Thriving in Isolation and Beyond: The Empowering Poetry of Vasyl Stus

By Bohdan TokarskyJune 9, 2020

Thriving in Isolation and Beyond: The Empowering Poetry of Vasyl Stus
Featured image: Vasyl Stus in the 1960s


THIS SPRING, facing a global pandemic in response to which we have had to isolate ourselves, many turned to literature for encouragement and direction. Boccaccio, Defoe, and Camus may teach us a great deal about life in the shadow of plagues, but few authors provide a better example of surviving and finding meaning in isolation than Vasyl Stus (1938–1985), one of Ukraine’s most sophisticated 20th-century poets. Stus spent the last 13 years of his short life in Soviet prisons, labor camps, and internal exile. For his uncompromising moral stance and defiant behavior, prison administrators repeatedly placed him in solitary confinement. In 1983, after his diary had been smuggled out of the camp and published outside the USSR, he spent an entire year alone in a cell. Two years later, he was dead at the age of 47.

Stus faced isolation ad extremum. Yet it was during these years of captivity that he managed to write his 500-page poetic magnum opus, a collection titled Palimpsests. In it, he pushed his circumstances to the margins, instead charting, through complex metaphor and an innovative idiom, a radical spiritual journey. If we were to look for his kindred spirits in English, we might think of the T. S. Eliot of Four Quartets, whom Stus had read, as well as Gerard Manley Hopkins, of whom, in all likelihood, Stus had never heard. Yet his confinement elicited a different vision, one that plumbs the abyss in order to find salvation. To quote the poet himself, “the debris of torment / might give birth to flowers.”

Following his arrest for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in 1972, Stus spent nine months in custody awaiting his trial. During this period he composed a major collection, Time of Creativity (later to become part of Palimpsests), the title of which communicates the choice he had made: to keep creating against all odds. In almost complete solitude, broken only by interrogations, Stus wrote more than 300 original poems and translated more than 100 poems by Goethe. The dates under Stus’s poems show that he sought to write at least one poem a day; some days he wrote as many as five.

Cover page of Stus's 1972 manuscript of "Time of Creativity"

The Jewish-Ukrainian dissident Semen Gluzman, then a young psychiatrist and now the head of Ukraine’s Association of Psychiatrists, spent 20 days with Stus in custody. On first entering the cell, he saw a 30-year-old man bent over a bedside table with a book of poetry and an open dictionary. In the “feast of conversations” that followed, Stus would speak at length about philosophy and literature, recite poetry from memory, and read out his translations of Rainer Maria Rilke. The cell Gluzman shared with Stus came to seem spacious and full of light, because the poet refused to allow it to suffocate their minds. “Over these prison walls, over this sorrow, / and over Sophia’s bell tower my spirit lifts me,” he wrote while imprisoned in the KGB building located jarringly close to the ancient Saint Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv. In another poem from this period he extends his spiritual flight, transcending the earthly realm altogether:

Earth is too small
for the spirit. Too cramped
for the dishevelled soul is this planet,
where dwelling is but hunching (the trenches
of self-elevations)

Where did Stus find the strength for this flight? The answer lies in one of his neologisms: samosoboiunapovnennia, “filling-oneself-with-oneself.” Stus uses the word in the very first poem he wrote in captivity, which starts with a star shining at dawn and ends with an epiphany: “for living means not overcoming limits / but adjusting and filling-oneself-with-oneself.”

The freedom that Stus chooses is not freedom from — that is, not opposition to the Soviet regime — but the hardest kind of freedom: freedom for. “You shall finally comprehend: you are free, free. / Because only when we love do we become free,” he writes at this time. Rather than recording the history of oppression, as Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn does in The Gulag Archipelago, Stus’s poetry mounts an internal defense against oppression. Samosoboiunapovnennia may not ensure one’s survival in the end, but the process creates an inner harbor, a position from which to resist the assaults of the external world.

Yet Stus was aware of the limitations of the self. Even when he radically pronounces “There is no world. I exist on my own,” he knows that, as Gerard Manley Hopkins has it, “Selfyeast of spirit a dull dough sours.” Stus has his own word for this fermentative growth of the ego: samookupatsiia dushi, the “self-occupation of the soul.” We might also recall Hopkins’s image of the sea and skylark “ring[ing] right out our sordid turbid time, / Being pure,” when we read these lines from Time of Creativity:

I knew: the world concealed itself from me,
behind each thing another thing is hiding
and trotting at my heels. All the while
refusing to unveil to me its genuine appearance,
because that trust and amity between
man and the world have now been lost.
It’s not for nothing that the smallest birds
recoil from me, that fish disperse
the moment they notice a human figure,
that with their fragile beauty flowers want
to save themselves from me (the final
splinter of hope that human beings
are not entirely disgraceful). After all,
I thought, the harmony of worlds
has not bypassed humanity, instead
it marked a certain distance: here
is the limit of your belonging to the world.

