Russian poetry doesn't translate very well to English. It distinctive rhythmic patters related to the polysyllabic nature of Russian words, which are long but have only one accented syllable. Richard Wernick wrote in Smithsonian, "The rich harmonies and intricate rhythm and stanza patterns tend to degenerate into jingles, or flat-footed prosody."

Russia’s great poet Aleksandr Pushkin produced work known for its clarity, grace and power and ability to combine romantic sentimentality and with deeply-felt tragedy. A great admirer of Byron, he wrote with great ease and economy and precision utilizing a great richness of sound, rhymes and rhythms. Pushkin, wrote Celestine Bohlen in the New York Times is "so accessible, so clear and so human that it slips effortlessly into memory, like a child's prayer." But unfortunately, Pushkin's work doesn't translate very well into English either , which is why his works are not widely read in the West and Westerners have a hard time figuring out what all the brouhaha is about. After reading some poorly translated Pushkin's poem, Flaubert told Turgenev, "He is flat, your poet."

The 19th century was the golden era of Russian literature. Novelists Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky and Anton Chekhov are the three literary figures most well known in the West. Other notable writers included the poet Mikhail Lermontov. The figure closets to the hearts of Russians was Pushkin.

In the 1890s, Russian poetry was revived and thoroughly reshaped by a new group, the symbolists, whose most prominent representative was Aleksandr Blok. Two more groups, the futurists and the acmeists, added new poetic principles at the start of the twentieth century. The leading figure of the former was Vladimir Mayakovskiy, and of the latter, Anna Akhmatova.

Poets have been treated like rock starts in Russia. Cabaret acts are based on their work; 100,000 seat Lenin Stadium has been filled to capacity for readings, with girls lining up outside dressing rooms of poets, purring, "Tonight you were so wonderful—I could not believe you were so wonderful." There is even a National Poetry Day. But poets were also repressed. Poet Konstantin Kedrov lost his teaching job in 1986 for reciting a controversial poem. Through newspaper and radio he told National Geographic in the 1990s, "Today, I tell my words to a hundred million people."

Mikhail Lermontov

Mikhail Lermontov (1814-41) is regarded at the great poet of Russian nationalism. He also wrote short novels such as A Hero in Our Time, The Demon and The Novice. A Hero in Our Time is a short novel set in the Caucasus about a cynical antihero, Pechorin.

In 1840 Lermontov wrote:
Wild are the tribes that in those gorges dwell'
Freedom their god is, war their law...
To strike a foreman there, is never ill,
Friendship is true—revenge us truer still;
There good for good is paid, and blood
And hate, like love, is boundless as the flood.

Lermontov was the son of Scottish mercenaries. He was banished twice from St. Petersburg on duel-related charged and was forced to participate in a military campaign in the Caucasus. He was killed in a duel in the Caucasus resort town of Pyatigorsk after making a joke about the clothes of one Major Martynov, the son of a French ambassador. Lermontov fired first and shot into the air. The major returned the gesture by shooting Lermontov in the heart. Lermontov was killed by the same gun that killed Pushkin.

Vladimir Mayakovsky and the Futurists

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930) was a talented and innovative poet. Regarded as one of the fathers of Futurism and Constructonism, he wrote poetry that was bound together by intonation and the strength of single words rather than meter and rhyme. He wrote both slogans and epic poems and committed suicide when he was considered the paragon of Socialist positivism. His most famous poem, The Cloud in Trousers, written in 1914, contained lines such word as “like a naked prostitute from a burning brothel” and the clock strikes twelve “like a head on a block.”

Mayakovsky lived a colorful life. The youngest of three children, he was born in a small village in western Georgia and became involved in politics at an early age, supplying shotguns for revolutionaries when he was 12. By the time he 15 he was a full member of the Bolsheviks with the nom de guerre if Comrade Constantine. By the time he was 22 he was an acclaimed poet and celebrity. After the October Revolution he became a major spokesman for the Bolsheviks and drew thousand to his speeches and poetry readings. Mayakosky was great propagandist. His poetry was rich in visual metaphors. He described Soviet society, for example, as “a hand of a million fingers, squeezed in one wrist smashing everything.”

