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Ievhen Sverstiuk


The author of this address has experience of such literature: 7 years of prison and camps, 5
years’ exile in eastern Siberia. But in the overall picture of 20th century Ukrainian literature, this
episode is relatively small and even fortunate.
Deprivation of freedom has different meanings in different countries, even under totalitarian
regimes. In a country with democratic European traditions, it is difficult to even imagine the type
of persecution for the written word that existed in Ukraine, which for Moscow, before the
revolution and particularly under communism, was always a particularly dangerous zone.
There were two unofficial delineations under the Soviet regime: the large zone and the small
zone. The small zone of jails and prison camps was a death zone. However, the socialist camp
was also a death zone, especially in 1933 and 1947. The authorities maintained a level of fear
among the people, which was based on the transfer of people from the large zone into small
zone. Dante’s words could have been written at the entrance into the small zone: “abandon every
hope, all who enter here”.
In the concentration camp, individual destiny and feelings of tragedy disappear. When an
individual becomes a number, he stops being an individual. The tragedy of the individual ceases
to be apparent, he becomes a statistic. The worst is that even the hero, who has been transformed
into a victim, subjectively feels this way. Personal dramas are no longer acutely perceived.
I would invoke an example of a tragedy in the well known Zerov family, a tragedy which
became rather every day.
The neoclassic poet, professor Mykola Zerov, was one of the most prominent literary figures
in Ukraine in the 1920s. in 1934 he was arrested, essentially so that “he wouldn’t be so smart”.
While in the Solovky prison camp, he continued translating Virgil’s Aeneid. In 1937, he was
executed, along with 400 other well known prisoners, “in honor of the 20 th anniversary of the
October revolution”.
Mykola Zerov’s younger brother, Mychaylo, was also repressed by the communist
authorities. However, the NKVD didn’t know that he was also a writer, and right before World
War II, released him into the large zone. While attempting to cross the Carpathian mountains,
Mychaylo Zerov fell into hands of communist partisans. The chekists found a manuscript in his
possession, written in Ukrainian and because of this, decided to execute Zerov. They took the
manuscript to be used for cigarette paper. This manuscript was Mychaylo Zerov’s brother’s
translation of Virgil’s Aeneid.
But God happened to be watching over Mychaylo that day, the chekist bullet only skimmed
his skull. He went on to live 19 more years in Augsburg, Germany, distinguished himself as an
excellent poet and a translator from many languages.
Neither of the Zerov brothers wrote on political topics. If they in any way even touched on
the prison regime, it was perhaps in the portrayal of Passion Thursday:
And a long row of gospel histories
sounds like a list of delicate allegories,
about our vile and miserly times.

The post-revolutionary generation, poisoned by atmosphere of militant atheism, became

