Many Ukrainian “enemies of the people” in 1937 were labelled “nationalists”. A whole array of sometimes mutually exclusive “crimes” was added as well, of course. Nonetheless, the persecution then, just as with the repressions accompanying the removal of food in Ukraine and Kuban in 1932-1933, was directed against “petlurivtsi” [supporters of Simon Petlura) or simply “nationalists”.

70 years on and we read in the Russian newspaper “Izvestia” the headline: “Lecturers of Donetsk National University stop it being named after Ukrainian nationalist”. I’d like to laugh off the staggering primitivism and ignorance of the article and have done with it. Only the stature of the man being talked about precludes this, as does the frustration that almost 18 years after the collapse of the Soviet Union there are those with no intention of breaking free of Soviet clichés.

In December 2008 a fairly large group of current and former students of Donetsk National University [DNU] published an appeal asking that the university be named after its most outstanding graduate, Vasyl Stus. The letter to the Minister of Education was signed by more than 500 people, including the poet’s son Dmytro Stus. The Minister supported the initiative and approached the Rector of the university with a request to discuss the issue among staff and at the academic council.

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I will return to later events and the politicization, if not Sovietization, of the question. Not immediately, however, since this is precisely what those who have provoked the latest political and propaganda game want. So that we all get distracted, react in knee jerk fashion and forget what is important.

“Izvestia” in not so post-Soviet form

It is incredibly frustrating to observe the regress of the newspaper “Izvestia” which has virtually reverted not just to mindlessly foisting outdated clichés about Ukraine, but is also increasingly using typical Soviet tactics.

I imagine we all know people you can tap, must as we press certain combinations of computer keys to perform some function or other. You can have multi-functional words, like “nationalist”, for example.  It turns one person against a poet while prompting another to angry remarks about “Russian occupiers” etc. In fact, though, there is only one function, this being to con people and distract their attention from howling inaccuracies, if not out-and-out lies.

It was not a motley array of nationalist groups which asked for the university to be named in honour of Vasyl Stus, but a group of students, who do not speak of a “poet and fighter for Ukraine’s independence”, but very comprehensively explain their reasons: “Vasyl Stus was a poet of great force, a well-known human rights defender, an uncompromising champion of high ideals, a true Hero of Ukraine who gave his life for its future. Vasyl Stus’ civic activity and his creative works have as much significance for the formation of the modern Ukrainian nation as do Taras Shevchenko, Ivan Franko and Lesya Ukrainka.”

Unfortunately the Russian journalist’s detour around the truth does not stop here. It is somewhat surprising to find a journalist advertising pig ignorance, though it is just conceivable that he really does believe that Vasyl Stus is “little-known”.  He cannot, however, have been unaware of the significance of some other details in the sentence: “a nationalist twice convicted of anti-State activity who served his sentences in Moldovan and Perm region camps”. Quite true, of course, that  “Stus died in the Northern Urals”, . however, unlike his ignorance, the author hear is clearly loath to advertise that Vasyl Stus died in a special (most harsh) regime political prisoner labour camp, paying with his life for his absolute commitment to freedom.

Vasyl Stus, or why it’s worth listening to the students

There is perhaps only one Russian journalist who can seriously doubt the stature of the poet. Let him look around on Google. He can try other languages, if he knows them – he’ll learn a lot about the most outstanding graduate of Donetsk National University. Such information in itself should have been enough to convince everybody that the students’ suggestion was a good one.

However both for the students, and for those vehement opponents of the initiative, the role played by Stus is not confined to his indisputable poetic legacy. In the words of the writer, thinker and former political prisoner Yevhen Sverstyuk: “Vasyl Stus was perhaps the most consistent opponent of the communist regime. He fought, with self-commitment and perished on the barricades of resistance”

The students are probably aware that for his first protest against the arrests of Shestydesyatnyky (figures in the 1960s at the forefront of the move for greater  artistic and political freedom), he was thrown out of his PhD studies and then from his work at the State Historical Archive. We can hope that they ask themselves that most vital question which none of us is entitled to avoid: how would each person have acted in his place? It is clear that Stus perceived no choice. He explains his call on the audience at the  preview showing of S. Paradzhanov’s film ‘Tini zabutykh predkiv’ [‘Shadows of forgotten ancestors’] on 4 September to stand up for those arrested as follows: “Purely psychologically, from a purely civic stand, I couldn’t hold back. I believe that in such conditions silence is a crime”.

