How I Got to Know One of the Heavenly Hundred

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Bohdan Solchanyk (1985-2014), photo shared on Facebook by Iryna Kmet, February 20, 2014

It was the morning of February 20, 2014, and I was checking the news on Facebook about what had happened to Kyiv’s Maidan. It was another horrifying day of shootings. Dozens of people had been killed on Instytutskyi Street. Many of them were from western Ukraine, including the city of Lviv, where I had worked and taught for four years. Then I saw on my news feed this photo of a man who was in his late 20s, a former history student at Lviv National University. He had majored in archival studies. His name was Bohdan Solchanyk. He was a sociology instructor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. He had become a promising young scholar.

Immediately, I realized that I must have known this man. I had taught history for two years at his university, and my best students had majored in archival studies. He was a student already when I last taught there during the 2003-2004 academic year.

It had been nearly a decade since I had last taught Eastern European history there. I tried to think who Bohdan Solchanyk could have been. Was he the guy with glasses who knew all the details about interwar Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski that I should have known? No, that was “Sasha.” There were some bright Yaroslavs. There was a really bad Yaroslav whom I’d failed at the end of my last year at the university.

I gave up guessing. What mattered was that I probably knew this former student, or at least had passed him by in the hallways that linked all our history classrooms on the third floor. It was one of our students. Ours. And he had been killed by snipers on Instytutskyi Street, on the bloodiest day of fighting between protestors and police backing the regime of President Viktor Yanukovych.

As a professional historian of Ukraine, I had become drawn to the Euromaidan protests in late November 2013. They represented a chance to change a political system that had produced great social inequality and appalling instances of corruption. I had gotten to know this corruption firsthand, when a gang fatally beat up Maksym, a promising archival studies major who was applying to grad school in Armenian studies at Oxford. It happened just a few days before he was supposed to graduate. The police did nothing to investigate. I had gotten used to people telling me not to depend on the police whenever trouble happens.

The system had to change. I wound up traveling to Ukraine twice, in December and then in January, to observe the protests and support them. Yet I knew that I needed to keep critical distance. So I visited counter-rallies that the Yanukovych regime had organized and talked to their participants. I went to Donetsk and spoke with people who opposed the Euromaidan protests.

I could not stay on the sidelines for long. When Yanukovych signed the so-called Dictatorship Laws that made virtually any public protest illegal, I helped a friend spread protest leaflets in the Kyiv metro stations. We called on everyone to meet at Kyiv’s Maidan at noon the next day, January 19, to protest terror and “restore the constitutional order.” That mass rally backfired. Crowds upset with opposition leaders’ inaction attacked police barricades on Hrushevsky Street. Soon police shot and killed demonstrators, and hired thugs kidnapped and tortured activists. Then on February 18, confrontations between police and demonstrators near Parliament led to even more demonstrators killed and the headquarters of the protests, the Trade Unions Building, burning to ground as police laid siege to the Maidan.

And now Bohdan Solchanyk was dead.

I no longer could be impartial. I shared Bohdan’s photo and his obituary on Facebook. “Viktor Yanukovych must not stand up for elections,” I said, referring to the presidential elections scheduled for 2015. “Not only must he resign, but he must go to prison, not exile in Moscow.”

The Yanukovych regime fell a couple of days later. Yanukovych made it to Moscow. Russian forces invaded Crimea, and so-called “separatist” rallies sprang up all over eastern and southern Ukraine. In the meantime, I took a look at my university planner for 2003-2004. Bohdan Solchanyk’s name was there. He had taken part in a student debate guest lecturers and I had organized in December 2003. Students were to debate whether or not separatism was a viable political option for Galicia, the western province Lviv belonged to.

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My Lviv National University planner for 2003-2004, where Bohdan Solchanyk and other students signed up for a debate held there December 12, 2003

In the days after the February Maidan shootings, I felt lost. I had been among those calling on people to restore the constitution, and the crowds that had demanded it wound up getting into bloody battles with the police. The violence culminated with those February 20 shootings, leading to over 100 deaths and the term “The Heavenly Hundred” for the revolution’s martyrs. I read biography after biography of the dead on Facebook. I asked a friend what I could to amid all the sadness. “Dedicate your book to Bohdan,” said a friend.

