Translated by Michael Pursglove


                      Even at large there is no freedom



Nights with no sky.

On the winds’ retaining wire

over the abyss of Gulag

a table stands

with vodka

in the faceted glass

of Kolyma.

The candle of the moon

touches with its cheek

the prison window

walled up in the ice

and warms the dreams of Stus

which soar

above Native Mother


And here the spider of the swastika

lurks in the corner

of Kolyma

and captures in its web

the shadows of weakened zeks.

Earth’s emery disc

Polishes the soul

and pen of the poet,

on the circle

of the dial

time counts

the vertebrae of minutes

and binds together days and years

into one drawn-out


here there are no other


nor can there be.

the mounds of Magadan –

two-humped camels –

like overseers

have frozen

in the lotus position

over the eternal injustice

of this region.

Dream-cloud, dream-island

Suspended over

the permafrost.




I reproached my visions,

and like a fata morgana

the sunset crimsoned,

and you floated into my embrace,

you held by the hands

your son, I knew

you would not arrive,

I did not take my eyes

off the ship.

Why did you say:

“Come back, I can wait

no longer?”

And the wasps of your words

have stung me so painfully

that I could scarcely stand,

Whose voice can I hear?

Can it be mine?

“Well, hello

little street,

well hello, home!

But home says nothing,

my home is deafened,

my home is blinded,

my home does not recognise me,

only the creaking of the porch

gives its sufferings


The prison skilly of days,

like a squirrel in a tree hollow

gnaws the pine nuts

of my eyes,

but dry red tears

burn like scarlet flags

over the glow of my fate

and do not allow love

to be killed.

Vasyl, who are you?

I am me and I am my country,

I am my people,

and I cannot be broken,

nor it, nor us,

while we live by faith.


Psychologically, I understood that the prison gate was already there opened for me, that one day it will close behind me – and will close for a long time. But what was I supposed to do? Ukrainians are not allowed to go abroad, however, there is no great wish to go there, because whoever is here in Greater Ukraine will become a voice of indignation and protest? This is destiny, and destiny is not chosen. So, it is accepted – what it is no longer. And when it is not accepted, then it forcibly chooses us…





Odyssey of solitude

and you, like winter


sought your white way,

there is therefore

snow in July

and “hermetic night

and to you

life seemed

eternal. In the taiga, in Mordovia

you hid your tears

in the ice

as childish secrets

are hidden in childhood,

thus the truth about you

was preserved

and grew through

the cynical permafrost

of trapped times.

The winds read


to you

and Rylsky and Bazhan,


curled up like a snail,

you slept

on their cold




When I was 9 years old, we built a hut. And Dad died, swollen with hunger. We pushed a wheelbarrow, kneaded clay, made adobe, put up the walls. I was as hungry as a dog. My whole childhood was with a wheelbarrow. Then they brought potatoes from the field, then with a bag I went to our plot – tore up grass – either for a cow or a goat…






In reply – silence.

The heartbeat

of imagination

paints a graphic

portrait of you,


In eyes

carbonized by tears

I see

the ashy sky,

poured off

from the leaden


over cornfields.


why do you collect

ears of corn.

– So as not to die from hunger,

my son.

I am lonely and you

are lonely.

We live

at different poles

of love



And you – forgive me. Better yet, don’t forgive.

My little swan, no need to cry,

I would cry myself now if I could.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And forgot about you. It’s so bitter, mama…

Oh, it’s so bitter that it won’t be retold.



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. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Forgive me. Forgive me, my dear.

When you can – better yet don’t forgive…





Fractions of


And a warder from my area,

the milk of dawn

has not gone sour,

while dawn’s bath house

was heating up,

like the red flag.

And the moon,


began a search

in the zone,

for two no sleep,

and cavalry

of winds demented


the heat augmented,

on the commander’s

shoulder straps

a star was burning,

and zeks drank chifir

and the life

of the tea kettle

boiled up,

with the century kept step,

and a fellow

from Ukraine,

guard in the tower,

was happy,

and naïve,

and seemed human.


I remember the first time I went to the Philharmonic. I remember how I listened to a series of lectures on Beethoven – all 9 symphonies and many concertos. And those wonderful sonatas of his! And what a man he was! His whole life – in grief, in misery, in torment -and he – one against the whole world – wins! That is, he does not yield to the assailants, but gets through: either the world will accept me as I am, as my mother gave birth to me – or it will kill, destroy me. But I will not give up! ..





