* 14 November 1927, Kariv
† 6 November 1968, Kiev
“Down with the Communist colonizers! Long live free Ukraine! Down with the invaders of Czechoslovakia!"
Vasyl Makuch, 5 November 1968
On 5 November 1968 ex-soldier of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army and political prisoner Vasyl Makuch (40) poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire in the main boulevard of Kiev. He did so in protest against the occupation and russification of Ukraine by the Soviet regime and against the invasion of Czechoslovakia.
Vasyl Omelyanovytch Makuch was born on 14 November 1927 in the village of Kariv, then a part of the Polish Lwów Voivodeship. He came from a patriotic family and therefore he liked the national movement and concept of free Ukraine. Under the influence of his father and their neighbours, he joined the secret service of Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) in 1944. He was code-named Mykola. He was shot during a battle and captured by NKVD in February 1946. He was arrested on 15 February 1946. He underwent harsh interrogation in Lwow prison and on 11 July 1946 the military tribunal condemned him to ten years of hard labour, most of which he spent in Siberian work camps. On 18 July 1955 he was released and deported into exile.
In Siberia exile, Makuch met Lidiya Ivanivna Zapara, an actress who was sentenced to ten years of work camp and five years of exile when she was seventeen because of her participation in propaganda concerts together with her stepmother during the German occupation. They became very close. Lidiya was released two years earlier than Vasyl but they kept writing to each other. After his release on 6 April 1956, he was banned from living in western Ukraine. He left for Dnipropetrovsk and married Lidiya. Their daughter Olha was born in 1960, their son Volodymyr four years later.
Makuch initially worked in the Promcynk factory, later he made his living as a household appliances repairer. He attended evening courses, passed secondary school leaving exam and then was accepted to the Faculty of Pedagogy. However, he was expelled very soon because he did not tell the admission committee about his past imprisonment. He hoped to be allowed attending evening or distance learning courses at least but he was not. Lidiya worked as a cook. The couple decided to enrol their children to a Ukrainian kindergarten and school but the children became victims of bullying – their classmates taunted them because they spoke Ukrainian and the teachers did not take any action.
Makuch was very politically active; he often visited Lwow and Kiev and was in touch with people sharing his views. He also corresponded with his imprisoned friends. People were meeting at his place in Dnipropetrovsk to discuss possibilities of fighting for free Ukraine under the new “advanced socialism”. As he did not conceal his opinions, he attracted attention of the KGB soon. Both he and his family were under secret police surveillance.
Oles Hončar’s novel called Sobor (The Temple) that was published in the Vitčyzna (“Homeland”) magazine in January 1968 had a great impact on Makuch. He was deeply affected by subsequent smearing campaign of the press that accused its author of nationalism. Similarly, he did not like the occupation of the Czechoslovakia by the troops of five member countries of the Warsaw Pact that started on 21 August 1968. In reaction to the occupation, he told his wife he was ready to sacrifice himself for free Ukraine and the future of their children.
In October 1968 Makuch took a few days off and went to visit his sister in Kariv. When leaving, he said to his wife and children: “If anything happens to me, be sure I love you all very much.” From his parents’ place, he sent several letters to his friends in Nikopol, Kiev and Dnipropetrovsk and two more letters to his wife, all of them ending with “Vivat Ukraine!”.
On 5 November 1968, Makuch poured petrol over himself and set himself on fire in the Chreshchatyk Street at the entrance of building No. 27, near the Bessarabia Market. Then he ran towards the today’s Independence Square, screaming: “Down with the Communist colonizers! Long live free Ukraine! Down with the invaders of Czechoslovakia!” There were many people around, running away. There were also a large number of police officers who were trying to smother him. The burned man was transferred in coma to hospital where he died the following day of severe burns covering 70% of his body.
