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The Doomed Bridegroom -- by Myrna Kostash INSIDE THE COPPER MOUNTAIN

by Myrna Kostash

Originally published in The Doomed Bridegroom: A Memoir

©1998 by Myrna Kostash, from The Doomed Bridegroom (Newest Press)

Web-posted with permission. For online viewing only. Please do not reproduce, duplicate or distribute this work.

Excerpt from
"Inside the Copper Mountain" by Myrna Kostash (1 of 4)
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A thunder of resurrection on the mountain
is being announced for me.
Smash your fists against despair,
biding within the copper mountain.

-- Vasyl Stus

Because I keep files about dissidents, especially those who were martyred in Soviet Ukraine, I cut his picture out. It was printed in a glossy English-language magazine, Ukraine, from Kyiv, mailed faithfully to me for months though I had no subscription. It shows a close-cropped, dark-haired man of about forty, with big ears, a strong jaw, and a dark, bright and mettlesome gaze straight into the camera. He's wearing a black turtleneck sweater and looks to me like a Ukrainian Marlon Brando from On the Waterfront.

I pin this up on the bulletin board above my desk. It's one of those portraits in which the eyes follow you as you move around the room. He stares at me, I stare at him.

His name is Vasyl Stus. I know that he was a poet and a member of that band of young writers in Ukraine called the "Sixties people" whose first novels, first collections of poems, first screenplays blew their hot breath briefly in the 1960s in the thaw after the Terror and the War. I have never read his poetry, and am guilty, I suppose, of hallowing the singer not the song. I do not know what exactly he did that got him arrested. I do not know when this photograph was taken. Has he been to the camps yet? Or is he waiting for the van to pull up in the street below his flat in Kyiv?

I do know he died in the Zone in September 1985, somewhere inside that vast complex of penal colonies, prisons, and psychiatric hospitals where, until the late 1980s, the USSR held its political prisoners. "Why couldn't you have held on six more months?" I cry. "You would have been freed."

He's big-boned, broad-shouldered and robust, I guess years away from his death, with his fight still ahead of him.

I kiss my two fingers and lay them on his cheek.

Thousands of miles away from your grave I will find you in my books, and I will drag you into my language, my purposes, and my memory. There in my memory is a Pantheon of lost loves, men who were heroes I wooed and lost. And you are going to be there with them.

You come from the green kingdom. I see you upright in the greenery, leaning on a thick stave stripped crudely of its branches, your round, dark head crowned with wild roses I have plucked from roadside ditches. I sit squinting in the noon hour sun. You haunt the shade.

In the mid 1960s, I was a student of Russian literature, reading Russian dissident poets and collecting their books. I was not then aware of dissident Ukrainian poets who were not in any case at the centre of my concern.

My reading persisted and the books became a library. Then other books joined them, the excruciating stories of the men and women of the Gulag. Those who had the means to do so smuggled out their stories while still in the camps. Those who survived wrote their memoirs and smuggled them out of the USSR to the West where émigré foreign-language presses received them. Some were eventually translated. I would come across them gathering dust in piles of remaindered books or yellowing in second-hand bookshops, as though their content had proved too arcane for readers used to more ordinary worlds. And still the habit persisted, until the library became a harrowing archive of that archipelago of punishment called the Zone.

By this time I had become aware of the particularly relentless persecution of the Ukrainian intellectuals and in time set myself to learn the language of my grandparents so I could understand better who these dissidents had been and what had happened to them. I began subscribing to Ukrainian journals and magazines. I noticed the repetition of certain names, made connections among events, stared at photographs.

-- A Photo --

A patch of hummocky land, sprouting weeds and three small wooden posts. The caption: "Cemetery of unmarked graves along the Potma railway (Moscow-Kuibyshev line)." This line was laid by political prisoners and the graves belong to those who died building it. They have numbers but no names. The photograph was taken in 1976. There is no other information.

-- Short Course in the History of the Zone --

In 1921, near Arkhangelsk on the Barents Sea astride the Arctic Circle, the Soviet government set up the extermination camp, Kholmoger, for the purpose of physically destroying the political enemies of the Bolshevik Party.

