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  • The “Transnationalization” of Ukrainian DissentNew York City Ukrainian Students and the Defense of Human Rights, 1968–80
  • Simone A. Bellezza (bio)

In the last decade, the history of human rights has experienced a period of unprecedented development: in particular, the 1970s have been identified as a global turning point.1 The so-called Breakthrough narrative has rightly underlined the importance of the process, which led to the Helsinki Accords, and of its consequences. In the last few years, this interpretation has been more widely contextualized and made more complex by including non-Western and trans-national actors from the 1960s and 1970s.2 This article continues this line of research by combining it with scholarship on connections across the East-West divide.3 Studies have demonstrated that, from the second half of the 1960s on, Soviet intellectuals and dissidents tried to address international public opinion, [End Page 99] hoping that it would help them in their fight to reform and, later, destroy the Soviet Union.4 Although it is plausible that Soviet non-Russian nationalities in the West played a central role in building and conserving Western countries’ relationships with their original homelands beyond the Iron Curtain, little research has been dedicated to this topic, which is usually left to speculation.5 This article addresses questions of the reception of Ukrainian dissent in Ukrainian communities in the West, Ukrainian émigrés’ evolving sense of national belonging, and their attempts to influence East-West relations through an analysis of the activities of two organizations: the New York City Ukrainian Students Hromada (Community) and New York’s Committee to Defend Soviet Political Prisoners. Although both were small in comparison with Ukrainian emigration organizations as a whole, their relevance to this topic comes from their originality and specific political orientation. Together, they shed light on the dynamics characterizing the history of Ukrainians in the West during the Cold War.6

Disaffection with Traditional National Organizations

The leading group among Ukrainian émigré communities in the West was composed of the so-called third wave: people who left Ukraine during and after World War II and, after a period in refugee camps in Europe (hence the definition of “displaced people”), found a new home in a Western country (mainly the United States, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, and West Germany).7 Because of their involvement in the nationalist movement and the partisan struggle during World War II, these people tended to have strong anti-Soviet feelings and to be politically very active: in their new countries of residence they took over the emigration associations and caused a marked decline in leftist and Sovietophile organizations, which remained stronger only in Canada.8 The climate of confrontation between the superpowers found [End Page 100] its supporters in Ukrainian émigré communities, and those supporters were quite disappointed when in the late 1950s the US administration started looking for peaceful coexistence with its communist opponent.9 The 1960s were a decade of sour confrontation within Ukrainian communities between those who favored a reconnection with the Ukrainian mainland and those who opposed any contact in the belief that the Soviet Union was just looking for another way to infiltrate its agents into the West.10 In spite of this lively debate, the leadership of the Ukrainian communities in the United States remained in the hands of the ultranationalist faction led by Lev Dobriansky, president of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America, the umbrella organization of US Ukrainian associations. As reported by more moderate journals like Suchasnist´, Dobriansky’s opposition to East-West collaboration isolated the Ukrainian communities from the US government during the 1960s, when the Democratic Party won the presidential elections with John F. Kennedy and Lyndon B. Johnson.11

One of the main topics of disagreement was how the émigré community should react to the cultural renaissance of the Ukrainian shistdesiatnyky (people of the sixties). At the beginning of the 1960s, a new generation of [End Page 101] Ukrainian intellectuals and artists had jumped to the center of the cultural debate in Soviet Ukraine. Born in the 1930s, these nonconformist intellectuals had been educated entirely in Iosif Stalin’s Soviet Union and, after the dictator’s demise...