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

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

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

back home

-- "You aren't really here, not really here." --

For the entire last year, Stus was held in an isolation cell on reduced rations in spite of exhibiting dangerous symptoms of kidney malfunction.

He died on September 4, 1985 (precisely twenty years, to the day, after his heady protest in the Kyiv cinema), while working the night shift of a forced labour detail. This is one version. In another, he was on hunger strike.

All his writings remained the property of the KGB.

His family asked to bring home his body. The camp authorities refused. Because he had died before his term was up, they explained, he could not be removed from camp until he had "served" his entire sentence.

They dug the hole and laid him in it, buried under marker number nine in the camp cemetery. The marker was a wooden stake, and, according to the photograph in the newspaper I clipped out, someone has tied an embroidered cloth around it.

All the same there is nothing sweeter
than this lost and indolent
than this carefree, repellent, than
this earth.
-- Vasyl Stus

-- The Film --

In 1989 Stanislav Chernilevsky decides to make a film: "In August 1989, I went to Chusiv [near the Perm camps] to organize the filming of the reburial of Stus' remains but the authorities told us he could only be reburied in winter -- danger of epidemic, they said. We figured that sooner or later there was going to be a reburial and we'd better be prepared so we got a Konbas camera and three hundred metres of film stock and set off.

"From the 29th of August to September 1, we filmed the former establishment ... where ... Vasyl Stus had died. Our guide was Vasyl Ovsienko -- he had been twice imprisoned with Stus.

"I got my first shock at the sight of the Zone when Ovsienko led us through the entry gates and I saw the tracks, now overgrown with weeds, down which thousands of people had shuffled, hands behind their back, day after day, year after year, without rest.

"He took us from room to room, told us who had been kept where, who died where. Stus died in cell number three ....

I'm looking at their film, a tenth-generation video lent me by a colleague in Toronto, in the company of a friend whose grasp of the Ukrainian language is strong enough to catch the drift of this washed-out, wobbly version. The crew's inside one of the barracks, filming the plank beds and the inscriptions of the prisoners on the boards -- "Murderers! Blood-suckers! Torturers!" -- while Ovsienko tells them about Vasyl's last day of life, how he had been sent to the isolator cell and, going in, had said to a fellow prisoner, "I'm declaring a hunger strike to the end," and kept his word.

The film crew tramps around the deserted barracks, tripping over junk in the long grass. Ovsienko hoists himself up on the sill of a barred window to look inside "where Vasyl died." He gestures at the shutters that hang akimbo, the rusted bars, the eternal gloom of the cell. The camera follows him inside (there is a great deal of clattering sound including the roar of a second camera) and he demonstrates that the barracks rooms were as wide as a man with his arms outstretched.

Now we are at Room 12, where Stus sat before being hauled to the isolator. It faced north and never had the sun. On the night of September 4th, 1985, Ovsienko heard the sinister voice of one of the wardens hissing orders and then the noise of a body being dragged away "by thieves in the night."

The camp graveyard, surrounded tentatively by ramshackle fencing, is woolly and thorny like a prairie boneyard. Stus lies under a bed of wildflowers long gone to seed. The crew pokes around in the weeds and comes up with a shredded cloth and the remains of a small blue-and-yellow flag. They clear the grave, tie a new embroidered cloth around the grave stump, and light thin white candles.

In November 1989, Vasyl's son, Dmytro, a Kyiv University student, is finally given permission to unearth his father's remains. Standing in underground water, he digs with a pickaxe in the Ural earth. Carefully removing the rotting planks, he lifts up the blackened body in its shreds of camp uniform and lays it in its new coffin. There is a short prayer service at the open grave, the mourners masking their faces from the sulphurous air.

Later, Stus' mother will complain to a journalist: "An impressive delegation -- two busloads -- visited me. They bore portraits of Stus, flowers, wreaths trailing ribbons inscribed with phoney declarations: 'O Mother of the Martyr!' 'Hail Mother of the Famous Poet!' But I didn't want any of this. What I wanted was my own living son. I had lost three children: a daughter to famine, an older son to the mines and now this younger one to the Zone. I told them that I spoke now only with myself and the Scriptures."

And so, in 1989, the poet comes home.

