I met Maria Stus at the opening of Vasyl Stus Park in Kyiv. A few months before the poet’s sister had to move to the capital from Donetsk. Her home is situated not far from the railroad station in Donetsk, and the street is regularly shelled.
Maria and her family moved to Donetsk in the spring of 1941. Both she and her brother graduated from the pedagogical institute (now the Donetsk National University). Later, Vasyl went to Kyiv, and Maria remained in Donetsk. Now the biographers wonder at the strange coincidences in the poets life: he was born in Vinnytsia oblast and moved to Donetsk, and now the staff of the Donetsk National University, who do not support the occupants from the so-called DNR, are working in Vinnytsia. The life of Maria Stus knows a fatal coincidence, too: she arrived in Donbas on the eve of one war, and now has to flee from another. So now, the poet’s sister is looking after her great-grandchildren Andrii and Melania in Kyiv.
Recently we visited Maria in her home. We were treated to some delicious varenyky with cherries, and then had a long conversation about her life between two wars, and about her brother. The video interview for The Day was however too short to contain some interesting details. That is why we are printing a more detailed version of our conversation with Maria, about her childhood in Rakhnivka, studies and teaching in Donetsk, and her present life in Kyiv.
What did your parents do for a living?
“My father suffered a lot from the Soviet regime. He was an orphan from a poor family, but he was intelligent and did well at school. In 1917, during the World War One, he was taken prisoner. He was staying with a German family whose son was an army general or something like that. In a year and a half he was able to speak German. Once he told his host family that he had orphan sisters back at home. And they helped to get my father released from captivity. He returned home and got married. Our mother came from a wealthier family. She brought in cattle and horses as a dowry. The father became a well-to-do farmer, and our family was targeted as kulaks. The Soviets took away everything we had, even the floor boards in our house were ripped off. My father fled to Kerch, and soon mother left the older children with her mother and followed him. They spent some two years in Kerch.
“Later everything settled down somehow, my parents returned, my father worked on the collective farm and was able to get things going for us again. And again our family became a target for the envious neighbors. That is why we moved to Donetsk.”
What do you remember of the village of Rakhnivka, where you were born?
“I have very fond memories of Vinnytsia oblast. Rakhnivka was a picturesque village, both I and Vasyl loved it. After we moved to Donetsk, I visited Rakhnivka in 1946, Donetsk was then suffering from terrible hunger. Our granny and aunt lived in Rakhnivka. They kept sheep, and had milk, potatoes, and flour, so they knew no hunger. They took me in late February, and only in October I came back to Donetsk.
“Then me and Vasyl visited Rakhnivka when I was about to begin high school. We spent all the summer there. Oh, how much we loved it there! Our grandmother and aunt had own homes, the houses were surrounded by kitchen gardens and fields, there was a beautiful forest and a river nearby. It was so romantic. Vasyl even wrote a poem about Rakhnivka. Later we came there as students. Vasyl came a couple of times to help our family build a house. He was very hard-working, they were happy to have him around.”
What were your first impressions of Donetsk?
“Donetsk welcomed us with a great drama. I had an elder sister, she was a high school student back then. She did well at school and was very well-read. She was probably smarter than Vasyl. When father brought me and Vasyl to Donetsk, she died. She contracted meningitis and was gone in 24 days.
“In Rakhivka we had our own house, and in Donetsk we had to live in barracks. The floor was very cold, in the winter water froze between the boards. And soon the war broke out. There was a military plant No.107 nearby, a big enterprise where my father worked. The workers were evacuated to the Urals, but for some reason my father did not go at once. Later he was told to leave on his own, leaving the family (his wife and three children) behind in Donetsk. Father refused to leave without his family. He stayed behind, and we spent three years in occupation. These three years my father did not work anywhere. We had no bread, nothing. My father and elder brother went to the nearest villages, Vodiane and Pisky, to swap some goods for food.
“In 1943 my elder brother Vania died. There was a piece of wasteland nearby, and people made something like kitchen gardens there. Once we were returning home from there, and Vania was walking at some distance from us. Two boys were dismantling mines. As soon as Vania came near, a mine exploded. One boy was blown to pieces, another beheaded, and our Vania was wounded in the cheek, and his leg was torn away, it was horrible.
“Then the war was over, and my father again went to work at the military plant. We got a room in another barrack, a better one. There we lived from 1943 till 1946, and then the authorities began to give out land plots, father built a house, and we lived there.”
You mentioned a famine in Donetsk in 1946. What do you remember about that time?
“It was a terribly hard life. We began to build the house, and father was very sick. I was staying at my relatives in Rakhnivka, so I did not suffer from hunger, but Vasyl and mother had it hard. Mother was able-bodied but did not work, so she did not get any food ration cards. I and Vasyl were entitled to 300 grams of bread per day, father to 600 or 700 grams. If it was the sort of bread they make now, it would be enough. But it was a tiny loaf of hard, pressed dough.
