In memory of Vasyl Stus


21 years ago today Vasyl Stus, Ukrainian poet, human rights activist and member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, died in an isolation cell in one of the Perm Political Prisoner Camps, in Kuchino Chusovsk district.  He was 48.

20 years earlier, on this same day, Vasyl Stus was one of those who at the preview showing of S. Paradzhanov’s film ‘Tini zabutykh predkiv’ [‘Shadows of forgotten ancestors’] in the cinema “Ukraina” in Kyiv, called on the audience to speak out against the recent wave of arrests of members of the intelligentsia.  The authorities reacted swiftly expelling Stus from his PhD studies and then from his job in the State History Archive.

He was first arrested in 1972 and sentenced to five years labour camp and three years exile. The “charge” was of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda”, the “evidence” – his poems and some human rights articles.

Stus returned to Kyiv in August 1979, with seriously weakened health.  It was clear that he would not survive another labour camp sentence.

It was however not a choice he had.  As he wrote in “Z tabornoho zoshyta” [“From the camp notebook”], 1983):

“In Kyiv I learned that people close to the Helsinki Group were being repressed in the most flagrant manner. This at least had been the case in the trials of Ovsiyenko, Horbal, Lytvyn, and they were soon to deal similarly with Chornovil and Rozumny. 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”. (“Z tabornoho zoshyta” [“From the camp notebook”], 1983).

[more details about Vasyl Stus’ life can be found at: ]

Dmytro Stus, the poet’s only son, was asked in an interview what advice from his father he would remember all his life.  He replied:

“The most important advice was from the second arrest. It was May 1980.  When we came home and witnessed the search, we felt degraded, insulted. Then my father spoke his last words to me:

“You know, son, you’ve had to endure terrible humiliation today, you’ve felt insulted, and a sense of personal powerlessness. For a man that’s the hardest thing to endure. But I want to ask you to try hard not to become embittered with this world. Through your eyes hatred must not find its way into this world.  Because as soon as you allow this to happen, your heart will become hardened, and the world will respond in the same way.”  For me, this was one of the first pieces of advice that I accepted, that I believed in.  And it has been throughout my life the most important”[1].  


Halya Coynash

[1]  The original interview is in Russian at:  (


 Share this