In 1973, the Ukrainian, Baltic, Russian and Jewish inmates of Camp vs 389-35 in Perm region, where Vasyl Stus would serve his second term, marked the anniversary of the establishment of concentration camps in the USSR with a hunger strike and demanded that henceforth September 5 be known as the Day of Protest Against Persecution. They called themselves zeks, from "z.k.," Russian slang for "zakliuchennyi" (prisoner).

Prisoners worked on construction sites without proper work clothes and in unheated workshops with their bare hands unprotected from the frozen metal. They ate where they worked, with no washing facilities and no tables, and worked forty-eight hours a week.

One long-term political prisoner, Anatoly Marchenko, could remember exactly when he ate cucumbers: one in 1964 and a second in 1966.

-- Kyiv, September 4, 1965: The KGB Opens a File on the Poet --

There were several hundred packed into the Ukraina cinema in downtown Kyiv the day that the new Sergei Paradzhanov film, Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors, premiered. The word had gone around that "something was going to happen." After the screening, the journalist Viacheslav Chornovil and the critic Ivan Dziuba strode to the stage, grabbed the microphone and denounced the recent arrests of artists and intellectuals, their colleagues and friends, who had been protesting publicly the Russification of Ukrainian culture.

The plainclothes police in the audience did not let Dziuba finish speaking but switched on sirens to drown out his words and then chased him off the stage. Vasyl Stus, the writer of a handful of published poems, stood up from the floor and shouted out a challenge to the crowd: "All those against tyranny, rise up!" Only a few responded, here and there standing up and sticking their necks out. I shake out the Gulag memoirs, the weird volumes of memorabilia published by Ukrainian exiles and émigrés in Munich and Baltimore, the collections of underground samizdat, and note how Stus' name, his dates, his first notoriety spill out from the footnotes.

And then, like a gift, in the magazine Ukraina I find four dense pages of the memoirs of the critic Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska about her friend, Vasyl Stus: "In the Mirror of Memory," written June 1990.

"From time to time in recollections and dreams," she begins, "a blinding projected apparition appears before me like a magic eye in the hopeless nights."

I am enchanted. I haul out my Ukrainian-English dictionary. I look for words, following with my finger the elaborate syntax as the tender remembrance of this woman rises from the paper, a photographic image emerging from its developing bath. I do pages of this work before I realize, fascinated, that Mykhailyna's initials are the same as mine: MK. The temptation is huge: to enter her words here and join her voice contrapuntally as the woman who did not know Stus. But she did, and there I am, she is, beside Vasyl Stus in the Ukraina cinema in Kyiv. They are sitting together and fate, Vasyl's fate, is about to throw them into a friendship to the death.

-- MK --

... we stood up together. He shouted out something despairing -- "Whoever is against tyranny, stand up now!" -- while trembling in every cell of his body. I could feel it through the arm I held around his shoulder as we left the hall.

"Poet," she wondered, "how are you going to manage to live in this world?"

Poet, how are you going to manage to live in this world? You are large and strong. Your voice fills whole rooms. I remember the morning you came to me in the garden, smiling with the pleasure of the lilacs and held out to me one thick, radiant stem that shook in your trembling hand.

You come from the green kingdom. I see you upright in the greenery, leaning on a thick stave stripped crudely of its branches, your round, dark head crowned with wild roses I have plucked from roadside ditches.

In the winter you come with your handful of seed, sowing in our households the new life latent in the wild grass. You bear the cranberry branch of your good wishes. "Good fortune to you," you whisper. "Sister." I light a candle, a solitary fire in the snowdrifts, if I look after you, if I watch you go, you will melt like beeswax.

A couple of weeks after his outburst at the cinema, Stus was expelled from his doctoral studies for "systematic violations of the norms of behaviour of graduate students and staff members of research institutions." A year later he was dismissed from his assistantship at the State Historic Archives: he had become unemployable in his profession.