Mayakovsky had many lovers. For many years he lived with his best fried Osip Brik and his wife Lilia Yurevna Brik. Mayakovsky and Yurevna Brik were lover from 1915 to 1923. She once said she wanted to be the real “unrepairable” love of a great poet and treated him like dirt. Mayakovsky’s great love was Tatiana Yakobleva, a beautiful Russian emigree he met in Paris and fell instantly in love with. Some have blamed his suicide on his inability to get a visa to see her in Paris after Stalin came to power in 1928.

Other Futurist poets emerged around the same the Bolshevik Revolution was taking shape. Led by Mayakovsky and the Ukrainian painter and poet David Burliuk, they used slang, shocking language and sexual imagery that was aimed at arousing people out of their complacency. Members of the group traveled around Russia disrupting cultural events by wearing strange costumes, mocking Tolstoy and Dostoevsky, and shouting nonsense verse.

See Futurists Under Art.

Troubled and Persecuted St. Petersburg Poets

Poets and writers associated with St. Petersburg include Aleksandr Blok, Sergei Yesenin, Osip Mandelstam, Marina Tsvetayeva, Joseph Brodsky and Anna Akhmatova. Some of them are regarded as Futurists. The tragic lives of the St. Petersburg poets is recorded in Nadezhada Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope.

Yesenin committed suicide in what is now part of the Astoria hotel. He wrote a final poem in his own blood before hanging himself. He was born in rural Russia, wrote lamenting poems about loss and passing of the old ways of life. He was briefly married to Isadora Duncan. See Below.

Aleksandr Blok is regarded as the greatest of the Russian Symbolists. After launching his career with sappy romantic poetry he created precisely worded, rich poems that have defied translation. Women fans of Alexasandr Blok were so nuts about him they used to make pilgrimages to his house and kiss the handle of his door.

The gifted poet Osip Mandalstam (1892-1938) died in labor camp near Vladivostok. He once wrote: "Stalin doesn't have to cut heads off/ They fly off by themselves like dandelions."

Isadora Isadora and Sergei Yesenin

In 1921, four years after the Bolshevik Revolution, the famous American-born, Paris-based dancer, Isadora Duncan was invited to Russia to open a dance school. Excited by this opportunity "to meet my destiny," she was soon frustrated when the financial support promised by the Communists failed to materialize and she had to operate the school on her own.

In Russia, the 45-year-old dancer fell passionately in love with Yesenin. Praising his hands and sensitivity, she called him the greatest lover she ever had. Even though neither could speak the other's language the two were married, in part so it was easier to secure him a visa to get out of Russia.

Duncan and Yesenin went to the United States, where Duncan was welcomed with hostility for bringing along a "Bolshevik agent." On a spectacularly unsuccessful tour, in which she performed mostly solo because her students were not allowed to leave Russia, she spent nearly as much time answering hecklers and lecturing how she was a "revolutionist" not a "Bolshevik" as she did dancing.

Yesenin kept himself busy on the tour getting riotously drunk, chasing after other women, beating up his wife and running around nude in hotel corridors, smashing furniture. Yesesin beastly behavior and drunkenness lead to the break-up of the marriage. In 1923 Duncan returned to Paris and he went to Russia. Two years later, Duncan received a telegram that he had committed suicide.

Arrest of Osip Mandelstam

Describing the arrest of Osip Mandelstam in May 1934, at the height of Stalin’s Great Terror, his wife Nadezhda wrote: "In the evening the translator David Brodski turned up and then just would not leave. There wasn't a bit to eat in the house and M. went around to the neighbors to try and get something for Akhmatova's supper...At about one o'clock in the morning , there was a sharp unbearably explicit knock on the door. 'They've come for Osip,' I said and went to open the door."

"Some men in civilian overcoats were standing outside—there seemed to be a lot of them. For a split second I had a tiny flicker of hope that this still wasn't it...Without a word or a moment's hesitation, but with consummate skill and speed, they came in past me (not pushing, however) and the apartment was suddenly full of people already checking our identity papers, running their hands over our hips with a precise well-practiced movement, and feeling our pockets to make sure we had no concealed weapons.

"M. came out of the large room. 'have you come for me?' he asked. One of the agents a short man, looked at him with what could have been a faint smile and said, 'Your papers.' M. took them out of his pockets, and after checking them, the agent handed him a warrant. M read it and nodded...After checking our papers, presenting their arrest and making sure there would be no resistance, they began to search the apartment.

