“They’re stealing people!” the protesters chanted. This was early last week, and at that moment no one knew what had become of the two men. But the group shouting on the sidewalk was sure that the police had something to do with it.
Forty-seven years earlier, at the height of Soviet power, a similar group had staged a similar demonstration in the same place — though in 1967, the imposing gray building housed not the Ukrainian security service, but the KGB.
A connecting thread runs through the history in between. Even now, 22 years after Ukraine became independent, many here still see Moscow as pulling the most important strings.
In the 1960s, young Ukrainian writers and artists started banding together in informal clubs, trying to figure out what it meant to be Ukrainian within the Soviet Union. “Dissidents appeared in Ukraine because they identified themselves as a separate nation, and they connected to its history and its roots,” said Viktoria Tsymbal, now 75, who was among them.
Ukrainian nationalism had become associated with Nazi collaboration during World War II, and these intellectuals were trying to develop a positive rethinking of Ukrainian pride.
On May 22, 1967, a few hundred people gathered to commemorate the national poet Taras Shevchenko, whose remains were moved from St. Petersburg and reinterred in his native Ukraine on that day in 1861. Shevchenko, who had suffered under the czars, was considered a respectable poet by the Soviets, but this gathering was going too far.
The KGB swooped in. There may have been some fighting. The writers and artists were hauled away.
Then a crowd gathered in front of the KGB headquarters, demanding their release. Soviet Moscow had always been extremely wary of Ukrainian patriotism and intent on snuffing it out. But in the face of a spontaneous public demonstration, the authorities relented and freed the intellectuals. Among them were people who led the way to Ukrainian independence 24 years later.
In 2014, the outcome wasn’t so mild. The authorities this time represent not a monolithic, totalitarian world power, but the corrupt and predatory government of President Viktor Yanukovych. By spurning a deal with Europe in November and turning for help to Russia, Yanukovych had provoked the anger of millions of Ukrainians whose memory of Moscow’s domination is not a pleasant one.
“This is unimaginable,” said Irina Bilokin, who said she joined last week’s protest over the two missing men because the news was so upsetting. “It looks like Yanukovych is finally out of his mind. I hope they’re alive at least, if they haven’t been beaten to death.”
The next day, Lutsenko did appear, wandering in a forest 10 miles outside Kiev. He was missing a tooth and had a black eye. He could barely walk because he had been severely beaten on the soles of his feet.
Verbytsky had been seriously injured in one eye during a fight with police, Lutsenko said in an interview recorded by his friends, so he took him to the hospital. There, 10 men in black coats barged in, grabbed the two and drove them away.
At first, they were kept together, Lutsenko said, but then they were separated. Lutsenko said that he believes their captors are tied to the police. The police have denied being involved. He said they kept coming back to one question: How much had he been paid, presumably by Western organizations, to organize the protests?
Lutsenko, 35, was in a metal garage. He could hear Verbytsky, a 50-year-old seismologist, screaming somewhere nearby. Eventually, he said, he came to realize that Verbytsky — from the anti-Yanukovych hotbed of Lviv — was the principal target and that he had just been caught up in the net.
After hours of beatings, the men in black took Lutsenko into the woods, put a bag over his head, made him kneel in the snow and told him to say his prayers. Then they walked away.
Not long after Lutsenko emerged, Verbytsky was found in the same woods, bound in duct tape, his ribs broken, internal organs smashed. An autopsy showed he froze to death.
The memory of the ’60s dissidents is kept alive in a small museum Tsymbal helps run. In a nice twist, it is housed in a former clinic where one of the fiercest opponents of Ukrainian nationalism during the czarist era, the prime minister Pyotr Stolypin, died in 1911 after being shot at the opera. (Russian President Vladimir Putin has often voiced his admiration for Stolypin and put up a large statue of him looking across the Moscow River at an equally large statue of Shevchenko.)
Today’s Ukrainians refused to heed her generation’s experience, Tsymbal said. “How could we have gotten lessons from the ’60s,” she asked, “if we allowed ourselves to vote for such a president?”
Verbytsky’s funeral was held Friday in Lviv, with 10,000 mourners, just hours after protesters there had seized the local administration building and started the wave of provincial demonstrations that are sweeping across Ukraine.