Soviet Writer Publishing House returned his manuscripts without explanation and a collection of poems already slated for publication was purged from the schedule. He found employment as a labourer on the construction of Kyiv's subway line but was fired after a few months, in a Soviet Catch-22, for working outside his specialization. How did he survive? Under a pseudonym he published translations of Rilke and Goethe.

-- Roll Call of the Arrested: 1965 --

Accused of anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation and defended by Stus in his protest in the cinema: Ivan Rusyn, Valentyn Moroz, Mykhailo Osadchy, Mykhailo Horyn, Ivan Hel, Panas Zalyvakha, Myroslava Zvarychevska, Anatoly Shevchuk, Ivan Svitlychny. They were respectively: a member of an amateur choir, a history teacher, a journalist, a philologist, a locksmith, a painter, a proofreader, a linotypist, a critic. These names are just a sample.

Here is Vasyl Stus' poem to his arrested friend, Ivan Svitlychny, who was under intense pressure to confess:

Like a star he beams in from the gloom
But he says nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.

Stus' friends were charged under Article 62, Section 1, of the Criminal Code of the USSR with "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda designed to undermine or weaken Soviet power," were found guilty and sentenced to four, five, six years in forced labour camps in the Mordovian Autonomous Republic southwest of Moscow.

Only the KGB and the criminal justice system paid them official attention. Even the Ukrainian Soviet press made no mention. Friends of the accused, among them Stus, wrote a flurry of open letters and appeals on behalf of their associates, and stood outside the courtrooms demanding to be let in.

It does not seem like much, a signature on an appeal against "lawlessness," say. I suppose they never did stop being afraid, but they tried to act as though they were not and swallowed back the salt secreted by their own faint hearts.

Stus stood at courtroom doors of their trials demanding to be let in. Dissident Nadia Svitlychna was there with him. Interviewed twenty years later, she remembered how they had stood together in the square opposite the court house where one of the trials was going on. "Vasyl lit a cigarette. His hands were shaking." He was already suffering from the gastric ulcer that would torture him in the camps.

They milled about outside the bolted courtroom doors and threw flowers. At the trials of 1966 there were flowers everywhere. They fluttered down from the sky as the prisoners filed past the cordons of police on Pekarska Street in Lviv, carpeting the via dolorosa between the Black Marias and the drunken judges like a Carpathian meadow. "Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!" the friends shouted, pelting the police with carnations. When the poet Lina Kostenko threw roses to her friends at the yawning courtroom doors, the police dropped to the ground as though she had lobbed a bomb. Red tulips stuck into the railings of the prisoner's dock were snatched away by shrieking prosecutors before their damage could be done.

Q: Did you know [Stus] personally? What was he like as a person?

A: Certain "snapshots" from my meetings with him are fixed in my memory.

Winter 1966: Nadia Svitlychna and the artist Alla Horska go to Vasyl's wedding. In the bureaucratized, conveyor-belt atmosphere of the state Palace of Happiness, they have come to add a little human warmth to the proceedings of the "registration of marriage." Vasyl comes up to Nadia and asks forgiveness. "For what? I don't know. He was taking my brother's arrest very badly," she tells the interviewer on Radio Liberty in 1985.

I imagine the bridegroom proud in a stiff black suit a little short in the leg, the bride grasping red carnations, her knees knocking under her skirt. Are they holding hands? Does he encourage her with his hand pressed against the small of her back? Nothing. There is no bride here at all. She has a name -- Valentyna Popeliukh -- but no figure, no face.

He loved her. He chose her. He bedded her. Where is she? When I find the poems, I look for her as though I were rifling through her husband's pockets for his secrets.

And there will be parting enough for two,
and there as well will be a silent joy ---
to feel with the whole heart the long debt
owed to a past with a white headboard [ ... ]
and a pair of long arms, drunk upon the dark
-- Vasyl Stus

It was sometime that same year, 1966, that Mykhailyna met Vasyl on Volodymyr Hill on her way to the district office of the Communist Party where, after a seven month long ordeal of extricating herself from Party membership, she was finally going to turn in her card.

Excerpt from
"Inside the Copper Mountain" by Myrna Kostash (1 of 4)
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