Stus’s words echo poignantly in the present moment, as we are reminded of our humble place in the organic world. Clearly, for him, samosoboiunapovnennia does not place the self above nature. In an essay Stus wrote shortly before his arrest, he speaks about the ideal of “being full with the even sense of nature, just at its spiritual height.” Stus aims to be worthy of nature, but since it is “impossible to step over the-edge-of-the-self,” he must work within the self to accomplish that goal.

That work is long, and its results are uncertain. And for those who find themselves lost in anticipation of the resolution of the COVID-19 crisis, Stus’s writing might offer the solace of commiseration. He too “dove into the vertigo of waiting,” capturing its irresolvable tension:

Oh this confrontation of half-souls —
of these two fragments of the heart,
which corrupt hope with memories,
and tie the memories to hope!
Multi-directed sealed soul!
Hemmed in between the future and the past,
you will neither find yourself, nor lose yourself,
you are the dark black shadow of my body.

Facing a wartime world and “the growing terror of nothing to think about,” Eliot writes in his Four Quartets, “I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope,” adding that “the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting.” There is no answer in Stus’s own lines on waiting. Neither do they provide “the still point of the turning world” sought by Eliot. Their healing power comes instead from the opportunity they give us to recognize anticipation as an essential element of the human condition.

The year 1972 was only the beginning of Stus’s long wait. His initial detainment was followed by a five-year sentence in the Gulag and three years of exile. Over these years, Stus faced grueling labor, regular confiscations of his texts and letters, and other humiliations. His health deteriorated. In 1975, Stus nearly died from a bleeding stomach ulcer. One of his fellow inmates later remembered that as Stus lay unconscious in his own blood, the radio announced the signing of the Helsinki Accords and the commitment of the Soviet Union to ensure “respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.”

Stus in exile in Magadan in the late 1970s

When the Jewish dissident Mikhail Heifets met Stus in a Mordovian labor camp in 1976, what struck him most was how exhausted the poet looked. He remembers how Stus discussed in great detail the writings of Camus, Rilke, and Hermann Hesse, as well as Eastern philosophy, Immanuel Kant, and Edmund Husserl. For the first few months, Heifets did not even consider reading Stus’s manuscript of Palimpsests — such a profound thinker and passionate patriot, Heifets thought, could not be a good poet. When he finally relented, he was stunned by the “new poetic consciousness” and “groundbreaking language,” devoid of politics, that lay within:

The path submerges in the dark of sleep.
The waters of bitter oblivion reach ever
higher. And ever closer is the edge.
I gaze into the emptiness of days and years —
and wonder: where is that borderland
that brings the severed soul back
to the primordial. To the vale of pleasures
heralded by the years of youth.
Quo vadis? The disobedient step
became itself in this unceasing walk,
and you are only following its trace.
The frail ribbon of the years grows thinner,
just like your shadow coming forth to meet you
and hypnotizing you... Your road has ultimately
ended. The darkness. The abyss. The edge.
So step beyond the verge. We cannot live
with this uncertainty. Between. By just half a step.
As if the foot was raised and paused,
and then it froze. A half-desire
cut off by semi-hesitation. Extensive borderlands
conceal themselves behind the hills of anguish —
the daring aims of space can’t see them.
Oh, what if that edge could know
that we are fractured! What does it take
for a mountain to become a mountain? What if we
could move these borderlands of time,
these borderlands of lingering
when the withered figures of desire,
these storms of passion, now reduced to ashes,
have fallen suddenly on us.

Stus is the poet of the edge, the in-between. He conveys the fleeting images between our thoughts, which most of us lack the language to express. He brings into view the subtle shifts of our consciousness, and that movement becomes more important than concrete objects. As he instructed a friend in a letter in 1967: “Also: imagine an object in motion. The object is lost, say, it has been burnt. What remains is only the motion as a memory of the object.” As the concrete walls closed in around him, his attention turned more and more to this endless motion — his mind ran free.

