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Excerpt from
"Inside the Copper Mountain" by Myrna Kostash (2 of 4)

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

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-- MK --

And here was Vasyl, waving his arms about, shouting cheerfully at me. He had just finished his translations of Lorca, and I can still hear how his voice broke when he came to the line "Cordoba, distant and alone."

In 1970 a collection of Stus' poems, Zymovi dereva (Winter Trees), was published by an émigré press in Brussels. Vasyl wrote to Vira Vovk, a Ukrainian-Brazilian poet who had visited Ukraine in the 1960s, that he was developing a "kind of obliviousness." He was content, he said. He strung up a hammock under the pines, poured himself a glass of whiskey, looked up at the sky. "My wife's at work, my son's in daycare, I write, I relax." It's an image I will come across again, in a poem from the cycle "Through Oblivion." "The wife is at her job/The son is in daycare/ Silence/Enjoy yourself/Until the hour peaks/Sit. Rejoice." I do not begrudge the poet his domestication. All hell is about to break loose.

In November 1970, Alla Horska, a good friend who had been at Stus' wedding, is found dead, her friends assume murdered, in the cellar of her father-in-law's house outside Kyiv. It is Nadia Svitlychna, dragging the local militia with her to the cellar door, who finds her. No relative or friend is allowed to examine the body; the coffin remains sealed.

The friends stand at the open grave in a vacant lot outside the city, holding each other against the December wind. On the anniversary of her death in the years to come the circle will be smaller -- the friends sense this already. Vasyl reads his poem in Alla's memory: "For we are very few. We are a pinch of earthly salt..."

A year later Stus is arrested in a storm of arrests known as the General Pogrom, the harshest single assault by the KGB on dissidents in Ukraine since the death of Stalin. The KGB did not limit its sweep to political dissidents or "conspirators" or "gutterpress profiteers." Virtually an entire generation of writers and artists was repressed.

Sympathizers found themselves threatened with dismissal from work, watched helpless as investigators removed their books from their incriminating libraries and the police ransacked their houses. Their family members were hauled along with them for interrogation, and, as witnesses at their friends' trials, they were remorselessly bullied and humiliated in cross-examinations of breath-taking vulgarity.

Radio Peking, 1969: "The Soviet revisionist renegade clique has transformed the first socialist state into a great fascist prison."

The pogrom peaked in January, 1972. Hundreds would be imprisoned, among them many who had already done terms in prison and camp after the crackdown of 1965-66.

Here they went again. Valentyn Moroz, the history teacher. Ivan Hel, the locksmith. Mykhailo Osadchy, the journalist. Mykhailo Horyn, the philologist. And some debutants: Viacheslav Chornovil, Ivan Dziuba, Iryna Kalynets, Yevhen Sverstiuk, Leonid Pliushch, Ivan Svitlychny. And Vasyl Stus.

It would be naive to believe
that among the five thousand who perished
while building Cheops' pyramid
there was no poet.
-- Mykola Horbal, "Parts of an Hourglass"

On January 12, 1972, while Stus was in western Ukraine being treated for his gastric ulcer, the KGB ransacked his apartment and, next day, issued a warrant for his arrest on charges of involvement in an espionage ring. When they returned to his apartment a month later it was to confiscate his library (Pasternak, Gorky, Solzhenitsyn, Marx, Jung, Lorca) and virtually everything he had written in the last fifteen years: poems, essays, translations, and his one and only published collection of poetry, Winter Trees, published abroad.

Meanwhile he was arrested, held in prison, and interrogated. According to notes that were smuggled out of the Zone during his first imprisonment, he accused his interrogators of acting like "Stalinist dogs." He was taken forcibly to a psychiatric hospital, dragged down through the hallway of the interrogation isolator in Kyiv, kicking, and screaming to the prisoners in their cells that "They are taking Vasyl Stus to the Pavlov Insane Asylum!" When Mykhailyna and her friends accidentally learned of this, their alarm and anxiety increased a hundred-fold.

Stus was finally put on trial August 31, 1972, in Kyiv Regional Court under revised charges of slandering the state. He was found guilty, and on September 7 sentenced to five years in special regime labour camp in Mordovian ASSR and three years internal exile. Oddly, in spite of his own sustained activity since 1966 on behalf of colleagues in jail and on trial, I come across no material describing efforts mounted in his defence by others nor any eye-witness account of his trial. Only a plaintive bewildered little note struck by Mykhailyna: that although she was to be summoned and questioned as a witness in other friends' trials, she was never summoned to Vasyl's -- and all these years later it is as if she regrets that she had not been put to the test.

-- MK --

His [Stus'] arrest would not be totally unexpected, of course. In fact, there was a certain logic in this barbaric act, a natural continuation of those ideological "witches' sabbaths" that had been gathering momentum. Judicial persecution for heresy became our reality.

They were forced to live in it and for all of 1972 they lived for news from There.

