On May 23, the Faktor Druk and Vivat Printing House – a major Kharkiv-based Ukrainian publisher of books, including schoolbooks, newspapers, and magazines – was hit by a Russian missile, killing 7 people, wounding 22, destroying the printing facilities, and burning about 50,000 books.

Among many others, the destroyed books include Words and Bullets – a series of interviews with Ukrainian writers and journalists who became front-line soldiers – by the award-winning Ukrainian author Natalya Kornyenko. News accountsstate that some of the publisher’s other bestsellers include Winston Churchill’s biography authored by former UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, and a book about the KGB’s arrest of the Ukrainian poet and Soviet-era Ukrainian dissident, Vasyl Stus.


While everybody knows about Churchill and Johnson, I doubt that most people outside of Ukraine and Russia know who Vasyl Stus was. I confess my ignorance about him until this morning’s Kyiv Post wrote about the Russian attack, specifically mentioning the book about Stus. So, I had to look into that. Who was he? What was it about Stus that made his books so popular in Ukraine? Why did he draw the KGB’s attention in the first place?

The first things I learned was that Vasyl Stus, besides being aSoviet dissident, wrote poetry that was scarcely read during his lifetime, but is now required school reading in Ukraine. First, Iread book reviews, for example in the LA Book Review. I have begun to read English translations of Stus as part of my personal education. I can begin to understand more deeply what Ukrainians are feeling, what they are fighting for, and what they are fighting against, and how that directly relates to literary masters such as Vasyl Stus. For example, this is from Stus’s “A Hundred Years” poem:

You will no longer perish, stout

land sacked and slaved for centuries.

Oppressors cannot choke you out


with Siberias or Solovkís. [prison camps]

You are still suffering in pain,

you are still ripped and raggedy,

but, tough already and untamed,

you have stood tall for liberty.

Your mother’s milk was anger. Now

you’ll get no peace from it. It will

leap growing, growing, growing till

the final prison doors go down.

The denial of freedom and free thought spurs pushback by the bravest souls who dare.

Stus reminds me of Nobel Peace Prize winner Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and his epic literary work The Gulag Archipelago. Perhaps not coincidentally, Solzhenitsyn was both Russian (his father) and Ukrainian (his mother). In Solzhenitsyn’s life and life’s work, I am further reminded that it is not Russia that I hate. How can I hate Solzhenitsyn and so many other dissidents like him, to say nothing of the Russian mothers and fathers and children who simply want a place and means to live in peace? That’s exactly a chief part of what Ukraine fights for. What I hate is this damnable totalitarianism of the Soviets, today of Russia, and the stifling of humanity right down to the very thoughts of freedom and thoughts of despair about physical tortures and confinements and intellectual repression. I hate the ignorance spurred by political repression and utter denial of self-determination, and the ignorance and repression manifesting as violent attitudes. I hate the autocrats’ secret police and the missiles aimed toward destruction of the lives of those who still insist on freedom.


But the denial of freedom and free thought also spurs pushback by the bravest souls who dare. Stus and Solzhenitsyn experienced the worst of imprisonment in the Soviet system. Now Putin’s Russia uses missile and tank firepower to destroy what Putin’s secret police cannot reach.

Stus and Solzhenitsyn are not the only men of words. It can be useful to remember some of Putin’s own words shortly before his invasion. It was just before the Russian invasion, in July 2021, that Putin issued a manifesto, reading like a marionettist’s script for two string puppets. In his left hand and in one voice, Putin extolled the spiritual unity and kinship and love of Russians and Ukrainians; and in his right hand and another voice he talked about weapons of mass destruction employed between the two countries. In Putin’s left hand came a voice claiming that Ukraine and Russia are united in

“essentially the same historical and spiritual space… We respect Ukrainians’ desire to see their country free, safe andprosperous… Russia has never been and will never be anti-Ukraine.”


Putin went on, in that document, about Ukraine’s quest for independence:

“What can be said to this? Things change: countries and communities are no exception. Of course, some part of a people in the process of its development, influenced by a number of reasons and historical circumstances, can become aware of itself as aseparate nation at a certain moment. How should we treat that? There is only one answer: with respect! You want to establish a state of your own: you are welcome!”

It evokes the US Declaration of Independence, as if that declaration had been written and granted by King George IIIhimself. Oh, how magnanimous!

Then, in the same manifesto, the puppet in the marionettist’s right hand spoke:

“I am confident that true sovereignty of Ukraine is possible only in partnership with Russia.

“There came a time when the concept of ‘Ukraine is not Russia’ was no longer an option… the situation inUkraine today is completely different because it involves a forced change of identity… comparable inits consequences to the use of weapons of mass destruction against us. As a result of such a harsh andartificial division of Russians and Ukrainians, theRussian people in all may decrease by hundreds ofthousands or even millions.

Putin was quite prophetic in the last phrase, in that his puppeteering has resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousand Russians and the emigration of hundreds of thousands of others.  


Just two weeks prior to his invasion of Ukraine, while Putin was massing his forces for the invasion and meeting with French President Macron, Putin threatened something like a rape of Ukraine if the country did not eagerly submit to him, and murder if the country resists rape:

Like it or don’t like it, it’s your duty, my beauty.”  

Quite a special quote. Not getting a successful rape, he then went for murder. Not being successful with that, he threatens nuclear war against both Ukraine and those who defend Ukraine. That’s a novel consideration of kinship and shared spiritual space!

Particularly given Russian and Soviet history, especially the many cycles of repression extending not only through the Communist era but long before, and continuing even now, there can be no doubting the reasons for Ukraine’s resistance to Putin’s Taliban-like pressure to marry through coercive words and political-diplomatic-military rape. Given American and NATO resistance to the Cold War Soviet state’s violent plans and attempts to destroy whatever free democratic opponents that it could not undermine, and Putin’s echoing of the same, we have our alliance with Ukraine.


Meanwhile, Vasyl Stus still lives through his poetry, now illuminated further by the Russian missile attack’s fireball. Though a publishing house was destroyed, books were burned, and publishers’ lives were taken away, Vasyl Stus is not remaining quiet. In fact, a little of the $61 billion in American military aid or Europe’s Russian asset money could help to rebuild publishing in secure places in Ukraine, and delivery of Stus’s poetry and Churchill’s speeches and factual non-propaganda information to Russian citizens via drone-dropped deliveries of laminated printed works and digital read-only memory sticks, taking due care to avoid malware overwriting.

Vasyl Stus’s dissident rejection of the Soviet system, and by extension Putin’s system, stands as a backbone-strengthening lesson for all those who defend democracy, here quoted from Palimpsest:

Go, cross the edge! Your birth will follow death.

Strive headlong for the path,

as bright as blood,

That favors honest and repentant souls

who live as such, expecting in their end

a new beginning. Yearning for the stars

as adversity spreads its wings and turns

its energy toward eternity.

Translated by Artem Pulemotov

The opinions expressed here are the author’s own and not necessarily those of the Kyiv Post.

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