03.09.2015 | Halya Coynash

Remembering Vasyl Stus, a voice raised against tyranny


On September 4, 2015 it will be 30 years since the death in the Perm-36 labour camp of Vasyl Stus, the Ukrainian poet and human rights defender, who is once again arousing antagonism in modern Russia and among Kremlin-backed militants in Donbas for  ‘Ukrainian nationalism and anti-state activities”.   Stus was 47, with a wife and teenage son, and was serving a second term of imprisonment for what the regime called “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.  

The circumstances of his death remain unclear but it seems likely that Stus died of heart failure while on hunger strike.  The conditions that the political prisoners were held in at Perm-36 were extremely harsh.  Then on Aug 27, Stus was placed in the punishment cell for a fabricated infringement of regulations. He is reported by Vasyl Ovsiyenko, a fellow political prisoner, to have told one of the guards that he was going on hunger strike “to the end”.

The other prisoners heard him being taken along the corridor on Sept 2, and understood from his defiant words, that the authorities had threatened him with further punishment.  A day later, at around 5 p.m. on Sept 3, another prisoner heard Stus ask the guard for validol [medicine for heart palpitations or similar]. 

That was the last time anybody heard Stus speak.  Over the next day the prison staff tried various forms of subterfuge clearly designed to claim that Stus had ended his hunger strike but was still alive.

It is known only that Vasyl Stus’ heart stopped beating during the night from September 3-4.

Stus is a great poet whose work should not be viewed only through the prism of Soviet repression. Nevertheless, the anniversary and Stus’ refusal to remain silent whatever the price are of especial poignancy in the face of Russia’s mounting repression and reinstatement of the worst Soviet practices, including with respect to the Ukrainians it is holding prisoner. It is a telling detail that the same antagonism to Stus and historic memory has been demonstrated by the Kremlin-backed militants now in control of Stus’ native Donetsk. 

September 4, in fact, marks two anniversaries, both of repression and of resistance.  50 years ago, on Sept 4, 1965, a premier showing of a film by Sergei Paradzhanov turned into a public act of protest against a wave of arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals.   Stus was among those who rose to their feet “in protest against tyranny”. That cost him his PhD studies, while others involved lost their jobs. 

In the explanation he was ordered to give the university, Stus wrote that he couldn’t remain silent, and that the suspicious arrests give grounds for terrible analogies.

The shadow of blood-stained 1937 was too close to be able to not react to such symptoms. Purely psychologically, from a purely civic position, I couldn’t hold back. I believe that in such conditions silence is a crime”.

It was during the second wave of arrests in Jan 1972 that Stus was first arrested.  The supposed ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’ was deemed to be lurking in 14 poems and 10 human rights or literary texts.

That first sentence was served in the Mordovian camps, with Stus taking part in all protests by the political prisoners. Mikhail Heifets, who was for a time his cellmate, said of Stus that he always spoke to the camp administration and to all kinds of cops as if he were the prosecutor at a future Nuremberg Trial. And he did indeed view them as criminals.

The Soviet regime even prevented him from writing freely, with the camp authorities arguing that the fact of his being in captivity could give a political overtone to his poetry. Much of his work written in the camps seems to have been irrevocably lost.

Stus had suffered serious damage to his health during his imprisonment and exile, but this did not stop him from engaging in protest again after returning to Kyiv in 1979. 

He quite simply had no choice. In his words:

In Kyiv I learned that people close to the Helsinki Group were being repressed in the most flagrant manner. ..I didn’t want that kind of Kyiv. Seeing that the Group had been left rudderless, I joined it because I couldn’t do otherwise … When life is taken away, I had no need of pitiful crumbs. Psychologically I understood that the prison gates had already opened for me and that any day now they would close behind me – and close for a long time. But what was I supposed to do? Ukrainians were not able to leave the country, and anyway I didn’t particularly want to go beyond those borders since who then, here, in Great Ukraine, would become the voice of indignation and protest? This was my fate, and you don’t choose your fate. You accept it, whatever that fate may be. And when you don’t accept it, it takes you by force … However I had no intention of bowing my head down, whatever happened. Behind me was Ukraine, my oppressed people, whose honour I had to defend or perish”.   ‘From the camp notebook’, 1983

He was arrested the second time in 1980, with the ‘repeat – anti-Soviet propaganda – offence’ classifying him as a ‘particularly dangerous criminal” and resulting in a sentence of 10 years ‘special’ (most harsh) regime labour camp and five years exile.  Stus refused the services of a Soviet lawyer but had Viktor Medvedchuk, now close associate of Russian President Vladimir Putin, foisted on him. The latter effectively read out a speech for the prosecution, saying that Stus was guilty and deserved punishment. 

There was international outrage, expressed among others by the PEN Society, at the death of Vasyl Stus.  It was under Mikhail Gorbachev that the last political prisoners in the Soviet Union were finally released in 1988.  A year later, on Nov 19, 1989, the bodies of Vasyl Stus, and two other political prisoners – Yury Lytvyn and Oleksa Tykhy – returned to Ukraine and were reburied in the Baikove Cemetery in Kyiv.

It seems safe to assume that all three men would have been among the million Ukrainians who came out in protest on Dec 1, 2013 following the Yanukovych regime’s vicious attack on young Maidan activists. Their voice would have surely been heard ever since in defence of victims of repression in Russian-occupied Crimea; of terror and intimidation in militant-occupied Donbas; and on behalf of Russia’s Ukrainian prisoners. 

Vasyl Stus rose to his feet in protest against tyranny when the price of such an act was high. Twenty years later he paid the highest price for his courage and refusal to be broken. So too did Yury Lytvyn; Valery Marchenko; and Oleksa Tykhy.

Monstrous verdicts have just been passed on two Ukrainian opponents of Russia’s annexation of their native Crimea – Oleg Sentsov and Oleksandr Kolchenko. A third – Gennady Afanasyev – is now in danger for having the courage to retract testimony given under torture.

A similar sentence can be expected against Nadiya Savchenko, former military pilot and Ukrainian MP.  There are other Ukrainians who are now detained in Russia and facing trumped up charges.

In Russian-occupied Crimea three Crimean Tatars are in detention, including Akhtem Chiygoz, the Deputy Head of the Crimean Tatar Mejlis, or representative assembly.  They and Euromaidan activist Oleksandr Kostenko are all facing, or in Kostenko’s case have been convicted of, legally preposterous charges.

Myroslav Marynovych, one of the 10 founding members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (in 1976,  spent 7 years in a harsh regime labour camp.  He stresses the enormous importance of all letters from the outside world.  Yes, they could sometimes provoke the KGB to worse persecution, but they also “created a certain guarantee that the cause that you were suffering for had a general human dimension, that the world knew about your fate and that you wouldn’t die an anonymous death in the Siberian snow.” 

Details are given here of addresses you can write to, as well as a model letter, if you prefer.  Maybe choose one prisoner and write a few times.  Also, if possible, tell the press and politicians in your country about the case  (details provided).

Publicity and attention to individual political prisoners counter lawlessness – please help!

Recommend this post

forgot the password




send me a new password

on top