I had already started writing what I hoped would be a history of the Euromaidan protests in December. There was no time to waste. I went to Kyiv for Spring Break to interview those who had witnessed the violence. I took off the next semester, without pay, to conduct oral history interviews in Ukraine and write. That is when I interviewed Bohdan’s famiy and friends.

I’d had the hardest time remembering who Bohdan was. Was he the guy with long black hair who had borrowed some books I had on Stalinism? No, that was spring 2003; he would not have been as old as that student then. Bohdan’s friends from graduate school in Warsaw had photos, but they had all been recent ones.

Then in early December, Bohdan’s friend Volodymyr met me in a café in Kyiv. He showed me a photo album he and friends had published. I asked him to show me a photo of Bohdan from 2002, or 2003, or 2004, “when I would have known him.”

Volodymyr showed me a photo of him with Bohdan in the spring of 2002, when both had been in a nationwide school history competition representing the Lviv Region.

I recognized him immediately.

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Bohdan and Volodymyr, Rivne, Spring 2002

It was the tall skinny kid with big eyes, black hair, and a slightly elongated face, talkative, energetic, and a bit naïve, who had been in one of my second-year seminar courses. As I figured out later, it was Spring Semester 2003. I was teaching lessons in post-1945 Ukrainian history for my friend, who was away in Canada for a couple of weeks defending his dissertation. Bohdan sat with Oleksandr, another tall skinny kid, but with shaved hair and traces of acne. I only had a couple weeks of lessons with them, but I remembered distinctly that both were reliable students who could fill up the class with time (each class had to be comprised of students answering my questions at length, and my greatest fear then was minute after minute of awkward silence).

Then I remembered a student debate Bohdan had taken part in back in May 2003. One of my other students had invited me to come and watch. It was a student led, student organized debate on Viktor Suvorov’s book on Stalin on the eve of World War II. I thought the debate was crazy. Suvorov’s book argued that Stalin had plans to attack Nazi Germany already in 1939. The theory sounded ludicrous. Stalin reacted to Nazi aggression; he didn’t provoke it. “Why, guys, are you wasting your time on this?” I thought as one team battled the other.

At one point the debate got out of order. Two or three guys started arguing about weaponry. It was not Bohdan’s turn to speak, but he was among the students objecting to what the student from the opposite team was arguing. At one point, he asked me, “Mr. William (Pane Viliame in Ukrainian)! You know about the United States tanks during….?” Suddenly I, the cultural historian who was studying youth cultures and dissent in Ukraine, was a military historian? And a historian of the U.S. military? “How am I supposed to know!?” I exclaimed, sort of irritated, sort of amused. I thought to myself, “Just because I’m an American, you think….?”

I couldn’t remember anything specifically Bohdan had said at the student debate we lecturers had organized later that December. The one student who had taken part couldn’t remember a thing about it, except that they had studied a lot for it and started asking questions about Galician Ukrainians and their role in Ukrainian politics. I remembered being terrified of publicizing the debate in twon, because the local press suggested that proponents of “Galician separatism” (a marginal group that got together at the Blue Bottle Café in downtown Lviv) were being financed by Moscow. When I put up a sign announcing the debates in the park on the city’s main avenue, Freedom Boulevard, I tried to make a run for it when an old man, peering at the sign I had just finished putting up, asked, “So what’s the good word today?”

I did remember that the team supporting Galician separatism had a lot of difficulties proving that Galicia could exist as a separate state like Slovakia, provoking some laughter from the audience. My diary entry mentioning that day only noted, “Natalia (one of our judges) noticed that the arguments weren’t as coherent and striking as they could have been.” I do remember Bohdan’s friend Oleksandr refusing dozens of times to respond to rebuttals from the other side (“I decline to respond!” “I decline!” “I decline!”).

