The Vasyl Stus collection is an incredibly rich resource for literary scholars as well as the broader public. The two volumes of his letters, published in 1997, are considered masterpieces by those intimately familiar with his life and works.. At the end of the second volume is a remarkable essay written by Stus’s mentor, friend and colleague Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska, titled “The Epistolary Literature of Vasyl Stus,” which provides important insights into Stus’s character, his literary influences, his understanding of what was happening to himself and his friends, and how he understood their role in history. The original letters to friends and acquaintances are held at the archives of the T. H. Shevchenko Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine (NANU), while the letters to his wife and son remain in the family’s private archive.
Як добре те, що смерті не боюсь я
і не питаю, чи тяжкий мій хрест.
Що перед вами, судді, не клонюся
в передчутті недовідомих верств.
Що жив, любив і не набрався скверни,
ненависті, прокльону, каяття.
Народе мій, до тебе я ще верну,
і в смерті обернуся до життя
своїм стражденним і незлим обличчям.
Як син, тобі доземно уклонюсь
і чесно гляну в чесні твої вічі,
і в смерть із рідним краєм поріднюсь.
— Василь Стус
How Good It Is
How good it is that I’ve no fear of dying
Nor ask myself how ponderous my toil
Nor bow to cunning magistrates, decrying
Presentiments of unfamiliar soil,
That I have lived and loved, yet never burdening
My soul with hatred, curses or regret.
My people! It is to you I am returning.
In death I somehow find my fate.
I turn my pained but goodly face to living
And in filial prostration I begin.
I meet your eyes in fair thanksgiving
And join my kindred earth as closest kin.
— Vasyl Stus
(Trans. by Marco Carynnyk)
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While in exile Stus wrote many texts that were almost impossible to send out to family and friends. Some texts made it out in letters, but that was only partly successful as not all of them passed through the censors. There was a scheme devised in the camps whereby texts were passed on using small containers, which held rolling papers for cigarettes with text written tiny script on both sides, which were then rolled up and placed into tubes that were either swallowed, or transferred in some other way. In Stus’s collection is one such container, which held a number of these rolling papers onto which he had written in the smallest legible text some poems he had drafted while in the camps. These poems not only made it out of the camps and also the Soviet Union, as fellow activist and Soviet political prisoner Nadia Svitlychna managed to publish these poems abroad, even though publishing Stus’ poetry was forbidden at that time in the USSR. The original papers somehow made it back to the family, which they donated to the T.H. Shevchenko Institute of Literature along with the rest of his archive. It is the view of Galyna Burlaka, a senior research fellow at the institute and head of the Department of Manuscripts and Textual Studies that items such as this are fantastic and unique on their own. However, given Stus’ prominence and history, they are also national treasures. This is why the Institute of Literature’s archive has the status a national repository, as it holds items of immense value for Ukraine as a whole.
All roads in the Ukrainian archives seem to lead to Vasyl Stus, one of the most prominent poets of the sixtiers generation. He was a central figure in samizdat circles, though his works were largely unknown to the larger public until the late 1980s. This item has a particularly unusual trajectory, as it was smuggled out of Soviet Ukraine by Raisa Moroz. Liuba Vozniak-Lemyk copied by hand five of Stus’ poems on two pieces of cloth and then Moroz sewed them into the wide skirt she would wear as she left the Soviet Union. Vozniak-Lemyk was a member of the Ukrainian underground, sentenced in 1948 to 25 years of hard labor in Siberia, but was amnestied in 1956. Moroz was a human rights activist married to one of the most prominent Ukrainian political prisoners of the Brezhnev era—Valentyn Moroz. On April 27, 1979, he was released unexpectedly from a Mordovian prison, as part of a spectacular exchange of five political prisoners for two Soviet spies that took place at JFK Airport in New York. None of the prisoners knew about the planned exchange nor been asked for their consent. They thought they were having their citizenship revoked and being deported. Raisa was also allowed to leave the Soviet Union as part of this exchange. These poems were published in the Munich-based émigré journal Suchasnist in Ukrainian in December 1979.
The museum has several samizdat collections by Vasyl Stus, a poet, dissident, human rights activist and figurehead of the sixtiers movement. Two collected volumes of his poetry were given as gifts to Iryna Stasiv-Kalynets and her husband Ihor Kalynets, and later donated by Stasiv-Kalynets to the museum-memorial on Lonskogo St.
The first book Winter Trees (Zymovi Dereva) was published in 1969, and given to the couple on January 9, 1972. The volume included an inscription and in-text modifications written by Stus, which, in addition to providing insights into his creative process, also marked an important turning point in the story of these Ukrainian dissidents. Within a matter of days, Stus, Stasiv-Kalynets and many others were arrested in a sweep that took place on January 12-14, 1972. The catalyst was a “vertep,” or portable puppet theatre of the nativity scene accompanied by Ukrainian Christmas carols, organized by Lviv dissidents to draw attention to the plight of compatriots who had been arrested unjustly, like Valentyn Moroz in 1970, and to raise funds to support the families they left behind. Participants walked from house to house, dressed in colorful costumes and traditional Ukrainian clothing, carrying large festive stars and other adornments.
The carolers raised 250 karbovantsi (rubles) but 19 of the 45 participants were arrested and tried for anti-Soviet activities. Among them were Stasiv-Kalynets, sentenced to 6 years of hard labor and 3 years of exile, Stefania Shabatura, sentenced to 5 years of hard labor and 3 years of exile, and Vasyl Stus, sentenced to 5 years hard labor and two years of exile in Magadan. Stus was arrested again for anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda shortly after his release in 1979 and sentenced to another 10 years of hard labor. He died in Perm in 1985 after declaring a hunger strike to protest harsh conditions and his maltreatment at the hands of camp guards. Mykhailo Horyn’ was sentenced to 14 years of hard labor and exile, while Marian Hatala, an engineer charged with disseminating samizdat and other unsanctioned literature, took his own life.
The second volume, pictured above, The Merry Cemetery (Veselyi Tsvyntar), is also significant. As with the other book, we see Stus’ signature handwritten modifications. In the bottom left corner, there is also a stamp from the institute conducting forensic analysis for the courts. This stamp indicates that this volume was used as evidence of “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda.” Along with a collected volume by Mykola Kholodnyj titled Cry from the Grave (Kryk z Mohyly), this volume by Stus was confiscated in many apartment searches in 1972 and were used in multiple court cases against Ukrainian dissidents arrested that year, in particular, the artist Stefaniya Shabatura and samizdat publisher Ivan Hel’. These confiscated materials were returned to their original owners, Stasiv-Kalynets and Shabatura, after independence. Though their case files remain in the SBU archives, the material evidence taken from their apartments was returned.