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Striving for the good of all, but not himself

A conversation with Tetiana Mykhailova, an expert on the poetry of Vasyl Stus at the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv. Interviewer: Tomasz Lachowski

August 26, 2019 - Tetiana Mykhailova Tomasz Lachowski - InterviewsIssue 5 2019Magazine

Tetiana Mykhailova photo by Tomasz Lachowski

Tetiana Mykhailova photo by Tomasz Lachowski

TOMASZ LACHOWSKI: We met a few days before the premiere of a new Ukrainian film called The Forbidden (Zaboronenyi) describing the story of Vasyl Stus – one of Ukraine’s most prominent poets. Undoubtedly, The Forbidden aroused a lot of controversies even a year before its premier, mostly because of its political nature. You have conducted research on Stus’s works and were invited by the film’s director, Roman Brovko, as one of the few specialists to consult with. Did the final version of meet your expectations?

TETIANA MYKHAILOVA: Indeed, I interpret Vasyl Stus not only through this film but also through other artistic activities where the poet appears – music, theatre and painting – and, of course, my academic research. That is why my vision of Stus is probably different than the average Ukrainian. I have no doubt that The Forbidden is great news for Ukrainian viewers and it shall force us to rethink Stus’s role in the development of Ukrainian culture. Nonetheless, I have to admit that during the first screening, while still in the working phase, I had a slight dissonance between how I view the poet and how Stus was portrayed on the screen. It is necessary to point out how the filmmakers chose the actor, Dmytro Yaroshenko, to play Stus, largely based on his physical similarities to Vasyl Stus. However I am not sure whether Yaroshenko has managed to get the job done when it comes to the interpretation of Stus’s uneasy personality. Brovko also had the difficult task of depicting crucial moments in Stus’s life, starting from his PhD Studies at the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature in Kyiv in the early 1960s (with some flashbacks to earlier memories) through his mysterious death in Perm-36, a Soviet forced-labour camp for political prisoners in the mid-1980s.

Together with your colleagues from the Shevchenko Institute of Literature at the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine, you were asked to consult on earlier versions of the film. Are you satisfied with the co-operation?

We were invited by the film crew to present our comments during its pre-screening. I had a strong impression that they managed to avoid some unnecessary suffering, since Stus’s story raises a lot of questions concerning contemporary Ukraine and our national identity, which is always associated with current day politics

From the very beginning, public discussion mainly concentrated on one particular scene, showing the trial of Stus and the role played by Viktor Medvedchuk, who was his defence lawyer. It seems that Medvedchuk showed no interest in defending the poet by openly agreeing with the court’s conviction. It is no secret that, today, Medvedchuk is a pro-Russian politician, regarded as Vladimir Putin’s voice in Ukraine. There was even a moment when Brovko decided to cut the scene with Medvedchuk from the script, although it eventually appeared in the film.

The scandal concerning Medvedchuk’s participation in the trial erupted in August 2018 when Brovko spoke about the necessity of cutting the scene because of its length. This caused a wave of public criticism. So when my colleagues and I were invited to consult in November 2018, this scene was already put back into the script. I would say that since the scene was reinserted, it should be assessed positively because the judicial proceedings determined the rest of Stus’s life. Let us remember that this particular scene actually shows the second trial against Stus in 1980 (the first arrest and proceedings took place in 1972). Therefore he already knew what to expect from Soviet justice… Although you cannot tell this from the film – an oversight by the director.

In the end, however, Medvedchuk’s name was not mentioned in the film. Do you think that this is a mistake, especially considering Medvedchuk’s involvement in Ukrainian politics over the last several years? Not only is he Putin’s man in Ukraine, he was also closely connected with Viktor Yanukovych, who was ousted in the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity. Most recently he was appointed the chairman of the pro-Russian “For life” party…

Let me start by saying that The Forbidden is a movie about Vasyl Stus, not Viktor Medvedchuk. There is no doubt that during the trial Medvedchuk was just a puppet, nothing really depended on him. However, at the same time, it is also true that he did not even try to defend Stus; he simply agreed with the court’s verdict, that Stus deserved to be punished. In my opinion, it is not really essential to hear Viktor Medvedchuk’s name on the screen since almost everyone knows perfectly well who the shameful lawyer was. But I do believe that a film shouldn’t become an instrument in politics – first and foremost they are works of art.

