Push and hold

Invincible Olga Basarab

Traditionally February 12 at Yaniv Cemetery in Lviv there are events to commemorate Olga Basarab, who became a symbol of courage, recalcitrance and sacrifice in the struggle for unified and independent Ukraine.

Members of the Lviv regional organization, named after her, representatives of local and regional authorities of the city, public figures and caring citizens lay flowers to her grave. During the memorial service and short assembly on the day of a next anniversary of the death of this courageous woman, she is referred to as a tireless community activist who cared for the wounded and sick Ukrainian soldiers during the First World War, was the leader of Colonel Yevhhen Konovalets’ Ukrainian Military Organization and used to perform intelligence tasks abroad.

Honouring today Olga Basarab, arrested by Polish Police in 1924, accused of collecting intelligence and tortured to death in Lviv prison, one can’t help thinking about the undefeated Ukrainian pilot Nadiya Savchenko, who has been on hunger strike for two months in the Russian Butyrka prison as protest against the illegal charges, as well as about many women-volunteers who risk their lives to help Ukrainian soldiers in the area of the Anti-Terrorist Operation in the East of Ukraine.

Why is this modest woman’s name stamped forever as a separate line in the history of the Ukrainian liberation movement and among the names of leaders is in the text of the “Prayer of a Ukrainian Nationalist”?

Basarab Olga Mykhailivna (nee – Levytska) was born September 1, 1889 in the village Pidhoroddya (now Ivano-Frankivsk region) in a noble family. Her parents’ families on both sides belonged to ancient and famous priestly families, whose members were known even outside of Halychyna (Galicia). Olga studied in a girls’ boarding school in Weißwasser (now Bila Voda, Czech Republic), and then – in high school for girls at the Ukrainian Institute in Peremyshl (now Przemysl, Poland) and in the course of the Vienna Trade Academy.

After graduation Olga comes to Lviv, where she works at the Ukrainian bank “Dniester”, “Land Mortgage Bank” and becomes a member of the main department of Lviv “Prosvita” (“Enlightenment”) and society “Sokil-Batko” (“Falcon-father”). She began her public activities while in the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire as a member of the society “Sich”.

The scholarly in studies and active in public life, noble and erudite, already while in Peremyshl she attracted attention of a Ukrainian student Dmytro Basarab. Later, while studying at “Lviv Polytechnic University” and being the leader of the student association “Osnova” (“Basis”), Dmytro declared his love to her. October 10, 1914 they were married in the Ukrainian Church of St. Barbara in Vienna. But the happiness was short-lived. During the First World War in the first battle June 22, 1915 on the Italian front her husband died and was posthumously awarded the Cross of Merit of the 3d class.

In wartime Olga pays more and more attention to social work – in Vienna Ukrainian Women’s Committee for Help to the Wounded Ukrainian Soldiers of the Austrian Army, Ukrainian League of Peace and Freedom and Ukrainian Section of the International Red Cross, from which she was awarded the Silver Order. With the creation of the Union of Ukrainian Women in 1921, she immediately volunteered to work in it, and became the treasurer. Earlier, together with her friends, she created the first female chota (platoon) at Ukrainian Sich Riflemen units.

In the period of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, Olha Basarab worked as a secretary of the Ukrainian Embassy in Finland, and later as an accountant of the UPR Embassy in Vienna. Thanks to good knowledge of foreign languages, she felt at home in the European environment, visiting different Western European states, easily and naturally establishing contacts with diplomats, representatives of political and business circles. At this time a subunit of the so-called National Intelligence Service – Foreign Information Unit of the Foreign Policy Department of the Ministry of Internal Affairs of the UPR began to actively use foreign diplomatic missions and representatives of foreign diasporas and social and political circles who sympathized with Ukraine’s struggle for independence, to collect intelligence.

Like many other patriots, Olga was also involved in intelligence activities in the interests of the Ukrainian state, visited Denmark, Germany, Norway and other states. She easily crossed borders with documentary materials for which, if they had been withdrawn by Police, she could have been arrested and charged with espionage. After the liquidation of the UPR’s diplomatic missions in 1923, Olga moved to Lviv, where she worked with the Ukrainian Military Organization (UVO) – the military underground organization founded in 1920 by former starshynas (senior officers) of the Corps of Sich Riflemen and the Ukrainian Galician Army.

