My View with Denise Dunbar: Repression in Ukraine

My View with Denise Dunbar: Repression in Ukraine
Denise Dunbar. (Courtesy photo)

Part III of a series

This is the third in a series of columns about the Russian invasion of Ukraine, drawing on my experiences as a Soviet analyst in the Central Intelligence Agency’s Office of Leadership Analysis from 1986 to 1992, the years during which the USSR increasingly wobbled and finally collapsed.

When I was hired by the CIA in 1986, I completed a lengthy training program and started my job as analyst of the leaders of the 15 Soviet republic governments the next year. Up until then, this account had been a backwater: While broad in scope with dozens of political leaders to track, it had been relatively insignificant because most power rested in the hands of the national leadership in Moscow.

That began changing rapidly almost as soon as I began my job.

Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of “glasnost” and “perestroika” led to Soviet citizens gaining limited freedom of political speech. In the Baltic states, political dissidents began emerging and advocating for political independence.

The ability of those dissidents to protest at home was limited, but many were allowed to travel abroad, where they met with both government officials and supporters – mainly diaspora from their homelands – in an effort to gain recognition for their cause.

One of their stops was in Washington, D.C. Though not a journalist at the time, I became acquainted with a woman who was a member of the National Press Club, and she secured admission for me when Soviet dissidents began coming to Washington to speak at the Press Club.

Because of her, I was able to meet in person with the most prominent dissidents from Lithuania, Estonia and Latvia, which helped me assess them and their organizations for the Agency. There was nothing covert about this – I went openly as a CIA employee – but it was of immense value.

The second group of Soviet republics where dissidents began cautiously advocating for greater freedom were those in the Caucasus region: Georgia, along with Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Soviet Georgia was fascinating, as the long-time head of that republic’s communist party, from 1972 to 1985, was the anti-corruption reformer Eduard Shevardnadze. One of Gorbachev’s most significant moves, just four months into his tenure as Soviet General Secretary, was to name Shevardnadze as Soviet foreign minister.

This was a generational shift: The 57-year-old Shevardnadze replaced hardline Andrei Gromyko, who was in his mid-70s and had been in his post for almost 30 years. The move dramatically changed Soviet foreign policy, as Shevardnadze would be one of Gorbachev’s closest allies in pursuing greater tolerance in Eastern Europe along with domestic reform.

Also in 1972, the same year Shevardnadze took over in Soviet Georgia, the hardline Vladimir Shcherbitsky* became First Secretary of the communist party of Ukraine. Shcherbitsky controlled Ukraine for 17 years, the longest tenure in that post during the period of Soviet rule. Interestingly, the second longest-tenured head of the CPU was Nikita Khrushchev, who succeeded Josef Stalin as Soviet First Secretary.

Like Shevardnadze, Shcherbitsky became a member of the Soviet Politburo. Unlike his Georgian counterpart, Shcherbitsky was most emphatically not a reformer.

Though born in Ukraine, Shcherbitsky was loathed there. I thought he was the worst of a repressive group of 1980s Soviet republic leaders. Shcherbitsky carried out mass arrests and treated Ukrainian dissenters with brutality – including placing them in psychiatric institutions as both punishment and deterrent – while attempting to stamp out Ukrainian nationalism.

Shcherbitsky was not responsible for the Chernobyl nuclear disaster – the plant was built and run by the national government – but as leader of the republic where the accident occurred, he bears significant responsibility for the ensuing coverup. Shcherbitsky remained in office three more years and was eventually forced out not because of Chernobyl but because of poor health and his resistance to Gorbachev’s perestroika. Shcherbitsky died a few months after his September 1989 removal.

I wrote a paper in 1989 on his successor, Vladimir Ivashko, a party apparatchik about whom 33 years later I remember virtually nothing, though he did become a member of the Soviet Politburo upon taking the helm in Ukraine. The consensus was that Ivashko couldn’t possibly be as bad as Shcherbitsky. He wasn’t, but open dissent within Ukraine was still slower to develop than in the Baltic or Caucasus regions.

In an interesting twist of history, the Ukrainian Ivashko became the final Soviet General Secretary, serving for five days in August 1991 between when Gorbachev resigned following the coup attempt and when the CPSU was dissolved on Aug. 29, 1991.

The writer is publisher and executive editor of the Alexandria Times. She worked at the Central Intelligence Agency from 1986 to 1992. *The Russian spelling of Shcherbitsky and Ivashko’s names are deliberately used, both because this is how we spelled them at the CIA and because, despite being born in Ukraine, they were Soviet apparatchiks.