His return


6 January 2007, Christmas Eve in the Orthodox tradition should have been the seventieth birthday of Vasyl Stus, poet, dissident thinker and Soviet political prisoner.  He died in the Perm Labour Camp 22 years ago, on 4 September 1985. 

Radio Svoboda’s Kyrylo Bulkin spoke with Yevhen Sverstyuk, public figure and writer, one of the leaders of the Shestydesyatnyky [the Sixties activists] and former prisoner of conscience, and Vasyl Ovsiyenko, former political prisoner who served some of his sentence in the same camp as Vasyl Stus. 

Kyrylo Bulkin:  I know that you both often meet with young school and university students and speak about Vasyl Stus.

What impression do you have?  Is Stus accessible to the younger generation?

Yevhen Sverstyuk:  I’d like to say that at one stage there was the idea that Stus wasn’t for the contemporary reader, that there was a huge divide between his concepts, his language, his imperatives, his moral and ethical maxims and the world to which his name is returning.

In fact, however, we underestimated people’s consciousness. Whatever we may think about the vast abyss dividing the poet and that world which rejected him, it has to be acknowledged that people love him and feel much more than they are able to express. They’re drawn to him. In «Smoloskyp» around a year ago we had young people doing research, mainly from the eastern regions, from Kharkiv, Donetsk, and from the South. You see a wonderful thing, with people being very drawn to Stus, and to his deep and mysterious word, his mission.

I think therefore that there’s much more understanding of Stus than you might think just looking at the general crowd.

Vasyl Ovsiyenko  I have been talking with school and university students about Stus since around 1990. I’ve spoken to perhaps hundreds of audiences.  It very seldom happens that they’re not receptive.

When, as somebody who saw Stus during those times in the camp, when I show them pictures of that place which is now a Museum to the Victims of Totalitarianism, it makes an impression.  I think it depends how you present him to people.

K.B.: I’d like to touch on the issue of perhaps a simplistic presentation of Stus which is on surface for the teacher. After all we see in his biography: «prisoner of conscience, human rights defender». And Stus as a poet is perhaps somewhere in the background.

Pan Yevhen. How do you feel that today’s teachers in Ukrainian schools present to students the phenomenon of Vasyl Stus?

Yevhen Sverstyuk:  When I was a teacher back in 1952, I had to present to senior school students interpretations of political type declarations by Tychyna or Rilksky. That was ultimately simple poetry. I had a huge problem – I felt shame before the children. And the deeper, even incomprehensible, yet deeper something is, a work, an image, poetry, the more interesting it is for children.

So I think it’s much easier to present a complex, than an excessively simply text.

However I am afraid that there is a very big problem for modern teachers in studying Stus precisely because the whole way of perceiving things, present experience, the ease with which things are perceived and the present circumstances are far removed from the foundation of Stus’ work, his maximalism, his very high aspirations.

K.B.: Does the sense of Stus’ link with something higher, more sublime, have any religious foundation?

Yevhen Sverstyuk: Stus is one of those poets religious in the deepest sense. His religious, you might say, is at its core national, the people’s Christianity. However it’s so penetrating and total, that it defies all attributes. And incidentally there is no mistake, nothing forced in Stus, as one finds in many people these days, even those quite experienced and even those well up on religion don’t use religious conceptions adequately. There’s nothing contrived.

He speaks of higher spiritual values as though of a world mastered, a world in which he lives. It is effectively in his works that for the first time we came upon such concepts as «prayer», «second birth» and «God is already being born in me». In this sense he is very close to Taras Shevchenko and this brings him particularly close to people. They have the same needs and he provides an answer to them.

I’d like to touch on the issue of fate. The poet is essentially both his works and his fate. The concept of victim is often encountered as a concept or image. However maybe it wouldn’t seem like this if it did not so permeated his own fate.

I think that for many people Stus’ fate and his works are inseparable. His fate is extremely important for the history of Ukraine and for our history over the last decades. Through his return Stus raised the spirits of Ukrainian people and his burial was an unheard of event in the USSR, which totally shattered all obstacles and all standards of what was permitted.

I believe that this maximalism, its force has been felt since his return to Ukraine, since the return of his name. He saved us from uniting our spirit of protest with the spirit of conformism which was so successfully emerging from the beginning of the 1990s and is still present.

Stus stands as guard, as warning pillar. This is one thing, and that is another, this is ours, this is the people’s and that is for those who are servile.

Pan Vasyl. You were with Vasyl Stus in the camp. What was your feeling about how he accepted his path which was eventually to bring him to his Golgotha?

Vasyl Ovsiyenko:  First, that he foresaw it. There were no pompous words in my presence, however the words are there in his verse.

For example, we recall here the reburial of Yury Lytvyn, Oleksa Tykhy and Vasyl Stus on 19 November 1989. He predicted it all. «However we will still return, albeit  in coffins. Yet not dead, not defeated, but immortal».

A sign of genius is the ability to foresee the future and in many places, many poems, this can be felt.

In everyday camp life was this also felt?  Did those with him have the sense that this was a great man who would later attain such heights?

Yevhen Sverstyuk:  In general the camps did not provide a good atmosphere for perceiving a person’s stature. It makes all more similar and all nondescript. It’s quite understandable that for many people the poet Don Quixote seems an oddball who doesn’t behave properly. The majority are like that. In any crowd they’re always in the majority. However those that understand, they understand that he is not simply different.

An abridged version of a radio interview on Radio Svoboda’s Ukrainian service

More information about Vasyl Stus can be found at: 


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