Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Russian Poets for Dummies

Russian greatness is predicated on its poets. Although Russia entered into its poetical legacy rather late by European standards, Pushkin won well-deserved and lasting fame as Byron’s equal. Eugene Onegin does not suffer from comparison with Byron’s Don Juan: It’s eloquent, witty, humorous, nimble, profound, and beautiful, even in translation.


Russian poetry suffered greatly as the 19th century wore on, with Russian poets preferring to sacrifice style in the interest of socially beneficial messages that revolved around social justice. According to Nina Berberov in Aleksander Blok: A Life, Russian novelist of the anti-Bolshevik Diaspora, the brilliant prose of Golden Age Russian novelists such as Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Tolstoy, was never matched by Russian poets. The first part of the 20th century was a Russian one, insofar as poetry was concerned.

Boris Pasternak

Russian Formalists reinvented the art of poetry, explored new themes, and employed new techniques. Russian poets took their task seriously, and were encouraged by a small but serious readership. Nabokov, Blok, Pasternak, Mayakovski, Svetaeva, Akhmatova, Mandelstam all merit mention. Eventually, poetry was severely circumscribed by Soviet censors and official aesthetic ideology that favored socialist realism (which is practice meant a deliberately falsify reality to flatter the party and state).

The criminality of the Stalinist regime is reflected in some of the poetry of this brilliant group of poets. Mandelstam’s poetic insult to Stalinism is the most famous example, since it got reported to Stalin and Mandelstam was soon arrested and sent to a labor camp. Pasternak received a direct telephone call from Stalin on the unusual subject of Mandelstam’s poetic talents. Stalin, for all his faults, was extremely well read, and fully capable of entering into literary debates. Sadly, Pasternak failed to definitively establish his friend Mandelstam’s case for poetic genius. The biographies of these men differ about the reasons for Pasternak’s reticence. It may have been professional jealousy; it may have been a fear of offending Stalin by a vigorous defense of somebody already in Stalin’s line of fire. Whatever the case, Mandelstam soon died in the camps. (See Boris Pasternak's An Essay in Autobiography for Pasternak's perspective on his creative processes).

Monument to Osip Mandelshtam unveiled in Moscow

Other Soviet poets suffered under Stalin. Notwithstanding his initial enthusiasm for revolutionary Russia, Mayakovski committed suicide when reality failed to live up to his expectations. Akhmatova survived Stalin’s persecution of her former husband (who was executed) and her son (who survived over a decade of hard labor in prison), as well as the siege of Leningrad and years of condemnation by the official Soviet literary establishment. In many ways, she became a symbol of suffering and perservance in Soviet Russia, preferring to remain in Russia--as Pasternak did--rather than be cut off from inspiration and potential readers rather than flee abroad like so many colleagues did. See Elaine Feinstein's Anna of All the Russias: A Life of Anna Akhmatova for more.

Akhmatova Receives Oxford Degree

After her husband had spied on the enemies of Russia and helped to assassinate an opponent of Soviet Russia, Marina Tsvetaeva followed her husband back to Russia. Once there, the poet saw her husband disappear into the Soviet death trap, now actively eliminating almost anybody with any ties to foreign countries, to say nothing of this man’s unhappy ties to the secret police and historic associations with Civil War opponents of Red Russia. Tsvetaeva survived her husband’s demise, but just barely.

With the German invasion, she fled Eastward with her son. Her fame preceded her. Although the historical record is unclear, Irma Kurdrova, author of The Death of a Poet: The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva, suspects that Soviet agents kept a close watch over the poet, limiting her options even in the midst of total war. Tsvetaeva was a delicate person by nature. She had never been capable of handling even ordinary chores with any degree of ease. Her poetry may well have been the produce of an extraordinary emotional sensitivity. In the end, Tsvetaeva committed suicide, leaving her son (with whom she had been quarrelling more regularly as time wore on) to fend for himself.

Many Russians say that Tsvetaeva unraveled in her final days and was no longer acting rationally in any sense of the word. Kurdrova suggests that the poet didn’t disintegrate in this way. Rather, Kudrova has uncovered some evidence that Svetaeva took a series of reasonable steps, going to a nearby city in search of assistance from fellow writers for example. This trip was unsuccessful, and apparently depressed Tsvetaeva greatly. Did Tsvetaeva kill herself as an act of desperation, or as a calculated act to protect her son, whose future could not have been improved by any association with a suspected Enemy of the People? Kudrova argues the latter point, but feels no undue pressure to undermine the mystery of Tsvetaeva’s final days, if the attempt to do so would overreach the oral and written sources. At any rate, the tragedy perfectly represents the dilemma of the feeling artist in an unfeeling system.

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