The Soviet authorities now claim that there are no more political prisoners in the country’s camps and prisons: the repression of the past, which was admittedly a tragic situation, has, they say, been totally solved by a program of amnesties, legal reforms and freer debate on past abuses. It is certainly true that in the five years that International PEN has been monitoring the fate of imprisoned writers and journalists around the world, no development has been more dramatic and unexpected than the decrease in the number of imprisoned Soviet writers (from over one hundred at its height to seven at present). However, the seven cases left are still seven cases too many, and their presence on PEN’s books belies the official claim.
In August, in a Reuters report on the visit of two American Congressmen to Perm 35, a labour camp in the north Urals, the Congressmen claimed that at least 11 of the inmates should have their cases reviewed. Conditions in the camp were described as difficult. Prisoners suffered from cold and isolation, visits were infrequent and punishment cells where no bedding was allowed were used. They spoke to 23 of the 38 inmates and amongst those they met was a writer called Bohdan Klymchak; he is one of the seven remaining on PEN’s list.
Aged 51, Bohdan Stanislavovich Klymchak is married with one daughter. He was born in a village in the Western Ukraine, which before 1939 was part of Poland. After 1945, Klymchak’s family was one of hundreds forcibly deported to the Soviet Far East on suspicion of having collaborated with the Banderites who from 1941, under the leadership of Stephan Bandera, declared an independent Ukraine and fought against both Soviet and Nazi troops. When the Klymchak family was rehabilitated in the 1950s, Bohdan chose to remain in Eastern Siberia and finished his education at a technical school in Magadan.
In about 1960, Klymchak was arrested and by one report served six years, by another three years, for ‘anti-soviet agitation and propaganda’. It is not clear to PEN what the charge was based on, but this article of the Penal Code had a catch-all nature and was systematically used to silence dissent (it has recently been abolished). After Klymchak’s release, he was barred from entering the Ukraine and unable to find work as a technician. He worked as a labourer.
According to ex-prisoner Nathan Shcharansky who knew Klymchak between 1981 and 1984 when they were both in Chistopol prison and who first alerted Western organisations to his existence, Klymchak’s second arrest occurred in 1978 after he walked over the Soviet-Iranian border seeking political asylum. By Klymchak’s own account, he set out across the desert, scrambled past barbed wire fences at the border and put himself in the hands of the first Iranians he met, trusting that they would co-operate in directing him to the American embassy. He was instead handed over to the Iranian authorities who eventually acceded to the Soviet Union’s demand that he be extradited.
Klymchak was tried for ‘treason in the form of flight abroad’ and given 15 years’ imprisonment and five years’ internal exile. Although ‘illegal exit abroad’ only usually gave rise to three years’ imprisonment, the additional charge of ‘treason’ apparently stemmed from Klymchak’s attempt to smuggle out all his writings with him: he was accused of trying to publish works with a ‘nationalist bias’ abroad. Although PEN has no information on Klymchak’s talents as a writer, his fate concerns PEN because it is his literary work not his attempted flight that is responsible for his continuing imprisonment.
Recently, a team of journalists from the French magazine L’Express visited Perm 35 and described him as ‘quite aged, small and dry’, a ‘zek’ (‘prisoner’) who carried out his duties, from watering plants to metal work, like a man possessed. Nathan Shcharansky apparently said of him: ‘He works with an unremitting fury. He hurls his sharp-edged spade into the piles of metal shavings and digs in as if he were pitching himself against both the KGB and the Iranian police at once.’ Viewers of the extraordinary film called The Last Gulag which the French journalists made (shown on BBC2 in October) may remember Klymchak’s sharp, careworn but friendly features; his outspoken criticism of camp conditions; his habit of carrying a crust of bread in his pocket just in case he found himself in SHIZO, the punishment cell; his message to the world that he was ‘under stress’; and his ambition on his release to promote the Ukrainian language both at home and abroad.
An informed source in the Soviet Union recently indicated that there was a chance that Klymchak would be freed by the end of 1989. Letters pleading for his earliest possible release can be sent to:
Generalnomu Sekretaryu TsK KPSS
Staraya Ploshchad 4