: Remembering Vasyl Stus: Ukraine's symbol against Soviet repression
Opinion15:20 Jan. 6, 2016

Remembering Vasyl Stus: Ukraine's symbol against Soviet repression

On the anniversary of Vasyl Stus' birthday we're discussing his role in Ukraine's dissident movement

On January 6, Ukrainian dissident poet Vasyl Stus would have turned 78 years old. The well-known figure spent more than 20 years in Soviet prison camps where he died at the age of 47. Thirty years later mystery still surrounds his death.

Stus was seen as a symbol of resistance against Soviet repressions; many believe this is precisely why he may have been killed. Joining me to discuss this key figure in Ukraine's dissident movement is Roman Verytelnyk, Ukrainian professor of literature at Kyiv Mohyla Academy.

Tamara Rozouvan: Why do you think the Soviet authority saw Stus's work as such a threat?

Roman Verytelnyuk: For a number of reasons. First of all it is poetry which was wishing away that was not acceptable as an expectation for the way poets were supposed to write. He was considered as non-understandable, decadent and other terminology was used to describe his poetry.

T.R.: And he was also critical of the government, the soviet authority?

R.V.: No, he really was not. It was actually poetry as any good poetry. It was very difficult to show that it was political. The poetry was about all kinds of things, it was about motherhood, about love, there were some erotic poems, about sense of belonging, sense of self… But there was nothing really or virtually political about this poetry. It probably sounds strange today, when we think about the legacy of Vasyl Stus. Poetry was expected to be political, that is really what got him into trouble. But his poetry wasn't. He was centred on the person, on the human being, which, again, was not what poetry was supposed to be doing at that time.

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T.R.: So he wasn't in line with the Soviet authorities' way of how literature was supposed to be at that time?

R.V.: There was the presented conundrum for the authorities, so what do you do as a poet who rights in a way that Vasys Stus wrote. Plus, his friendship with other key members of the ‘Ukrainian 60's Movement', for instance, with Ivan Svitlychny, who was subsequently arrested; and, certainly, events like the premier showing of shadows of God answers within 60's in downtown Kyiv. The premier showing was stopped when a number of people headed by Ivan Dzuyba appealed to those present to protest the arrests there were going on and the repressions there were beginning. Vasyl Stus was one of the people who also appealed to the audience, if they were against these repressions to stand up and to have their voices counted.

T.R.: Did a lot of people get up?

R.V.: There is a lot of controversy about that. It is depending of a lot of people's life who were at the movie theatre at that time. Some say, that half of audience got up, other say that very few got up.

T.R.: Vasyl Stus is seeing as a key figure in a dissident movement but do a lot of Ukrainians now know about his work, particularly, his poems?

R.V.: Because Vasyl Stus is studied in schools a lot of young Ukrainians probably know him. He is required reading in Ukrainian schools which is a separate question in itself, because the question been whether that type of poetry, type of difficult poetry should be taught, not difficult I would like to say, but complex poetry should be taught to school children. That is the question in itself.

T.R.: It is kind a difficulty to understand what his poetry means?

R.V.: I guess reader has to be prepared to read his poetry, I mean; a reader has to be grounded in poetry and literature itself. Some of his poems are lyrical poems, probably could be read by people who don't have such kind of preparation. To the answer to your question, a number of years ago there was an attempt to rename a Donetsk University as Vasyl Stus University. At that time there was a total opposition among the University community to do that. So, that indicates how in Eastern Ukraine many people were not prepared to accept Vasyl Stus as a symbol of Ukrainian statehood, despite the fact that he grew up in Donetsk. It is probably very regional thing, I mean, in some parts of Ukraine Stus is very well-known and in another parts he is less known.

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T.R.: There is a very interesting piece of information that when he was arrested for the second time in the 1980's his lawyer was a Victor Medvechuk. Now he is a very close associate of Russian president Vladymyr Putin. Do you think that is a coincidence?

R.V.: Well, at that time I think Mr. Medvechuk was just a lawyer in the system and he did what any other lawyer at that time would have done in an instance like that, where the dissident was arrested and the outcome was known. Lawyer or no-lawyer, Vasyl Stus would have been sentenced to exile. That does not absolve Mr. Medvechuk of blame because he certainly took part in a process. I guess this incident shows the way the machine worked at the time. The system wanted to destroy Vasyl Stus - a poet, a major poet, so it did it, and, it certainly, did it. Everything was in the authorities' arsenal, the court system, the lawyers, the prosecutors etc. He was probably no more and no less that just a part of the system that condemned Vasys Stus to his sentence and ultimately to his death.

T.R.: When Vasyl Stus was re-buried in the 1980's tens and thousands of people came to the streets of Kyiv. It was one of the biggest processions known … Why do you think so many people came to the streets? Why do you think his work had such a great impact on their lives?

R.V.: Yes, it was 1989. It was, certainly, a time when many things were changing. Probably for the first time in many years the idea of Ukrainian statehood was becoming real idea for many Ukrainians. Many people who had been part of 1980's movement were part of this new drive for change and for the establishment of independent Ukraine. He was still very much alive in the memory of very many people. He was someone a lot of people thought about, because he was simply a great poet. Thousands and millions died in the Gulags in the previous decade, but Vasyl Stus' poetry was published during Soviet times. The act which you have described was a demonstration that people didn't want to be afraid anymore to come out onto the streets. They wanted the system to end the way it was, and they were willing to risk a lot by being on the streets.

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By coming out into the streets in 1989, when the system was still very much in place, people risked a lot. But by doing that they showed a lack of fear. It was the same during the student demonstrations in 2004 and two years ago during the Euromaidan protests in Kyiv. It was high time to say ‘no' to the things that were going on.

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