At Boryspil Airport in Kyiv, in a cold winter's wind, some hundreds of ordinary people stood in a concentrated silence, holding Ukrainian flags and church banners, staring at the doors of the Baggage Department building. The Perm-Novosibirsk-Kyiv flight had landed an hour earlier.

Presently, a baggage car drove up and deposited three long packs made from crude boards. These contained the bodies of Stus and fellow Ukrainian zeks, Yuri Lytvyn and Oleksa Tykhy. A short liturgy for the dead was sung and then a vehicle bearing the packs set off for the city.

The next day, November 19, the funeral cortege moved through the city, past St. Sophia Cathedral and down St. Volodymyr Street, past the gloomy structures of the old KGB headquarters. Mourners led with a cross bearing a crown of thorns while the rest followed, singing one of the great hymns of the Ukrainian Orthodox liturgy: "Holy God, Holy Almighty, Holy Eternal, Have Mercy Upon Us."

At the cemetery a group of former political prisoners took the coffins into their arms and bore them to the graves. And then, because no one but convoy guards had been present at the first burial in the camp cemetery in Perm, thousands now filed past the open graves, each with a handful of earth to cover the dead.

I think that's the widow among them, the woman in the smart black hat. She has a large, well-shaped nose and a sad, downturned mouth. With a shapely hand she brushes her tears away. She is wan and middle-aged.

Mykhailyna is there. She stands at the grave and says farewell. I can't make out her words. I watch her on the videotape, the solemn and inconsolable friend, and soundlessly make her prayer for her.

-- Last Will and Testament --

Leap over the precipice
before you grow old,
and you'll fall into your childhood:
face up -- into the scented grass.
-- Vasyl Stus

On April 25, 1979, Stus wrote a letter to his son. In it he remembers his childhood in a village south of Kyiv. He remembers hanging in his cradle from a hook in the beam of the cottage ceiling. He remembers the brown cape he wore to school and the dead bunnies whose tiny corpses in the dirt made him weep.

He remembers the childhood with the wheelbarrow, trundling potatoes from the field, grass for the goat, coal from the slagheap. He remembers the dish of food he tried to share with his hungry mother. He remembers her one torn blouse, her patched skirt. He remembers he was hungry, and gleaning handfuls of grain from a stubblefield in his baba's village when a mounted guard snatched his bag and ran him off.

He remembers the first maps he saw -- of ancient Egypt and Greece. And the first time he read Jack London's Martin Eden and Nikolai Ostrovsky's How the Steel Was Forged and that he promised to study very hard and be like their heroes so that people would live better. He remembers a song: "Throw off my chains, set me free,/I will teach you to love liberty."

"Remember, my son, that people must live like the angels, with love for one another, with feeling; that all people are equal and honourable, all-powerful, whole, crystalline, made in the image of God.... For everything is alive and wants to live."

-- Photos from the Republic of Happiness --

Photograph of a street in Kyiv. Three men, two now dead. Summer (they are in shirtsleeves). The man in the middle, Stus, is talking, pointing a finger. He has a sweater thrown over his left shoulder. He is broadshouldered, slim-hipped. His right hand holds a briefcase. It must be heavy: I can see the corded muscles of his arm running up under the sleeve. He is thirty years old and belongs to that legendary generation, the Sixties People, for whom the heady atmosphere of the early 1960s has already thickened and clogged with worry and fear as friends are plucked out one by one and vanish.

They were made prisoners at the first peak of their creative lives. They had been writing poems, painting pictures, developing theories. Then, they were working in stone quarries and weaving shopping bags.

But in 1968, 1969, Vasyl is still with us. He goes to the studios of his friends to see their paintings, he goes to football games, he lifts up his face to the September sun, crushing the withering leaves of the chestnut trees underfoot.


A photograph of Vasyl and some of his poet friends from student days. They are lined up on a couch, grinning, except for Vasyl whose head is bent down in contemplation of something on his lap. Thick dark hair tumbling onto his forehead. The sculptured cheeks and proud nose. The mouth slightly open. The shutter has just clicked. I have slid onto the couch beside him. I push my hand into his hair, groping along his skull, and pull his head back. He shuts his eyes. His mouth falls open and he utters a little cry. I do not let go.

He is surrounded by women. These are his friends, the ones who also write poems, who bustle about the one-room flat bearing platters of bread, sausage, radishes, torte while everyone gets drunk and kisses each other in sheer admiration, who kick off their shoes and dance on the Crimean rugs, curling their arms around Vasya's hips and dragging him into the waltz, who shuffle off to the camps, too, and, thin and cold, their hair falling out and their breasts flattened and sapless, offer their blood for Vasyl.

