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Excerpt from
"Inside the Copper Mountain" by Myrna Kostash (3 of 4)

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

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-- A Photo --

The last known photograph of Stus was taken in 1979 towards the end of his exile in Kolyma, though he would live another six years. You cannot see his eyes; they have sunk into the black shadows of his eye sockets. He holds his right arm bent awkwardly at the elbow as though it had been broken and never straightened out. He is wearing a heavy jacket. His head is tilted down ever so slightly but just enough to suggest, for the first time in any of his pictures, that he has been cast down and discouraged. For the first time I find it believable that he is a man who will die.

Completing his term in exile, Vasyl Stus returned to Kyiv in October 1979. Loath to ask anything of anybody, he made his own arrangements at the Paris Commune factory where he worked pouring molten metal into cast iron moulds, but he could barely walk, his feet hurt so. He next found work on the assembly line of a shoe factory, spreading glue on the soles of men's shoes.

-- MK --

Those seven months before his second arrest that Vasyl lived in so-called freedom Mykhailyna remembers as "sombre, monotonous, and melancholy. It was hard for him to breathe in that suffocating atmosphere of the half-truth and the false, it was hard to meet former colleagues and acquaintances who would shake hands with him seemingly sincerely, all the while looking nervously about."

She, along with all the others, needed to keep a job, the money coming in, felt the distraction of family illnesses, food shortages, hard-to-get train tickets. They were all, she said, victims of the false and unfree.

-- The End Begins --

While still in exile, Stus wrote to the Ukrainian Helsinki Monitoring Group, an illegal watchdog organization that monitored the USSR's compliance with the Helsinki Accords on human and civil rights signed in 1973. Stus stated he wished to become a member.

For its monumental task, the Group had thirty-seven declared members. (The number of undeclared members was never disclosed.)

Stus must have understood that for a newly released political prisoner to engage politically in such a public manner was to invite immediate harassment and even repression. A particularly odious form of intimidation was being employed at that time: the fabrication of nasty criminal charges against former political prisoners who had just been released or were about to finish their term. By accusing them of rape, dope-dealing, and hooliganism, the authorities were able to throw them straight back into prison.

"Vasyl wanted to render his friends some real assistance, but what?" Mykhailyna wondered, having visited Stus with the news about a fabricated case against Viacheslav Chornovil. He heard her out, then withdrew from a drawer the pitiable savings from his labour in the pits and handed them over as a gift to Chornovil's wife who was getting ready, continues Mykhailyna, "to make the purgatorial trip to Yakutsk [ten thousand miles east of Moscow] where this shameful farce was being played out."

Yet there begins to coalesce around his "persona" a mystique if not a romance of the inevitability of his doom. Mykhailyna, so impressed by the inner person "unriddled by fear," understands that his refusal to erect the normal protective barriers necessary for the citizen in a police state will be his undoing. "He couldn't have lasted in our world. It was as though he had bared his chest to the gun."

In his notebooks, Stus mulls this over. And accepts that, even as he goes about the melancholy business of the free man at the factory and at home, out in the Zone the camp gates are already opening for his re-entry: "You don't choose fate. You accept it, as it presents itself."

October 1983, Amnesty International in London received a first-hand description from within the camps of life in the Special Regime Camp VS-389-36/1 near Perm, twelve hundred kilometres east of Moscow near the Ural Mountains, where Stus was being held. The report was written in Russian. Its author is not known:

"The regime in the camp is like that in a KGB investigation and isolation cell.... There is no ventilation and so it stinks. ... The work cells are dark: electric light is necessary by day .... The light burns at night too... In autumn and winter the electric light is very weak and flickers.... The privileges provided for by the Labour Code for the sick and disabled are not applied here. [Prisoners] must work to the death. [In 1980 their daily task was to fit cables to seven hundred electric irons. Most could manage only four hundred.] ... The food is bad ... groats, meat (a piece of gristle, bone) which is often rotten. We hardly ever get vegetables.... The water is very bad. Sometimes they bring drinking water into the kitchen, but most frequently there is none -- and then they boil stagnant water, which is very dirty ... it stinks but you have to drink it."

On May 14, 1980, seven months after his return to Kyiv, the KGB visited Stus at his workplace. That night he was served with a warrant for his arrest as a repeat offender against Article 62 of the Soviet penal code: "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda designed to undermine or weaken Soviet power." He was interrogated, tortured, and sent to trial -- his fate fulfilled.

At his trial in Kyiv he tried to speak in his own defence, was expelled from the courtroom and sentenced as an "especially dangerous recidivist" to ten years' forced labour and five years' internal exile.

The trial took place at the end of September 1980, in the hall of the regional court packed with a specially verified and prepared public brought in to give the appearance of an open trial. No acquaintance, friend, or family member was admitted. But Mykhailyna had been summoned to testify.

