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Vasyl Stus

Vasyl Stus

Ukrainian poet and publicist

Vasyl Semenovych Stus was a Ukrainian poet, translator, literary critic, journalist, and an active member of the Ukrainian dissident movement. For his political convictions, his works were banned by the Soviet regime and he spent 13 years in detention until his death in Perm-36—then a Soviet forced labor camp for political prisoners, subsequently The Museum of the History of Political Repression—after having declared a hunger strike on September 4, 1985. On November 26, 2005, the Ukrainian president Viktor Yushchenko posthumously awarded him the highest national title: Hero of Ukraine. Stus is widely regarded as one of Ukraine's foremost poets.


Vasyl Stus was born on January 6, 1938, into a peasant family in the village of Rakhnivka, Haisyn Raion, Vinnytsia Oblast (modern Ukraine) (province), Ukrainian SSR. The following year, his parents Semen Demyanovych and Iryna Yakivna moved to the city of Stalino (now Donetsk). Their children joined them one year later. Vasyl first encountered the Ukrainian language and poetry from his mother who sang him Ukrainian folk songs.

After secondary school, Vasyl Stus entered the Department of history and literature of the Pedagogical Institute in Stalino (nowadays Donetsk University). In 1959 he graduated from the Institute with honours. Following graduation, Stus briefly worked as a high school teacher of the Ukrainian language and literature in Tauzhnia village of Kirovohrad Oblast, and then was conscripted into the Soviet Army for two years. While studying at the university and during his military service in the Ural mountains, he started to write poetry and translated into Ukrainian more than a hundred verses by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Rainer Maria Rilke. The original copies of his translations were later confiscated by the KGB, and were lost.

After his military service, Stus worked as an editor for the newspaper Sotsialistychnyi Donbas (Socialist Donbas) between 1960-1963. In 1963, he entered a Doctoral (PhD) program at the Shevchenko Institute of Literature of Ukrainian Academy of Sciences in Kyiv. At the same time, he published his selected poetry.

In 1965, Stus married Valentyna Popeliukh; his son, Dmytro was born in 1966.

On September 4, 1965, during the premiere of Sergei Parajanov's film Shadows of Forgotten Ancestors in Kyiv's Ukrayina cinema, Vasyl Stus took part in a protest against the arrests of Ukrainian intelligentsia. As a result, he was expelled from the Institute on September 30 and later lost his job at the State Historical Archive. After that, he worked on a building site, a fireman, and an engineer, continuing his intensive work on poetry. In 1965, he submitted his first book Circulation to a publisher, but it was rejected due to its discrepancy with Soviet ideology and artistic style. His next book of poetry Winter Trees was also rejected, regardless of positive reviews from the poet Ivan Drach and the critic Eugen Adelgejm. In 1970, the book was published in Belgium.

On January 12, 1972, Stus was arrested for "anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda". He served a five-year sentence in a labor camp, and two-year exile in Magadan Oblast.

Monument in the Stus square laid out in formerly the Peremoga street, 119, where the house stood Stus lived in from 1965 to 1972

The house in the Chernobylska street, Kyiv, where Stus lived in 1979–1980

The photo of Stus shot by the KGB in 1980

The prison cell at Perm-36 where Stus died on 4 September 1985

In August 1979, having finished his sentence, he returned to Kyiv and worked in a foundry. He spoke out in defense of members of the Ukrainian Helsinki group (UHG). Stus himself joined the UHG in October 1979.

“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).

On 14 May 1980, prior to the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow, he was arrested and received a 10-year sentence for "anti-Soviet activity". The later influential (in Ukrainian politics)[3] Viktor Medvedchuk defended Stus during this trial in 1980. In the closing speech from the defence Medvedchuk stated all of Stus' crimes deserved punishment; however, he also told the court that the defendant fulfilled his daily norm at the factory where he worked at the time, despite serious stomach problems. Stus' requests to get another public defender were dismissed by the court. In a 2018 interview with The Independent Dissident Yevhen Sverstyuk also recalled: "When Stus met with his appointed lawyer, he immediately felt that Medvedchuk was a man of the Komsomol-aggressive type, that he did not protect him, did not want to understand him and, in fact, was not interested in his case." Medvedchuk claimed he could not have operated differently: “Stus denounced the Soviet government, and didn’t consider it to be legitimate. Everyone decides their own fate. Stus admitted he agitated against the Soviet government. He was found guilty by the laws of the time. When the laws changed, the case was dropped. Unfortunately, he died.”

Vasyl Stus died after he declared hunger strike on September 4, 1985, in a Soviet forced labor camp for political prisoners Perm-36 near the village of Kuchino, Perm Oblast, Russian SFSR, where he had been transferred in November 1980. Danylo Shumuk reported that the commandant, Major Zhuravkov, committed suicide after the death of Stus. In the Kuchino camp, out of 56 inmates kept there between 1980 and 1987, eight died, including four members of the Ukrainian Helsinki Group.

In August 1990 the Supreme Court of the Soviet Union canceled Stus' verdict and the case was closed due to lack of evidence.


January 6, 1938
Vasyl Stus was born.


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