STUS, Vasyl Semenovych


(b. 08.01.1938, village of Rakhnivka, Haisyn district, Vinnytsa region – d. 04.09.1985, the village of Kutchino, Chusovoi district of the Perm region)

Major Ukrainian poet, critic, publicist, author of samizdat and member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG); twice a political prisoner, he died in the labour camps

Vasyl Stus was born into a peasant family. Soon after his birth his family, fleeing from the repressions against the “kulaki” (more affluent peasants) moved to Stalino (now Donetsk), where his father became a worker. His first lessons of poetry were from his mother who sang him Ukrainian folk songs. He began school in 1944 and then in 1954 entered the History, Language and Literature Faculty of the Stalino (now Donetsk) Teachers’ Training Institute from which he graduated in 1959.

In 1959 he taught Ukrainian Language and Literature in the Tauzhnye school in the Kirovohrad region, after which he did military service for two years in the Urals.

After the army, Stus worked as literary editor for the newspaper “Sotsialystychesky Donbas” [“Socialist Donbas]. In 1963 he began PhD studies in the Shevchenko Institute of Literature of the Academy of Sciences of the Ukrainian SSR, specializing in the “Theory of Literature”. From 1964 he worked in the State History Archive of Ukraine.

"The period after military service was a time of poetry. It was the age of Pasternak and unquestioningly intense love for him … These days I prefer Goethe, (Volodymyr) Svidzinsky, Rilke. The Italians are wonderful (those that I know). Particularly – Ungaretti,  Quasimodo. I also like “thick prose” – Tolstoy, Hemingway, Stefanik, Proust, Camus, Faulkner … I don’t consider myself to be a poet. I see myself as a person who writes poems. Some of them – I think – have something in them”, he wrote in an address to his readers in 1969.

Stus married in 1965 and his son, Dmytro, was born in 1966.
On 4 September 1965 at the preview showing of S. Paradzhanov’s film ‘Tini zabutykh predkiv’ [‘Shadows of forgotten ancestors’] in the cinema “Ukraina” in Kyiv, Stus was one of the first to support Ivan DZIUBA who had taken the floor to register protest at the arrests of members of the intelligentsia. The retribution was swift: on 20 September Stus was expelled from his PhD studies and then dismissed from the State History Archive. He worked on a building site, as a stoker and as an engineer of technical information in a design bureau. These were years of intensive creative work, with poetry, translations, criticism and his first attempts at writing prose.

In 1965 Stus tried to publish his first work “Kruhovert” [“Maelstrom”], however the publishing house “Molod” [“Youth”] found the author’s ideological and artistic criteria, as well as his civic position, unacceptable. His next collection of poems “Zymovi dereva” [“Winter trees”] also “got stranded” somewhere in the publishing house despite positive editorial reviews from the poet I. DRACH and the literary critic Yevhen Adelheim. In 1970 the book was published in Belgium following which Stus became an outcast of the system once and for all.

Stus was active in protesting against the restoration of the “cult of personality”, against the policy of undermining national differences and identity and against restrictions on freedom of speech. He was one of the 139 members of the Ukrainian intelligentsia who in April 1968 signed a letter to Leonid Brezhnev protesting at the political trials in Ukraine and Moscow. He is also known to have sent several open letters: to the Presidium of the Union of Writers in defence of V. CHORNOVIL after a defamatory article entitled “Kym opikuyutsa deyaki humanisty” [“Who certain humanists are being looked after”] by O. Poltaratsky was published in “Literaturna Ukraina” [“Literary Ukraine”] at the end of 1968; to the Editor of the journal “Vitchyzna” [“Homeland”], L. Dmyterko, with sharp criticism of the latter’s attacks against I. DZIUBA (1969); to the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Ukraine, the KGB, and to the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine in 1970 where he presented an impassioned argument about the fatal consequences of a policy restricting freedom of speech and allowing flagrant violations of human rights.

