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Who killed Alla Horska?

Published on Mar 28, 2024

Ukrainian article of the week published in the 24th edition of the "What about Ukraine" newsletter on March 28th, 2024. The article was written by Rostyslav Kamerystyi-Breitenbücher for Life.NV and was translated for n-ost by Olesia Storozhuk.

How did a prominent Ukrainian artist die, and why was the crime pinned on her father-in-law?

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Alla Horska, a Ukrainian artist known for her activism, was a danger to the Soviet system. Her life was violently cut short in December 1970. Although an official investigation blamed her father-in-law for the murder, the artist's immediate circle never doubted the KGB that killed her.

At around 5 am on 22 November 1970, Alla Horska left her home in Tereshchenkivska Street in Kyiv for the last time. She hurried to catch a bus to the nearby city of Vasylkiv, where she planned to meet her father-in-law Ivan Zaretskyi. He wanted to give the artist an antique Singer sewing machine.

Both of them went missing. A week later on 29 November, Zaretskyi was found beheaded outside Kyiv, near a railway station 35 km from his home.

Horska's friends, human rights defender Nadiia Svitlychna and poet Yevhen Sverstiuk searched everywhere for the artist, and insisted the police inspect Zaretskyi's house. Inside, they found her dead in the cellar, her skull broken. The artist was killed with a blunt heavy object from behind.

Too creative, uninhibited and demanding for both herself and society, she longed for justice and freedom, and did not fit inside the Soviet system. She laughed at the authorities, supported political prisoners, and as a result, the authorities destroyed her paintings and persecuted her friends.

Horska produced monumental paintings and mosaics, was fond of graphics, and was the soul of the so-called ‘Sixtiers’ — a group of Ukrainian intellectuals and people of culture, including writers, who developed their style in the late 1950s, during the Khrushchev Thaw. Many of their works are now regarded as classics. Back then, the Soviet authorities saw them as a threat. The ‘Sixtiers’ became dissidents and the secret police surveilled, imprisoned or killed them.

The investigation into both Horska and Ivan Zaretskyi's death was combined into one 350-page long case. The prosecutors quickly concluded that Zaretskyi killed Horska, then took his own life. The case was named On Charging Ivan Zaretskyi.

KGB “kept informed about progress of case”

Shortly after Horska's body was found, the Vasylkiv police filed a report to the Ukrainian KGB, according to the book Alla Horska. An Artist in the Totalitarian Space, by her son Oleksiy Zaretskyi. In the following weeks, the KGB informed the Central Committee (CC) of the Ukrainian SSR Communist Party, and even its First Secretary Petro Shelest, about the progress of this case with five special messages.

Initially, the secret service informed the CC about Horska's death on 3 December, and two days later, wrote about the necessity to choose a cemetery and organise the burial. Also, in their messages to the CC, the secret service emphasised that although Horska did not perform anti-Soviet activities, she was a danger to the system.

The artist's burial on 7 December 1970 became a political act: all the ‘Sixtiers’ came to say goodbye to her, as well as a significant part of Kyiv’s intellectuals, who held her in great sympathy. The artist's body was first transported by bus to her workshop in Filatova Street but not removed. The police and the KGB agents surrounded the bus.

Horska's friends set up a memorial in her workshop with a Cossack-style cross made of pink sandstone created by the artist Volodymyr Priadka. The cross said:

Alla Horska

18 IX 1929 — 1970 XI 28

An Invincible Flower

Daughter of the Mother Ukraine

Passed Away Tragically

The Berkovets cemetery in Kyiv witnessed a unique goodbye. All the ‘Sixtiers’ gathered there, including Yevhen Sverstiuk, Oles Serhiienko, and Ivan Hel, to deliver the elegy, while Vasyl Stus read his poetry over Horska's grave.

Shortly afterwards, Hel’s overseers reprimanded him at work and Serhiienko was simply fired.

All the acolytes of Horska faced jail

After the burial, the totalitarian machine moved in on the mourners. On 11 and 18 December, the KGB sent two messages to the Ukrainian CC with the artist's friends' characteristics. The KGB collected information by wiretapping them, and via its agents.

Formally, the investigation into the artist's death was carried out according to the expectations of the law. According to the official version of the Kyiv region prosecutor's office, Zaretskyi allegedly murdered Horska out of dislike for her, and then committed suicide. After a one-and-a-half-month investigation, on 23 January 1971, the case was closed.

The first person to express doubts was Viacheslav Chornovil, a dissident, publicist, human rights defender, and ‘Sixtier’, repeatedly imprisoned during the Soviet times, who then headed the democratic forces of the independent Ukraine. He criticised the investigator's impartiality and competence of the investigation on the pages of samizdat newspaper Ukrainsky Visnyk [Ukrainian Herald].

Horska’s son, culturologist Oleksiy Zaretskyi added: “The promptness of these measures [regarding the investigation] leave no doubts that they had been prepared in advance — before Horska's murder and burial.”

"At least two institutions were involved in ordering the murder — the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the KGB of the Ukrainian SSR," he added.

On 28 November 1971, Horska's friends and fellows installed a memorial sign on her grave. The KGB agents instantly photographed the sign and documented the attendees of the memorial, and the conversations at the graveside.

At that time, the Ukrainian KGB prepared the operation Bloc. Officers were ready to arrest anyone commemorating Horska.

No incident happened then. But in January 1972, mass arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals would take place. Almost all of Horska's friends, primarily the speakers at her burial, received real prison terms.

***

In 2005, Ukraine's President Viktor Yushchenko asked the Prosecutor General to reopen the case. The prosecutors informed that the case was no longer in the archives, and was lost or destroyed. Who killed Horska and why remains unknown.