How Good It Is

How good it is that I’ve no fear of dying
Nor ask myself how ponderous my toil
Nor bow to cunning magistrates, decrying
Presentiments of unfamiliar soil,
That I have lived and loved, yet never burdening
My soul with hatred, curses or regret.
My people! It is to you I am returning.
In death I somehow find my fate.
I turn my pained but goodly face to living
And in filial prostration I begin.
I meet your eyes in fair thanksgiving
And join my kindred earth as closest kin.

— Vasyl Stus

(Trans. by Marco Carynnyk)

vacUkrainian poet Vasyl Stus was arrested in 1972 during a Soviet campaign to silence Ukrainian dissidents. He was subsequently charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and sentenced to five years of hard labor and three years of internal exile in Kolyma. He returned to Kiev after completing his sentence in 1972, but was re-arrested in 1980. He wa

s charged again with anti-Soviet activities and given a ten-year sentence in a hard-labor prison, to be followed by five years of internal exile. Stus died of emaciation on September 4, 1985, during his fifth year in prison. Soviet authorities destroyed an estimated 600 poems written by Stus; a handful of verses were smuggled out to western Europe and the U.S.

[Research note: photo taken by KGB after Stus’ 1980 arrest]


Life — rereading mine
From cover to cover.
Forced into watchfulness
In this icy sludge.

From a hint, a silhouette
I recognize friends in the mist.
Really, nothing is secret
In a guileless land.

— Varlam Shalamov
(Trans. by S. N. Johnson-Roehr)

Varlam Shalamov was first arrested in 1929 and sentenced to three years of hard labor for making statements critical of Stalin. After his release, he worked as a journalist in Moscow. He was arrested again in 1937, accused of being a Trotskyist. He was sentenced originally to five years of hard labor in the Kolyma prison camp, but was given an additional ten years for making anti-Soviet statements. He was released in 1951 and allowed to return to the Moscow region only after Stalin’s death in 1953.