In the aftermath of the Revolution of Dignity, we can observe a renaissance in Ukrainian culture. Stus is undoubtedly an important factor in Ukrainian national identity. Would you agree that without the EuroMaidan it would be difficult to imagine this process of Ukrainisation?

Culture is often interrelated with politics, which is not always a positive thing for culture itself. Indeed, since the EuroMaidan we are witnessing a new (but not the first) outbreak of Ukrainian culture, sometimes manifesting in small symbolic matters like the Vyshyvanka Day where people freely wear the embroidered shirts in public spaces. Other times it manifests itself in more concrete ways, like cinema, theatre or music.

During the protests an interest in Stus and his poems (re)appeared, although I am convinced that his works are universal and can be read and interpreted at any time. However, it is true that Stus was always seen more as a citizen, freedom fighter or human rights activist than a poet. Once Yuriy Shevelov, a Ukrainian linguist and literary critic, rightly remarked that “Stus’s heroic biography is an obstacle to understanding him as a poet”. Today, we are facing a time when, as a state and a nation, we are fighting for our independence – in a political and cultural sense. Moreover, art can be used as a therapeutic agent in overcoming very strong emotions, sometimes even extreme ones – which corresponds with the tragic moments of the Maidan, like the massacre of the Heavenly Hundred or the five years of the ongoing war in Donbas. Musicians and poets were present during the Revolution of Dignity, and they are still going to the frontlines in the east in order to support our soldiers. Culture can respond to events faster and more honestly than political tools. I am pretty sure that even without the Maidan, films about significant figures in our history would eventually appear.

Yet, the impact of politics on culture is undeniable. Today, a key concern is the potential re-emergence of openly pro-Russian forces in Ukraine; and if they do come back, how would that affect Ukrainian culture? Last June, for example, Medvedchuk acquired two Ukrainian TV channels…

The successful re-emergence of pro-Russian fractions, especially after the Maidan and the ongoing war in the east is, at least in my mind, generally not possible. The return of Russification or Sovietisation would not be accepted by Ukrainians. Despite all the current difficulties, Ukraine is aware of being an independent state. It has its own path and it has a very strong and unique culture.  

Let us return to Vasyl Stus. You have written that he freely chose his path of suffering. How do you assess that kind of choice? He put the fate of his family at stake by deciding to fight against totalitarianism and stand for his rights and dignity…

During my academic work, I have come to the conclusion that Stus’s choice was taken fully consciously. A lot of stereotypes do exist concerning him, however; that he repeated the same fate as Taras Shevchenko or that poets always suffer for the sake of the nation. In his hierarchy of values, family (including his own life and health) was less important than the dignity of man, freedom, justice or Ukraine. He thought about the rights and dignity of everyone, striving for the good of all, not just himself and his family. In one letter to his son in 1978, when Stus was serving his conviction in exile in Magadan oblast, we can find a famous quote: “Dear son … grow as a good, honest and true Cossack, try not to be overcome by evil and know that your dad gave his whole life away to make people live better – everyone and all over the world”. Nevertheless, it is necessary to note that this caused a lot of hurt to Stus, being aware of his family’s suffering due to his choices and values.

Stus was one of the participants of the Shistdesiatnyky (Sixtiers) dissident movement. How can you describe their influence on his life?

In the 1960s, the Ukrainian intelligentsia commenced its struggle for dignity of the individual, human rights and the right of self-determination of the Ukrainian nation. It was sort of a cultural revolution – without violence and weapons – but with the open manifestation of discontent against the conduct of the totalitarian government. Everything began with Ivan Dziuba’s essay, “Internationalism or Russification?” which was denounced as anti-Soviet by the authorities. Stus shared Dziuba’s feelings and the lack of opportunity for the development of Ukrainian culture. One of the other representatives of the Sixtiers, Ivan Svitlychny, a charismatic poet and political prisoner, positively affected the younger generation of Ukrainian writers, including Stus. That is why Stus identified himself with the Shistdesiatnyky movement.

After his conviction in September 1980 Stus was transferred to a Soviet forced labour camp where he stayed until his death in 1985. Even during those terrible days, Stus did not stop writing. Can we say that Stus’s poems changed in the course of his time at the Soviet camp?