“In 1946 mother even swelled with hunger. Vasyl suffered, too. Due to his illness, father was sent to a health resort in Khmilnyk, Vinnytsia oblast, so he went and took his ration card with him. Mother and Vasyl had to live on 600 grams of bread. Vasyl even had to look after the neighbor’s cow for food. He was seven or eight years old then. Later father got better, bought a cow, and life became easier.”
What kind of relationship did you and Vasyl have as children?
“We had a little difference in age, we were more like twins. We were always together, no matter what we did. As a kid, Vasyl was very curious. Together with the neighbors’ kids he made a radio and a telephone between our house and theirs. We would often play with a map, making entire travels: one would name a city, for example, and the other had to find it.
“Vasyl was a top student, so father gave him now a photo camera, then a guitar. Vasyl learned to play the guitar quite fast, and he played a lot of pieces by ear: Oginski’s Polonaise or operatic arias. My brother adored classical music, he loved to listen to Massenet’s Elegie.
“When I was 12, I no longer considered myself to be Vasyl’s big sister. He was my defender. We attended different schools, but they were next to each other. Once some boys caught my best girl-friend and rubbed snowballs in her face. I stood up for her, and afterwards I could not go to school without being shot with a barrage of snowballs. I told Vasyl, he talked to those boys, and they stopped bothering me.
“Vasyl was always sent to all regional Young Pioneer conferences. In our family we knew nothing about deception, and we totally trusted everything what the books and newspapers said. We thought that if we do not cheat, the others do not, either. Vasyl believed in the party. At those conferences he shouted slogans for Lenin and for Stalin. One of the teachers even decided that he was son of some party functionary.”
When did Vasyl realize that something was rotten in this state?
“I think when he was in Kyiv. I believe my father had played a role. I had a propensity to math and physics, while Vasyl was a literary type. He spent long evenings listening to father’s stories about Vynnychenko and Khvyliovy, and these were the names we had never heard back then.”
When did the KGB get interested in your brother?
“After the unveiling of the Taras Shevchenko monument in Donetsk [in 1955. – Author]. Vasyl and Ivan Pryntsevsky, holder of the Stalin Scholarship, spoke at the opening. The KGB did not like what they were saying, and they began interrogations. But while Vasyl lived in Donetsk, we did not feel that the KGB was interested in him. Our mother had a weak heart, and we were doing our best to spare her. Maybe Vasyl did share his problems with father, but we never knew of them.
“My brother served in the army and later worked in Horlivka and Donetsk. Some of his poems were printed in a newspaper from time to time, and he worked in a literary club. The real pressure began when Vasyl moved to Kyiv. There he got acquainted with Ivan Svitlychny, Mykhailyna Kotsiubynska, and Yevhen Sverstiuk. His network expanded, and then the persecutions began. But I know little of Vasyl’s life in Kyiv.”
What did you do after graduation?
“I was sent to the town of Shakhtarsk, Donetsk oblast. I worked the required amount of time there and returned to Donetsk, where I taught at School No.75 for a long time. Later my daughter suggested that I retire and help look after my granddaughter. I retired for seven years, and then I got an invitation from School No.74, where I worked another nine years. Now School No.74 lies in ruins. But I retired before. I am near-sighted, I have worn eye-glasses all my life, and I could not go on working because of my poor eye-sight.
“All in all, I worked at school some 49 years. Teaching was my dream from childhood, even though my father tried to talk me out of it. I loved math and was good at it. I wanted to enroll in a railroad institute, but the nearest one was in Dnipropetrovsk. Then I considered the polytechnic institute. But I had a bad eye-sight, and at a medical check the doctor wondered how I could possibly study there. So after all I entered the pedagogical institute.
“I enjoyed working as a teacher. I always maintained good discipline in class. I learned it from my school teacher, Mr. Teslenko. As soon as he saw a student turn around, he would ask him a question. You cannot answer if you do not follow. So, I did the same. If I saw that a student was daydreaming, I asked something. At first the children were angry, but then they got used to it, and there was always order in class. And I never raised my voice at the students.”
How did your colleagues react to your brother?
“At school I was never asked about Vasyl. In the first place, I never began talking about him. I never thought at first that he would become so well-known. And when he was thrown in prison, I would not talk about it either. But they knew about my brother in my school. One day the deputy principal asked me to come to her office instead of giving a class. There I saw a square-build, broad-faced KGB agent in a leather jacket. By that time, Vasyl had been in prison five or six years. The agent inquired about my brother, then asked me to influence Vasyl so that he would repent. We talked almost 45 minutes. But how could I teach my brother, who was much more intelligent than me? That is what I said to the KGB guy.