Forgive me, my son,

I was a Don Quixote

from my early years

and travelled

from zone to zone.

You will retort

it was my wish.

no, my son, not mine –

it was the concern

of our fate.

Here’s the zone of childhood –

an islet

of Stalinist happiness,

proud omen

of accomplishments,

here the steel

of the Land of Soviets

was tempered,

here I served

my first term

of hunger

and poverty,

I paid in full

the humiliating

rental of joy.

Further on –

level crossings,


winking lights

in the darkness,

and in this succession

of interrogations

and denunciations

I found myself

at dawn

in Kolyma.


I remember grazing someone else’s cow in 1946-47. For that I was fed, I knew my mother was hungry – and I couldn’t eat myself, asked for a bowl at home, to eat together with my mother. Once I carried a bowl, and my mother began to scold me very soundly hard, crying, telling me not to do it again. Because she really wanted to eat – and it was hard for her to look at food. And the spoon did not climb into my mouth…






Tell me, poet,

where is the cliff

in the spiritual

mountain heights,

in whose form.

in whose likeness,

you were created?

Tell me, poet,

by what paths

did you go

to meet

Kipling and Rilke?

I know your


it accords

with my heart

and soul

and reflects

that spirit of freedom

which you feel

every moment.



Smoky palms

of clouds and cumuli, of a star,


of nocturnal fate,

I am a step away

from disaster.

I am unbreakable,

indifferent to

these barbaric


I come down from the mountain

or climb the mountain –

it’s not for me to judge,

God’s will be done,

it leads me as a guide,

that is my destiny,

with it, my son,

it is easier to breathe

and live, so live,

value freedom,

it is our destiny

so to live,


and the Ukrainian people’s.


Nowhere in the camp was it forbidden to strip to the waist during a walk – here they forbid and punish when anyone wants to catch a bit of sun. Searches are being conducted extremely arbitrarily: everything they want is taken away, even without authorization and without notice. We lost everything the right to belong to oneself, not to mention to have books, notebooks, records. They say when the Lord wants to punish someone, He takes away the mind. It cannot go on for long – such pressure is possible before death. I don’t know when death will come for them, but I personally feel sentenced to death…





My disfigured


with fantastical


of X-ray nights,

with bruises

of dawn

on the horizon’s


The prison bars

of rains

sing me

a lullaby of separation,

grief for my


while on the parvis

of Soviet life,

lackeys through copper coins

in my face.

But I stand before you,

My relatives,



I am your overseer,

I am your tormentor,

By the will of fate

I am your executioner.


I remember one old grandfather. He is hungry; having caught a sick dove, still yellow-billed (it had a sore leg) – fed it with bread from his mouth, gave it water to drink. That dove hopped after him like a father. So what happened? The dove recovered, grew up, gained strength. I don’t know if it thanked him or not (that’s not the point!), But when it thanked him – how it did so. But in my memory – while I live – will be that needy grandfather whose doves perched on his shoulders, palms, head (this grandfather has already died). And from what I saw, and other people saw – the world became better. Because I and others wanted to live like that,

so that the doves perch on your shoulders…





I’ll tell you this about myself:

my soul

has gypsy


I live

in a herd of stars,

in a caliche

of sunny nights,

I fly through the sky

of my fate,

and my pain

is my happy road,

it is not sympathy

I seek,

But those who are my equal

in spirit,

and my heart

like a sail,

floats on winds

and storms

through the navigable veins

of my rejected


not I, but the Lord himself

has chosen this fate

for me,

and in this fate live

my blessed




The bread crust of life,

that is the fate

of the poet.


The sky,



and from every


pound the earth

in a fire

of excitement,

not forgetting

the judges,

the offspring

of hell!

But what for the poet?

neither winter,

nor summer,

nor home,

nor light,

and only one reward –


on the map


Somehow it happened that I, a romantic, since childhood have wanted to belong to the same tribe – of uninhibited

gypsies camping in places of their will, their joy. This is fate, not an advantage, not a claim to something. Fate, which so confined on earth, fate, which – often -there is simply no place on earth…





Goods waggons of years

slither snake-like

into your dreams,

but ahead

the handcart of days

carries the seedlings

of gulag skilly

through the labyrinth

of five-year plans,

and the tears

of zek salutes

with shrapnel

sculpt a sieve

from a clay


while the parade

passes in formation

through the Red Square

of the country.

