13.4 Kharkov – the trial of Nedobora and Ponomaryov

No 13 : 30 April 1970

On 10 and 11 March, two engineers, Vladimir Vladimirovich Ponomaryov (born 1933 and father of a five year old boy) and Vladislav Georgiyevich Nedobora (born 1933 and the father of two children) were put on trial in the Kharkov Region Court. They were accused, under Article 187-1 of the Ukrainian Criminal Code, of slandering the Soviet social and political system.

The judge was Chernukhin, the Procurator was Lebedev and the counsel for the defence was Monakhov.

Both the accused were charged with disseminating samizdat [see 11.11] (the investigator had been V.E. Gritsenko) and with signing two letters voicing criticism – one in defence of P. G. Grigorenko and the other an appeal to the United Nations. The criminal nature of these actions was proven by:

  • the defamatory content of the documents (“A policy of undisguised chauvinism is conducted in the USSR”, “human rights are violated”, “Jews who wish to go to Israel are persecuted”);
  • the fact that the documents had been printed in the western bourgeois press;
  • the fact that the higher education which the accused had received was “in itself proof that they could not have failed to understand the defamatory nature of the said letters”.

It was noted in the indictment (and confirmed by the accused in court), that whereas the letters were composed in Moscow, the accused learned of their contents over the telephone and agreed to sign them via the same medium.

The indictment likewise noted that “Nedobora also listened regularly to the Voice of America and the BBC, since, in his opinion, information from the Soviet press and radio was scanty and unsatisfactory.”

The accused Ponomaryov and Nedobora. pleaded not guilty. Both, however, drew attention to a series of inaccuracies in the documents which they had signed (in particular, in the expression “a policy of undisguised chauvinism” the word “undisguised” was inaccurate). As for the matter of religious believers or people who wished to emigrate to Israel being brought to trial, witnesses at the trial cited instances of the Greek-Catholic [Uniate] Church being persecuted in the Ukraine [see 8.15] and also the trial of Kochubiyevsky in 1968 [see 8.1].

The speech of Procurator Lebedev – according to eyewitnesses a man of poor education and juridical incompetence – followed closely the set pattern for speeches on this kind of occasion. The accused were even charged with having made use of the state communications system – i.e. the long-distance telephone – in the execution of their “crime”.

In his final plea V. Nedobora spoke the following words:

“I am speaking in public for the first and, in all probability, the last time. It is accepted practice that the prisoner should defend himself in his final plea. This I shall not do, I have been defending myself from August 1968 to the present day. In his speech my respected counsel made my task easier for me. My defence is contained in the four volumes of this case which, when this trial is over, will be put into an archive.

“It is about this trial that I shall speak,

“I asked myself the question: ‘How am I to love my country?’ A great Russian philosopher [Pyotr Chaadayev, see 11.2 in Commentary 11] answered this question: ‘I could not learn to love my country with closed eyes, a bowed head and sealed lips. I find that a man can be of use to his country only if he can see her clearly; I think that the time for blind declarations of love has passed… I consider that we have come after others in order to do better than they did, so that we should not fall into their errors or be a prey to their illusions and superstitions.

“We have here before us a matter which is far more important than the fate of Ponomaryov, Nedobora or their children. We are considering the fate of our motherland, her future and the future of all Soviet men and women.

“Now let me turn to this tragic trial. Its tragedy is contained in the fact that certain Soviet people are standing in judgement over other Soviet people. But I remain an incorrigible optimist and believe that ultimately – the days being gone when graves were used to straighten out the hunchbacks – the many things which unite all men will triumph.”

The content of the charge and the behaviour of the accused and the witnesses created the impression, even among the specially invited audience, that a suspended sentence would be as’ far as the court would go.

The sentence was three years in ordinary-regime camps.

At the beginning of April the court of appeal in Kiev reviewed the case of Nedobora and Ponomaryov. The sentence was not changed.