In the aftermath of the first world war the world was in chaos. Politically, culturally,
economically, nothing was secure anymore. Empires crumbled, maps were redrawn, millions of people stateless, sick or dead. But with the formation of new organisations, countries and ideologies, chaos was missing something: more chaos! Revolts and uprisings spread across the globe like wildfire between 1916 and 1923, as countries, stirred up and restless, pushed for changes. To name a few, we had the Irish uprising and subsequent civil war, the Maltese riots and the Egyptian and Sudanese revolutions which all sought to secure independence from Britain; the German November revolution which replaced the monarchy with the democratic Weimar republic; the Red Years of social conflict in Italy; the Turkish war of independence and Russia, where twin revolutions deposed the tsar and imposed a political philosophy that would have catastrophic consequences: Communism.
When the Russian writer Boris Pastenak, was advocating for the life of his friend and fellow poet Osip Mandelstam, he persuaded Stalin that history would side with the poets and not with politicians who murdered them. So who were the poets of the Russian Revolution? There were many, but I’ll introduce you to my top six, beginning with one of the most acclaimed, Anna Akmatova. Like many of her contemporaries she lived through the Bolshevik revolution that succeeded the Tsar, both world wars and the devastating purges that saw millions of her countrymen and women perish. Though her career as a writer began with universal emotional topics and feminine lamentations, her focus soon turned to politics, patriotism and the transcendental power of art. She led a bohemian kind of lifestyle married to various poets, had numerous affairs – one with the Italian painter Modigliani – hung out at the Stray Dog cabaret club reciting poetry, generally living a free life before enduring major hardship under the communist new world order. One of her husbands was arrested for treason and executed, another died in prison, her son Lev was imprisoned many times and it was whilst waiting in line to see him outside Kretsy prison that she conceived the idea for one of her most famous works: Requiem. Written in 1940’s, it’s a poem about grief and resolve, a testimony of the suffering endured during the purges and a tribute to all who lost loved ones to political oppression:
By Anna Akhmatova
(trans. By Tony Kline)
Those days, when only the dead
Smiled, glad to be at peace,
And Leningrad, unneeded, swayed,
Throwing wide its penitentiary.
When legions of the condemned,
Maddened by torment, passed,
Brief the songs of parting then,
The locomotives’ farewell blast,
Dead stars hung above us,
And blameless Russia writhed
Under boots stained with blood,
And the Black Marias’ tyres.
They took you away at dawn,
As though at a wake, I followed,
In the dark room weeping children,
Among icons, the candle guttered.
On your lips, the chill of a cross,
On your brow a deathly pall.
I’ll be, like a woman to be shot,
Dragged to the Kremlin wall.
Seventeen months I’ve pleaded
For you to come home.
Flung myself at the hangman’s feet,
My terror, oh my son.
And I can’t understand,
Now all’s eternal confusion,
Who’s beast, and who’s man,
How long till execution.
And only flowers of dust,
Ringing of censers, tracks just
Running somewhere, nowhere, far.
And deep in my eyes gazing,
Swift, fatal, threatening,
One enormous star.
Lightly the weeks fly, too,
What’s happened I can’t understand.
Just as, my darling child, in prison,
White nights gazed at you,
So now again they gaze,
And of your cross on high,
Of death, they speak today.
I learned to know how faces fall apart,
How fear, beneath the eye-lids, seeks,
How strict the cutting blade, the art
That suffering etches in the cheeks.
How the black, the ash-blond hair,
In an instant turned to silver,
Learned how submissive lips fared,
Learned terror’s dry racking laughter.
Not only for myself I pray,
But for all who stood there, all,
In bitter cold, or burning July day,
Beneath that red, blind prison wall.
Once more, the remembered hour draws near.
I see you, I feel you, and I hear:
You, they could barely carry into line,
And you, whom earth claimed before your time,
And you, who shook your lovely head of hair,
Saying: ‘As if this were home, I’m here’.
