like to ask you a similar question of that reaction of the average people, the average citizens in Ukraine. What was their impression about independence. I heard it was probably people who lived outside the Soviet Union that understood how important independence was for Ukraine. And I had heard that Ukrainians did not react quite much even in Kyiv. Did they understand the magnitude of the event that took place?
(00:20:00) There was a huge change in public opinion between August of 91 and December of ‘91. August being the coup and Declaration of Independence. December being the referendum that was to give the people the chance to say their piece or vote for or against independence. Again with Mykola Veresen, we travelled throughout various regions of Ukraine and met all sorts of different people, asking everybody the question, “How do you feel about this? How are you going to vote? What does independence mean? Do you want it? Do you not want it? How are you going to vote in the referendum and why?” That’s was also something that, the Guardian wanted me to write about because that was what people were interested in. Okay, politicians have declared independence. What do the people think, feel? What are they going to vote?
Not surprising, what we heard everywhere was that everybody was going to (00:21:00) vote for independence. Nine out of ten people we spoke to said, “I’m going to vote for independence.” And this is everybody from local politicians that we interviewed to workers. We went to a factory and talked to them about, “Well this has changed, how are you going to vote?” to driving along, stopping to by apples on the roadside talking to the vendors. School teachers, local journalists. All different people we spoke to all said pretty much the same thing. When we asked them why, that’s where we had different answers.
A lot of people said that it was time for a change. That they had been so fed up with the government in Moscow that they wanted a new government. If there is going to be something new in Kyiv, yes they were going to support it that because anything was better that what they had. The second thing was economic interest. (00:22:00) The economy was in such bad shape. It had been so badly mismanaged again by the government in Moscow that maybe the government in Kyiv, not maybe, the government in Kyiv was going to do a better job. The analogy they used was keeping a big house is difficult. Keeping a small house clean is less difficult. So let’s get our house in order. It is easier to manage a small house. So our house is now Ukraine and we will be able to “navesty vlade” you know, make order in our own country. Some people said things like, yes, now we’ll be able to speak Ukrainian and I’ve always wanted to speak Ukrainian. There were people who said stuff like that as well, a sense of national identity coming out. But most people were interested in economic issues and just this feeling of want to change.
One last thing about the coup: how long do you (00:23:00) think it would have taken for Ukraine to declare independence had not been a coup in Moscow? Were people talking even the week before the coup had [taken place] in Moscow, were people talking about an organized action to declare independence in the country?
(00:24:00) I can’t answer when Ukraine would have declared independence. That’s speculating on something I couldn’t possible guess. However, at the time and with hindsight, I feel very strongly that Ukraine would have declared independence with or without the coup. I believe that the coup speeded it up tremendously. But the coup or the Declaration of Independence didn’t just come out of nowhere. The movement towards independence had started earlier and it was slowly moving along. I may have been a year later, it may have been five years later, but it was going in that direction. And because it was moving slowly a lot of people didn’t really see it or people were saying “It’s not really happening.” Although there were enough indicators before the coup that I believe it would have happened.
(00:25:00) Listening to people before and after the coup, it was that desire for change that was really, really strong. That was the bottom emotion that we heard everywhere. Enough of this “balagan” enough of this corruption, enough of this. We want something else. The thing that was being offered as a change was Ukraine becoming independent. This business of reforming the Soviet Union and making it a viable place to work economically people weren’t buying that anymore. They wanted change and economic change, social change all sorts of different changes. Different people wanted different things. But that desire for change was pretty powerful.
And Ukrainians being pretty slow to take initiative, independence would have not happened very quickly, and so the coup put (00:26:00) things into hyperspeed. But it was slowly going there. I mean the arguments to make for that are National bank of Ukraine was set up before the coup. That was set up spring sort of May of June of 1991 before Parliament broke up. They were making moves towards economic independence. The rouble was still in circulation in Ukraine, even after the coup. What they had done again in early 1991, they had introduced a parallel currency, which was a “coupon” which wasn’t worth anything in and of itself, But in order to use the rouble, you had to also have the coupons, which were issued in Ukraine and only valid in Ukraine. That was the first step towards a separate currency. Those were the two things I remember clearly. There was talk of an independent military. (00:27:00) There was something called the Officers’ Union, Union of Ukrainian Officers organized before the coup. And this was officers serving in the Soviet army who said, “We want to be Ukrainian.” And I can’t remember how far their demands went. But Rukh was certainly making all of these statements that Ukraine needs a separate currency, separate army, separate, separate, separate. And there [were] moves towards those goals before the coup.
You mentioned again military topics. I would like to ask you about a visit you did to a military base in Chuhoyv. I’ve heard it is a very interesting story. Could you describe us some details about it?
This is one of the favourite stories that I did and one of the things I did first (00:28:00) as a journalist in Ukraine. Just after the Coup … a BBC TV team came out here. They were interested in what was happening with the military in Ukraine. A defence correspondent from BBC television, David Shukman, came out and we worked together on this story. We interviewed Evhen Marchuk who at the time was the Head of Security, Emergency Situations and something else. I can’t remember the exact name of the committee. He met with us and he was involved in setting up a separate Ukrainian army. I don’t know to what degree so you should ask him this separately. But he was very much involved in this. He was telling us, he was drawing schemes of what was going to happen to the army, what plans were being made. He was very lucid and cooperative in the interview. Gave us a very good interview.
We also wanted to visit a military base in Ukraine, and a closed one (00:29:00) preferably. He set up a visit for us to a military base, a closed one outside of Kharkiv in a small place called, I believe Chuhoyv or something like that. The reason that was interesting was because the commander of that base, after the coup declared his loyalty to Ukraine. And he was the first military commander of that rank that to say, “I’m pledging allegiance to Ukraine and my base, my men follow Ukrainian orders.” This was before things had really congealed in the Ukrainian army. I’m not sure if there was a Ministry of Defence or not. But this was all happening around the same time. This was again September of ‘91. It must have been after [General Kostiantyn] Morozov was appointed and they created a Defence Ministry, [and] appointed Defence Minister. What are the soldiers going to do? What are the officers going to do? more to the point. And he was the first one to come out and said, “I’m going to take orders from Ukraine.” So we went to interview him.
(00:30:00) The story itself was the fact that we went in there, saw how it looked and that that he was the commander whose name again I can’t remember but I’ll look it up. [He] was very outspoken. He talked to us which nobody would do before. The conditions at the base were pretty dire. There was, their global army problem of supplies, money, housing. All of those things existed at the base, but the interesting thing was that he had said, “I’m Ukrainian and I’m going to work for Ukraine now. I am taking orders from Kyiv not Moscow.” And that was significant because that set the trend. After one person had done that, one base, one commander. I think he was a general, maybe not.
Once he had taken the first step, others followed. But somebody had to do it (00:31:00) first. In Kyiv there was a feeling, “What if the officers don’t follow us? What if they like don’t listen us? What if they continue taking their orders from Moscow?” At the time, the commander of this Red Army or Soviet forces was saying, “None of this separate armies stuff.” “I give the orders, you listen to me.” There was this tension between Kyiv and Moscow over this issue. Really, Kyiv had to convince the officers in the Red Army to take orders from Kyiv and he did it first. And then others followed. The debate is still open on the Black Sea Fleet because people are still … But anyway, that is my trip to Chuhoyv.
Розмовляли Сара Сіверс та Маргарита Гевко, Київ