Meshko, Oksana

Image - Oksana Meshko Image - Oksana Meshko Image - The protesters (including Oksana Meshko) during the Revolution on Granite in Kyiv (1990).

Meshko, Oksana [Мешко, Оксана; Meško], b 30 January 1905 in Stari Sanzhary, Poltava oblast, d 2 January 1991 in Kyiv. Chemist, political dissident, and human rights activist; mother of Oleksander Serhiienko. A dedicated and very stubborn individual, Meshko was a central figure in the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG), and in Ukrainian dissident circles she was known as a fearless ‘Kozats'ka Maty’ (Cossack Mother). Many members of Meshko’s immediate family were early victims of Soviet repressive policies (e.g., one of her brothers was killed in 1919, and her father was killed in 1920). Although administrative barriers were placed in her way because of her ‘unreliable’ social background, in 1927 Meshko enrolled in the Faculty of Chemistry of the Institute of Public Education in Dnipropetrovsk (now Dnipro), completing her studies there in 1931. In 1930 she married Fedir Serhiienko, who had been arrested previously (1924) as a former member of the Ukrainian Party of Socialist Revolutionary-Borotbists (Communists). He was arrested again in 1935, but after 9 months of detention he was released and, to avoid further persecution, he left Ukraine to work in the RSFSR. After two of her uncles and a cousin were arrested on political charges during the Yezhov terror in 1936–7, this confirmation of Meshko’s ‘unreliability’ led her to lose her job, in 1937, at the Dnipropetrovsk Institute of Grain Management where she was employed as a researcher. She and her two sons then joined her husband in Tambov, RSFSR. In May 1944 Meshko returned to Dnipropetrovsk, and in 1945 she moved to Kyiv.

In the summer of 1946 Meshko’s elder sister, Vira Khudenko, whose eldest son had fought in the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) and was captured and killed by the Soviet security forces, arrived in Kyiv. Meshko helped her sister settle down and find work in Kyiv, but soon afterwards Khudenko was arrested and then, on 19 February 1947, Meshko was arrested as well. Both sisters were tried on the bizarre charge of planning to assassinate Nikita Khrushchev, then the first secretary of the Central Committee (CC) of the Communist Party of Ukraine; their coerced confessions were to serve as the sole ‘proof’ of their guilt. They both resisted very great and brutal pressure to confess, but in the fall of 1947 they were nonetheless sentenced, in absentia, by the Special Council of the NKVD, in accordance with Clause 8 of Article 54-1A of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR (‘terrorism’), to 10 years’ detention in corrective labor camps. Meshko served her sentence, performing hard labor, in several locations in Siberia. In the spring of 1955 a commission of the CC of the CPSU released Meshko from imprisonment, but she remained in exile in Krasnoiarsk, RSFSR.

In June 1956 Meshko was allowed to return to Kyiv, and on 11 July of the same year she was provided with a certificate of rehabilitation and worked as an engineering technologist until she retired in 1965. From 1963 onwards, caught up in the heady atmosphere of the partial liberalization that followed Joseph Stalin’s death, she was heavily involved in organizing cultural events, such as literary evenings, that were an important part of the nascent national and cultural revival in Kyiv. At the same time she began to read and circulate samvydav materials, and signed many open letters and appeals on behalf of dissidents harassed and persecuted by the authorities. In particular, she actively defended her son Oleksander Serhiienko, one of the many dissidents sentenced and imprisoned during a wave of arrests of dissidents in January 1972.

In the fall of 1976 Meshko was invited by Mykola Rudenko to become a founding member of a new human rights organization, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG); she was among the first individuals he approached to join him in this initiative. A press conference to declare the formal creation of the UHG was held in Moscow on 9 November 1976, and later on the very same day Meshko was injured when a brick was thrown through the window of Rudenko’s quarters in Kyiv, where she was staying at the time. After most of the founding members of the UHG were arrested Meshko became its de facto leader. She helped prepare many of the UHG’s documents and played an active role in encouraging other dissidents to join the UHG.

Following numerous attempts to intimidate Meshko, including 9 lengthy searches of her home, in June 1980 she was forcibly detained, for 75 days, in Kyiv’s Pavlov Psychiatric Hospital. The hospital’s doctors, however, refused to cooperate with the KGB to declare her mentally ill, and she was released. Soon afterwards, on 13 October 1980, she was arrested. On 7 January 1981, at the age of 75, she was sentenced by Kyiv’s municipal court, in accordance with Article 62-1 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR, to 6 months’ imprisonment and 5 years’ exile. Her place of exile was the isolated village of Aian, Khabarovsk krai, RSFSR, where her son Oleksander Serhiienko was completing his term of exile. Meshko lived there, in very difficult conditions, until she was released from exile on 1 November 1985 and returned to Kyiv.

Although in poor health, Meshko did her best to participate in the turbulent political life of Ukraine during the perestroika period of the late 1980s. In February 1988 she visited relatives in Australia and was invited to address the Australian parliament concerning the situation in Ukraine. From Australia Meshko traveled to North America, where she participated in the work of the Fifth World Congress of Free Ukrainians before returning to Ukraine in January 1989. Here she was invited to join the Coordination Council of the Ukrainian Helsinki Association, and also initiated the creation of a new human rights organization, the Ukrainian Committee Helsinki-90. Meshko’s autobiography, as well as many of the documents she prepared and numerous letters she wrote to friends and relatives, can be found in the collection Ne Vidstupliusia! Do 100-richchia Oksany Iakivny Meshko (I Will Not Retreat! On the Occasion of the 100th Anniversary of Oksana Iakivna Meshko, 2005).

Sverstiuk, Yevhen. ‘Oksana Meshko: Ukrains'ka zhinka na skhyli viku’ in Svitli holosy zhyttia (Kyiv 2015)
Kartal'ova, Liubov (comp.). Strasna doroha Oksany Meshko. Do 115-richchia vid dnia narodzhennia ukrains'koi dysydentky, pravozakhysnytsi, chlena Ukrains'koi Hel'sins'koi Hrupy: Biobibliohrafichna rozvidka (Poltava 2020)

Ivan Jaworsky

[This article was written in 2021.]

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