In 1971 Ukrainian dissidents for the first time decided to create a legal human rights organization analogous to the Initiative Group for the Defence of Human Rights in the USSR (founded in Moscow in 1969). The specific impulse for this was the arrest in Odessa of Nina STROKATA-KARAVANSKA.  The organization, which Stus joined was called the “Public Committee in defence of Nina Strokata”.

On 12 January 1972 Stus was arrested and charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”. (Article 62 of the Criminal Code of the UkrSSR). The charges focused specifically on 14 poems and 10 human rights and literary articles. Among these was an article on the work of P. Tychyna entitled “Fenomen doby” [“A phenomenon of our time”] in which Stus discussed the influence of Party literature on the poet’s creative output. He was also accused of having in 1970 put together a samizdat collection of his verse under the title “Vesely tsvyntar” [“The Merry Graveyard”] where he wrote about the conditions Soviet people lived in, about socialist democracy and in which he “made defamatory remarks about the events organized by the Communist Party of the Soviet Union to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of the birth of the founder of the Soviet State”.

The main aim of the prosecution during the second wave of arrests in 1972 was to prove that the opposition-minded intelligentsia had regular and intensive contacts with Ukrainian nationalist organizations abroad. As the “Dobosh case” showed, this objective was not reached.

On 7 September 1972 Stus was sentenced by the Kyiv Regional Court under Article 62 Part 1 of the Criminal Code of the Ukrainian SSR to 5 years harsh regime labour camp and 3 years exile.
"The trials of 1972 and 1973 in Ukraine put human thought and the very process of thinking in the dock. Humanism and manifestations of filial love for ones own people were on trial”, Stus wrote in his publicist letter “Ya obvynuvachuyu” [“I accuse”].

From February 1973 Stus was held in the Mordovian political labour camps (Labour camp No. ZhKh-385/3, Barashevo, Tengushevsk district, Mordovia).  In Autumn 1975 he almost died as the result of a burst stomach ulcer. Before being hospitalized he was taken to Kyiv for a ”preventive education session” then on 10 December he was operated on in the Gaaz Prison Clinic in Leningrad.  

On 6 February 1976 he was taken by convoy to Camp No. ZhKh-385/17-a (the village of Ozyornoye, Mordovia). “From the very first moment I was struck by Vasyl’s emaciated appearance. His features were sharply-outlined, as though carved with a knife from wood, his cheeks looked as though filed down, with his closely-shaven head accentuating his features.” – This was how his co-cellmate, Mikhail HEIFETS described him, and continued: “… he bore himself with pride and dignity, like a Chinese emperor … He spoke with the authorities and wardens in the tone of a victor and prosecutor in a future Nuremburg Trial, seeing those with red (Soviet) epaulets as criminals whose activities he was collecting information about so as to pass to the judge at a later date truthful, albeit subjectively tinged, information”.  

Stus took part in all the political prisoners’ protest actions.  In a letter dated 1 August 1976 to the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR Stus rejected his Soviet citizenship since in the Soviet Union his human rights were being “flagrantly violated”.

From time to time Stus’ poems were confiscated during spot searches, and there was always a threat that they would be destroyed which for the poet was one of the hardest trials to bear. He tried to send as many of his poems as he could in his letters to his wife. In Mordovia he was still able to do that, later however it became impossible. In his letter to the PEN-club from 11 September 1976, Stus asked that they take measures and use all the authority the organization had to save his works (lyrical verse, translations – around 200 poems by Goethe and 100 by Rilke). The camp administration expressed their objections to Stus’ creative output in the following way: “the very fact of the author’s being in captivity can give his lyrical texts a political overtone”. Stus was often punished by periods in the isolation cell, and in all the time in the camps he was allowed only one visit.