Vasyl was very thin and pale and rose to greet her but, as this was not allowed, was made to sit down again. When it was her turn to testify, she stood at the dock, her back to Vasyl so that she kept trying to turn around to face him, for which she was reprimanded by the Court. Asked to "describe Vasyl's personality," she rose to the occasion, her first public statement about Vasyl, and went on to speak of him as she would years later, at memorial meetings.

-- MK --

I spoke of him as a person of elevated conscience, a person of honour and idea such as one meets very rarely in life. One should applaud such a person, not put him on trial! I thanked Fate for granting me the chance to know such a person; I said I tried to be like him. Protest against lies and injustice was the only means of existence for him.

As I left the courtroom, I glanced at Vasyl. He sat white-faced and strained, clenching his fists. I never saw him again.

-- Camp Correspondence: An Archive of Letters --

In his novel Cataract, former zek Mykhailo Osadchy usefully reminds us that "zeks are not doomed creatures. They may write letters," one every fortnight. As with all Soviet literature, of course, the letters are censored. "A zek is supposed to write: 'Dear Mother (Sister, Wife): I have received your letter. I am living well. The administration is pleased with my work. I am involved in socially useful labor at the camp.... Yours with love."'

"I wrote you a week ago but they confiscated the letter," writes Stus to his wife and son on March 22, 1982. "I shall try a second one. I got your package. For the third time they've cancelled one of your visits. So I don't know if we'll be seeing each other soon. I get no letters except yours. This is almost a rule.... How is the Kyivan Spring?"

A month later he asks for ballpoint pens even though every scrap of poetry he writes down, in hasty and diminutive script, is confiscated and he wonders whether he has already written all the poetry he is going to write.

August 8, 1982: "I got your letter of the 12th. You would have heard from me at the beginning of the month but they confiscated the letter. It had translations of Rilke in it (I guess they stuck in somebody's craw)."

In place of his rhymes he shouts obscenities at the "fascists and Gestapo agents" of the KGB. His stirring manifestos fall on deaf ears: the zeks are exhausted and the one who wrote a protest letter "to the authorities" has been thrown into solitary for a year.

"We have lost every right to belong to ourselves." He belongs to no one else either. The lines to his darlings are broken, his friends are cleaning toilets, his country is standing in a queue, hoping for bread. He holds the debris of his life's portion in his cold, grubby fingers and knows "you must create yourself from your own burning heart."

Stus writes to his son October 10, 1982: "If you have a clean, innocent heart, then you will live easily in the world, and you will know no evil. For you will be like a bright little fire, a pure beam, to whom all will be drawn with the purest of impulses. For you will be the finest person -- like your mother and Baba Ilynka. Do not sin, my son. This is the first rule. Maybe the only one."

-- Death Watch: Anonymous Testimony published in Suchasnist --

"The last time I saw Stus was in 1981, in the Urals. He was going to the bathhouse and he stopped for a few minutes to look out at the taiga. He looked with the eyes of a poet, of a profound spirit as though he had absorbed into himself that which not everyone is given to see. His eyes, face, figure expressed withdrawal from the real order of things. He lived in another world entirely, inaccessible and incomprehensible not only to his jailors but to retribution too."

It has been said of prisoners in the Gulag that the experience of living in extreme deprivation is transformative: the sufferer becomes aware of the demands of an "internal voice" which calls the individual to sacrifice the body in order to save the soul. This is called a mystical experience and is perhaps the message of all Gulag literature, all reports from the "other side": the metamorphosis of the terror of imminent death into a feast for the spirit.

And now something rather extraordinary begins to happen: at the same point where the mortal Stus is brought low in physical anguish and humiliation (those body searches upon his squatting nakedness), those who were around him begin describing him as "spiritually refined," "tender," even "delicate," as though he were being transfigured before their eyes. He recited Rilke. He cited Plato and Seneca.

All around him are the weaker ones, who stammer and have bad dreams, who long to be drawn up into his field of energy and be electrified there. But they are in awe of him too, for he contains within the cellular structures of his passion a dense and nuclear loneliness.

In the final years, very few documents arrive from Camp 36-1 and no poems at all. His creativity, which may be divided into three periods, Pre-Camp, Camp, and Farewell, now lodges in his last three hundred poems which, collected as Bird of Spirit, never emerged from the camp. He is said to have written a good-bye to his mother, wife, sister, son, and friends in the Fall of 1984, but I have not found it.

In 1985, some time after Stus' death, exiled members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group based in Washington, DC will send a notice to the Commission on Human Rights at the United Nations, to Amnesty International, and to International PEN noting that "all information about Stus, especially in 1984, [had been] extremely troubling." For five years his family had received no permission to see him, even when his wife, Valentyna Popeliukh, and his sister, Maria Stus, managed the two thousand kilometre journey to the camp. Meanwhile, the executive of the Ukrainian Writers' Union had cynically broadcast that "actually, V. Stus is well" and unpardonably went on to call him a "traitor, terrorist and murderer."

Excerpt from
"Inside the Copper Mountain" by Myrna Kostash (3 of 4)
back home next

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©1998 Myrna Kostash; ©1999 the Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies
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