This is a good question because not everyone can see that, even when Stus was free we can find in his poems evidence of him feeling captive. One could say he always felt “out of place”; he was very sensitive and he experienced the injustice that occurred in Soviet Ukraine. Needless to say, his first books, like Circulation or Winter Trees, were rejected for publication by the Soviet authorities.

After Stus’s first arrest for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” in 1972, he became a translator. Having no conditions to work as a poet, Stus immersed himself in the works of other poets and writers. What is more, he started to learn other languages, mostly on his own. He translated a lot from German – for example, his favourite Austrian poet, Rainer Maria Rilke and others like Johann Wolfgang Goethe, Ingeborg Bachmann, and Bertold Brecht. He learnt and translated other languages, like English, French, Italian, Spanish and even Hebrew. Obviously, he translated from Slavic languages: Russian (Ivan Bunin or Marina Tsvetaeva), Polish (Tadeusz Różewicz and Tadeusz Kubiak), Slovak, Czech and Belarusian. Unfortunately, some valuable Stus translations (like that of Boris Pasternak and Aleksander Blok) could not have been preserved. Talking about his work as a translator, we cannot forget his own writings, especially the collection called Palimpsests, treated as the most sophisticated of his poetry. And due to the conditions of the Perm-36 Soviet camp, it was not possible to preserve the last collection of his poems, The Bird of Soul. Brovko’s film manages to depict an attempt to smuggle the collection out of the camp, however, in the end, The Bird of Soul could not escape its cage.

In the film we see a scene depicting the moment of Stus’s mysterious death. Brovko’s creation suggests that the Soviet camp chiefs are directly responsible.

Stus’s death is still an open question. He died on September 4th 1985, but we still do not know the real cause. During his stay at Perm-36 – where conditions were really horrible – Stus had serious problems with his health. He also went on hunger strikes. Nonetheless, I would say that the lack of possibility to work depressed him.  

Throughout the last years of his life in custody, some renowned international writers formed a special committee in order to nominate Stus for the 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature. Was it one of the last attempts to internationalise his case as a political prisoner in the Soviet Union?

To respond to this question I would recall the article written by the famous Ukrainian historian and journalist, Vakhtang Kipiani – “Stus and Nobel: Demystification of the Myth,” where he concentrated on the activity of the International Committee for Awarding the Literary Nobel Prize to Vasyl Stus in 1986 – formed in 1984 in Toronto. Kipiani, in a very detailed manner, invoked the requirements that would have to be met to effectively apply for the Nobel Prize – in the case of Stus, there was definitely too few valuable translations of his poetry. We used to think that Heinrich Böll, a German writer awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1972, asked to honour Vasyl Stus. But there are doubts as to whether he knew Stus’s poetry well. Undoubtedly, the appearance of Stus’s surname, as a Soviet Union political prisoner in the western media was an important factor for his potential release from the camp. That is why we should treat the activities of the International Committee more as a chance to rescue Stus, although in my opinion his poetry deserves to be recognised.    

Brovko’s film will definitely draw attention to Stus’s life and poetry. What other ways are his works being popularised?

It has to be stressed that this kind of popularisation is really necessary, since a lot of Ukrainians still do not know who Stus actually was. It was also shown by a poll conducted by the film crew in Kyiv. The results surprised me because Stus’s poetry is included in the compulsory programme of Ukrainian literature in schools. Vasyl Stus’s son, Dmytro, who is a director of the Taras Shevchenko National Museum, does his best to commemorate his father’s name. His last project was about the creation of a virtual Vasyl Stus museum. On the margins, from time to time, Dmytro Stus is accused of co-operating with politicians (including Medvedchuk) whom Stus clearly stood against. Nonetheless, we cannot forget about the strong trauma experienced by people like Dmytro Stus, who lost his father long before his death due to Stus’s life choices.

Tetiana Mykhailova is a Ukrainian literary scholar and translator. She has a PhD in literature and conducts research on Vasyl Stus’s poetry. She is a junior research fellow at the Taras Shevchenko Institute of Literature of the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine in Kyiv.

Tomasz Lachowski is a lawyer and journalist. He has a PhD in international law from the University of Łódź and is the editor in chief of the Polish online magazine, Obserwator Międzynarodowy (International Observer).

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