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The Ukrainian Solzhenitsyn:
The Poetry of Vasyl Stus, Part 1

2,983 words

Vasyl Stus_pishov [1]Part 1 of 3

Moral self-determination is difficult. So are criticism and logic; they are discussed and piously praised until they are used. At that moment, they become oppressive. Vasyl Stus (1938–1985) is not well known in the west; in fact, he is not known at all. Part of the reason is that he is a standing condemnation of the mass society from which poetic “celebrities” are generated. Vasyl Stus spent a substantial portion of his adult life in Soviet Gulags and hence is known to only a few specialists. Worst of all, his focus — to a great extent — is how many benefits come from conformity. The Gulag, in other words, is just a hyper-manifestation of postmodern liberalism.


The poet is condemned to speak the truth in a world where “truth” is considered a superstition. Power substitutes for right and deviousness for intelligence. For Stus, this is the frozen, the “snow” that keeps the Regime functioning at the mass level. He writes: 

You used to curse at me, but now you just reproach me.
So bitterly. In whispers. Because the ashen snow has swaddled everything. And shouting
to our hearts’ content would be a sin.
The snow wishes to sleep. Accustomed to the ground, it forgot the path of blue
that led from sky to earth. And let it sleep.
And let it sleep. Don’t wake it up. No need to.
This is a gathering of dreams. We can’t feed nightingales with tales, but one of them
survived a winter on such food, and dreams appear of nightingales sweet lullabies.
And when you raise your head — new buildings left undone are smouldering in their decay,
like burned down castles. Only the crenels, or rather the windows, stand sentry in the dusk.
The school construction plan was not approved?
Just as our love still lacks approval from the superintendent of works, the foremen, and
from the cubic footage of both our hearts?[1]

Blue is the uniqueness of Ukraine, the oak is the strength of the nation. The candle is existential, the soul and its ability to reflect; in shadow this is bad faith. The nature of the Soviet state created an automaton. Not a person with memory or history, but a shadow, a grew man incapable of seeing the sky, the mass. “Accustomed to the ground,” or the Masonic idea of being “on the level” is the “solidity” of routine. This is largely a delusion for most, though the energy to cut through it is rare. The Blue Sky is the hope for a free Ukraine, as her color for Stus is blue, and the sky that of freedom, the ethereal, the formal. Once this has been forgotten, all that remains is sleep; the horizontal, the “level.”

This poem asks the reader how the Real, in Plato’s sense, can exist in a world dominated by the idea of quantity. Even the “buildings,” the symbols for administrative massification, are begun for the wrong reasons and remain undone. The life of poetic nature is confronted by rationalism: what was promised as liberation is little more than demonic death. Industry in Ukraine led to the mixing of peoples and a global outlook, which is death for small, vulnerable states.

Love, or the drug-like reality of attraction, is not quantified, not even defined. Yet when it is done for economic or social reasons, it becomes like the burnt-out buildings representing the plans of humanity. One cannot plan the day without deviation becoming the norm, let alone an entire continent, and in every respect.

It might not be a good idea to wake these understandings and forces too soon. Honesty and single mindedness might be overwhelming at first. Those used to small talk might suffer when bombarded with useful conversation. The mental effort might irreparably harm those who are not used to such substance, like rescued miners needed to wear sunglasses once rescued.

The nightingale has a long history in poetry, chances are Stus heard it first in Shakespeare (Sonnet 102) or Ovid. Ovid’s retelling of the story of Philomela is not irrelevant since she was a victim of rape and mutilation like Ukraine. To be transformed into a “poetic” bird as a result and to take such uncommon revenge is not beyond the realm of possibility for the imprisoned Stus (cf. Metamorphoses, IV, 424–600). Especially since the context here is to “feed” on subconscious freedom or thoughts inchoate before waking. It might also be worth noting that the Russian (and Ukrainian) for “nightingale” is “Solovey,” the root name of the Russian philosopher and before him, the historian. It is used in Russian as a translation of “Philomela.”


Stus rejected fame because any sick society promotes those closest to it. Success in modernity means vice; the deviousness that masquerades as intelligence. Paul Ticino was the symbol of this trade: freedom and integrity for plastic prestige. To become “successful” as a servant of the party can only appeal to those who have silenced conscience.

In “The Great Stalin Died Too Early,” Stalin’s lackeys are called “harem girls” seeing him as a God. Afterwards, the harem girls fought for power as to who would be oppressive next.

In his “Monarchs” he writes:

Worthless, corrupt servants,
Gang (Banda) of monkeys for comfort,
To have that feeding, luxurious dining [povecheryat],
They feed [only] their subservience

One need not be in prison to understand this. Those of weaker substance find it easy to make peace between the power that rules them and their own personality. The occasional compromise is easily dismissed, and insulation from critics is fairly common, especially in the USSR. What makes the Soviet Union distinct is that it is a matter of life and death. The modern mass is the same, but the idea of “death” is more subtle (though probably far more damaging). In Soviet Russia, to compromise with the regime was to be a communist, an atheist, and a materialist. It meant to acquiesce in the imprisonment and torture of millions.