In short, the man had not intention of giving up his “anti-State action” although he didn’t delude himself for a second what price he would have to pay. He continued to protest against persecution, against restrictions on freedom of expression, against the totalitarian regime.

He was first arrested in 1972.  Since there appear once again to be different ways of answering the question “what for?” I will state only that he was charged with anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation. The charges were linked up to 14 poems and 10 human rights and literary criticism texts. For such a “crime” Vasyl Stus was sentenced to five years harsh regime labour camp and three years exile.

The “enemy of the State” stubbornly refused to keep silent. In his publicist letter “I accuse”, he wrote: “The trials of 1972 – 73 in Ukraine were trials against human thought, against the very process of thought, trials against humanism, against manifestations of filial love for ones people”. And I would just note for the benefit of at least one “Izvestia” correspondent: he was quite correct in his assessment of the situation.

Stus was serving his sentence in a Moldovan camp when ten courageous compatriots (or “nationalists”?) in November 1976 formed the Ukrainian Helsinki Group (aimed at promoting implementation of the Helsinki Accords). By his return to Kyiv in 1979, virtually all founders and members of UHG were in the labour camps, also, incidentally, for “anti-Soviet propaganda and agitation”. That was how the Soviet authorities saw the attempts to remind the Soviet Union of the human rights commitments it had taken on in 1975.

This is how the “poet – nationalist” reacted:

““In Kyiv I learned that people close to the Helsinki Group were being repressed in the most flagrant manner. ..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”. ( [“From the camp notebook”], 1983).

Vasyl Stus was arrested for the second time in 1980 and sentenced under that same article (i.e. for his “anti-State activities”) to 10 years special regime labour camp and five years exile.

He died during the night from 3 to 4 September 1985 in the Perm special regime labour camp (“Perm-36”).

His son, Dmytro, was asked what advice from his father he particularly remembered.:

“The most important advice was from the second arrest. It was May 1980.  When we came home and witnessed the search, we felt degraded, insulted. Then my father spoke his last words to me: “You know, son, you’ve had to endure terrible humiliation today, you’ve felt insulted, and a sense of personal powerlessness. For a man that’s the hardest thing to endure. But I want to ask you to try hard not to become embittered with the world. Through your eyes hatred must not find its way into this world.  Because as soon as you allow this to happen, your heart will become hardened, and the world will respond in the same way.”  . ( )

A foul Soviet aftertaste

On 5 February 2009 National Deputy [MP] Olena Bondarenko presented a new initiative: to name the university after Volodomyr Degtyaryov, the First Secretary of the Donetsk Regional Party Committee drom 1963 to 1976. The initiative was endorsed by some other National Deputies, including the leader of the Party of the Regions Viktor Yanukovych, Mykola Azarov and others.

That foreign guests will ask bemusedly why, instead of a well-known poet, they have named the university after this person (with an unpronounceable name!) with an absolutely unfathomable right to such an honour is not the worst problem. How exactly they plan to explain this incredible step to the Ukrainian public is totally beyond comprehension.

I don’t know what motives the politicians and local authorities had in choosing a scarcely-known communist official who did not even study at Donetsk National University instead of the institution’s most renowned graduate and poet of world standing – Vasyl Stus. I would hope that they simply know nothing about the man. This is undoubtedly shameful however there can be even less justification for grubby political games or Soviet regression.

Judging by the text in the Russian paper, somebody is aware of the weakness of their position and has come up with nothing better than to push the “nationalist card”. Please understand me correctly. I do not for one second doubt Vasyl Stus’ commitment to his people, his country. However he lived, and died, firm in his refusal to live without freedom, to accept a criminal regime which suppressed its citizens and deprived them of the most valuable rights and freedoms.  Both the poet and the man demanded both for himself and for his people the right to think freely and express their views without persecution, and the right to live in a free country. We are also free to resist attempts to use dirty means in order to blur the real issue and divide people.

            Respect is due those students for having recognized the importance for all of us of the example of self-commitment and courage which we have in Vasyl Stus and his life.

Halya Coynash