Vasyl Stus. Repressed by the Soviet authorities for his belief in the necessity of conserving and promoting Ukrainian culture
Vasyl Stus (1938-1985) was a prominent Ukrainian writer and human rights activist who became a symbol of the Ukrainian Resistance in the second half of the twentieth century. He was a significant figure in the Ukrainian cultural movement of the 1960s and a member of a unique generation of Ukrainian writers dubbed as the Sixtiers. The poet was repressed by the Soviet authorities for his belief in the necessity of conserving and promoting Ukrainian culture. As a result, his work was outlawed, and he himself was sentenced to a long stay in jail, where he died. Vasyl Stus’s contribution to the development of twentieth-century Ukrainian literature, the restoration of Ukrainian sovereignty, and the national idea cannot be overestimated.
Adolescence, academics, and the first poetry publications
Vasyl Stus was the youngest of four children born in the village of Rakhnivka, Vinnytsia oblast, in 1938. Soon after, the family relocated to Donetsk (previously Stalino) to escape forced collectivization: first, the father obtained a job at a chemical plant, and the children were relocated to their new home within a year.
While studying at the Stalin Pedagogical Institute’s history and philology faculty, Stus openly raised the issue of language, which infuriated the institute’s authorities. After finishing his schooling, he worked as a teacher at the Tauzhnyan secondary school in the Kirovohrad district. He taught Ukrainian language and literature at a high school in the city of Horlivka after serving two years in the Soviet army.
In 1963, he relocated to Kyiv to pursue postgraduate studies at the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR’s Institute of Literature named after T. Shevchenko, specialising in literature theory. While at the institute, Stus had some of his works published for the first time – among them, some of his poetry and critical articles on the work of emerging poets were featured in the “Dnipro”, “Prapor”, and “Zmina” magazines.
Manifesto letter on Ukraine’s Russification
The 24-year-old poet documented some of his thoughts on the Russification of Ukraine while working in Horlivka in a letter penned to Andrii Malyshko, a Ukrainian poet and translator. The experienced poet served as a mentor to the young teacher. Malyshko had prestige and influence, and he himself supported the Ukrainian language. Vasyl decided to approach him.
“…Now I teach my native language (the Ukrainian language) in Horlivka at a Russian school, of course. Horlivka has a couple of (two-three) Ukrainian schools which don’t have much left before they will be gone. There appear to be none in Donetsk. As a result, the picture is quite gloomy. We don’t have a future. The nation’s roots are primarily in the countryside, and we will not live long as a “peasant” nation, considering the influence of the city, the army, and all other channels of Russification. . Reading Ukrainian at a Russian school in Donbas (and not only!) is an absurdity. To do so is to have some form of moral trauma…
Sometimes it appears that our culture’s figures are working in vain. They chant as the axe regularly shakes the tree on which they sit… How do you explain their serenity? How can faint sighs, feeble concern for the destiny of Nadiya’s farmland, and weak complaints be understood when there must be rage, rage, rage?!
How much longer can we wait? How do we put up with it all? It is not difficult to unearth evidence of the most heinous chauvinism, the most heinous national humiliation, against which Lenin’s national arsenal is well stocked. Why are we so apathetic, why are we obedient to Fate as Fatum? I believe that the fate of Donbas is the future fate of Ukraine, when there will only be nightingale melodies… ”
The letter to Malyshko is dated December 12, 1962. After waiting for a response for over a month, Stus received no reply. Andrii Malyshko appeared to be terrified by the young poet’s abruptness. Malyshko, it turned out, did get the letter and considered Stus’ message. As was common during the Khrushchev “thaw,” writers were asking for leeway.
The October Palace in Kyiv staged an event in commemoration of Ukrainian writer and journalist Mykola Kulish on December 23, ten days after Vasyl Stus sent the first letter from Horlivka. Traditionally, the event was held “within the limit of what was allowed” for the “Suchasnyk” Club of Creative Youth. Mykola Bazhan, a Ukrainian poet, translator, publicist, culturologist, encyclopedist, and public personality, delivered a pivotal speech. His speech mirrored the “thaw’s” ambiguities. Bazhan belonged to the Executed Renaissance generation, and was one of the few who survived the Great Terror. In his speech, he applauded the party line while also mentioning that in the 1930s, writers were tortured in the cellars of the October Palace. It was the Creative Youth Club’s leader Les Taniuk who afterwards wrote in his diary:
“By the way, about Andrii Malyshko. Bazhan lives nearby; I was bringing him home when he abruptly inquired, “Do you know this Vasyl Stus?” Yes, I know him, somewhat. There is such a man, he writes poetry and serves someplace in the army. “No, not in the army,” he [Bazhan] says. “He teaches the Ukrainian language, Malyshko showed us his letter about it; this matter in Donbas is difficult. You know, it’s very well-written, he’s a clear philologist. Malyshko was curious if it was possible to print this letter. I believe he understands that it isn’t time, let it be. So you don’t have any of his poems?””.
