Thirty-five years ago, on September 29, 1985, The Ukrainian Weekly ran a series of statements and commentaries following the death on September 4, 1985, of 47-year-old Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus, who was imprisoned by the Soviets for his poetry and other writings, as well as for his activism as a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.
George Sajewycz, in a commentary published by The Washington Post, dated September 14, 1985, noted that Stus was “one of Ukraine’s most promising young poets.” Having died while in custody at the Perm-36 Soviet special-regime labor camp in the Ural Mountains, Stus’s fight for survival and impending death were preserved in the pages of his “Gulag Notebook” that was smuggled abroad. Mr. Sajewycz compared Stus to other notable fighters for human and national rights, including Andrei Sakharov, Anatoly Shcharansky and Bishop Desmond Tutu.
Mr. Sajewycz was critical of The Post’s disproportionate coverage of human rights violations in South Africa as compared to that about Stus. “How is truth served by such selective journalism?” he asked.
Notably, The Ukrainian Weekly published a paragraph that The Post chose not to run in its publication of the commentary, which highlighted The Post’s lack of reporting about Ukrainians and the plight of prominent prisoners, including Oleksiy Tykhy, Yuriy Lytvyn, Valeriy Marchenko and other members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.
The Ukrainian Helsinki Group’s letter, signed by Nadia Svitlychna (a noted Ukrainian dissident who emigrated to the U.S.A.), stated: “[Stus’s] death has dealt a tragic blow to Ukrainian culture and to the Ukrainian nation. The tragedy of his death is further compounded by the fact that it was not the result of natural causes, but the culmination of a slow and sadistic execution, stretched over a period of many torturous years.”
Stus was arrested and imprisoned by the Soviets in 1965, 1972 and 1980, often charged with what the regime called “anti-Soviet agitation.” In his “Gulag Notebook,” Stus wrote: “We have lost all rights to belong to ourselves, let alone to possess our own books, notebooks, notes. …I do not know how long [the regime] will last, but I feel that I have been condemned to death.”
During his imprisonment from 1980 to 1985, Stus was denied visits from his family, and he wrote a letter of farewell to his family and friends while the Soviet Ukrainian Writers’ Union, Raduga, claimed that the poet was healthy. The Ukrainian Helsinki Group letter also cited other Ukrainian political prisoners killed by the Soviets, including Tykhy, Lytvyn, Marchenko and Valentin Sokolov. Other victims who survived Soviet imprisonment included Sakharov, the blinded Yuriy Shukhevych and the crippled Ivan Svitlychny.
Urging the international community to action, the Ukrainian Helsinki Group added: “The murder of Vasyl Stus and his fellow prisoners is not the internal affair of the Soviet Union. We call upon you to demand that his killers be brought to justice before an international court.”
Voice of America’s editorial highlighted that Stus’s persecution had come to an end following his death. Stus was the fourth Ukrainian activist to die in a Soviet labor camp in 12 months. In 1985, a group in Western Europe had begun translating works by Stus, the editorial noted, and the group worked to sponsor him for the Nobel Prize.
Stus wrote of his life in the labor camps: “We cannot go on much longer this way. Such pressure can only lead to death. I do not know when death will come for others, but I myself feel it approaching. I think I have done everything I could during my life.”
Voice of America underscored, “When this brave man died on September 4, the cause of freedom suffered a dreadful loss.”
More than 400 Ukrainian Canadians gathered on September 29 at Nathan Phillips Square in Toronto, near City Hall, to commemorate Stus. The event was organized by the University of Toronto Ukrainian Students’ Club and included readings of Stus’s works and a memorial service.
“After we heard that he died, we read his poetry and it then hit us that the Ukrainian community had suffered a great loss,” said Zenon Waschuk, 21, of the Ukrainian Students’ Club. The event attracted participants from the organization Poets, Essayists and Novelists (PEN International), Amnesty International and Toronto’s Ukrainian Avant-Guard Theater Group.
The death of Vasyl Stus served to further expose the brutality of Soviet methods in maintaining stability and order in a closed society, and today it should serve as a reminder that the Russian Federation continues this policy against critics, journalists, political opposition leaders and intellectuals who pose a threat to the Putin regime.
Sources: “Reactions to death of Vasyl Stus: ‘A poet dies in Ukraine’ by George Sajewycz, ‘Helsinki Group’s representation: statement and appeal,’ (signed by Nadia Svitlychna, Ukrainian Helsinki Group), ‘VOA editorial: persecution of Stus ends at last’ by Voice of America,” “400 honor Vasyl Stus at Toronto memorial service,” The Ukrainian Weekly, September 29 and October 6, 1985.