I’d like to summon you all by name,
But the lists are lost, un-found again.
I’ve woven a great shroud for them here,
Out of poor words I chanced to overhear.
Remembering them always, everywhere,
Unforgotten in every new terror’s care,
And if they shut my tormented lips, shut my
Mouth, where a hundred million people cry,
Let them still remember me, today,
On the eve of my remembrance day.
And if ever in this my native country
They choose to erect a statue for me,
I agree to that ceremonial honour,
But on one condition – don’t set it there
Beside the sea-shore, where I was born:
My last ties with it so long outworn,
Nor in the Imperial Garden, by that dead tree
Where an inconsolable shade looks for me,
But here, where I stood three hundred hours,
Where no one ever opened the doors,
Lest I forget in death’s blessed oblivion
The Black Maria’s screaming hum,
Forget the terrible clang, the gates that hail
Like a wounded beast, the old woman’s wail.
And from my eyelids, bronze, unmoving,
May snowflakes fall, like tears melting,
And the prison pigeons coo far from me,
And, on the Neva, ships sail, silently.
Impossible to comprehend the suffering. And at the end there although the poem is her tribute, her woven mantle, and despite a visual reminder in the form of a monument, the world/nature/memory will forget the tragedy that happened here and sail calmly on. You know, once the Bolsheviks or the Red Army established themselves in power, all opposition was suppressed. What became known as the Communist Party sought to nationalize ownership of all the means of production, believing that a centralized economy would be more efficient than a capitalist one. Money was destroyed, labour became compulsory, Lenin ordered mass executions of his opponents and political prisoners; religion was regarded as superstitious and eliminated, priests were jailed; many writers and artists had their works banned or censored if contrary to the parties ideology, some emigrated, some remained, many capitulated, others died for their art. Akhmatova wrote a moving tribute to her friend and fellow writer, Mikhail Bulgakov in the poem In Memory Of M.B. He suffered in silence throughout those terrible years and although protected by Stalin during some of the worst purges of artists, his most famous novel the Master and Margarita (portraying his real feelings about the savagery of the party) lay unpublished until 25 years after his death.
In Memory of M. B.
By Anna Akhmatova
(trans. By Stanley Kunitz)
Here is my gift, not roses on your grave,
not sticks of burning incense.
You lived aloof, maintaining to the end
your magnificent disdain.
You drank wine, and told the wittiest jokes,
and suffocated inside stifling walls.
Alone you let the terrible stranger in,
and stayed with her alone.
Now you’re gone, and nobody says a word
about your troubled and exalted life.
Only my voice, like a flute, will mourn
at your dumb funeral feast.
Oh, who would have dared believe that half-crazed I,
I, sick with grief for the buried past,
I, smoldering on a slow fire,
having lost everything and forgotten all,
would be fated to commemorate a man
so full of strength and will and bright inventions,
who only yesterday it seems, chatted with me,
hiding the tremor of his mortal pain.
Osip Mandelstam was born in Poland but lived in St. Petersburg and moved in the same circles as Akhmatova and her first husband Nikolai Gumilyov. They headed up a literary movement known as Acmeism which put the focus back on clarity of language and craftsmanship, more of a direct treatment of thoughts and feelings as opposed to the spirituality of Symbolism. And that’s what Mandelstam’s poetry was all about, the individual, directly at odds with the collectivist ideology of ‘the party’. He was a personal poet and not a political one so little wonder he found it difficult to get work published. The state persecuted non-conformist poets and like Akhmatova he led a threadbare existence. He was tortured, imprisoned and exiled to the Urals. He may have been asserting his rights as a poet in The Stalin Epigram, in which he attacks the dictator, comparing him to worms and cockroaches but it’s a poem that certainly didn’t do him any favours and probably sealed the fate of Akhmatova’s husband and son as well:
THE STALIN EPIGRAM
By Osip Mandelstam
(trans by W S Merwin)
Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms of his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
one for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
Nostalgic for old Russia, Mandelstam’s poetry is concerned with the preservation of cultural heritage. His expulsion from St. Petersburg destroyed him and the pain and uncertainty of his reality is reflected in his poem Tristia which closely follows Ovid’s elegy. Ovid was an exile too, banished from Rome for an unproven misdemeanour:
By Osip Mandelstam
(trans by AS Kline)
I have studied the Science of departures,
in night’s sorrows, when a woman’s hair falls down.