In August 1976 Stus was moved to Camp No. 19 (Lesnoye, Mordovia), then from there on 11 January 1977 he was sent by convoy to his place of exile in the settlement of Matrosovo in the Tenkynsk district of the Magadan region. There he worked in a goldmine and was forced to live in a workers’ hostel with former criminals, not being allowed to rent a room.  As the result of an accident on 20 August 1977 he was kept in hospital for two months, during which time many of his books and manuscripts disappeared from his room in the hostel.  He was subjected to intolerable conditions and treatment. There were attempts at provocation, “grillings” at meetings of the “work collective” and in the local newspaper on 8 July and 3 August 1978 first a thoroughly defamatory article under the title “Druzi i vorohy Vasylya Stusa” [“Friends and enemies of Vasyl Stus”] and then reactions to the article were published.

It was only by going on hunger strike that Stus was allowed a 10-day trip to Donetsk in 1978 where he was in time to see his dying father for the last time. In that same year he was made a member of the international PEN-club.  

In August 1979, having finished his sentence, Stus returned to Kyiv where he worked as a mould operator in a foundry and on a conveyor belt for the shoe company “Sport”. He spoke out in defence of members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (UHG) facing repression. Stus himself joined the UHG in October 1979. 

“In Kyiv I learned that people close to the Helsinki Group were being repressed in the most flagrant manner. This at least had been the case in the trials of Ovsiyenko, Horbal, Lytvyn, and they were soon to deal similarly with Chornovil and Rozumny. 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 honour I had to defend or perish”. (“Z tabornoho zoshyta” [“From the camp notebook”], 1983).

On 14 May 1980 Stus was arrested again. The charges this time were based on his letters to Andrei SAKHAROV, Levko LUKYANENKO, Petro GRIGORENKO and to friends in Kyiv, on his appeal to the Prosecutor’s office in defence of Mykola HORBAL, verbal statements and his own poems. On 2 October 1980 the Kyiv Regional Court tried Stus under Article 62 Part 2 of the Criminal Code of the UkrSSR, declaring him a particularly dangerous repeat offender and sentenced him to 10 years special regime labour camp and 5 years exile.  Andrei SAKHAROV addressed a letter of protest in defence of Stus to the participants in the Madrid Helsinki Accords Review Conference.

Stus was taken to one of the Perm political labour camps (No. VS-389/36-1 in the village of Kutchino, Chusovoi district of the Perm region).  The conditions were extremely harsh, with the administration using all means of oppression; Stus was not allowed any visits and was ill a great deal. At the beginning of 1983 he maintained a hunger strike for 18 days, and he spent a year in the punishment isolation cell. He did nonetheless manage to write and to work on translations. Approximately 250 poems written in free verse and 250 translations were to have formed a book he planned to call “Ptakh dushi” [“Bird of the soul”], however all that he wrote was swiftly confiscated. The fate of those texts remains unknown.  According to the official reply to a formal request from his relatives, they were destroyed when the camp was closed down. In 1983 Stus managed to pass on to the outside world the text of his “Z taborovoho zoshyta”. After the publication of this work in the West, and especially after Heinrich Böll nominated Stus for the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1985, the pressure on Stus intensified.

On 28 August 1985 Stus was once again thrown into the isolation cell where he declared a hunger strike in protest “to the end”. 

Vasyl Stus died in the night between 3 and 4 September 1985. His relatives were told that he had died of a “heart disorder”. He was buried in the camp cemetery in the village of Borysovo, Chusovsk district.

In Lviv in January 1989 the first non-governmental Vasyl Stus Prizes were awarded for “talent and courage”.  This Prize was set up by the Ukrainian Association of the Independent Creative Intelligentsia, and is awarded every year on the poet’s date of birth in Lviv; laureates have included Ivan SVITLYCHNY, Nadiya SVITLYCHNA, Mykhailyno KOTSYUBYNSKA and others).

On 19 November 1980 the remains of Vasyl Stus, OLEKSA TYKHY and YURY LYTVYN were reburied in the Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv.  Several thousand people attended the ceremony.

Between 1994 and 1998 the collected works of Vasyl Stus were published in seven volumes, prepared by Dmytro Stus, the poet’s son and Mykhailyna KOTSYUBYNSKA.