"Brodski slumped into his chair and sat there motionless...At last permitted to walk freely...Brodski suddenly roused himself, help up his hand like a schoolboy and asked permission to go to the toilet. the agent directing the search looked at him with contempt, 'You can go home,' he said...The secret police despised their civilian helpers. Brodski had no doubt been ordered to sit with us that evening in case we tried to destroy any manuscripts when we heard the knock on the door."

Anna Akhmatova

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) was the embodiment of the hard-living and suffering Russia poet. Tall, dark and exotically beautiful, she lived through the Bolshevik Revolution, the Stalinist terror and the 900-day Nazi blockade of Leningrad. She was described by her disciple, Joseph Brodsky, as "the keening muse." On he own life she said, it was "written by Kafka and acted like Chaplin."

Akhmatova founded the Acemist movement and produced earthy love poetry that was especially popular with women. During much of career she was forced into silence by Soviet authorities. Her friend Nadezhada Mandelstam said, "Akhmatova's strength lay in her refusal to accept the untruth of the time in which she lived. The manner in which she uttered her 'No' was a real feat on nonacceptance."

Anna Akhmatova's Life

The daughter of a Tatar mother and a father who detested poetry, Akhmatova couldn't cook and couldn't sew and although she was beautiful she often dressed in torn clothes. She often ate cold boiled carrots for dinner and slept on the floor with only a blanket. When guests came to visit she served them with a "borrowed" kettle and didn't have any forks or spoons to give them.

After choosing to stay in Russia after the Bolshevik Revolution, Akhmatova lived through the firing-squad execution of her first husband, accused by the Bolsheviks in 1921 of being counter-revolutionary; the arrest of her third husband, who brought his mistress to live him, and his eventual death in a Siberian camp; the multi-arrests and imprisonment of her only son; near-starvation during the Leningrad blockade in World War II; and official condemnation: first on the the 1920s and again in the 1940s.

Akhmatova had a brief affair with the painter Modigliani and lived with her son, her lover Nikolai Punin and his former wife. Between 1912 and 1915, she held court at a place called the Stray Dog Café, where writers and artists gathered. She drew as much attention fr sexy black dresses ad she did for poetry.

On the Stray Dog Café she wrote:
We’re all boozers and strumpets here,
How gloomy our company.
On the wall the birds and flowers
Are longing to see the sky...

Oh what pain my heart is lancing
Will it soon be my death hour’s knell?
The one over there who’s dancing
Will certainly go to hell

Persecution of Anna Akhmatova

Under the Communists, Akhmatova was expelled from the writer's union. Her house was bugged. She was not allowed to receive letters from foreign admirers. She was followed in streets. Her hired help were informers. But she didn't give in.

Akhmatova was exiled Tashkent. Her son Lee Gumilev and her lover Nikolai Punin were arrested in her home. After her son was arrested in 1935 Akhmatova spent 17 months outside the central Leningrad prison trying to find out what had become of him.

Describing her thoughts waiting at the gate of gulag, waiting for her son, Akhmatova wrote:, where I stood for three hundred hours
And where they never, never opened the doors for me.
Lest in blessed death I should forget
The grinding scream of the Black Marias,
The hideous clanging gate, the old
Woman wailing like a wounded beast.
And may the melting snow drop like tears
From my motionless bronze eyelids,
And the prison pigeons coo above me
And the ships sail slowly down the Neva.

During the Stalin era, Akhmatova lived mostly alone in a small room in St. Petersburg. To keep her poems from being destroyed, she recited them before some close friends, who memorized, and then burned the manuscripts. "It was like a ritual," one her poet friend said, "Hands, matches, and ashtray. A ritual beautiful and bitter." When Akhmatova died in 1966, the streets of St. Petersburg filled with many of mourners, many taking ironic delight that she outlived most of her tormenters,

Anna Akhmatova's Poems

Akhmatova’s greatest work, Requiem, is a sequence of poems about living in the Stalinist terror. Comparable to her own experience, it is about a mother trying to find her son, who had been sent to a camp during the Stalin years. Poem Without a Hero, on which she worked the last 25 years of her life, is cryptic autobiographical poem. She is also remembered for her seven "Northern Elegies " (1921-64).

Famous lines from Requiem go:
I should like to call you all by name,
But they lost the lists...
I remember them always and everywhere,
And if they shut my tormented mouth,
Through which million of my people cry,
Let them remember me also...