The oxen chew, there’s the waiting, pure,
in the last hours of vigil in the town,
and I reverence night’s ritual cock-crowing,
when reddened eyes lift sorrow’s load and choose
to stare at distance, and a woman’s crying
is mingled with the singing of the Muse.
Who knows, when the word ‘departure’ is spoken
what kind of separation is at hand,
or of what that cock-crow is a token,
when a fire on the Acropolis lights the ground,
and why at the dawning of a new life,
when the ox chews lazily in its stall,
the cock, the herald of the new life,
flaps his wings on the city wall?
I like the monotony of spinning,
the shuttle moves to and fro,
the spindle hums. Look, barefoot Delia’s running
to meet you, like swansdown on the road!
How threadbare the language of joy’s game,
how meagre the foundation of our life!
Everything was, and is repeated again:
it’s the flash of recognition brings delight.
So be it: on a dish of clean earthenware,
like a flattened squirrel’s pelt, a shape,
forms a small, transparent figure, where
a girl’s face bends to gaze at the wax’s fate.
Not for us to prophesy, Erebus, Brother of Night:
Wax is for women: Bronze is for men.
Our fate is only given in fight,
to die by divination is given to them.
Marina Tsvetaeva was the daughter of a concert pianist. Her amorous intrigue with Osip Mandelstam inspired the following poem in which she appears overcome with passion and welcome tenderness :
Where does such tenderness come from?
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(trans. Ilya Kaminsky & Jean Valentine)
Where does such tenderness come from?
These aren’t the first curls
I’ve wound around my finger—
I’ve kissed lips darker than yours.
The sky is washed and dark
(Where does such tenderness come from?)
Other eyes have known
and shifted away from my eyes.
But I’ve never heard words like this
in the night
(Where does such tenderness come from?)
with my head on your chest, rest.
Where does this tenderness come from?
And what will I do with it? Young
stranger, poet, wandering through town,
you and your eyelashes—longer than anyone’s.
Marina married Sergei Efron who joined the White Army during the Civil war. The family suffered greatly during the 1921 famine when over 30 million people were affected by malnutrition, over 5 million died I think, due mostly to poor economic management and the policy of grain requisition. There were rebellions everywhere, indiscriminate terror and the only relief came in aid from America. Tsvetaeva couldn’t afford to feed her family and sent one of her daughters to an asylum where she quickly died of hunger. The tables had really turned for Tsvetaeva who had a somewhat aristocratic upbringing. Now, the family lived in dire poverty in exile in France; her husband worked for the secret police but they were shunned by Russian expats. She continued to write and corresponded with her contemporaries before returning to the Soviet Union in 1939, whereupon Sergei was executed and her daughter sent to a labour camp. She herself was sent to Yelabuga with her son. It was there alone, impoverished and ostracised that she hung herself in 1941. Tsvetaeva’s poems portray the tragedy of her existence. None more so than Homesickness, written in exile and despite the small ration of hope in the last line, she is disillusioned with life, indifferent to her country of origin, Tsvetaeva is a poet on the cusp of surrender, a soul born somewhere or other:
By Marina Tsvetaeva
(trans. by Paul Schmidt)
Homesickness! Long ago revealed
as fraudulent delusion.
I don’t care where
I am alone. It doesn’t matter
across what streets, into what house
I drag myself, and my shopping basket–
a house that doesn’t know I’m there,
like a hospital or barracks.
I don’t care who sees me lie
like a caged lion, snarling slowly,
nor from what society they
thrust me, force me out into
my own internal solitude,
a polar bear in tropic water.