It all looked silly back then, but these were second year students, and as I think about those debates now, students like Bohdan and Oleksandr displayed genuine enthusiasm, asking questions that maybe I should have asked. I doubt I could have made highly convincing arguments for Galician separatism back then, either.

Most importantly, I started to learn a lot more about Bohdan and Oleksandr. In less than a year after those debates on Galicia, both organized student protests that led to Ukraine’s Orange Revolution of 2004 that overturned the illegal election of Viktor Yanukovych as president. While he seemed naïve when I knew him, Bohdan later immersed himself in graduate studies in sociology. He began working on a dissertation about the Sovietization of his home town, Staryi Sambir, making use of oral history and archival research. His whole life, Bohdan read and read. He knew some of the classics of Ukrainian poetry by heart.

A lot of Bohdan’s life reminded me of my own. While he had won national history awards in school, I had won a scholarship in a U.S. high school history contest in Ohio. His brother was more talented, but he was more industrious and determined to succeed. He did oral histories in Staryi Sambir; I did them in Lviv. His desire to acquire books resembled my apartment and office severely overcrowded with them. And as I found out about his incomplete dissertation – only the introduction had been written before his death – it brought back memories of another Lviv student’s academic dreams cut short, those of Maksym.

I went to see Bohdan’s grave in Staryi Sambir in mid-December. His brother Stepan and Stepan’s brother-in-law drove me to the cemetery. The car slowly crawled up a muddy dirt road that went up the cemetery’s hill. “I bet you don’t have roads like this in America, do you?” said Stepan’s father-in-law. “Not really,” I answered. Still, the cemetery and its dirt road reminded me of the cemetery where some of my U.S. ancestors were buried, on a hill overlooking the Ohio River, reached only by a mud trail through cow pastures.

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Bohdan’s grave and OUN-UPA memorial complex, Staryi Sambir

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The foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, Staryi Sambir

Bohdan’s grave overlooked the town of Staryi Sambir and a railroad line. From here, we could see the beginnings of the Carpathian Mountains. The grave was at a memorial erected for Organization of Ukrainian Nationalist (OUN) activists and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) soldiers killed by the Soviets after World War II.

These men’s bodies had been dumped in a valley below, but after Ukraine received its independence, Bohdan’s father and other town activists reburied them here, on the hill. They erected a bell tower with all the names of the dead and the replica of a house, where people could place candles. That house had a plaque marking where they had placed soil from the grave of Stepan Bandera, founder of the OUN, in Munich, Germany. At the entrance gate, two flags flew, one for Ukraine, the other for the OUN.

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Entrance to the OUN-UPA memorial complex, Staryi Sambir

It had not been a year since Bohdan’s death, so the grave was still this mound covered with wreaths, their ribbons indicating relatives, friends, and organizations that had come to pay their last respects.

I lit a candle at the memorial, and I prayed.

In the distance, a van passed by, broadcasting an announcement on a loudspeaker that offered to buy scrap metal and nuts. There was a train whistle sounding in the distance. Otherwise, it was quiet.

That year, as I volunteered for a Kyiv news organization, I used to pass by memorials to the Heavenly Hundred all the time when I left the metro station and went to the Hotel Ukraina. Every morning I passed by a set of photos of the Heavenly Hundred, where people lit candles and laid flowers. I always stopped by Bohdan’s photo, sometimes as a form of greeting, sometimes as a sign of respect, but often to remind myself why I was here volunteering for a semester in Ukraine.

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A memorial to Bohdan and others from the Heavenly Hundred, near Hotel Ukraina, Kyiv, late June 2014

Here, in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, I was still asking myself the same questions I used to ask on Instytutskkyi Street: Why had this happened? Why weren’t the perpetrators punished? Would I have been willing to run up that street and die? Was it worth all the lives lost?

Despite getting to know a lot about one of the Heavenly Hundred, I still don’t have the answers.

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Traditional red berry trees, called chervoni kalyny in Ukrainian, near Bohdan’s grave

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