The Perm-36 labor camp, Russia. The beginning of the 1980s. It is Vasyl Stus’s second time in detention – and the last one. The government attentively watches each significant person. There are unlikely more recidivists like Vasyl Stus than politburo members. Even if the government sleeps, it closes only one eye, the other is always open. Armed guards go through dark jail corridors – sometimes their shoes clatter loudly on a cement floor, sometimes they prowl like cats, quietly open a peephole of one the prison cells and look at what a prisoner is doing. “If we decide to set ourselves on fire, I am ready. But I can’t do any long-term struggle. I have no strength,” Levko Lukyanenko, a prisoner, says.” These “bad” sheep is a problem. I always have to look back at them,” Vasyl Stus dismally replies. His invincibility, ultimatism and almost unreal ability to being constantly on the border of a nervous strain astonished and scared his friends. But he couldn’t do it another way. Who knows whether it was easy for him to get along with himself…
He was born on January 6, 1938 – the time when there were severe repressions in the country and the government was putting people into their hellish kettles. He was the fourth child, his family lived in the country in the Vinnytsia region. To avoid forced collectivization, his father Semen made a difficult decision – to leave everything, to be recruited at a chemical factory, forget his roots. This is how a 2-year-old Vasyl moved to the town of Stalino (Donetsk).
In 1944-1954, he studied at school. He had good marks. He entered the History and Philology Department of a teachers college. As a student, he was an active member of a literary community Obrii (Skyline). He started to write poems at that time. After graduation, he worked as a teacher at a village school for three months. Then, he was in the army in the Urals for two years. It was the time when he started to read Goethe and Rilke. He was translating them non-stop. Later, these translations, there were more than 100 of them, were seized and most likely abolished.
In 1959, a literary magazine Literaturna Ukraina published the first Vasyl Stus’s collection of verses. The preface was written by a famous Ukrainian poet Andrii Malyshko. Everything seemed to be perfect: publication in a respected magazine, the attention of the writers’ community – Stus had everything to start a brilliant career of a Soviet poet. But it, of course, never happened. His conscience was very sensitive, he took social and national injustice as his personal, he wasn’t able to hide his attitude to the reality. Naturally, it wasn’t for his good. Vice versa.
From the beginning of the 1960s, Vasyl Stus worked as a teacher again, then as a miner in Donetsk, then as a literary editor in the Sozialistychny Donbas (Socialist Donbas) newspaper. Later, he started his Literature Studies post-graduation programme in the Kyiv Shevchenko Institute of Literature. At that time, Vasyl Stus wrote and submitted to a publisher his first collection Circulation (Круговерть), wrote many articles, translated dozens of works. His life seemed to prosper.
Then, September 1965 came. The premier of Serhii Paradzhanov’s film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors. The Ukrainian cinema, Kyiv. Vasyl Stus, Viacheslav Chernovil, Ivan Dziuba, Yuri Badzio called the government and society for condemning arrests of the Ukrainian intelligentsia. It was the first political protest against repressions after the war. Vasyl Stus was only expelled from the institute after this, but his life changed and started to fade.
Since then, Stus earned for a living using any chances – he worked in the Central State Historical Archive, was a miner again, railman, builder, worked even in a subway. Despite the KGB surveillance, he traveled a lot with his friends. Stus got married to Valentyna Popeliukh. He translated and wrote. However, neither his first collection Circulation (Круговерть) nor the second Winter Trees (Зимові дерева) were published. However, Stus seemed to be indifferent to those alarm signs. In his open letters to the writers’ community, to the Verkhovna Rada (Ukraine’s Parliament) and to the Central Committee of the Communist Party, he wasn’t afraid to criticize totalitarianism which was used again by the government after a short thaw. He stated that the cult of the personality reappeared, revealed human rights’ violations, protested against arrests of the intelligentsia. Again and again. Steadfastly. Consistently. Of course, he knew how it could end and would end eventually. He knew the consequences. However, Vasyl Stus is likely to have been unable to behave another way.
“Vasyl Stus is a rare person who is morally gifted, he is a voice of conscience in the world of elusive and vague honour, truth, decency. He kept his style until the end. This was the basis of his tragedy. He carried the sacred fire he was gifted with decency and knight braveness, straightforwardly and assertively. Such a road kills poets.” (Yevhen Sverstiuk)
He was arrested for the first time on January 12, 1972. He spent almost 9 months in remand prison. He even shaped there his collection Creation Time (Час творчості). In September 1972, he got his sentence. He served 5 years in a labour camp and 3 years in exile – for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”.
The court used “expert” opinion of Arsen Kaspruk, a Senior Scholar of the Shevchenko Institute of Literature, towards the Stus’s collections Winter Trees and The Merry Cemetery (Веселий Цвинтар). Arsen Kaspruk wrote, “a Soviet life is depicted as a House of Correctional Public Labour where such people live and act: an untidy ethics teacher, a former god-seller, a sot, an easy-rider, a nightman’s daughter etc. Even the most sophisticated dreamer who hates our reality couldn’t make up more disgusting and awful hatred… it needs no evidence to say that Stus’s book is harmful because of its ideology, of its essence. A normal, impartial person can read it only feeling disgusted and contempt for the “poet” who hates his land and his people… According to Stus, Soviet people are soulless machines, people without heads, puppets in a foolish mechanized play.”