The artist suffers for the nation, regardless of his ability to understand what a “people” really is. The traitor works like a “monkey” for the sake of comfort and acceptability while the true patriot suffers, often condemned, slandered, and rejected. That this often comes from fellow citizens is the worst sort of agony. Soon, as we read in Shevchenko, the occupied internalize their status and see themselves as “junior partners” in the imperial project. The abulia, the mindless resignation deriving from psychological violence, is the greatest of social evils. The evils of unfreedom are taken as normal, or worse, as a positive.

Paul Ticino, regardless of his merits or demerits, was the symbol of bureaucratic art that might be technically proficient but unfree and useless. It is a symbol of the fear of pain and hence, the fear of logic. Honesty brings death to a society ruled by oligarchy.

The burning candle, as well as a controlled fire, purifies the soul. Hope, prayer, righteous, come from truth. The right path; the clear day; as long as a person lives, he feels pain and suffering. The burning candle is also pain in my heart; pain is to be alive. Without pain, one is dead.

Fame would destroy inner freedom; despotism does not rule by guns and prisons, but by stress, pain, and the use of social ostracism. Tyranny is never from the state; it is too clumsy for that. It comes from people and the mass. Mocking the Regime, he writes:

Bug-eyed art experts!
It is awkward for you in civilian clothes, it is very clumsy for you,
when your neck is not choked by an officer’s coat,
when your feet do not feel the crease of the twill riding breeches.
Bug-eyed art experts!
It is useless for you to test me: I know all of the circulating quotations
from the patented classics, I explicitly decide
the principal philosophical question: first there was matter,
and then . . .
What then? — you will not ask me!
And later there was awareness of the bug-eyed art experts,
and later there were officer’s coats, twill riding breeches,
one word — eternal matter is only of twill.
I believe in your chrome-treated boots more than in Marx.
So how in the devil am I so unreliable?

The reference to “eternal matter” begins Stus’ unpacking of the esoteric elements of totalitarianism, materialism, and industrialization (all of which are closely linked).

Those of us granted our walking papers from academia can fully appreciate these words. While conformism in academic circles is an undeniable fact of life, it’s done without jackboots, and is thus far more effective. There was a time when criticizing Marxism openly made many of the tenured squirm. Most of all, the “patented classics” and sloganeering that substitute for thought are often the difference between success and failure. Honesty, to repeat, makes no friends in a sick society. Matter is as far as East or West would go. Today in the West, materialism is taken far more seriously than it was in the USSR. Matter is god, since it is eternal and all-creative. The awareness of this universal category is an open contradiction that Stus uses to great (if unappreciated) effect.

“Circulating quotations” is a daily occurrence in modern academia in the West, where slogans and buzzwords of the pseudo-intellectual left which distinguishes a real “member” from the outsider, who is to be scorned without mercy. “Patented classics” is yet another first-rate means of describing this immensely successful conformity: citing the same “authoritative” texts is usually the difference between a publication and a dismissively quick joke at the faculty cocktail party. J. S. Mill in political theory is acceptable, but his far more talented critic, James Fitzjames Stevens, is not. The latter is not known, he’s not read. This is just something one does not do at “that level.” Dismissals and threats are fairly easy there. In the USSR, of course, the same occurs, except the punishment is much more dire.

Another distinction is more insidious: in the USSR, the conformist, unless he was a committed communist and Leninist, could not kid himself of his good intentions. In the US, not only can this conformity be easily rationalized, it today is identical with the field itself. In other words, academic political theory is precisely not to read Orestes Brownson and never to take Konstantin Pobedonostsev seriously. As standards fall and affirmative action continually passes off emotional, incompetent, and litigious women as “professors” this will continue to dominate what remains of any sort of academic criticism. Criticism itself is also reduced to the proper arrangement of authoritative texts, often totally incomprehensibly to those who are immersed in its world.

What is to be believed in is neither god nor matter, but the bureaucratic pecking order that magically confers knowledge, significance, money, and success. Those to whom the world has been good cannot read this without either missing the point or becoming uncomfortable. It’s a bit like the academic bureaucrat lecturing on Gogol and not realizing that Gogol is speaking about him!

This is why we’re unreliable.

Oh timely death comes
as infected with happiness
and break the shackles

Freedom in the camps is death. The lack of freedom, that is, the regimentation of the body leads the few to the total freedom of its rejection. The death of the world becomes liberation. In fact, the camp is far superior to this world.

Make me, O God, the noble collapse as the circle shuts;
There remains one thing: death to save the internally free;
free for themselves and for Ukraine
Now foresaw in delusional
Ukraine somewhere — there
all — in Anton’s flame
here in the east; we go from it
Good for her journey on which you will fall
and friends — also fall;
Prophecy fulfilled.

The circle is the daily grind; the monotony of the nominal universe and the life of the modern. Rationalism is merely binary code. “There” and “here” are used all the time to focus on the existential reality of the person; no retreat into the ego. This means the ballast has to be thrown overboard before there is freedom. No attachments can exist, since these will prevent any radical jump into the unknown.