-- The Political Economy of the Zone --

The caption reads: "A rare photograph of a concentration camp watchtower deep in the forests of the Mordovian ASSR." I don't know how they can be so sure. I see an indistinct patch of a forest and a wooden tower trellised like the fire watchtowers in national parks. There's a man up there, lounging on the railing. I suppose he's in uniform but I see no gun.

Mordovian ASSR, southeast of Moscow, west of the Volga, had been a dumping ground for political prisoners since 1917 when camp labour was used to build a highway and railway, the so-called Dubrovlag route. In 1980 there were eight camps on the route (including Stus' Number 19), holding between five hundred and twenty-five hundred prisoners each, and seven of them were special regime. On limited rations prisoners were pressed into labour in logging, lumbering, furniture-making, production of steering wheels and automobile chassis, glass-grinding, and the manufacture of souvenir cuckoo clocks for export.

I do not know what Stus laboured at. What I learn is that, even in camp, he kept up a barrage of verbal attacks on the KGB, compiling documents that he eventually was able to smuggle out of the camp and which, by 1975, were circulating in the west. The most famous was his own "J'accuse," published in a Ukrainian-language journal in New York in January 1976:

"I deem the KGB a parasitic, exploitative, and pernicious organization, on whose conscience lie millions upon millions of souls, shot, tortured, and starved to death... I accuse the KGB of being openly chauvinistic and anti-Ukrainian because it deprived my people of word and voice.... I am sure that sooner or later the KGB will be judged as a criminal organization, openly hostile to the nation. I am not sure that I will live to see this judgement passed on it. Therefore, I beseech those who will judge this criminal organization to include my testimony and my accusations into the many volumes of its dossier..."

He was writing to friends too. Mykhailyna heard from him, messages included in letters to his wife and coming under the severe constraints" of the camp rules, when they arrived at all. "It was 1972," she recalls. "We lived for news from There."

She made a point of posting her letters from different cities, to "compensate" him for the sudden forcible withdrawal from "normal, live impressions." At other times she wrote him a kind of journal, exposing to him her interior, poetic landscape as though they were meeting (as they had done?) late at night after a concert, a play, and reviewing their particular pleasures. She goes to a Bach concert, she sits down to write Vasyl, "about music and spirituality, about the eternal and unchanging, about beauty and tragedy," wanting to recreate for him her "soaring of the spirit." It is as if the ache of his absence can be assuaged by confession ("the lofty tremulousness of my soul") but she says this letter was never received at his end.

-- Martyrology --

In July 1975 Stus was severely beaten by a non-political prisoner and sent to the camp infirmary to recover. As a matter of course, he was refused the medication for his perforated ulcer that, a month later, provoked an internal haemorrhage. He came very close to dying but not, as he had feared, alone. Boris Penson, fellow zek, was there. Here is what he wrote:

"I remember the date so well because the camp's loudspeaker system was transmitting the broadcast of the signing ceremonies of the Helsinki Accords. Just imagine: the solemn voice of [the newscaster] intoning about maintaining the respect for human rights to the fullest, and in the middle of the barrack lies Stus, all covered with blood. He had fainted and fell down; blood was everywhere and Vasyl was dying. Some three hours later two camp trustees come accompanied by four guards armed with automatics and leading two attack dogs. The trustees ... carried him ... some three hundred yards to the infirmary .... The haemorrhage was stopped and later the chief surgeon would brag to me that he pulled Stus out of the morgue."

Stus could not know that, at the other end of the Dubrovlag route, five women political prisoners, including Nadia Svitlychna, having heard Stus was bleeding to death, announced a hunger strike to protest the official maltreatment and offered to donate their own blood. They were shut up in the camp hospital and ignored.

In December 1976 Stus was taken to a prison hospital in Leningrad where three-quarters of his stomach was removed. Two months later he was back in the camp and promptly joined a fellow prisoner's protest against confiscation of mail. He was punished with cancellation of his special post-surgical diet.

Naked body searches. Enforced isolation. Solitary confinement in the freezing cold. Confiscated letters. The burning of several hundred poems found in a camp search. Reduced rations. Stus went on hunger strike in defence of political prisoner Stefania Shabatura and her right to keep her drawings. Fellow zeks went on strike for Stus and his right to his poems.

Sergei Soldatov, who arrived a prisoner in 1976, called him Hetman (Cossack chieftain) "because I pictured him on a frisky, raven-black horse, in a gold helmet with a glittering sword in hand, at the head of a brave regiment of Cossacks going into battle." The Hetman would wait until everyone in the barrack was asleep (except for the insomniac, Soldatov) to creep out into the corridor and expel the groans he suppressed all day in his degenerating body.

And he still loved his bride.

-- Mikhail Heifetz Remembers 1976 --

"I had to convince my wife that, when she got to Moscow, she should make an appearance in the dissident circles and tell them about the confiscation of [Stus'] poetry.... My wife wasn't exactly a political person. But I could tell that she had practically drunk Stus' poems. Then she asked me a question, one which I'll never forget, so originally did it resonate in this politicized business:

'Are the poems dedicated to his wife?'
'Yes.'
'Then for him I'll do everything. Wherever it is necessary for me to go, I'll go."'