deafened of those religious feelings and motifs which are traditional to Ukrainian literature. But
through their own crucifixion they adopted moral and psychological gospel truths. In his way,
Ivan Bahrianyj’s novel The Garden of Gethsemane appears, a work inspired by sorrowful
premonition in an atmosphere of imminent murder.
250 Ukrainian writers were arrested in the 1930s. most of them perished without a trace,
together with their manuscripts, letters, with their creative plans and intentions. I am convinced
that it is still possible to write Don Quixote in prison (in a Spanish prison, of course), but to
write about prison, that can only be done in liberty, freely, and from a certain distance.
In prison literature the prisoner is an escapee. He escapes into heaven, to the heights, or into
the past. Except for the protest genre, this is unavoidable. The protest genre is most often written
in prose and it is directed at the procuracy, or it is written as verse and intended to be read only
by friends.
In Paris in 1959, Yuriy Lavrinenko, a former gulag prisoner who managed to escape to the
West, published an anthology called The Executed Renaissance. Of the 250 Ukrainian writers
arrested in the 1930s, 40 writers from both the large and the small zones are included in this
anthology. In some way, all of them were suffering from Soviet repression. Their works were
either not published, or simply burned. Their testimony to the impact of terror and hunger during
the Stalinist epoch of is remarkably small… During those years, people simply because mute.
Manuscripts do not burn – this ingenious metaphor was coined by Bulgakov. Unfortunately
in captivity, manuscripts burn out and fade in the soul. Similarly, flowers blacken, but do not
bloom during frosts.
Nevertheless, there is an antinomy in such a judgment. All that is best in Ukrainian literature
of the Soviet period was born in the zone of suffering, influenced by the painful blows of
destiny, in close encounter with death, under an ever present Damoclean sword. But even under
such circumstances, there are flashes of liberty.
The first dissident in the large zone of Soviet empire, was the Ukrainian film director and
writer, Oleksander Dovzhenko, recipient of the Stalin prize. Stalin personally sentenced him to
total isolation, not least for his work Ukraine in Flames. Total isolation in the center of the
empire, in Moscow. It is baffling that Dovzhenko, condemned to being a non entity, actually
wrote during the time of the “liberation marsh” of the Soviets to the West. His diaries are a
miracle of the highest spirit, they show complete liberty of thought, a luxury which only the
courageous can allow themselves. For his diaries alone the communist authorities could have
literally buried him alive.
Liberty is tempting. It is passed on from person to person, like a smile. As the Soviet leaders
set a bleak tone, it is no wonder that smiles were often viewed as anti Soviet symptoms.
Having discovered the smiles and works of their predecessors, the Ukrainian writers and
poets of the 1960s rejoiced, and soared, they flew like butterflies into the flame of a candle. The
Prague spring brought a spring to the dissidents in Kyiv. The poet Vasyl Stus wrote:
A few of us, just a small handful
only for prayers arid for hoping,
for all us, death was destined
too early.

He foresaw his fate (Stus died in a concentration camp in 1985), as he foresaw the fate of his
friends, who also did not return. The rest were only saved because perestroika began and the
empire eventually collapsed.
Stus himself gives example of this unusual poetic creativity under prison conditions in his
book Palimpsests. This is poetry of excruciating pain and illumination, which one discovers in
the paradoxical situation of prison liberty. In a prison situation, when a person is prepared to risk
everything, including one’s life, a particular clarity of spirit descends upon you and you become
invulnerable to perfidious demons. You become indifferent to their power. People who are truly
free, as people of deep faith, are not subject to circumstances. And not because they don’t feel
these circumstances, no. Too often they feel them very deeply and profoundly; these
circumstances stimulate their creative activity. Perhaps shocking situations awaken the
unconscious of people who are possessed by the spirit.
In the case of Vasyl Stus, who was a great talent, a poet and as person with the gift of a
unique moral totality, a new world is created in the prison, a world which is constructed
vertically with the following motifs:
- God is already being born inside me
- O lost world, appear!
- Sorrow writes through me with such difficulty
- The stars shone to me this morning
- This is your new birth
- Blessed is he who knows how to lose
- Four winds rinse the soul.
Stus’ writing is real, as real as the last word of a farewell.
The escape from prison reality is most often directed into the world of culture. The prison
and exile poetry of Ihor Kalynets and his wife Iryna, is permeated with nostalgia and elegiac
motifs. Through their poetry they are able to enter a world of culture, art, tradition. It is
characteristic that after returning from exile, Ihor Kalynets fell silent, for him, simply writing
poems is no longer possible.
Poets of a more rationalistic makeup, such as Mykola Rudenko, Ivan Svitlychnyj and others,
more often than not, combine prison reality with philosophic motifs, with humor and with irony.
It is widely knows that prison, camp and exile provide the greatest impulses for creativity. Truly,
in Ukraine there are hundreds and hundreds of authors of prison themes.
However, the conduciveness of circumstances of personal isolation as a stimulus for
creativity, should only be considered in a very narrow sense. Unfortunately, this is not “normal”
creativity, to the full extent of the human soul. Creativity demands the presence of heaven, of the
sun, and of happiness. When these forces flow in the subtext of creativity, only then does
creative gravitate to eternity.
Praha, 1996