Modernity has hijacked language. As mentioned above, when immersed in a discipline, alternatives are easily dismissed and quickly rationalized away. Buzzwords denoting membership (such as the paradigmatic and paradoxical “diversity” which still remains undefined) will be used to threaten the easy life of the academic or institutional don.

To go “into schism” from it is essential. In prison, mentally separating from the good on the outside is needed. They must become indifferent. Only the retreat into the self provides some relief. The self is split from the not-self in the sense that the true, spiritual self (the heart in Skovoroda) cannot function in the USSR. Time is pain; the past is gone, the present flees and the future is unknowable without the past. The innocence of children is impossible to regain. Ukraine is foreign; home is unrecognizable.

This pain — like the alcohol of agony,
like grief frozen to the crisp.
Reprint the curses
and rewrite the sorrow.
It has long been forgotten, what it is — to live.
And what is the world, and what are you.
To enter one’s own soul
is meant only for madmen.
And you will still be furious a long time,
still furious until you die,
having felt your own steps
upon your white head.

The world is split into the dream, the image, and the real. The mass are incapable of introspection because first, they have no idea what questions to ask or what constitutes an answer; second, they are not driven by truth, but by self-interest (very broadly defined); third, they cannot see beyond pop-culture slogans and meaningless buzzwords; finally, about the only sort of introspection the mass man is capable is largely confined to rationalization. This means that anything goes.

The leap at a time of mechanization is a way to overcome cause and effect: absolute freedom. The boundary between worlds cannot be crossed by the machine. This cannot be crossed by the mass man either, largely because he thinks the machine is all there is. When one is in despair, he has nothing to lose; he becomes free. The mundane is deadly when it succeeds, only when it fails is there a chance. The point being is that oppression is the only chance for the mass man, the victim of modern psychological repression, to actually learn something not connected to mere gain.

Stus writes:

The stinging winds relentlessly pervade
this embrasure of fulfillment.
Your naked voice, like a painful injection, is thrust
into this whistling December noise.
And wait awhile! And waiting is unbearable!
And one more spring that splashes like a wave,
one more oar-stroke and our black raft
will beach itself. And there — the devil take it —
and there — go on, reproach or curse at will.

I think that I do not live,
and the other one lives in the world for me
in my likeness. No eyes, no ears,
no hands, no feet or mouth. Indifferent in your body and, bit of pain,
and I live in darkness and twilight frozen
I myself, there, in terrible pain.

The inner pain of unfreedom in Soviet Ukraine leads to helplessness, then despair soon becomes rage. At the same time, to not live is to only go inward. In a sense, the prison alone is the place where the normal grind is destroyed, even unreal. Life appears radically different. The worst of humanity either goes insane or becomes accustomed to the brutalization and adapts to it, either as victim or perpetrator.

Summon the lion within you and fathom
The endless walls within the endless rage
When ice-clad cries roar from corner to comer.
Summon the lion within you and bellow.
Let the black clawing roars surround
This universal enclosure, leading your mind
Into a fairy glade where memories prickle like awns,
Where the years are burnt stubble
And where your woes, insatiable hyenas,
Sharpen their fangs and claws for you.
Summon the lion within you and rage
Among the bolts, bars, and locks:
The world is flowering with stubble
And barbed wire.

In symbolism, the lion has a secular connotation as precisely this rage, but also as the warfare internally to both control it and come to terms with it. In prison, the enclosure ensures the system will never permit the lion to do much damage, so it is turned inward. The same gamble takes place: either it destroys or leads to a breakthrough.

The prison is a microcosm of the world. The only difference, especially in Soviet Ukraine, is that the bars and locks are less conspicuous. In fact, under Stalin and even until the 1970s, the workplace in the USSR — in the “workers state” — was dangerous, dirty, violent, and irrational. It was a prison in almost all senses of the term except that occasionally, one might have a family to spend time with for a few hours.

In the above passage, the lion is doing battle with memories, the constant reminders not only of one’s present incarcerated state, but also the nature of the world, almost identical with it. One leads the lion into a “fairy glade” where formerly good memories are little more than acid-coated pills of misery.


1. All citations are my translations from Stus’ Works: Stus, Vasyl (1994) Твори. НАН України. Ін-ту літератури. Спілка “Просвіта”

Works of Stus

Stus, Vasyl (1994) Твори. НАН України. Ін-ту літератури. Спілка “Просвіта”

Stus, Vasyl (1994) Повісті та оповідання. Незакінчені твори. Сценарії. Літературна критика. Заяви, публіцистичні листи та звернення. Edited by: М. Гончарук and С. Гальченко. Спілка “Просвіта” Volume 4

Stus, Vasyl (1997) Листи до рідних. Edited by: О. Дворко, М. Коцюбинська. М. Коцюбинська. Volume 6

Stus, Vasyl (1996) Золотокоса красуня. Упоряд. Edited by: Л. Рахліної and Передм. Д. Парал. Рос

Stus, Vasyl (1996-1997) Collected Works in 9 Volumes (Зібрання творів у 9-ти томах). Львів