“… this Doctor of Letters has my blood on his hands – so do the investigators Lohinov, Mezeri, Parkhomenko, judges, prosecutor, attorney,” Stus comments his verdict. After that, he was sent to Mordovia camps…
In Mordovia, Vasyl Stus was also writing but most of his poems were confiscated and abolished, only some of them were saved. After the camp, Stus lived in a Magadan region’s village. He worked at gold mines. He asked the Verkhovna Rada to strip soviet citizenship from him, “… it is impossible for me to be a Soviet citizen. It means to be a slave…”
“Only those with a strong spirit can be free in unfree countries. Vasyl Stus was free even being imprisoned, that’s why his death in prison turned into an immortal statement of real freedom. Actually, such people let us consider our people to be freedom-loving.” (Lubomyr Huzar)
After the exile, he came back to Kyiv in 1979. He joined the Ukrainian Helsinki Group which was aimed at ensuring human rights. Being a member of this organization at the end of the 1970s was as brave step as asking to strip citizenship from him. Vasyl Stus acted like he had nothing to lose. Meanwhile, his wife and son were waiting for him at home. To make ends meet, Stus started to work at a factory. He wasn’t allowed to do a better job. Doctoral programme, articles, translations, Malyshko’s preface – it all was left in the past, and he couldn’t be back.
His second arrest happened in May 1980. This time, Stus was accounted a dangerous recidivist and sentenced to 10 years of imprisonment and 5 years of exile. Viktor Medvedchuk was defending him. Vasyl Stus requested to get another defender. Yevhen Sverstiuk wrote, “When Stus met his appointed defender, he realised at once that Medvedchuk was an aggressive Communist that he didn’t defend him, didn’t want to understand him and wasn’t interested in his case at all. Vasyl Stus waived counsel.”
Since November 1980, Stus was in the Perm-36 camp.
“Conditions are tougher in individual cells but you can be alone. He started to translate Rilke’s elegies. He worked non-stop, couldn’t sleep at nights – there was light in cells at night as well. His cell was at the corner of the glass-house: sometimes guards didn’t even come to check him at nights. He could also hear them coming up. Of course, when they were not prowling. Doors are sometimes opened in the morning.
-Hey, Stus, show what you wrote at night.
Stus is silent, he is standing in the corner, there are no chances to hide anything in a cell…”
Guards destroyed the last Stus’s collection The Bird of Soul which he wrote in prison. There were about 300 poems. We can hardly realise what irreversible harm was caused to the Ukrainian literature of the second half of the XX century by this. No, we can’t.
“Mentally I realised that prison’s gate had already been opened for me, that those days it was going to close after I enter the prison – close for a long time. But what should I have done? Ukrainians were not allowed to go abroad and I didn’t want actually – to go abroad: otherwise, who would be a voice of resentment and protest in a Great Ukraine? It is my fate, and we can’t choose a fate. We can only take it – whatever it is like. And when we don’t, it chooses us not giving us a choice… But I wasn’t going to give up by any means. Ukraine and my poor people were behind me. I have to stand for its honor until my death.”
(Vasyl Stus, from Camp Notebook)
Stus didn’t surrender. He went on hunger strike several times. He called his friends for doing so. He was rude to guards and wardens. That’s why he was often put to solitary confinement and individual cells. He was rubbed down more carefully and humiliatingly. He couldn’t make a step without surveillance. The government’s eyes were never closed. Stus wasn’t allowed not only to write but also to translate. “You say you have out my works to a warehouse beyond the camp. But I know that you want nothing to be left after I die… I don’t write, only translate. Give me a chance to finish at least something…”
“- Stus, where are you?
– Somewhere in a Lenin-Stalin-Gatin-Tatarian gas chamber!
Later, Vasyl made up a funny verse while working with a screwdriver and screws, “For Lenin, for Stalin! For Gatin-Tatarian! For Yuri Andropov! For Vanka Davyklopov! And a little bit for Kostya, for Chernenko*. Because he doesn’t fit into the rhyme.” (Vasyl Ovsienko’s memories)
*Faat Gatin – a Soviet boxer; Yuri Andropov – the fourth General Secretary of the Communist Party (1982-1984); Kostya (Konstantin) Chernenko – the fifth General Secretary of the Communist Party (1984-1985).
His death is still a mystery. There are some versions. The first is a heart attack. The second is suicide. The third is a death blow by heavy plank-bed which was undone from a wall by a warden on purpose. The fourth is exposure. We are unlikely to find out what really happened, but in some days, Stus’s widow was announced about his death. Valentyna Popeliukh bought a zinc coffin and set out. In the airport, KGB agents recommended her to leave the coffin – she won’t get the body anyway. “… the most tolerant soviet law didn’t let a prisoner’s body be taken or reburied until their sentence was over. The dead were still prisoners.” (Vasyl Ovsienko)
Only in 1989, due to friends and like-minded people, Stus’s bones were reburied in the Kyiv Baikove Cemetry. In 1990, the Ukrainian SSR prosecutor Mykhailo Potebenko appealed against the 1972 and 1980 verdicts. The same year, the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union canceled the verdicts and closed the case. Vasyl Stus was exonerated.
In 1991, Vasyl Stus was posthumously awarded the State Shevchenko Prize for his collection The Road of Pain. In 2005, he was posthumously awarded the title of the Hero of Ukraine.
How good it is that I’ve no fear of dying
Nor ask myself how ponderous my toil
Nor bow to cunning magistrates, decrying
Presentiments of unfamiliar soil,
That I have lived and loved, yet never burdening
My soul with hatred, curses or regret.
My people! It is to you I am returning.
In death I somehow find my fate.
I turn my pained but goodly face to living
(translated by Marco Carynnyk)
By Serhiy Osoka