In the 60’s, the Soviet UNI0N was under the influence of Khruschev’s thaw, a time when the government relaxed some of its censorship measures and became more humanitarian. But by 1965, with Khruschev out of power and Brezhnev’s neo-Stalinist clique in the saddle, the government was incrementally reversing its position, and it made a series of arrests among Ukrainian writers and the intelligentsia. On 30 August, 1965 the authorities arrested Ivan Svitlychny, a writer and literary critic who was also a close friend of Vasyl Stus. Struck by his friend’s arrest, Stus stood up at the premiere of a Paradzhanov film in September and said: “Whoever opposes tyranny, stand up!” Many members of the audience stood up, though they knew it could mean their arrest.
This public protest was the first of many against human rights violations in the Soviet UNI0N, and led to Stus’ expulsion from the Institute of Literature “for the systematic breaking of norms of behaviour.” That same year he got married. He was forced to find odd jobs: in a building brigade, as a boilerman, and others. The systematic injustice of the system continued to bother Stus. In fact he never meant to struggle with the Soviet system per se or to write anti-Soviet poems; he simply could not stand seeing the injustices, the violations of human rights, and the crisis of Ukrainian language and culture. So he acted.
In 1970, Ukrainian artist Alla Gorska was brutally killed, and after a perfunctory trial everyone was warned not to attend the funeral. Stus ignored the warning: not only did he go to the funeral, he gave a eulogy in which he accused the KGB of causing Gorska’s death.
Arrest and Imprisonment
It took the KGB two years to accumulate enough material on Stus, and in 1972 he was arrested. Using 14 poems and 10 human rights and literary articles as evidence, the prosecution accused him of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda. At the trial, Stus demanded to hear the definition of the term ‘anti-Soviet’, but he got in response only the verdict: five years in camps plus three years of exile in Magadan oblast. While in exile in 1975 he suffered a haemorrhage in his stomach and lost two litres of blood before he received medical help. When Stus was on the edge of dying, the KGB brought him to Kyiv, hoping his condition would help them cajole the writer into signing his confession. Stus refused to sign anything. A meeting with relatives in Kyiv was forbidden. Afterwards he had an operation in Leningrad and was sent back to the camp.
Coming back home after many years of imprisonment, he was even more determined not to betray his principles. He immediately joined the Helsinki human rights protection organisation. His free life lasted only nine months. In 1980 he was arrested again for joining the Helsinki group. Stus was given a lawyer (Viktor Medvedchuk - now a famous Ukrainian politician), even though the poet refused defence. In the closing speech from the defence, Medvedchuk, his lawyer, said all of Stus’ crimes deserved punishment. He also told the court to make sure that the defendant fulfilled his daily norm at the factory where he worked at the time, despite his serious stomach problems. Clearly, Medvedchuk was a man who wanted to rise through the Soviet and Ukrainian power structure.
Stus did not even have the last word at his own trial. He received an even more severe verdict than the first time – 10 years in the camps and five years of exile. In 1981 Stus had his last meeting with relatives, and in 1983 he went on a hunger strike for 18 days; everything he wrote was confiscated and demolished, though he did manage to sneak out his text ‘Notebook from the Camp’. After it was published abroad in 1985, he was nominated for the Nobel Prize. For the same reason, in the same year Stus was thrown into solitary confinement, where he went on a hunger strike only to die on 4 September, 1985. Only four years later his body was exhumed and reburied in Kyiv.
‘Letters to a Son’
The first book by Stus I read was ‘Letters to a Son’ – a collection of personal, intimate letters to Stus’ son Dmytro and his wife Valentyna, along with poems and translations. Several things astonished me: first, his sturdiness and ability to withstand all the ordeals of camp regime; second, his attempts to fill the gap in his relations with his son and to educate him through letters. Stus penned entire lectures regarding what to read, what to think about. Today Dmytro Stus is a well-known literary critic and academic in Ukraine. For his biography of his father he won the National Shevchenko Award; nearly all his academic and creative work is connected with Vasyl Stus. Today he admits that no other Ukrainian poet is more interesting to him than Vasyl Stus. When I ask him about the book ‘Letters to a Son,’ Dmytro explains that his father compiled it for him and for all young people who realise that they are in some way ‘different’. “Stus proposed a model of living on Earth while knowing that you are different. The secret of his willpower and his endurance is simple: he appreciated his uniqueness. He didn’t want to become like everybody else in the Soviet UNI0N, he did not want to betray himself and his principles. In fact my father was always very self-confident. He was sure what he was doing and writing was important,” says Dmytro.
Many of the people directly involved in accusing Stus at his trials, as well as those who remained silent, today live happily in independent Ukraine. Many of them are deputies in the Verkhovna Rada or work in other state structures to develop Ukraine’s culture. For many of them Stus is an uncomfortable topic. Medvedchuk, for example, often says that under the circumstances he could not do more for Stus. When I ask Dmytro about calling those people to account, he is calm: “I’m not God to judge them; my only verdict is to avoid contact with them. That’s it. After spending a lot of time with KGB documents – the documents don’t make things easier, they make them more complicated – I understood that too many people were involved there and there isn’t any one person who is more guilty or anyone who is less. There was a specific Ukrainian-Soviet system which regularly and consistently demolished people who made life for the people in power uncomfortable. Honestly speaking, I don’t thing the situation has changed greatly today – the methods are different. But I’m not Don Quixote.”
The fact that Dmytro is the son of the disgraced Vasyl Stus has shut some doors for him, though today he says: “I treated my fate as my fate and one day I understood that I have to live in these conditions – not to survive, not to exist, not to poison life with hatred or evil, but to live and do what I can.”
On tour in eastern Ukraine with Stusove Kolo (Stus’ Circle), a show featuring music and readings dedicated to his father, Dmytro was pleasantly surprised: “People whose tastes are spoilt by soap operas and pop songs can’t perceive anything serious, but the halls at the performances were full and people responded fantastically to the show.” In his letters, Vasyl Stus once wrote: “To be a man means to be iron.” Stus was like iron in defence of his beliefs, principles and ideals. That is why his son can say with confidence today: “Not every person can say he lived the life he wanted. Vasyl Stus made a conscious choice.”