Ukrainian poet, 1938-1985
ZYMOVI DEREVA (Winter Trees)
Book of poems, 1970
Before the publication of Zymovi Dereva Vasyl Stus was scarcely known to Ukrainian readers as a poet. Both in Ukraine and elsewhere he was better known for his participation in the nationalist opposition movement. Between 1965 and 1972 he wrote 10 polemical works and addresses, which were adduced as evidence of his anti-Soviet activities when he was put on trial in the latter year. An active fighter against Soviet encroachments on Ukrainian culture, Stus was an original and prolific literary critic and translator, but first and foremost he was a poet. Poems of his had been printed in Soviet journals since 1959, but his published verse was by no means representative of his work. Most of his poetry reached readers only in samvydav (samizdat) form, and no collection of his verse was published in Ukraine during his lifetime.
Stus's fate as a persecuted dissident had been sealed in 1965, after an incident at the Ukraina cinema in Kyiv, where, together with Ivan Dziuba and Vyacheslav Chornovil, he addressed the audience of Sergei Paradzhanov's film Teni zabytykh predkov (Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors) with a call to protest against recent arrests of Ukrainian intellectuals. After this incident the usual KGB measures were taken: Stus was expelled from graduate school, placed under surveillance, and prevented from finding employment.
Zymovi dereva was accepted by the publishing house Radianskyi Pys'mennyk (Soviet Writer) in 1965. Although the book was favorably reviewed by Ivan Drach and Ievhen Adelheim, the censors halted its publication. Smuggled abroad, it was printed in Brussels by the émigré publisher Literatura i Mystetstvo (Literature and Art), which, according to the editors, released it "without either the knowledge or consent of the author", in order to fulfill their "duty to Ukrainian literature". The book includes poems written between 1963 and 1970, as well as some earlier ones. This collection of "lyricism of actuality" showed that a new poetic talent had emerged in Ukrainian literature, whose voice could not be mistaken for anyone else's. Describing this "intense and unprogrammed poetry", the literary critic George Y. Shevelov has noted the uniqueness of its imagery, rhythms, poetic composition, and prosody. This poetry "can endlessly vary around the same theme and normally remains lyrical. Its richness lies in the variety of experience and in its intensity". Stus's verse is "unprogrammed" because it was not written to uphold a particular political or national cause. Ideology and politics are secondary; philosophical and meditative themes are primary. These poems are characterized by generalization of human emotions, which the poet presents in concrete images.
The mere fact that this "illegal" collection had been published abroad was a crime. Soviet censors were always meticulous readers: the collection received the usual thorough analysis by official "experts" and Stus was accused of libeling "labour and life on collective farms, Soviet democracy, and the Soviet people. As part of the preliminary investigation into the book, the Soviet critic Arsen Kaspruk wrote an evaluation in which he condemned Stus's poetics as those of "ideological decadence" and "conscious calumniation" of the Soviet state. He went on to say that "even the most perverted fantasist could not produce a more disgusting and more hate-filled" picture of Soviet reality.
In 1970, Stus issued a collection of 43 poems in typescript, entitled The Merry Graveyard, which included what he regarded as the best poems from Zymovi dereva. He then distributed copies of this collection among his friends. Once again, Kaspruk was called in to evaluate Stus's work: this time he declared that, "According to Stus, Soviet people are soulless machines, people without heads, dummies, who are programmed to act in a senseless show".
On 7 September 1972 Vasyl Stus was convicted in closed court of "slandering the state" and anti-Soviet propaganda under Article 62 of the USSR Penal Code. He was sentenced to five years of forced labour in strict regime camps, to be followed by three years of exile in Siberia. Stus himself saw his conviction as a part of the continuing suppression of Ukrainian culture. In his indictment of the KGB, I Accuse (1975), which was smuggled out of the infamous Dubrovlag camp, he wrote:
I accuse the KGB of being openly chauvinistic and anti-Ukrainian, because it has deprived my people of their words and their voice. The trials of 1972 and 1973 put human thought, humanism, and filial love for one's nation in the dock. The generation of young Ukrainian intellectuals … has been transformed into a generation of political prisoners.
Gravely ill, Stus was forced to work hard in inhuman conditions and received no medical attention. All his manuscripts were confiscated. About 600 original poems, as well as translations from Goethe, Kipling, Rilke, and Baudelaire, were destroyed in 1976 alone.
Within a year of his return from exile in 1980, Stus was convicted for his activities as a member of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group, and sentenced to 10 years in a strict-regime labour camp and five years exile. Uninterrupted persecution finally brought about his death in a labour camp on 4 September 1985.
Publication of Stus's poems abroad continued while he was imprisoned, notably in the collection Svicha v svichadi (1977, A Candle in a Mirror). This was followed by another collection, the posthumous Palimpsesty (1986, Palimpsests). The first printed collection to appear in Ukraine, Povernennia (The Return), was published in 1990 in samvydav form. The ban on Stus's name and verse was lifted that same year. Since then he has received recognition in his homeland as a published poet. In 1990 his collection Doroha boliu (The Road of Pain) was published, and in 1992 two further collections were brought out: Vikna v pozaprostir (Windows into Beyond-Space) and Zolotokosa krasunia (The Golden-Braided Beauty).
Zymovi dereva (Winter Trees), 1970
Svicha v svichadi (A Candle in a Mirror), 1977
Palimpsesty (Palimpsests), 1986
Selected Poems, introduction by George Y. Shevelov, 1987
Zolotokosa krasunia (The Golden-Braided Beauty), 1992
Fenomen doby : Skhodzhennia na Holhofu slavy (Phenomenon of Our Time: Rising to the Golgotha of Fame), 1993
Tvory v chotyriokh tomakh, shesty knyhakh (Works in Four Volumes and Six Books), 1994
Carynnyk, Marko, "Poetry and Politics", Studia Ucrainica, 4 (1988)
Kotsiubyns'ka, Mykhailyna, "Na tsvyntari rozstrilianykh iliuzii", Slovo i Chas (6 June 1990)
Luckyj, George S. N. (editor), The Discordant Voices: The Non-Russian Soviet Literatures, 1953-1973, Oakville, Ontario: Mosaic Press, 1975
Pliushch, Leonid, "Tam, Livishe Sertsia …" (There, to the Left of the Heart …), Suchasnist', 5 (May 1986)
Shevelov, George Y., "'Potion and Poison': Palimpsests-Vasyl Stus's Last Collection of Poems" in Focus on Ukraine: Digest of the Soviet Ukrainian Press, Munich: Suchasnist', 1985
Sverstiuk, Ievhen, Ivan Svitlychnyi, and Viacheslav Chornovil, "V 50-littia z dnia narodzhennia Vasylia Stusa", Vyzdov'nyi shliakh (Liberation Path), London, 4 (1988)
Svitlychna, Nadia, "The Death of Vasyl Stus", Index on Censorship, 15/2 (1986)
Zinkevych, Osyp and Mykola Frantsuzhenko (editors), Vasyl Stus: His Life and Works, Recollections and Essays by His Contemporaries, Baltimore and Toronto: Smoloskyp, 1987