September 11, 2015

Remembering Vasyl Stus, a voice raised against tyranny


September 4 marked 30 years since the death in the Perm-36 labor camp of Vasyl Stus, the Ukrainian poet and human rights defender, who is once again arousing antagonism in modern Russia and among Kremlin-backed militants in the Donbas for “Ukrainian nationalism and anti-state activities.”

Stus was 47, with a wife and teenage son, and was serving a second term of imprisonment for what the regime called “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” when he died.

The circumstances of his death remain unclear, but it seems likely that Stus died of heart failure while on hunger strike. The conditions in which the political prisoners were held at Perm-36 were extremely harsh. Then on August 27, 1985, Stus was placed in the punishment cell for a fabricated infringement of regulations. He is reported by Vasyl Ovsienko, a fellow political prisoner, to have told one of the guards that he was going on hunger strike “to the end.”

The other prisoners heard him being taken along the corridor on September 2, and understood from his defiant words that the authorities had threatened him with further punishment. A day later, at around 5 p.m., another prisoner heard Stus ask the guard for validol [a medicine for heart palpitations or a similar ailment].

That was the last time anybody heard Stus speak. Over the next day, the prison staff tried various forms of subterfuge clearly designed to claim that Stus had ended his hunger strike but was still alive.

It is known only that Stus’ heart stopped beating during the night of September 3-4.

Stus is a great poet whose work should not be viewed only through the prism of Soviet repression. Nevertheless, the anniversary – and Stus’ refusal to remain silent whatever the price – are of special poignancy in the face of Russia’s mounting repression and reinstatement of the worst Soviet practices, including with respect to the Ukrainians it is holding prisoner. It is a telling detail that the same antagonism to Stus and historic memory has been demonstrated by the Kremlin-backed militants now in control of Stus’ native Donetsk.

September 4, in fact, marks two anniversaries, both of repression and of resistance. Fifty years ago, on September 4, 1965, a premier showing of a film by Sergei Paradzhanov turned into a public act of protest against a wave of arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals. Stus was among those who rose to their feet “in protest against tyranny.” That cost him his Ph.D. studies, while others involved lost their jobs.

In the explanation he was ordered to give the university, Stus wrote that he couldn’t remain silent and that the suspicious arrests give grounds for terrible analogies.

“The shadow of blood-stained 1937 was too close to be able to not react to such symptoms. Purely psychologically, from a purely civic position, I couldn’t hold back. I believe that in such conditions silence is a crime,” he noted.

It was during the second wave of arrests in January 1972 that Stus was first arrested. The purported “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” was deemed to be lurking in 14 poems and 10 human rights or literary texts.

That first sentence was served in the Mordovian camps, with Stus taking part in all protests by the political prisoners. Mikhail Heifets, who was for a time his cellmate, said of Stus that he always spoke to the camp administration and to all kinds of cops as if he were the prosecutor at a future Nuremberg Trial. And he did indeed view them as criminals.

The Soviet regime even prevented Stus from writing freely, with the camp authorities arguing that the fact of his being in captivity could give a political overtone to his poetry. Much of his work written in the camps seems to have been irrevocably lost.

Stus had suffered serious damage to his health during his imprisonment and exile, but this did not stop him from engaging in protests again after returning to Kyiv in 1979.

He quite simply had no choice. In his words:

“In Kyiv, I learned that people close to the Helsinki Group were being repressed in the most flagrant manner. …I didn’t want that kind of Kyiv. Seeing that the group had been left rudderless, I joined it because I couldn’t do otherwise… When life is taken away, I had no need of pitiful crumbs. Psychologically, I understood that the prison gates had already opened for me and that any day now they would close behind me – and close for a long time. But what was I supposed to do? Ukrainians were not able to leave the country, and anyway I didn’t particularly want to go beyond those borders since who then, here, in Great Ukraine, would become the voice of indignation and protest? This was my fate, and you don’t choose your fate. You accept it, whatever that fate may be. And when you don’t accept it, it takes you by force… However I had no intention of bowing my head down, whatever happened. Behind me was Ukraine, my oppressed people, whose honor I had to defend or perish.” (“From the camp notebook,” 1983)

He was arrested the second time in 1980, with the repeat offense of  “anti-Soviet propaganda” classifying him as a “particularly dangerous criminal” and resulting in a sentence of 10 years of “special” (most harsh) regime labor camp and five years of exile. Stus refused the services of a Soviet lawyer but had Viktor Medvedchuk, now a close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, foisted on him. The latter effectively read out a speech for the prosecution, saying that Stus was guilty and deserved punishment.

There was international outrage, expressed among others by the PEN Society, at the death of Vasyl Stus. It was under Mikhail Gorbachev that the last political prisoners in the Soviet Union were finally released in 1988. A year later, on November 19, 1989, the bodies of Stus and two other political prisoners – Yurii Lytvyn and Oleksa Tykhy – returned to Ukraine and were reburied in the Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv.

It seems safe to assume that all three men would have been among the million of Ukrainians who came out in protest on December 1, 2013, following the Yanukovych regime’s vicious attack on young Maidan activists. Their voices would have surely been heard ever since in defense of victims of repression in Russian-occupied Crimea; of terror and intimidation in militant-occupied Donbas; and on behalf of Russia’s Ukrainian prisoners.

Stus rose to his feet in protest against tyranny when the price of such an act was high. Twenty years later he paid the highest price for his courage and refusal to be broken. So too did Lytvyn, Marchenko and Tykhy.

Monstrous verdicts have just been passed on two Ukrainian opponents of Russia’s annexation of their native Crimea – Oleh Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko. A third – Gennady Afanasyev – is now in danger for having the courage to retract testimony given under torture.

A similar sentence can be expected against Nadiya Savchenko, a former military pilot and Ukrainian national deputy. There are other Ukrainians who are now detained in Russia and facing trumped-up charges.

In Russian-occupied Crimea, three Crimean Tatars are in detention, including Akhtem Chiygoz, the deputy head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or representative assembly. They and Euro-Maidan activist Oleksandr Kostenko are all facing, or in Mr. Kostenko’s case have been convicted of, legally preposterous charges.

Myroslav Marynovych, one of the 10 founding members in 1976 of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, spent seven years in a harsh-regime labor camp. He stresses the enormous importance of all letters from the outside world. Yes, they could sometimes provoke the KGB to worse persecution, but they also “created a certain guarantee that the cause that you were suffering for had a general human dimension, that the world knew about your fate and that you wouldn’t die an anonymous death in the Siberian snow.”

Details are given in the article “Oppose Russian tyranny with your pen” posted on September 3 by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group ( of addresses you can write to, as well as a model letter, if you prefer. Perhaps readers can choose one prisoner and write a few times. Also, if possible, tell the press and politicians in your country about the case (details are provided in the article).

Publicity and attention to individual political prisoners counter lawlessness. Please help!