I don’t care where I am hurt,
nor where I am insulted.
I do not love my native tongue,
its weak, breast-fed attraction.
I am indifferent to the words
in which someone misunderstands me
(someone who reads magazines
and thrives on gossip columns).
He is Twentieth-Century Man–
my own age was never numbered.
Struck dumb, a rotting log
that marked a path now forgotten.
And I don’t care. All things are strange.
All facts. And perhaps what once
was closest is strangest of all.
All signs upon me, all traces
and dates seem wiped away.
A soul. Born. Somewhere. Or other.
My homeland cared so little for me
any clever sleuth
may search my soul–
he will find no birthmark.
Each house is strange, each altar bare.
And I don’t care. It doesn’t matter.
But if, beside the autumn road, I see
a rowan-tree . . .
Suicide then, as now, among artistic minds was nothing new. However, after the revolution poets had two choices: emigrate or live with the Bolshevik order. Living in communist Russia meant towing the party line and when you consider that nothing at variance with the official point of view was published then it’s hardly surprising that many poets sacrificed their literary reputations and wrote patriotic poetry putting Russian prowess ahead of fact. This makes it difficult to correctly establish who said what and meant it. Vladimir Mayakovsky was a brooding six-foot rabble-rouser perhaps best known for his radical verse A Cloud In Trousers – which prophesized the 1917 revolution and looked at topics such as religion, love and politics from the perspective of a scorned lover. He was a futurist who sought to bring art into the machine-age. He despised tradition and toured with a troupe of poets bellowing out riotous verse and generally making a nuisance of himself. He was a propagandist for the Bolshevik party, enamoured by the romance of revolution and the promise of a new freedom and the liberation of the working classes:
(trans. The Penguin Book of Russian Verse)
Beat the tramp of revolt in the square!
Up, row of proud heads!
We will wash every city in the world
With the surging waters
of a second Flood.
The bull of the days is skewbald.
The cart of the years is slow.
Our god is speed.
The heart is our drum.
Is there a gold more heavenly than ours?
Can the wasp of a bullet sting us?
Our songs are our weapons;
Ringing voices — our gold.
Meadows, be covered with grass,
Spread out a ground for the days.
the fast-flying horses of the years.
See, the starry heaven is bored!
We weave our songs without its help.
Hey, you, Great Bear, demand
that they take us up to heaven alive!
Drink joys! Sing!
Spring flows in our veins.
Beat to battle, heart!
Our breast is a copper kettledrum.
Mayakovsky created verse for the Russian State Telegraph Agency. His poetry promoted the party and as a symbol of socialist realism, expressed his pride in being a citizen of the first Socialist country in the world. Before his untimely death by suicide (or was it?) his work had become increasingly individualistic and like others in his circle was becoming more and more disillusioned with the bureaucracy of collectivism. This poem was found amongst his papers after his death. Had he been living a lie? And if so, had he grown tired of it?
Past one o’clock. You must have gone to bed.
The Milky Way streams silver through the night.
I’m in no hurry; with lightning telegrams
I have no cause to wake or trouble you.
And, as they say, the incident is closed.
Love’s boat has smashed against the daily grind.
Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts.
Behold what quiet settles on the world.
Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
In hours like these, one rises to address
The ages, history, and all creation.
Like Mayakovsky, Sergei Yesenin was a peasant poet whose initial support for the Bolshevik revolution set the scene for a disaffected life, fraught with reckless behaviour and an early suicide shrouded in mystery. His poetry is imbued with imagery of village lore and folk traditions and similar to Akhmatova and Mandelstam he longed for a return to the simple life:
The golden grove has ceased to speak in the gay language of birches,
and the cranes, sadly flying past, no longer regret anyone.