Mykhailyna is here. She has written herself back into the festivities, the golden summers of their "small, temporary Republic of Happiness" where they found in each other's company relief from the everyday world of affliction and separateness. In their Republic they were neighbours again, confidants, audience, lovers, acolytes, at the core of which stood their poet, Vasyl. He lived as the "poetic heart" of their little sovereign republic, "like the good heart of a good king."

Where is the wife? No one mentions her. She is not there when, later, the surviving friends conjure up those celebratory feasts of their youth. Vasyl writes to her from the Zone, but the letters are so crabbed by the sour censorship that I cannot read anything there of his love, and I have found none of her letters to him.

And when I do come upon his love poems, none later than 1965, I am not relieved but excited by jealousy.

tell me that you love me.
Just tell me about our love.
(Like the pulp near the cherry pit)
A single, solitary, round, damp
succulent ... red word
-- Vasyl Stus

Jealous that, while I and all the other women dance attendance on him, offering our sighs and loyalty, he has cleaved to his wife and taken her to bed,

so that gathered into yourself like a tiny fist,
you'll become whole and unharmed,
restored for my hoarse
gutteral whisper of joy.
-- Vasyl Stus

-- MK --

A quiet summer evening on the Prypiat. The broad, gentle river rolling by. Motorboats puttering busily back and forth, carrying hay and some kind of fishing tackle. On the river bank, our small camp of noble savages on vacation. A few tents, a large wooden table, a firepit. Frying fish, a pot of dumplings, a bottle glinting in the pail of water. All of us were in splendid form, the men with paper bowties pasted to their naked chests. We raised the flag -- lifejackets on a rope -- and held our musical instruments -- pots, spoons, plates -- in readiness.

At exactly the designated time, the flag leaped to the top of the pole to the accompaniment of a great clanging and clattering. From around the river bend came sailing a boat festooned in greenery. Two "nymphs" held aloft blossoming branches of plum while at the prow stood the tall, strong figure of a man whimsically draped in water lily plants, his head wreathed in wild grasses, and his hands gripping a stave. Poseidon! Magnificent, truly beautiful, this Neptune. Our friend, our poet, Vasyl.

And then he rounds a bend in the river and is gone. For awhile I hear the splash of the water disturbed by the oars and then that too is gone. The next view I have of him he is in the Zone, a hero among the damned.

He is thin, his hair is cropped, his camp uniform hangs on him like a potato sack. It's cold, the fire has gone out, the plank bed is hard and slicked with frost.

And then, in the final years, he becomes the dying man, his flesh melting away from him as he drifts off into a rapture of the spirit.

His place was where he found it -- in his case, as it turned out, in a camp. Agreed, you say: all poets are citizens but it does not follow that all citizens are poets, and who will write the poems of the men and women weaving shopping bags in the Urals and digging gold in Siberia, flapping their arms and stomping their feet within the icy walls of the isolator cell? The task of the writer is to write, you say, not to sit (tongue-tied) in prison. The corollary is this: anyone can go to prison but only Stus can write Stus. Yet he didn't agree. Unperturbed by the epithets -- spy, traitor, bourgeois nationalist -- he got up from his writing desk and went to the Zone.

He did not hold on. I hold on. I insist on that broad back, the elegant line of the narrow hip in black trousers, the sinews under the hairy skin of his arm. I imagine the clenched musculature of his buttocks, the long shaft of his thighs, the dark, soft curl of his sex laid against his belly. He is lying on the grass. His bony fingers hold a plum, its blue skin split open, the flesh's golden liquor smearing his thumb. He shades his eyes against the sun. A small, pale butterfly lifts off from the cabbage plant and lights on his lip and he keeps her there, while she drags her soft powdery limbs into the corner of his mouth.

Remember how later, after the food and the drink, we went walking along the riverbank and talked and the air smelled of hay and mint?

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

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
This site contains copyrighted material.
No portion of this site may be stored or reproduced -- mechanically
or electronically -- without the written consent of the copyright holders.

http://www.ualberta.ca/~ulec/stus/
ulec @ ualberta.ca

Last updated: March 01, 1999