At the time, the UVO was led by Colonel Yevhen Konovalets, who, according to some accounts, was Olha’s distant relative. In this organization, she served as communications agent. Unfortunately there is no information preserved in the archives about the nature of the tasks assigned to her to perform. Everything happened in the circumstances of the highest secrecy. The Polish government was seriously concerned with the activity of the Ukrainian Military Organization, so arrests of its activists were not accidental, of Olga Basarab included.

At six o’clock in the morning February 9, 1924, Polish Police burst into a small flat in Vyspyanskyi Street in Lviv. There were two women in the flat- Olga Basarab and Stefania Savytska who rented this place together. They seemed to be no threat to the government, and such an early visit was a sort of misunderstanding. But the Police were deliberately doing their job, searching carefully every nook and cranny. Obviously, they knew what they had to find. Finally in O. Basarab’s personal belongings they found and seized materials of the underground Ukrainian Military Organization on 19 sheets – intelligence on the dislocation of the Polish Army, addresses of commanders of military units, a report on the activities of Polish Intelligence Service and other information.

Both the women were arrested. Olga was accused of spying, strange as it sounds today, both in favor of Weimar Germany and Bolshevik Ukraine and was thrown into the prison in Yakhovych Street.

The Police surmised that they managed to arrest a knowledgeable representative of the Ukrainian resistance, and, of course, they were attracted by the prospect of finding out the Ukrainian underground network and gaining information that they did not have. 34-year-old Olga Basarab, fragile in appearance and small- only 152 centimeters of height, stubborn by nature and not easily frightened, did not seem to be much difficulty for experienced professionals to beat out the evidence of her. But the Police were deeply mistaken. Olga must have been preparing for this test all her life through. But the hope to easily get information about the members of the underground organization, its structure and intentions was in vain. Olga behaved heroically and did not betray anybody. According to Ukrainian patriots who were at that time among prison workers, from her they heard these words: “Having got in trouble, I won’t betray others…”

Then the investigators resorted to brutal tortures, including the use of electric current. The last interrogations took place on 12 February and lasted until late at night. In the morning Olga was found hanged on an embroidered towel on bars of the window of the ward. Tortured to death, she managed to scratch on the prison wall: “I am dying tortured. Revenge! “
Today it is impossible to find out the details of the tragedy. In one version, unable to bear the humiliation, the proud Ukrainian committed suicide. But later the official information about the suicide was challenged by the public – the bars of the prison were too high for the unhappy to tie a noose herself.

In this situation, the Police behaved too cynically. The family had not been informed about the tragedy, but for several days in the name of the deceased the prison had been receiving parcels. Olga’s body as that of a “homeless”, under the fictitious name Julia Baravska was first submitted for student experiments and then secretly buried. Ukrainian public was filled with indignation because of such actions. And on the ninth day after the death, the Police did voice their version of the Ukrainian intelligence officer’s death as suicide.

February 26 was conducted exhumation of Olga’s body, its re-examination and reburial at Yaniv cemetery with participation of several thousand Ukrainians. But it does not give answers about the cause of death. Manipulations of the Police caused massive outrage. Protest campaign was launched by the “Union of Ukrainian Women” (Olga was an accountant of the association). The action was continued by other Ukrainian Societies of Lviv, Galicia and emigration centers. Olga Basarab’s death was one of the most dramatic events in Western Ukraine in the 1920s.

Under public pressure, the Polish government was forced to re-conduct the investigation. But the investigation soon ceased “for lack of evidence”. Instead, Olga Basarab’s grave at Yaniv Cemetery for the years of the interwar era became the object of pilgrimage for Ukrainians, and her name is shrouded in an aura of martyrdom in the struggle for sovereign and independent Ukraine.

Olga Basarab’s memory has been held sacred in Galicia, Carpathian region and far beyond Ukraine. In 2009, a monument to the undefeated Ukrainian was erected in Burshtyn. Her bust is on a high granite pedestal in front of the Secondary School # 2. A year later there was opened and consecrated the museum named after her.

To this day one of the branches of the Basarabs, who live in North America, keep the tradition: when the first girl is born into a new family, she is called Olga and till the end of her life she preserves her maiden name.


Oleksandr Skrypnyck

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