Viktor Tsytsyura was stuck.

He was born in Ternopil, Ukraine, and worked for 15 years at a manufacturing plant near the Mongolian-Russian border. He eventually returned to fill a similar position in his hometown, where he and his wife Lubov have lived in the same Soviet-era blockhouse since 1985.

Viktor and Lubov maintain a dacha – or cottage – and a modest garden outside Ternopil, which they visited almost every day.

But there was a catch.

Viktor and his wife were too old to farm the land. But it is illegal for them to sell it. And they can’t use it to get a bank loan.

So was the land really theirs? Seven million Ukrainians faced the same question.

Starving in the breadbasket

Commonly referred to as the “breadbasket of Europe,” Ukraine is home to vast farmland with some of the most fertile soil in the world. However, between 1932 and 1933, a Stalin-orchestrated famine – referred to today as the Holodomor, a combination of the Ukrainian words for “starvation” and “to inflict death” – killed millions.

Historian Timothy Snyder popularized the term “bloodlands” to describe the distinct suffering of the region of Central and Eastern Europe that encompasses the Baltic states, Poland, Belarus, and the part of Ukraine in which Viktor was born 80 years ago.

Viktor’s parents had worked for many years on a Soviet collective farm. After the collapse of the U.S.S.R., roughly seven million Ukrainian farmers received plots of land from the government as compensation for years of toil on those farms.

Viktor and Lubov prepare fresh cucumber, tomato and grapes at their dacha (DignityUnbound.org Photo/Bernat Parera).

Among those millions of farmers, Viktor’s parents were granted nearly nine acres of farmland in 2001. But they were growing old at the time and long past working age – common among the people receiving these plots of land. Their best move seemed obvious: sell.

But they couldn’t.

When the Ukrainian government distributed the equivalent of roughly 80 million acres of farmable land to its citizens, it also introduced a “one-year” moratorium on selling that land.

Nineteen years later, that moratorium is still in place.

Many landowners have now reached retirement age. And nearly a million have already passed away, including Viktor’s parents.

The moratorium on farmland sales was designed to “help” the recipients of the land. If no one could sell, no one would be pressured by companies or foreign interests to part with their newly acquired property. But this gave rise to unforeseen consequences: many of these people had no access to financial support or lacked the tools to work the land effectively. As a result, much of the newly distributed land lay unutilized or leased for next to nothing.

Viktor felt that he was an “owner” in name only because he couldn’t use his property in any meaningful way. In fact, Ukraine stands alone among the democratic nations of the world by not allowing landowners like Viktor to legally sell their land.

An aerial view of Ukrainian farmland outside of Ternopil (DignityUnbound.org Photo/Bernat Parera).

He had only one viable option: to rent it out for a mere US$630 per year – an above-average rate in Ukraine. The soil is fertile and the farmer renting Viktor’s land grows wheat, buckwheat, corn and sunflowers.

Despite 30 years passing since the fall of the Soviet system, Viktor was still feeling the vestiges of injustice. 

Taking action

Viktor was fed up not only with his own situation, but the situation facing others like him. He visited local courts, only to be turned away by officials who told him it was impossible to do anything or to challenge the law.

One day, while watching a national debate show, Viktor discovered Dan Pasko, a Ukrainian businessman. Pasko was speaking out against the moratorium and promoting farmland.in.ua, a website that provides resources for landowners to launch legal challenges to the moratorium. EasyBusiness, a Kyiv-based nonprofit, was founded in 2014 in the wake of Ukraine’s Revolution of Dignity, looking to develop policies to meet the national demand for reform. Taking on the moratorium was one of their first projects.

“Once I understood what was happening to me and the millions of other landowners, that the state acted against the law and violated the constitution of Ukraine,” Viktor said, “I decided to fight with this country.”

More than 500 landowners registered their information through the farmland.in.ua platform, and about 20 filed claims to the European Court of Human Rights, or ECHR. From those, two cases were accepted – including Viktor’s. He worked with EasyBusiness and the Ukrainian Helsinki Human Rights Union, a pro-bono legal nonprofit, to file a case to the ECHR challenging the constitutionality of the moratorium – arguing that it violated the Ukrainian constitution and the human rights of its citizens.

The road to justice

In May 2018, Viktor received incredible news.

The ECHR ruled that the moratorium violated the human rights of Ukraine’s citizens and the Ukrainian government ought to make necessary changes to the law – or else pay damages to the affected landowners.

From there, the battle moved to the Ukrainian parliament. And in March 2020, lawmakers finally ended the moratorium – establishing a land market by 2021.

Viktor reviews the ECHR ruling (DignityUnbound.org Photo/Bernat Parera).

“I am a Ukrainian patriot,” Viktor said.

“For Ukraine to reach prosperity, I am ready to give my life.”

The new law is a major step toward restoring the property rights of millions of Ukrainians, not to mention boosting the country’s economic potential as lower and middle-class residents build wealth.

Viktor’s victory didn’t just mean he could take rightful ownership of his land. His fight will empower millions of other Ukrainians with the same opportunity and human dignity for generations to come.

To support causes like Viktor’s and other similar Dignity Unbound projects around the world, please visit https://dignityunbound.org/donate.