Numbers. At the beginning of the 1930s, there were 259 writers being actively published in the Soviet Union. At the end of the 1930s—36. How had 80 percent of writers disappeared? Seventeen were shot, eight committed suicide, seven died of natural causes, and 175 had been arrested and put into camps. Sixteen were missing.
These numbers give an idea of the Soviet Union’s attitude to the Ukrainian cultural elite, an attitude that imposed a kind of cultural silence for several decades. In the 1960s, a new, younger generation came and brought the region into a new bright artistic era. But it was also soon ruined: poet Vasyl Symonenko was beaten to death, artist Alla Horska and composer Volodymyr Ivasiuk died under strange circumstances, and many others were jailed, forced into psychiatric hospitals, and forbidden to publish.
The Soviet regime waged political aggression against Ukrainian literary figures starting in the 1920s and lasting till the late 1980s, right before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Years later, Putin, who has stated that, “The demise of the Soviet Union was the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century,” is trying to “undo this mistake,” beginning with Russia’s attack on Ukraine.
With that in mind, now is a good time to revisit the history of the Ukrainian cultural elite who lived and died under the state that Putin has exalted: in particular, the stories of poets Vasyl Stus, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Volodymyr Svidzinsky, and Pavlo Tychyna.
Died in 1985 in camp VS-389/36-1 in central-western Russia
Vasyl Stus spent his childhood and youth in Donetsk, now a center of the so-called “Donetsk People’s Republic,” a city that has been called Russian for several years by Russian propaganda. A city that, says that propaganda, does not have anything common with Ukrainian culture.
In September 4, 1965, the iconic movie The Shadows of the Forgotten Ancestors premiered at the Ukraine movie theater in Kyiv. At the event, Stus, along with other people who would soon be named dissidents, called to condemn mass political repressions in the Soviet Union and the arrests of Ukrainian cultural figures. He was also one of the first in the USSR to support “Solidarity,” a movement by Polish trade unions struggling against communism, calling them “volunteers of freedom.” Stus was expelled from the Pedagogical Institute in Stalino (now Donetsk) where he studied literature and history.
In 1972, Stus’ book Cheerful Cemetery, which one Soviet critic called an artistic beacon even as he blasted it as slander, became a part of the court proceedings when he was first arrested. He would go on to be incarcerated multiple times in Soviet camps, where he was deprived of seeing his small son and wife; still, nothing discouraged his struggle for his rights, the rights of others, and human rights in general. He wrote the delicate Letters to Son and other work while never letting himself retreat. In these letters, he teaches his son to be courageous and honorable, not being able to tell him these words face to face. The letters are tender, warm, and illustrated with personal experience. When they were published as a book—years later, in the time of independence—they became a model of education for an honorable person.
One of the most mysterious episodes in Ukrainian literature is the history of The Soul Bird, a poetry collection written by Stus before his death. This book, which Stus referenced in letters in 1983, contained 40 poems. The manuscript was confiscated right after the poet’s death at the camp—it was most likely destroyed but may remain in the KGB archives in Moscow.
It is interesting and absurd at the same time to read Soviet critics on Stus’ poetry. The Soviet critic A. Kaspruk, finding the characteristics of what he calls “ideological decline” in Stus’ book Winter Trees, writes, “An adequate man’s psyche can read this book only with disgust and disrespect to the poet who defames his land and his people in such a way.”
Vasyl Stus died in 1985 in VS-389/36-1 camp in Perm, Russia. The circumstances of his death, as frequently happened with the Ukrainian artists that were arrested in the Soviet Union, are not clear.
“Tell me, was Modigliani an idiot?”
she asked me
while I played with my skilful pianist-like fingers
on her sunburned chest.
“He was the same idiot as everyone else in this world,”
І lectured her hugging
the calmed beating of her buttocks.
“You know, man, I often think
about the strangeness of art.
This is an extra luxury.”
“Yes, art is always an excess,”
I replied, kissing her knees.
“But excess only saves us from poverty.
There is only one thing left for mortals:
at least a small excess—
“Yes, my dear girl.
As always, you speak correctly,”
gnashing my teeth in passion.
“So when we have a daughter,
we’ll only put roses
on her headboard,”
she said hoarsely.
“Yes. In the headboard,
and certainly in the
rose,” I humbly agreed
in an alien voice.
“What an annoying fly—
buzzes and buzzes.
Kill it, honey”
Died in 1936 at Solovky concentration camp in northwest Russia
In 1937 at Sandarmokh, a mass grave site in northern Russia, a number of Ukrainian artists were executed: Mykola Kulish, a leading playwright of his time, the theater director Les Kurbas, the talented novelist Valerian Pidmohylnyi, and Mykola Zerov, a key intellectual. All of them were in their forties. Poet Yevhen Pluzhnyk was, instead, imprisoned in the regime’s brutal camps, where he would die within a year from tuberculosis.
Pluzhnyk did not write political texts and was not especially popular. Nevertheless, he was called a terrorist in the time of Stalin’s terror. It was a time when poets, artists, and dictionary compilers were called terrorists by the regime, along with people who largely ignored politics, in order to justify their torture, imprisonment, and execution.
At a time when other writers threw loud condemnations to Lenin, Stalin, and communists, Pluzhnyk chose references to silence, repeatedly invoking the phrases “keep silent,” “silence,” and “be silent.” Even as vehicles rumble, tractors rattle, and the pipes of the power plants roar, he pleads for silence: “Oh, my friend! / I lose my last strength, / Living in an imaginary country, / Where your image is lost, where your image is sweet, / Where your voice… Be silent! Be silent! Be silent!”