While in exile in Magadan, Stus worked in the mines, extracting ore. He subsequently described his conditions in his Gulag diary:

[There is] really bad dust in the mine, because there is no ventilation: tight vertical tunnels are being bored through. The hammer weighs about 50kg, the rock bolt up to 85kg. While the ‘windows’ are being drilled, one has to shovel. The respirator (a gauze bandage) becomes unusable within half an hour: it gets soaked with sweat and choked with dust. Then you have to take it off and work without any protection.

The Soviet regime could have hardly found a more murderous job for the physically weakened poet. Yet Stus would overcome even these extreme conditions, so as to sing of the “shafts of vertical nights” and the mines of the human condition, where he extracted ore of a different kind:

                                                        The quadrature
of secret tribulations and the rhombuses of solitude,
and the rectangles of the old misfortunes,
and the descending lines of all-obedience,
and the vertical wrench that reaches beyond the stars.

Not long after his release, Stus was again arrested in 1980, for his participation in the Ukrainian Helsinki (Human Rights) Group, and received a sentence of 10 years in a labor camp and five years of exile. In his Gulag diary, Stus described the severe treatment he received in the Perm-36 forced labor camp, where, as Stus’s fellow dissident Vasyl Ovsiyenko put it, “a few dozen political prisoners were overseen more intensively than thousands of criminals.” In the diary, Stus writes:

Moscow has given the local administration complete authority, and whoever is under the illusion that our interaction with the administration will be governed at least by some kind of law, is much mistaken. The law of complete lawlessness provides the only regulation of our so-called relationship.

The volume of poems and translations The Bird of the Soul, on which Stus worked in his final years, was confiscated by the KGB, and most likely destroyed, although its fate remains unknown. Only a handful of poems are available to us from that time. But we have Stus’s letters. In 1981, Stus instructed his 14-year old son:

The human being creates herself, she gives birth to herself. Who are You at this stage, in fact? A piece of raw, malleable clay. So take this piece of clay into your hands and knead it until something hard and well defined emerges from it. Imagine that You yourself are the God that creates human beings. You are God. Hence, as the God of yourself, knead your clay until you feel flint under your hard skin. This is the best time for you to do that — Create yourself!

While the campaign for his nomination for a Nobel Prize for Literature was underway, Stus died in Perm-36 on September 4, 1985, at the dawn of Gorbachev’s glasnost and perestroika. Palimpsests was published a year later — not in Ukraine, but in New York. No collection of Stus’s poetry appeared in Ukraine during his lifetime. In 1989, his body — along with those of two other Ukrainian dissidents, Oleksa Tykhyi and Yurii Lytvyn — was reburied in Ukraine. For the first time in Ukraine since the national revolution of 1917, thousands of people took to the streets to organize a national rally. People carried the bodies past the KGB building where Stus had written Time of Creativity. At this time, Stus was seen primarily as a martyr for the national cause; very few people were familiar with his works. A more or less complete collection of his works was only published in the mid-1990s.

The Soviet Union is gone, whereas Stus’s poetry lives on and continues to speak to us, becoming especially relevant at such trying times as this. He responded to the long prison sentences handed down to him with his own elaborate sentences; he countered his inhuman conditions by reflecting with grace on the fragility and resilience of the human condition. Written without any guarantee that it would ever be read by anyone else, except perhaps by officers of the KGB, Stus’s poetry becomes universal. Instead of holding fast to history, it strips off its temporality and goes to the very heart of anxiety, pain, and anticipation, but also of enlightenment and hope. In his mind, the post-Soviet world had arrived long before the USSR collapsed.

“Living means not overcoming limits,” Stus reminds us, but “filling-oneself-with-oneself.” The pandemic represents one of the limits that we, globally, will overcome through individual action, mutual support, and the achievements of science. Yet there are challenges that will stay with us even when the crisis is over, because those challenges are us. In this sense, the post-COVID world has already arrived. And the work we do now might boost our mental immunity for the changes ahead.


Images courtesy of Vasyl Stus Museum and StusCentre.


All translations of Stus’s are by the author.


Bohdan Tokarsky is an Affiliated Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge and the 2020/21 Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. His research focuses on the works of the Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus (1938–1985), as well as on the “ciphered” texts and masks of Ukrainian modernism.

LARB Contributor

Bohdan Tokarsky is an Affiliated Lecturer in Ukrainian Studies at the University of Cambridge and the 2020/21 Prisma Ukraïna Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien, Berlin. His research focuses on the works of the Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus (1938–1985), as well as on the “ciphered” texts and masks of Ukrainian modernism.


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