An affiliated lecturer in Ukrainian studies at the University of Cambridge Bohdan Tokarsky wrote recently:
“This spring, facing a global pandemic in response to which we have had to isolate ourselves, many turned to literature for encouragement and direction. Boccaccio, Defoe and Camus may teach us a great deal about life in the shadow of plagues, but few authors provide a better example of surviving and finding meaning in isolation than Vasyl Stus (1938-1985), one of Ukraine’s most sophisticated 20th-century poets… For his uncompromising moral stance and defiant behavior, prison administrators repeatedly placed him in solitary confinement. In 1983, after his diary had been smuggled out of the camp and published outside the USSR, he spent an entire year alone in a cell. Two years later, he was dead…”
Vasyl Stus was a Ukrainian poet, human rights activist, dissident and hero who died in a Soviet prison camp on the night of September 3-4, 1985. This year marks the 35th anniversary of his tragic death. At the time of his demise, Stus was only 47, but his health was significantly undermined so that the specific cause of death was undetermined. Even so, at the time he insisted on a hunger strike to protest Russian Soviet oppression.
Stus was a very special activist, artist and prisoner. He saw himself not so much as a poet, although by all standards he was very talented. He viewed himself as simply a member of humanity.
In one of his earliest collections of poetry, “Winter Trees,” he prefaced a message to his readers with a clarification of his existence and purpose on earth: “… A poet must be a human being first and foremost… such, that is full of love, overcomes the natural tendency towards hatred, is freed from it… a human being is, above all, charitable. If it were better to live a good life, I would not write verses… rather I would toil the earth.”
The biography of Stus, the poet and the man, was very much an expression of love and devotion to his friends and his people alike, and against the murderous occupational Soviet Russian regime. He spoke in defense of Ukrainian culture and literature, indicted the regime for murdering Ukrainian artists and human rights activists such as Alla Horska, and after his first imprisonment and exile spent his brief period of freedom defending human rights as a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.
Stus belongs in the leading ranks of the Ukrainian “Shestydesiatnyky” (artists and writers of the 1960s), dissidents and heroes. He was the son of Vinnytsia, where he was born, but no less the child of the Donetsk region, where he studied and taught the Ukrainian language, and a resident of Kyiv, where he worked prior to his first arrest in 1972 and before his second incarceration. He spent his first five-year imprisonment in Mordovian camps, followed by two years of exile in the Siberian region in Magadan.
On May 14, 1980, the poet again was arrested. At the end of September 1980, a trial was held at which Stus was convicted and sentenced to 10 years’ imprisonment and five years’ exile. In November 1980, he began serving his sentence at the special-regime camp in the village of Kuchino, Chusovsky district, in the Perm region. Stus last saw his family in the spring of 1981.
During all of 1982, Stus endured isolation. During the 1980-1985 period Stus wrote the last collection of his poems. He died in punitive confinement and was buried in an unmarked grave at the camp cemetery. Four years later, on November 19, 1989, his remains were transferred to Kyiv and reburied.
His name was deified by his peers as well as in today’s independent Ukraine. His is the name of a symbol of unblemished purity, love and devotion.
Stus wrote as a father to his only son, Dmitry, whom he knew very briefly, about this human need for virtue: “Be pure – at any price… in both body and soul. It helps a soul (take a shower for your soul by analysis through your own judgment. And then do what is needed to be better, honest, smarter. Consider what you need to do so as not to do what you did. And why? And what shall I do to be better, to be cleansed of one or another filth, to atone for my sin.) It’s a self-confession.”
Stus’s name is connected to his polar opposite as well – the current odious oligarch Viktor Medvedchuk, who was appointed as his court defender by the Soviet authorities. Stus refused his services, but the court permitted Medvedchuk to confess to all charges in the name of Stus. These two human beings could not be more different.
The noble dissident Yevhen Sverstiuk thus described the lawyer ostensibly “defending” Stus: “When Stus met with his assigned lawyer, he immediately felt that Medvedchuk was a very brazen man who would not defend him, did not want to understand him and, in fact, was not interested in his affair. And Vasyl Stus rejected this lawyer.”
The irony of our tragic history is that the very good, pure Ukrainian man has long ago left this world, and his betrayer and executioner then continues to perform the dark and evil work in the very holy land for which the good man gave his life. Today, the same Medvedchuk is trying to clear his part in the Stus biography in a Ukrainian court, as if it really matters.
Stus’s eponymous last will and testament was written in the Perm camp. The poem was first released in 1986, just after his death.
How good that I am not afraid of death,
And do not ask how heavy is my cross.
That I not bend before mendacious judges
In anticipation of an unknown fate.
I have lived and loved and not fallen prey
To hatred, curse or remorse.
My nation, to you I shall return,
And in death I will turn to life
With my afflicted yet unblemished face,
As your son, I will fall upon the earth
And honestly gaze into thy honest face,
And drench myself with honest tears.
To Ukraine, the poet returned as he foresaw: “My nation, to you I shall return” and indeed “in death I will turn to life… As a son, I will fall upon the earth,” but only after the term of his sentence expired and the poet was rehabilitated. This was the brutal necessity of Soviet reality.
The noted nonconformist scholar Matthew Raphael Johnson wrote about Stus: “The poet is condemned to speak the truth in a world where ‘truth’ is considered a superstition. Power substitutes for right and deviousness for intelligence. For Stus, this is the frozen, the ‘snow’ that keeps the Regime functioning at the mass level… Blue is the uniqueness of Ukraine, the oak is the strength of the nation. The candle is existential, the soul and its ability to reflect; in shadow this is bad faith. The nature of the Soviet state created an automaton. Not a person with memory or history, but a shadow, a grown man incapable of seeing the sky, the mass. ‘Accustomed to the ground,’ or the Masonic idea of being ‘on the level’ is the ‘solidity’ of routine. This is largely a delusion for most, though the energy to cut through it is rare. The Blue Sky is the hope for a free Ukraine, as her color for Stus is blue, and the sky that of freedom, the ethereal…”
In the ancient city of Kyiv, at Baikove Cemetery, somewhat distanced from the rest of the tombs, there are three large white stone crosses visible from afar. The remains of Vasyl Stus, Oleksa Tykhy and Yurii Lytvyn – all Ukrainian human rights defenders, heroes, prisoners from a Soviet prison camp – are buried beneath them.
For national purification, every Ukrainian should go there, to pray and reacquire a fresh purity and strength of spirit. It is a national pilgrimage, because these are our heroes. Vasyl Stus represents the greatest and purest good and unqualified devotion to his Ukrainian people and our land.