Your women, Vasya! We are all possessed.

-- In The Poet's Own Voice --

Suddenly a whole new set of materials arrives across my desk: all the surviving writings of Vasyl Stus from the Zone. They have been published here and there in Ukrainian-language journals in the West since 1983, the year when his camp notebook "miraculously" made its way abroad (there are no details, only references to "indirect routes"), and now a researcher has brought them to me. There are also a few letters.

Abashed it has taken me so long to get to him, I open my dictionary and try to let the poet through. Finally, he is speaking for himself and he sounds vigorous in his outrage, even proud, as his manifestos and outcries fly from my ballpoint pen. But then suddenly he disappears into words I can't find in the dictionary or behind his inflexible righteousness. He is a man who will be broken before he will bend.

At the beginning of 1977 Stus began his three-year term of exile in a compound near Kolyma in eastern Siberia where he was assigned to forced labour in a gold mine, whose infrastructure had been laid down by slave labour in the 1930s. After a cursory examination by doctors he was pronounced "fit" and sent off to the Matrosov pit.

From his camp notebook:

"My work began. It was a Communist shock brigade. Half the workers were Party members. A model brigade. They were to educate me. There was a horrible dust at the mine-face because there was no ventilation: they were drilling blind vertical shafts. The hammer weighed close to fifty kilograms, the drilling rod, eighty-six kilos. We had to shovel out by hand after the drilling. The respirator (a cloth face mask we tied around our heads) was useless after half an hour -- damp and covered with a layer of dust. So you throw it away and work without protection. They say that young men, right out of army service, become sick with silicosis after six months of this hellish work.

"Once I refused to work because there were no respirators. They promised to get me one. I said loudly that that wasn't the point: a respirator is a necessary protection for every miner. I asserted this general principle and protested against the violation of technical norms. So they found the respirators ... and punished me for 'striking.'"

In some respects, life in exile was worse than in camp. According to Mykhailyna, "he felt completely solitary yet was never given the chance to be alone." It was against the regulations to live anywhere but in an assigned dormitory and for room-mates he had a group of rowdy, vodka-soaked drunks at least one of whom was a KGB informant. He feared ceaselessly for his papers and books and was forever at war with the KGB for his mail: "Dozens and dozens of letters simply disappeared. To my accusations they replied in a novel way: the mail bag at the Magadan airport terminal was full of holes! I sent telegrams to KGB chief [Yuri] Andropov: 'Your Service is stealing my mail.' There was no point."

He shattered his heels in a fall and hobbled for weeks on plaster casts, wobbling on crutches over ice and snow to the outdoor privy and, deprived of medicine, tried to heal himself with homemade solutions in which he soaked his gnarled feet. To top it off, a local newspaper, Leninist Flag, ran an article, "Friends and Enemies of Vasyl Stus," lavishly spread out over two issues, in which a local nurse testified that "Stus is prepared to rape and murder. He's similar to a fascist." Predictably, dozens of honest Soviet citizens wrote to the paper to register their outrage that such a pervert lived among them.

"He had nowhere to stretch out his soul," Mykhailyna writes. "'And you couldn't bear it. And you could never get warm.' So begins one of his Kolyma poems."

In the summer of 1978 Stus received word that his father was dying in Donbas. Refused permission to travel, he posted a notice on his dormitory door: "Do not disturb. On hunger strike for permission to bury my father." They let him go, accompanied the whole way to Ukraine by a "detachment of spies from the KGB."

"We buried father," he writes, "and I returned to Kolyma as if to prison." A cryptic statement, to say the least. He leaves out the fact that friends, whom he had not seen for six years, had come to the funeral to be with him, among them Mykhailyna, who in turn fails to mention Vasyl's wife who had come with their son. Had they all become already a little insubstantial, blurred by the unreality of everyday life beyond the Zone, so that the only real adventure was back at the Matrosov pit? But these are Mykhailyna's memories, and if she and her beloved friend sit alone under the fruit trees in a swoon of communion, I do not protest. They met the day after the funeral in his childhood home.

-- MK --

It was a squat white house with a narrow porch and a table had been set up in the small garden under a tree. We sat at the table. "And it is you, you, my dearest friends..." An aching feeling of happiness from the visit. Vasyl was very stoic and didn't say much, certainly no complaints or grievances. Reserved. There was pain and anxiety in him but not for himself.

Perhaps for his mother, withered by grief, stunned as much by the return of her son "from There" as by the death of her husband. Or for Mykhailyna with whom he walked among the mine tailings -- so exotic for her! -- away from all the watchful eyes at every doorway in the village, alone, not saying much, carrying their silence together.

Excerpt from
"Inside the Copper Mountain" by Myrna Kostash (2 of 4)
back home next

Stus: Home | The Man and His Life | Photo Album | His Work | His Influence | Site Map | E-mail


©1998 Myrna Kostash; ©1999 the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies
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Last updated: March 01, 1999