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

Ihor Kalynets (83) has resisted Soviet domination throughout his life

The poet Ihor Kalynets (83) at his home in Lviv, Ukraine. Kalynets spent a lifetime resisting Soviet domination. Now, he says, he’s not going anywhere. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

The poet Ihor Kalynets (83) at his home in Lviv, Ukraine. Kalynets spent a lifetime resisting Soviet domination. Now, he says, he’s not going anywhere. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

 

At 83, no longer a young poet, Ihor Kalynets knows something of life under Russia’s thumb.

Having spent nine years in the Soviet Gulag, including hard labour cutting stone, he secretly wrote on cigarette papers what are regarded as some of his best verses. They were crumpled into tiny balls and smuggled out of prison.

For 30 years of his professional life – during Soviet times – he was able to publish only abroad, infuriating the authorities, or through samizdat, the underground 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 up the street, and he has opened his art-filled home to a family of refugees.

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

The poet Ihor Kalynets at his home in Lviv, Ukraine. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times
The poet Ihor Kalynets at his home in Lviv, Ukraine. Photograph: 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 defence of their region.

More than habit or age, what keeps Kalynets in Lviv is his entire life history, which has been one of resistance driven by a deeply rooted connection to his homeland and Ukrainian culture.

“I did not grow up as a pioneer or a komsomolets,” he said, referring to the Communist youth groups that schooled generations of Soviet youths. “I was bred in a Ukrainian family in the national spirit.”

Kalynets has seen the full arc of his country’s history, from before and during Soviet rule, to independence, and now to its present 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 the second World War that ravaged the region and changed state borders. Lviv was occupied by Nazi Germany and then seized by the Soviet Army.

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

A display cabinet at the home of Kalynets. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times
A display cabinet at the home of Kalynets. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

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

The early experience led to a lifetime of opposition to Soviet rule and stretches to Russia’s latest war, which president Vladimir Putin has termed an operation to de-Nazify and “liberate” Ukraine. “I knew who our so-called liberators were,” Kalynets said.

As a student, he moved to Lviv and studied at the Language and Literature Faculty 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 mostly interested in the political conditions in Ukraine,” he said. “We were not expecting to gain liberation and we understood it would be a long time to gain independence. There was only a handful of us, but we believed something should change.”

He wrote a first collection of poems, “Excursions,” but it never saw the light of day. The entire print run 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 swiftly proscribed.

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

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

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

Repression returned. As friends and acquaintances were arrested, and he and his wife organised human rights protests and appeals for their release, they came under the surveillance of the state security service, the KGB.

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

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

In a series of letters that he wrote to his nephews from 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 labour camp, he wrote some of his most beautiful poetry, said Oleksandr Frazé-Frazénko, a Ukrainian filmmaker and music producer, who made a documentary about Kalynets.

“He used to be a prince back in the day,” he said. In an era of Soviet realism, his poetry touched on the eternal. “His poetry has something royal about it; the way he wrote, the subject matter too. He wrote about nothing special, but about everything at the same time.”

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

In 1987, with the opening up of press freedoms, or glasnost, under Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev, he became an editor of one of the first uncensored periodicals.

The view from a window in the home of Kalynets. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times
The view from a window in the home of Kalynets. Photograph: Ivor Prickett/New York Times

After the fall of communism, he and his wife became involved in politics, known for their support for the Republican Party, the first political party in Ukraine to challenge the Communist Party’s dominance, and for the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, a 1,000-year-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 gatherings, and finally publishing his poetry for the first time in Ukraine. In 1992, he was awarded the Shevchenko Prize, Ukraine’s most prestigious literary award.

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

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

Russia, in Kalynets’ view, had for centuries taken Ukrainian history and culture as its own, and then was left naked with the dissolution of the Soviet Union. “The powerful and glorious Russia is a country without history, and that is what alarms Putin the most,” he said. “To be without its history was not prestigious. That’s where the war comes from.”

He said he was not surprised to see Ukrainians rallying together when attacked by Russia, but did not put it down to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy’s leadership. “It is just that Ukrainians suddenly became conscious and understood who they are.”

“It is quite simple,” he said. “It is the consciousness of a subjugated nation, that wants to have its own country, and not to be the manure that fertilises Russia.” – This article originally appeared in the New York Times.

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