Pluzhnyk speaks briefly and quietly. He swallows the words: many of his poems have a truncated conclusion. He does not scream, does not demand or shock. He just is—at the margins of the press and social attention. And that was his crime: he did not use his talent to honor the chiefs, to sing odes to the communist party, to love the new Soviet world and declare it in every word. Because of that, he was silenced forever.
Met a bullet in the dell.
That’s where I sowed rye!
Oh dear what the hell
I’ve lived through so much time!
Old lady cried for an hour.
A hole in the ribs is umber.
Well, of course—beauty and power
Died of natural causes in 1967 in Kyiv
Pavlo Tychyna, often called one of the most important Ukrainian poets of the 20th century, is a controversial figure for his relationship to the Soviet regime. Beginning in the 1920s, he wrote only in support of the regime and eventually became chairman of the Supreme Soviet of the Ukrainian SSR, in the government of Soviet Ukraine.
Tychyna sang in a monastery choir as a child. He taught music to others. He once recalled the awe he felt while performing with a choir in Chernihiv, a city that Russian troops are now trying to occupy as locals and the Armed Forces of Ukraine heroically resist them. There is a specific acoustic in the galleries and underground churches, one that gives a sense of thousands of years of history, seeming to echo everything that existed before us and that will be.
In his twenties, Tychyna published a couple of poetry collections and was poised for a prominent future. From the second half of the 1920s onward, though, readers did not understand what happened with him: his writing seemed like another man. His verses on the fame of tyrants amaze with their savagery—deprived of humanism, they call for violence and are aesthetically poor. When you recognize young Tychyna in some lines of poems about Lenin and Stalin, you feel embarrassed. It’s clear that, under political pressure, Tychyna yielded to the basic reflex of protecting his own life from the physical demolition. Some of Tychyna’s friends, arrested during this time, choose to kill themselves, anticipating torture—others are shot in city cellars or sent to camps.
Vasyl Stus wrote, “[The] phenomenon of Tychyna is a phenomenon of the era. His life will testify about our times not less than terrible writings of the historians. [The] poet lived in times that made a genius—a buffoon.”
The Russian system of political violence is meant to break a person. When a person is broken, the idea of humanism is hit, too.
So again we take the Bible, philosophers, and poets. The person who said: “Thou shalt not kill!” — in the morning’s found shot through the head. And in the dump the dogs fight over the body.
Sleep, do not awake, mother!
A noble idea requires sacrifices. But is it a sacrifice
when beast devours beast?
—do not awake, mother…
Brutal esthetics!—when will you stop admiring
Beast devours beast.
Aeroplanes and all the latest technology—
what good are they, when people don’t look each other
in the eye?
Don’t throw the enraged in prison, they are their own
Universities, museums and libraries can not provide, what can be found
or blue eyes…
–translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
Killed in 1941: burned in a barn in the Kharkiv region of eastern Ukraine
Volodymyr Svidzinskyi belongs to the generation of 20th-century Ukrainian poets who do not have tombs—his story is, very often, told from the end. He was arrested by the Soviets and accused of “anti-Soviet agitation” in October 1941, when German troops were reaching Kharkiv. With other prisoners, he was transported by the NKVD—the Soviet secret police—into the steppes surrounding Kharkiv, a city where people are now hiding as Russian troops bomb them. The group was locked into a barn and burned.
Svidzinsky wasn’t particularly famous among Soviet readers. He received a couple of languid reviews for his books: Soviet critic Ivan Dniprovskyi, declaring him useless to the regime, wrote, “[the proletariat] does not need such books” and “a peasant lyric of the individualistic poet does not proclaim anything to the working masses.” “Proletariat” writers would intentionally simplify their vocabulary to be clear and unambiguous for everybody; instead, Svidzinskyi freely dove in the ocean of Ukrainian language. Svidzinskyi discovers many unique dialect vocabulary and fills Ukrainian language with it. Though his poetry came to Ukrainian reader too late, even in 90s it made a fresh impression.
Poets of that era were often defined by the events of the time; meanwhile, Svidzinskyi lived out of his own time, translating the ancient Greeks and the comedies of Aristophanes. He laughed in a not-comical time. He treated the world naïvely. His reticence and “inner emigration”—a concept developed by German writer Frank Thiess to describe estrangement from one’s home culture—were considered as a crime by the Soviet government. They executed him for it.
Terrifying—I was once an animal.
Terrifying—my descendants will say, I was once a human being.
–Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
THE PENDULUM’S TIRED…
The pendulum’s tired.
Rock, rock that fat silence!
The pendulum wheezes like the wounded.
But why didn’t I hear these groans,
When my love was by my side?
At times she would lie down
And then I would read her a story.
Time doesn’t stand still.
The books we read have yellowed,
Their corners turn black with mildew,
The spider attempts to ensnare these old things in his web—
Every moment is counted.
The pendulum grows hoarse.
–Translated from the Ukrainian by Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps
In 2010 Putin stated, “Who is not regretful about the Soviet Union collapse is heartless. Who wants its restoration is headless.”
In the second part of this quote he was right. Now he fights 40 million “heartless” people. These people know the price of freedom. They remember the lives and works of their poets. The heart of the Ukrainian people is hot and the head—cold.
Their fight goes on.
Thank you to Bohdana Neborak and Kate Tsurkan for help with editing and management, and to Virlana Tkacz and Wanda Phipps for the translations of Tychyna and Svidzinsky.