Torture and dissent
On September 4, 1965, during the premiere of Serhii Paradzhanov’s film “Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors”, Stus took part in a protest against the arrests of Ukrainian intelligentsia. At the premiere’s venue, Kyiv’s Ukraina cinema, he called on all those opposing the arrests to stand up. Having taken part in the protest and co-authored a collective letter of protest, Stus was expelled from graduate school as a result of his actions.
In 1966, Vasyl Stus worked as a stoker, a handyman, and a technical documentation editor in order to provide for his family – his wife, Valentyna Popelyukh and son Dmytro. Stus’s time at the Central State Historical Archive of the Ukrainian SSR, where he began researching the Ukrainian Revolution of 1917-1920, was cut short when one of his former superiors from the Institute of Literature managed to get him fired.
Stus became a more visible figure, writing open letters to the Communist Party, the Union of Writers, and the Verkhovna Rada, condemning human rights violations and the arrests of his colleagues.
The first arrest
Stus was arrested for the first time on January 12, 1972. After spending 9 months in custody, he was found guilty of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and was sentenced to 5 years of prison and 3 years of exile. Commissioned critiques of Stus’ works by employees of the Shevchenko Institute of Literature became a part of the process. In them, Doctor of Philological Sciences Arsen Kaspruk sharply exposed Stus’ alleged “decadence, ideological degradation,” and “falsification” of Soviet reality.
The poet’s imprisonment and untimely death
Stus returned to Kyiv from exile in the summer of 1979. He soon became a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG), a human rights monitoring and advocacy organization. To make a living, he had to take up work as a factory worker. Stus was placed under administrative control for a few months before being arrested again.
In the spring of 2022, Viktor Medvedchuk, now a Ukrainian oligarch whose youngest daughter has Russian President Vladimir Putin as her godfather, was convicted of treason in Vasyl Stus’s second trial as then the poet’s youthful counsel. Previously, in 1980, Medvedchuk served as Stus’ court appointed lawyer in his case which ended in the poet’s conviction, second imprisonment, and eventual death. Upon meeting with Medvedchuk, Stus requested a different public defender and was dismissed. The poet sought to defend himself but was denied, leaving him with Medvedchuk as his only defense. During the trial, Medvedchuk acted quietly and even admitted Stus’ guilt in the charges filed against him, which defies the principle of a civil case. Stus didn’t receive the opportunity to have his last word while in court.
Ukrainian publishing house Vivat published Vakhtang Kipiani’s book “The Case of Vasyl Stus” in 2019 which amounts to nearly 700 pages of analysis of Soviet archival documents linked to Stus’ trial, including Medvedchuk’s role in the process. Three months after the book’s release, Medvedchuk filed a lawsuit against Kipiani and the publishing house, accusing them of defamation. On October 19, the Darnytskyi Court of Kyiv partially fulfilled the lawsuit by prohibiting the distribution of the book.
After the botched trial, Stus was jailed again, receiving a 10-year sentence of forced labor camps and five years of exile. On September 4, 1985 Vasyl Stus died in a solitary confinement cell where he had been put for reading a book while leaning his elbows on the upper bunks, an action that was deemed a “violation of the regime.” The official cause of death was heart failure, although a blow to the head against the bunks was also suggested as a potential cause. Only four years later was it possible to transport the body and rebury it in Kyiv. Vasyl Stus was posthumously politically rehabilitated in 1990.
The poet’s creative assets and impact on today
Palimpsesty (eng: Palimpsests), Stus’ most comprehensive body of work, features poems produced between 1971 and 1977. He spent the majority of this period in Mordovian camps and in exile in the Magadan region. The poetry collection was published posthumously, after the author’s death in 1986. It included poetry that was preserved by being secretly included in letters to his wife or with the assistance of other prisoners’ visitors. Several hundred of Stus’ poems were confiscated by camp guards, including the final collection “Bird of the Soul.”
Vasyl Stus was a unique person. Through his works, the poet created a world of his own, which remains timely to this day not only for Ukrainians, but global audiences, too. The dissection of nature versus nurture conflicts that one may notice in his writing will always be relevant. Even in his darkest moments, Vasyl Stus had faith that he would return to the people with his word and that his homeland would listen to him. His unwavering confidence in the moral absolute proved to be more foresighted than our current desperate reconciliation with reality. His poetry resonated in Ukraine; it was heard and will be heard again. Those who have read his works and have been influenced by his fate kneel before him.