Vasyl Stus, 1938-1985


Vasyl Stus was born on Christmas Eve, January 6, 1938, in the village of Rakhnivtsi, Vinnytsia Oblast. In 1940 the family moved to the Donbas, where Stus spent his childhood. He studied philology at the Donetsk Pedagogical Institute, and his first poems were published in 1959. After graduation, he worked as a teacher in the Kirovohrad Oblast, served in the army and taught Ukrainian language and literature in Horlivka, Donetsk Oblast.

In 1963 Stus began graduate studies at the Institute of Literature in Kyiv. His poems and critical articles started to appear in journals, and he took an active part in the rich literary life of the time. But in 1965 he was dismissed from the institute for taking part in a protest meeting that denounced the secret arrests and closed trials of members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia that had begun that year. He was forced to work at various menial and unsatisfying jobs, but he continued to write poetry, literary criticism and appeals protesting the restoration of the personality cult, Russification and the denial of freedom of thought.

Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska, in her introduction to the collected works of Vasyl Stus, writes: "There was a constantly present conviction that he was wasting his life. This, coupled with an early developed consciousness of his vocation and an objective self-evaluation of his potential, produced a state of mind he later called 'death-existence' or 'life-death' ... The little compromises with life, the times one had to remain silent - all this gnawed at his soul and pained him. It is rare to meet a person so unamenable to compromise."

In 1972 Stus was arrested with other dissident writers - Ivan Svitlychny, Yevhen Sverstiuk, Ihor and Iryna Kalynets - and sentenced to five years in a labor camp and three years' exile. He spent his imprisonment in Mordovia and exile in Kolyma. He returned to Kyiv in 1979 and soon joined the Ukrainian Helsinki Group. Eight months later, he was again arrested and sentenced to 15 years (10 years' imprisonment and five years' exile).

The circumstances of his second incarceration in the strict-regime camp in the Perm Oblast were unbearable. He was allowed no visitations, was continually harassed by the authorities and his health was deteriorating - he suffered from chronic stomach ulcers and heart problems. Worst of all for him, he had no opportunity to smuggle out a single line of his writings. His letters were confiscated and everything he wrote in the camp was taken away.

In a state of total nervous exhaustion and during a protest hunger strike, Vasyl Stus died in solitary confinement on September 4, 1985. He was buried at the camp cemetery in a grave marked only No. 9. On November 19, 1989, his remains were interned at Baikove cemetery in Kyiv along with those of his fellow inmates Yurii Lytvyn and Oleksa Tykhy, who had died in 1984.

- Oksana Zakydalsky, The Ukrainian Weekly, September 3, 1995.


Copyright © The Ukrainian Weekly, December 18, 2005, No. 51, Vol. LXXIII


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