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Oleksa Hirnyk burned himself in protest against Russification of Ukraine
On January 21 1978, at night, in protest against the soviet regime and its suppression of Ukrainian nationalism, a patriotically-minded Ukrainian poured gasoline over himself and set himself on fire. Oleksa Hirnyk burned himself to death on Chernecha Hill, not far from Taras Shevchenko’s tomb, in the town of Kaniv.
“… today we should be inspired by
the heroic act of the loyal son of Ukraine,
by his patriotism and self-sacrifice for
the sake of Ukraine’s independence.”
Yevhen Hirnyk, Oleksa Hirnyk’s
younger son, who is now a member
of Ukrainian parliament.
The soviets hushed up the tragic event and such a move on their part was quite understandable. But even in the independent Ukraine, almost thirty years after this act of desperation, Oleksa Hirnyk’s self-sacrifice remains little known. Oleksa Hirnyk protested against Russification, against soviet attempts to make the Ukrainian people forget their true history, their traditions, their culture, even their language.
Paradoxically, now in the year 2007, the situation with the Ukrainian language, traditions and culture is not much different from what it was back in the 1970s.
Oleksa Hirnyk had written a thousand leaflets and strewn them over a large area in the vicinity of Taras Shevchenko’s tomb and on the slopes of the hill before he committed himself to fire. On one side, these leaflets had different texts though most of them began with Shevchenko’s words, “In your home there must be your own truth, power and freedom…” and ended with the following words, “Your house — your state, that’s what Shevchenko said, that’s what we say too. For the enslaved [Ukrainian] people an independent state is needed for their free development” but the other side had one and the same text:
PROTEST AGAINST RUSSIAN OCCUPATION OF UKRAINE
PROTEST AGAINST RUSSIFICATION OF UKRAINIAN PEOPLE
LONG LIVE THE INDEPENDENT UNITED UKRAINIAN STATE!
EVEN IF IT REMAINS SOVIET IT MUST NOT BE RUSSIANIZED!
UKRAINE FOR UKRAINIANS!
On the occasion of the declaration of Ukraine’s independence
by the Tsentralna Rada government
22 January 1918 — 22 January 1978.
Oleksa Hirnyk from Kalush burns himself in protest —
it is the only way to show protest in the Soviet Union.
The KGB secret police and local police arrived at the scene early in the morning and made sure that Hirnyk’s self-sacrifice remained virtually unknown. All the leaflets were picked up by the police and destroyed before anybody else could find them — all but one, which has been saved and made public after Ukraine’s independence. The man who had discovered Hirnyk’s dead and charred body was put into custody and was coerced into keeping silent. Hirnyk’s wife was forced by the KGB to sign a written statement, in which she pledged not to tell anyone about what had actually happened with her husband.
It was only in January 2007 that the President of Ukraine issued a decree whereby Oleksa Hirnyk was awarded the honorary title of Hero of Ukraine “posthumously for civic courage and self-sacrifice for the sake of Ukraine’s independence.” The official recognition was given to Oleksa Hirnyk twenty nine years after his death and into the sixteenth year of Ukraine’s independence. I can’t help wondering why the whole world immediately learnt about the act of protest against the Soviet occupation of Czechoslovakia, when the young Czech student Jan Palech burned himself to death, and in Ukraine, a similar act was keep secret for decades? Palech had a monument erected in his honour. Why don’t we have a monument to Hirnyk?
Oleksa Hirnyk chose to die in close proximity to the tomb of Taras Shevchenko, the most distinguished figure in the Ukrainian literature and culture. He had travelled 700 kilometres from his native Kalush in Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast to Kaniv to die by Shevchenko’s side.
Oleksa Hirnyk was born on March 28 1912 in the village of Bohorodchany, not far from the town of Kalusha. A considerable part of Western Ukraine was under the Polish domination until 1939, and when Hirnyk served in the Polish army he rebelled against mistreatment of soldiers of Ukrainian descent by Polish officers. This rebellion against humiliation of his Ukrainian dignity cost Hirnyk a term in prison. He spent three years in prison for defending his right to speak his own native tongue and for daring to talk about independence of Ukraine. Hirnyk’s family had long traditions of upholding Ukrainian culture. Hirnyk’s grandfather was the founder of the Prosvita (Enlightenment) Society in Bohorodchany — the Society promoted Ukrainian culture and language.
Oleksa Hirnyk did not make a secret of his views and ideas under the soviets — he was arrested and put into a concentration camp in the far north of the Soviet Union for three years. After his release, he, during his trips to Kyiv and other cities of Ukraine, particularly in its eastern and central regions, discovered that the Ukrainian language was not spoken by the majority of the population there and that Russianizing was spreading fast across the Ukrainian lands. And he made up his mind to die a horrible death in protest and hope that his death would ignite the flame of independence.
Many years later, the Oleksa Hirnyk Fund was set up in Kyiv, and in 2003, the Fund, jointly with the League of Ukrainian Philanthropists, established a Hirnyk Prize “for a weighty contribution to the cause of national revival.”
By Mariya Hantsyak
Photos are from the Hirnyk