Secret police officers contacted Makuch’s wife and told her that her husband was very ill. Lidiya arrived to Kiev on 6 November 1968 together with her godfather Ivan Cypuch. Both of them were arrested immediately upon their arrival. According to her testimony, they were kept in a cold room all night and brought to the morgue the following morning. The prosecution office in Kiev started criminal proceedings on the merits of Vasyl Makuch’s suicide the same day.
Lidiya and her godfather were closely watched, they were not allowed to speak with anyone. Their relatives living in western Ukraine wanted to have Vasyl buried there but Lidiya wanted to have him close to her and their children. Finally, he was buried in Dnipropetrovsk. The funeral took place under the KGB supervision. All people who attended the funeral were photographed and checked. Lidiya was invited to an interrogation several times during the following three months. KGB officers kept asking about Makuch – who was he meeting, what was he saying etc. Lidiya lost her job because of them and could not find a new one for several years. The family merely scraped along. To keep her children, she had to sell all her belongings. Finally she found a job in a cafeteria at the railway station.
Makuch’s sister Paraska Osmylovska was also interrogated – on 7 November 1968 she was summoned to the local and then to the regional KGB department in Sokalo. The investigating officers believed that Makuch’s suicide was part of some bigger plan of an illegal organization and did not hesitate to use violence in order to find out the truth. Osmylovska’s husband confirmed that she injured her lungs, spitted blood and died after two years as a consequence of the interrogations.
The Ukrainian media did not report on the self-immolation of Vasyl Makuch at all. However, thanks to the Ukrainian dissent, foreign media could broadcast the following information on 5 November 1968: „Ukrainian citizen Vasyl Makuch set himself on fire in protest against the Communist regime, oppression of the Ukrainian people and Soviet aggression against Czechoslovakia. The whole international community bows to this unprecedented and heroic act.”
However, Makuch’s act did not stay without any response. Yevhen Pronyuk wrote an anonymous article called In Memory of a Hero which circulated among the Ukrainians as a samizdat. It led to further repressions. Bohdan Czaban and Stefan Bedrylo (arrested in Mordvin camps for two years) were arrested and imprisoned because of dissemination of this article.
Moreover, Makuch was not the only Ukrainian who chose self-immolation as a radical form of his protest. Ex-soldier Mykola Bereslavskyj tried to self-immolate in February 1969 in the very same street as Makuch. He just called “Long live free Ukraine!” and “Stop discriminating the Ukrainian people!” and then he was arrested and later imprisoned for two and a half years. On 21 January 1978, sixty years after declaration of the Ukrainian National Republic, Oleksa Hirnyk set himself on fire in Kaniv, near the grave of Taras Shevchenko. In his leaflets, he called on the Ukrainians to rise up against the Russian occupation and russification.
However, more than fifty years later, not many people know now about Makuch’s protest, even in Ukraine. Nothing remembers his self-immolation in the Chreshchatyk Street. In 2006, the Dnipropetrovsk regional organization of the Ukrainian Association of Political Prisoners and the Persecuted asked President Viktor Yushchenko to award Makuch the title of the Ukrainian Hero in memoriam but the President did not react to this appeal at all.
On 5 November 2008, the 40th anniversary of Vasyl Makuch’s self-immolation, a memorial concert was held at the Independence Square. On the very same day, the Torch Museum was opened in the main office of the Chernobyl-Help NGO in Donetsk in memory of Makuch and Hirnyk.
In October 2011, Kiev youth movement presented the book called Bilja vytokiv nezaležnosti („Roots of Independence”). The book contains biographies of 20 individuals associated with the fight for Ukrainian freedom and restoration. Vasyl Makuch is among them.
In the evening of 5 November 2011, several people gathered at the place of Makuch’s self-immolation. They brought his portrait and formed his name from candles. Arsen Pushkarenko, leader of the Patriots youth organization and student of Kiev National University, suggested contacting the Czech and Slovak governments and ask them for recognition and honouring of Makuch’s act. „The Ukrainian authorities should be ashamed.”
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