In 1993 Stus was posthumously awarded the Taras Shevchenko State Prize for Literature.


V. Stus. Zymovi dereva [Winter trees] – Brussels: Literatura i mistetstvo, 1970, 206 pages
V. Stus. Svicha v svichadi (A Candle in a Mirror), 1977

V. Stus, Palimsesty [Palimpsests]. Poems of 1971-79. – Suchasnist, 1986, 469 pages
V. Stus. Poetry.  Compiled by and with an afterword by M. Kotsyubynska. – Kyiv: Radyansky pysmennyk, 1990. - 224 pages.
V. Stus. Pid tyaharem khresta [Under the burden of the cross]. – Lviv: Kamenyar 1991.— 160 pages.

V. Stus. Zolotokosa krasunya [The Golden-Braided Beauty ]  - Kharkiv: Oko, 1995.— 128 pages.
V. Stus. Works in 6 volumes (9 books) – Lviv: Prosvita, 1994-99.
V. Stus. Vechir. Zlamana vit. Vybrane [Evening. Broken branch. Selected poems].  – Kyiv: Dukh i literara, Zadruha,  1999. – compiled by Oksana Dvorko, Dmytro Stus and with a preface by Kostyantyn Moskalets. – 284 pages.

Vasyl Stus in his life, works and in the memories and estimation of his contemporaries. – Baltimore – Toronto: Smoloskyp, 1987. — 463 pages.
M. Heifets. Ukrainski sylyety [Ukrainian silhouettes] – Suchasnist. 1983. — pp. 7 - 100 (in Ukrainian and Russian; also: Pole vidchayu i nadiyi. [Field of despair and hope]. Almanac. – Kyiv: 1994. – pp. 137 - 225).

Ne vidlyubyv svoyu tryvohu rannyu … Vasyl Stus – Poet i lyudyna [He did not turn from his early unease … Vasyl Stus – Man and Poet. Memories, articles, letters, poetry.  Compiled by O. Orach. – Kyiv: Ukrainsky pysmennyk, 1993.— 400 pages.
Y. Sverstyuk. Bludni syny Ukrainy [Prodigal sons of Ukraine] – Kyiv: 1993.— С. 140-161, 210-220.
Vasyl Ovsiyenko. “Svitlo lyudei [“The Light they gave”].Memories and portraits of Vasyl Stus Yury Lytvyn and Oksana Meshko.  Biblioteka zhurnalu URP “Republic”. Seriya: political portraits, №4. Kyiv, 1996, 108 pages

’Khronika tekushchykh sobytiy’ [’Chronicle of Current Events’] (CCE). — Amsterdam: The Herzen Foundation, 1979, No. 24 – p. 352, No. 25 – p. 417, No. 26 – p. 437, No. 27 – pp. 471-472.
CCE.— New York: Khronika, 1976, No. 42.— p. 38.
CCE.— New York: Khronika, 1977, No. 45.— pp. 35, 38, 60; No. 47.— p. 133.
CCE.— New York: Khronika, 1978, No. 48.— pp. 21, 23, 72, 83.
CCE.— New York: Khronika, 1979, No. 54.— pp. 40, 79; No. 55.— pp. 8, 35.
CCE.— New York: Khronika, 1980, No. 57.— pp. 57-59, 89,90; No. 58.— pp. 74-78.
CCE.— New York: Khronika, 1981, No. 62.— pp. 131, 170.
Vesti iz SSSR [News from the USSR]  - Munich : Prava cheloveka, 1979, 8-9; 1980, 10-1, 19-4; 1984, 24-24.
V. Shovkoshytny. “Narode miy, do tebe ya shche vernu …” [“My people, I will return to you”] – Ukraina, 1990, № 4.— pp. 7-9.
M. Kotsyubynska. U svichadi pamyati [In Memory’s reflection] – Ukraina, 1991, № 1.— pp. 13-16.

S. Karasik