Who is there to regret? Is not every man in this world a wanderer? He passes by, he pays a visit, and again he leaves the house. The hemp-field, together with the broad moon over the pale blue pond, dreams of all those who have gone away. I am standing alone in the bare plain, while the cranes are carried far away by the wind; I am full of thoughts about my gay youth, but I regret nothing in the past. I do not regret the years I squandered in vain, I do not regret the lilac blossom of my soul. A fire of rowan-tree branches is burning in the garden, but it cannot warm anyone. The clusters of rowan-berries will not be scorched, the grass will not grow yellow and perish. as a tree gently lets fall its leaves, so I let fall sad words. And if time, after scattering them in the wind, should rake them all into one useless heap … just say that the golden grove has ceased to speak in the language I love.
No shame there eh? For a philanderer, a wife beater and a violent drunk, Yesenin was a hit with the peasant classes, I guess because his poetry reflected the lives they were living. Women adored him, he married poets and actresses and some believed his marriage to American dancer Isadora Duncan (who had’t a word of Russian) was a way of getting him out of the country for a while – the authorities were beginning to notice his drunken behaviour. The last two years of his life were the most volatile and his works were banned during Stalin’s reign. Republished in the 1960’s this almost mythical poet’s work is more popular now than ever!
Finally, Boris Pasternak is probably one of the best known names in the Russian canon. He studied music, law and philosophy before committing himself to literature. His father Leonid was an impressionist painter (illustrator for Tolstoy) his mother Rosa, a concert pianist. His poetry was tolerated but not his prose and choosing to remain in communist Russian when many of his contemporaries emigrated was a sacrifice few understood the consequences of. When his novel Dr. Zhivago was smuggled out of Russia and published in Italy in 1957, its anti-soviet themes caused huge embarrassment to the party which endeavoured to make Pasternak’s life as difficult as possible, not least depriving him of his livelihood and imprisoning his lover and prototype for Lara, Olga Ivinskaya. They also forced him to refuse the Nobel Prize for Literature – the medal was collected by his son in 1989. Although the book criticises the regime, it’s protagonist Yuri – poet, doctor, lover – defends the autonomy of the individual, refusing to compromise in the face of great terror. The final section is filled with the poetry he wrote over his lifetime:
(trans. max hayward and manya harari)
I have allowed my family to scatter,
all my dear ones are dispersed.
a life-long loneliness
fills nature and my heart.
and here I am with you, in a small house
outside, the forest is un-peopled like a desert.
as in the song, the drives and footpaths
are almost overgrown.
the log walls are sad,
having only us two to gaze at.
but we never undertook to leap the barriers.
we will perish honestly.
at one o’clock we shall sit down to table,
at three we shall rise,
I with my book, you with your embroidery.
at dawn we shan’t remember
what time we stopped kissing.
leaves, rustle and spill yourselves
ever more splendidly, ever more recklessly,
fill yesterday’s cup of bitterness
still more full with the pain of today.
let devotion, desire, delight,
be scattered in the uproar of September;
and you, go and hide in the crackling autumn,
either be quiet or be crazy.
you fling your dress from you
as the coppice flings away its leaves.
in a dressing-gownn with a silk tassel
you fall into my arms.
you are the good gift of the road to destruction
when life is more sickening than disease
and boldness the root of beauty.
this is what draws us together.
Despite the ethnic cleansing, the purges and famines, mass executions and mock trials, Pasternak was never arrested by the secret police, however the suicides of his friends and fellow artists broke his heart. He was revered by the Russian people for his spiritual, musical, rhythmic and imagistic poetry. Nature was his forte. ‘We have written about nature’, said Marina Tsvetaeva, ‘but Pasternak has written nature’. From his most notable collection My Sister, Life , have a read of one of my favourites:
Oars at Rest
The rowboat rock in drowsy creek
Dangling willows kiss our wrists
Our elbows, collarbones, oarlocks – but wait
This could happen to anyone!
The is the drift of song
This is the lilacs ashes and the splendor
Of crushed camomile on dew.
This is to barter lips an lips for stars.
This is to embrace the horizon
Encircle Hercules with your arms.
This is to swirl through time,
Squander sleep for nightingales songs.