The poet from Lviv who spent years in a gulag and now says he won’t leave Ukraine


At 83, plus a young poet, Ihor Kalynets knows something about life under Russia’s thumb.

After spending nine years in the Soviet Gulag, including hard labor carving stone, he secretly wrote on cigarette paper what are considered some of his best verses. They were crumpled into small balls and smuggled out of the prison.

For 30 years of his professional life – during the Soviet era – he was only able to publish abroad, infuriating the authorities, or via the samizdat, the clandestine self-publishing network.

Today, he lives on a leafy street in Lviv, a city in western Ukraine inundated with Ukrainians displaced by Russia’s invasion of their country. His daughter and son-in-law live on the streets, and he opened his art-filled home to a refugee family.

War is raging in the east and around Kyiv, the capital, but he insists he has no intention of joining the exodus of people fleeing to neighboring Poland and others European countries.

Poet Ihor Kalynets at his home in Lviv, Ukraine. Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

“I will stay in Ukraine,” he said, looking around his living room, where he sleeps on a cot, surrounded by his books and paintings, his old-fashioned radio close at hand. “The Russians will not come here,” he said, adding that western Ukrainians would put up a determined defense of their region.

More than habit or age, what keeps Kalynets in Lviv is the whole story of his life, which has been a resistance motivated by a deep-rooted connection with his homeland and Ukrainian culture.

“I didn’t grow up as a pioneer or komsomolets,” he said, referring to the communist youth groups that trained generations of young Soviets. “I was brought up in a Ukrainian family with a national spirit.”

Kalynets has seen the whole arc of his country’s history, from before and during the Soviet regime, to independence, and now to its current struggle.

Born in 1939, in Khodoriv, ​​a town not far from here, when western Ukraine was still part of Poland, he grew up in the tumult of World War II that ravaged the region and altered state borders. Lviv was occupied by Nazi Germany and then seized by the Soviet army.

As a teenager, he saw firsthand the resistance against the Soviet state that lasted into the 1950s. Ukrainian nationalists, led by Stepan Bandera, had first opposed Polish rule, then joined forces with the Nazis and later to British intelligence to fight against Soviet domination in their home territory.

A showcase at Kalynets.  Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

A showcase at Kalynets. Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

“I was brought up in this environment,” he said, and his imprint remains with him. “I think of the cruelty of Muscovites and how Ukrainian patriots were fundamentally destroyed,” he said.

The first experience led to a life of opposition to Soviet rule and extends to Russia’s last war, which President Vladimir Putin called an operation to denazify and “liberate” Ukraine. “I knew who our so-called liberators were,” Kalynets said.

As a student, he moved to Lviv and studied at the Faculty of Language and Literature of Lviv University, graduating in 1961. He married another poet, Iryna Stasiv, and the two became well-known participants in the burst of cultural activity that emerged in the 1960s after the end of Stalinist repression.

“We were mainly interested in the political conditions in Ukraine,” he said. “We did not expect to obtain liberation and we understood that it would take a long time to obtain independence. We were only a handful, but we thought something had to change.

He wrote a first collection of poems, “Excursions”, but this never saw the light of day. The entire print was confiscated, according to an account of his life by the Kharkiv Human Rights Protection Group.

Some of the poems appeared in journals and newspapers, and in 1966 a collection, Kupala’s Fire, was published in kyiv, but also quickly banned.

A modernist poet – he developed his style from the avant-garde poets of the 1920s – he often focused on the richness of Ukrainian culture, celebrating literary figures and ancient customs, while offering a lament on the loss and destruction of this culture under Soviet rule. . He wrote odes to a country water well, stained glass and happiness, “written in the sand with a finger”.

Ihor Kalynets at his home in Lviv, Ukraine.  Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

Ihor Kalynets at his home in Lviv, Ukraine. Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

His poetry was criticized by the Soviet authorities, who demanded a more uplifting tone of propagandistic work. He was expelled from the Writers’ Union.

Repression has returned. When friends and acquaintances were arrested and he and his wife staged human rights protests and calls for their release, they were placed under surveillance by the state security service, the KGB.

In 1971, his wife was arrested and accused of anti-Soviet agitation. Six months later, he was also arrested. He served six years in a labor camp in Perm in the Ural Mountains, followed by three years of internal exile in Chita, Siberia, where he was reunited with his wife.

“That’s how it went,” he said with a slight shrug. “A person can endure anything, but we had a certain idea that held us back.”

In a series of letters he wrote to his nephews in prison, he composed a surreal children’s story called Mr Nobody, about a boy who lost his sleeve and found it inhabited by a voice.

In the labor camp, he wrote some of his finest poetry, said Oleksandr Frazé-Frazénko, a Ukrainian filmmaker and music producer, who made a documentary about Kalynets.

“He was a prince back then,” he said. In the era of Soviet realism, his poetry touches the eternal. “His poetry has something royal about it; the way he wrote, the subject too. He wrote about nothing special, but about everything at once.

Kalynets returned to Lviv in 1981 but stopped writing poetry and instead turned to children’s literature, to some extent to avoid further trouble, he said.

In 1987, with the opening of press freedom, or glasnost, under Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, he became editor of one of the first uncensored periodicals.

The view from a window of Kalynets house.  Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

The view from a window of Kalynets house. Photography: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

After the fall of Communism, he and his wife became involved in politics, known for their support of the Republican Party, the first political party in Ukraine to challenge Communist Party rule, and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a 1000 year old church. old church that follows the Byzantine rite. The church is followed by the majority of people in western Ukraine, but was banned under the Soviet Union.

Kalynets remained a poet at heart, reciting his poems at political rallies and eventually publishing his poetry for the first time in Ukraine. In 1992 he was awarded the Shevchenko Prize, Ukraine’s most prestigious literary prize.

But he remains outspoken about politics. Ukraine has not gained true independence from Moscow in the 30 years since it declared independence, he said. “He was Moscow-oriented, he was absolutely Russified.”

“So we had to fight to have that kind of Ukraine that would live up to the ideals of the cultural leaders of previous generations,” he said. “And that’s how an independent Ukraine slowly emerged, bit by bit.”

Russia, according to Kalynets, had for centuries made Ukrainian history and culture its own, then was left naked with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “Mighty and glorious Russia is a country without history, and that’s what worries Putin the most,” he said. “Being without his story wasn’t glamorous. This is where the war comes from.

He said he was not surprised to see Ukrainians rallying when they were attacked by Russia, but did not blame it on the leadership of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy. “It’s just that Ukrainians suddenly became aware and understood who they were.”

“It’s pretty simple,” he said. “It is the conscience of a subjugated nation, which wants to have its own country, and not be the manure which fertilizes Russia.” – This article originally appeared in the New York Times.


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