Left: Nadiya Savchenko; right- Olha Basarab
Nadiya Savchenko’s heroic struggle against illegal imprisonment by a hunger strike in Russia’s Butyrka prison is a story of heroism unfolding before our eyes today. Ukraine’s history, being one of resistance struggles and fights for independence from despotism and occupation, offers many inspiring stories of heroes and heroines that fought against unlikely odds but never gave up. Such is the story of Olha Basarab, a courageous woman that joined the resistance to the occupation of the West Ukrainian People’s Republic, a short-lived republic in West Ukraine that declared long-awaited independence in 1918-1919 following the demise of the Austro-Hungarian empire and centuries of foreign rule. After occupation by Polish forces in July 1919, the republic ceased to exist politically. Like many other patriots, Olha joined the Ukrainian resistance. Nowadays she has become a symbol of sacrifice in the struggle for an independent Ukraine.
Olha was born, in what is now Ivano-Frankivsk Oblast in western Ukraine (also known as Galicia), into a noble family. Both of her parents were known outside of Galicia and Olha was fortunate enough to study in present day Bila Voda, Czech Republic, Przemysl, Poland and Vienna, Austria. After finishing her studies, she began to work in an insurance company, later – a bank. However, the work wasn’t enough to occupy her time and she quickly began her public activities by joining various volunteer organizations.
Soon after the first world war broke out and began to pledge daily European life across the continent. Everyone had lost a loved one. Olha was no exception; she lost her husband. Despite the loss, the volunteer efforts only increased and, as a member of the Vienna Ukrainian Women’s Committee, she began to help wounded Ukrainian soldiers. She was also a member of the Ukrainian League of Peace and Freedom and the Ukrainian Section of the International Red Cross, from which she was rewarded for her efforts. None of this limited her from creating, and fighting in, the first female platoon of the Ukrainian Sich Riflemen, who continue to support Ukrainian independence.
After the war, in 1921, she immediately volunteered to help the newly founded Union of Ukrainian Women – one of the largest women’s rights groups in Europe at the time. Nadya Savchenko was continuing Olha’s legacy of supporting women’s rights and was the first woman graduate of the Kharkiv Air Force University. Olha was also active in government work for the Ukrainian People’s Republic (UPR) by working in various embassies across Europe, always feeling at home in the European environment, because of her ease in diplomacy. Olha worked as a patriot in the interests of Ukraine taking risks to supply the UPR with information, which if she was caught transporting, could have led to criminal charges. She continued their work under the Ukrainian Military Organization but on the morning of 9 February 1924 police burst into her flat in Lviv arresting her after uncovering 19 papers of intelligence information on the Police Intelligence service and military during a meticulous search of her room.
Olha prepared her whole life for what she would face in prison: the beatings and torture failed to extract any information about the members of the underground organization – she acted heroically and did not betray Ukraine.
The facts of what happened after will forever be a mystery – the Polish police said that she had committed suicide, but evidence suggests that she was tortured to death. Her body was first released from prison under a fictitious name and submitted for student experiments before being secretly buried. Public pressure forced an exhumation and reburial in Yaniv cemetery which was attended by several thousand Ukrainians but the investigations were fruitless due to police intervention.
Olha’s sacrifice and struggle is its own chapter in the Ukrainian independence movement and her name is forever inked into the Prayer of the Ukrainian Nationalist.
One cannot help but think of the undefeated Nadiya Savchenko, who as of 1 March 2015 has has been on hunger strike for 79 days in protest against illegal charges. Savchenko faced countless struggles but as her name says: she continues to inspire hope. She and the countless women-volunteers who risk their lives to help the Ukrainian soldiers continue the work inspired by Olha Basarab.