“I worshipped Vasyl all my life. When the family learned that he was arrested, you have no idea how bad it was. I could not sleep for two or three days on end. I cried all the time. Moreover, the information about his arrest was published in a newspaper. But my father was respected in town, and no one ever said anything to us about this matter.
“When my father died, Vasyl attended the funeral. There were very many KGB agents, their cars sat on several streets around. The principal of my school also came, she must have been the KGB informer. I sometimes had arguments with that principal, but she respected me. She had been retired for a couple of years at the time, yet she still attended the funeral. I was surprised. She came early and was among the last to leave. She was probably instructed to observe what was going on.”
When did you see Vasyl last?
“I do not even remember. When he was in a camp in Mordovia, we visited him twice. And in the Urals we did not even get to see him. Once we went to see him: myself, his wife Valentyna, and his son Dmytro. We had to wait a day or two to get a permission to see him. At last we heard the prison gate open, and Vasyl was on the way to us. And suddenly the guards came to say that there would be no meeting. They explained that Vasyl “had not performed the ritual.” The wardens ordered him to talk Russian to us, because they did not understand Ukrainian, and he refused.
“All in all, the camp in Mordovia was better. The inmates could get a breath of fresh air, they were allowed to plant flowers. When we first visited Vasyl in Mordovia, he did time together with Viacheslav Chornovil. He came out to talk to us, he was amiable and merry. Chornovil was a man of a different disposition than Vasyl. My brother was very direct, categorical, and uncompromising. He wanted everything to be done as it should be done, and that means fair. But for his character, he might have survived.”
How was Vasyl buried in the Urals?
“I and Valentyna visited his grave. It was a tiny hill, with a little post and board reading ‘No.9.’ Valentyna decorated the post with an embroidered Ukrainian towel. What also surprised us was the attitude of the people there, there was no enmity. At some point we ran out of water, and Valentyna was very thirsty. I approached a man who also came to visit the grave, and asked him for some water. He said he only had home-brewed beer with him. Valentyna was so thirsty she agreed to beer. The man gave us a drink, we treated him to some candy. And that beer tasted so good! I don’t like beer, but that was tasty.”
When did the attitude towards your brother change?
“After his reburial [1989. – Author] everything went much easier. People were sympathetic. Later, I started getting invitations from television stations, to share about Vasyl.
“When he still lived, I had a prophetic dream. Like, I am walking along a street, crossing a mine yard. And there is a sea of water, dirty and soapy, as if after laundry. And Vasyl is there too. As soon as I come up to him, the gate closes. And then Vasyl swam across the dirty water. I call out to him, but he keeps swimming. And suddenly the water in which he was swimming becomes clean. And so it happened afterwards: we were not allowed to see him in the Urals, the newspapers threw dirt at Vasyl, but later he was cleansed of it all.”
How is the present war different from the World War Two?
“I do not remember Germans to destroy a single home. And now, the house across the street is ruined, and the one opposite as well. Everywhere you see ruins. Something dropped nearby, and almost all windows in our house blew, the garage was shattered. Even the walls were damaged. Once I heard a terrible scream on the next street. One man went out and was hit by a shell fragment. He was dead right on the spot, they say his carotid artery was cut. Another one went to have a smoke on the porch… his family only had body fragments to bury. They keep shelling and shooting, and they won’t stop. What do they want?
“Many people only listen to the Russian radio, which gives biased, anti-Ukrainian information. They are all like zombies. Once I went to the dentist’s. All the windows in the clinic were shattered, and all on the side facing the ‘DNR’ positions. But never mind, Ukraine is to blame all the same.”
How did you venture to move to Kyiv?
“In Donetsk, my granddaughter with her family lived with me. Her daughter, my great-granddaughter, will soon be four. Once she was playing when shelling began. I cannot see well, and I only noticed something red flying low. I ducked and ran. And the little one sat near the sofa screaming her head off, so scared she was.
“You have to flee as soon as you can. Some neighborhoods seem quite quiet, but at some point shelling hits them too. I do not know how people can stand it there. Maybe they have so much faith in the so-called DNR, or maybe they just have nowhere to go. We had family in other places in Ukraine, so we did not run blind. Now my granddaughter’s husband is working, and we both look after the kids: my great-grandson Andrii and great-granddaughter Melania. I get a pension, as well as refugee welfare payment from the state. Also, various people help a bit. Maybe, with time we will find better accommodation.”
How could this war be stopped?
“I don’t know. And no one does. If Russia did not interfere, everything would have stopped long, long ago. In Donetsk, as soon as the humanitarian help arrived, shelling began. Some say it will end in five years, others, in a decade. I do not know what is going to happen, and how people have to live with it. But we will survive it, with God’s help.”