Like the Great Wall of China


has barricaded itself

off from the people,

and your thoughts,


were like Kobzar’s songs


Somewhere in grades 4-6, I knew almost all of Kobzar by heart. And also – when my mother and I were digging potatoes or breaking up young cobs of corn or peeling ripe beans (so good – with blue and blue dots on them!) – my mother always sang. Quietly, but well Above my cradle, my mother sang a lullaby to words of Shevchenko:

                                   My son, my son, do not curse your father,

                                   and remember.

                                   Castigate me, I’m your mother –

             curse me…






Rilke, and not simply Rilke,

“The Duino Elegies” –

That’s where my soul

Finds kinship with yours.

You say:

“Who will hear

My lament

In the angel choirs?”

Yes, I agree with you,

and yet

perhaps it will be heard nonetheless?

You say:

“Throw away the void from your hands

into the space

which we breathe”.

“Well how can I throw everything away

in a prison cell?

You say:

“It’s true, we are afraid

to leave

a familiar land.”

But for a long time

I haven’t paced out the measurements

of my native land.

For a long time have not felt her,

beneath my feet, after all,

is prison concrete,

like a gravestone, –

and that is my land.

You say:

“And it’s not easy to be


I don’t know how

to answer you

when I am here

as alive,

as the half dead.



–  Vasyl

in your likeness

I would not have lived through a day

but all your life

has been like this.

But the river of time

does not only flow

from our birth

to our death –

it flows from the future

to the present.

– And now you’re at home

in your native land,

-I don’t know, Rilke,

how to answer you.

-Keep silent then

and thoughts, wrapped

in your words

will come to meet me

across snow of white paper.

-I see you

Take delight in Tsvetayeva

And remember Pasternak.

-I knew Pasternak

And dedicated words to Tsvetayeva

In her lifetime, in reply

she gave me a long poem,

posthumously. It’s true

but is that what matters?

-We are not speaking of that


-No one knows. I’ll tell Rodin

about you.

-No, don’t. Why trouble his soul?

-Don’t mind that. He’ll carve

from granite

the lofty spirit of your freedom.


And here is a poem by Rilke. You chose a less successful one – this is probably from “Neue Gedichte”, his early collection – already paintings. This is not the Rilke I love. I love late Rilke,, autumnal, crystallized…





Jackal-winds are

the tunnels

of prison corridors

and the boots

of murderers and rat catchers,


in the mousetrap of their

displaced souls,


stamp and beat

to death

the living voices

of innocent silence,

and dawn

is sitting on the bunks

of the horizon,

and in the honeycombs of lock-ups

where you have the right

to live,

your guardians serve

the bitter honey of solitude

as a sweet course.


… I do not like public activities, politics, but what to do when honest people are being destroyed around.

Snow, and clouds, and rumours

and hunched Kolyma.

Above the black water grey braids:

then longs for mother, mother, mother…





The black cats

of nights


the soul

the centipedes

of days

drag themselves

over the ground.

I greet the sun

hospitably –

happiness abandoned –


in the camp


An ocean

of sufferings,

I drown, I surface,







I appoint

a meeting

in heaven

at the hour of rendezvous.


I seem to have lost my sense of reality because everything

appears as a dream, which you dreamed in Your Lord…






why do we live

with pain in our hearts,

century after century?


why do we not grumble?


when will there be an end

to sufferings

and grief in Ukraine?

-Vasyl, my grandson,

I have lived a long life

and am unlikely to live


Ukraine is free.

But I know

that day will come.


how do you know?

– Vasylik,

 the Lord told me.

– Grandma,

 what should I do?

– Vasily, grandson

hold on

to your roots

and fight.

We have

an invincible weapon –

love and kindness,

and the truth is behind us too.


I remember in 1951 I went to the village to my grandmother. Gathered ears – a ranger chased after me through the stubble – I ran away, but he was riding a horse (a two-horse cart) – caught up with me, began to tear the bag from me, and I bit his ugly red hands. And I was so angry, I picked up the bag. And the next day the stubble was ploughed.





Storks build nests,

I hear the music


there is a smell of home, of wormwood

and the steppe of separation,

and on the prison windows


like crowns

of autumn trees

wave to the boy.

I stand between sky and sky,

And in the inkwells of clouds

Nocturnal visions

Of restless

May bugs


Like a precursor

Of vernal freedom

And on the tips

of feathers

of goose dawns,

as a denial of memory

of fear,

a herbarium

of butterfly words

comes to life,

I leave as a legacy

to descendants,

the gulag of my pain

for my




The author has included

fragments of the letter “To my Son”,

 entries in the diary, and poetry by Vasyl Stus