On the broke up of a marriage she wrote:
He loved three things in life;
Evensong, wrote peacocks
An old map of America.
He hated it when children cried,
He hated tea with raspberry jam
And women's hysterics.
...And I was his wife.

On insomnia Akhmatova wrote: "Both sides of the pillow/ And already hot." On partying she wrote: "It's so much fun when you're drunk/ And your stories don't make sense."

Joseph Brodsky: the Dissadent Poet

Joseph Brodsky (1940-1986) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 when he was 50. He was known as much for his human rights activities as his poetry. He said that poets had taken on the status of saints in Soviet Russia because they helped fill a vacuum created by the decline in religion and philosophy.

Brodsky was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) in 1940. He dropped out of school when he was in his mid teens. His mentor was Anna Akhmatova, who deemed him the best of the Soviet Union's young poets.

Brodsky began having trouble with authorities almost as soon as he began writing his independent-minded poems. He was not a member of the writer's union and not recognized by the government as a officially sanctioned poet. Because he spent his time writing and didn't do another job he was charged with being a "social parasite" who scrounged off society and didn't do his share of work.

In a 1964 trial, Brodsky was convicted of "parasitism" and sentenced to five years of hard labor in the remote Arkhangelsk region. Brodsky's case drew international attention when a transcript from the trial was smuggled to the West. the judge ask him, "And who said you were a poet? Who included you in the ranks of poets?" Brodsky answered, "No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race”.

Book: Collected Poems in English by Joseph Brodsky (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2000)

Brodsky in Exile

An outcry from intellectuals in the United States and Europe, with support from Anna Akhmatova, won Brodsky early release from prison and permission to emigrate. He was exiled from Russia by the Soviet government and never saw his parents again although he did talk to them regularly on the phone. He once wrote. “I am grateful to my mother and father not only for giving me life but also for failing to bring up their child as a slave.”

Brodsky first went to Vienna and quickly became a star poet. W.H. Auden gave the young Russian poet top billing with Robert Lowell at the Poetry International festival in London. Brodsky became good friend Seamus Heaney, the Nobel-winning poet from Northern Ireland, Derek Walcott and Czeslaw Milosz.

Brodsky taught at the University of Michigan for several years. After that he moved to New York and became a leading figure in new cosmopolitanism poetry movement, a tireless human rights advocate and critic of Western liberalism. He withdrew from the American Academy of Arts and Letters when it admitted the poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who Brodsky regarded as a party hack.

In 1991, four years after winning the Nobel Prize, Brodsky was named poet laureate of the United States. Brodsky struggled for years with heart trouble. He died in New York at the age of 55 in January, 1996. He had gotten married and had a child. After he died, a television commentator said, "he was the only Russian poet who enjoyed the right to be called 'great' in his lifetime. Brodsky was buried in Venice, of which he once wrote, "I will never possess this city but I don't mind because it possesses me."

Brodsky's Poetry

Brodsky once said he wrote poetry "to get a buzz from the language." He defied the movement to free verse, and wrote under a very strict structure. He read his poetry with a "strange throbbing vibrato." Part of Speech (1977) is regarded as one of his poems. His later poems lacked the intensity of his early ones.

Describing Brodsky's work, Sven Birkerts wrote in the New York Times, "They impress on us an almost alarming solitude, declaring a man almost utterly alone in the universe—a Beckettian wraith viewing all things as if posthumously...His standard procedure—with exceptions, of course—was to cast a solitary speaker in a locale, letting him reflect on his surroundings, and then discourses, in one key or another about the metaphysics of living."

Brodsky’s In a Room and Half is an essay about his experience living in a small communal apartment with his family in St. Petersburg. Describing a defining moment in life, while still in prison, he wrote, "Here on the hills, under the empty sky, on the roads leading on into the woods, life steps aside from itself in a state of bewilderment."

Brodsky's Poems

From Lagoon (1973):
The gondola knocks against its
moorings. Sound
cancels itself, hearing and words
are drowned,
as if that nation where among
forests of hands the tyrant of the
is voted in, its only candidate,
and spit goes ice-cold on the tongue

From Lullaby of Cape Cod (1975):
Below me curled
serpentine rivers, roads bloomed
with dust, rocks yellowed
and everywhere is that diminished
in formal opposition, near and far,
lined up like print in a book to
armies rehearsed their games in
balanced rows
and cities all went dark as caviar.

Yevgeny Yevtushenko and the Bard Movement

The celebrated, semi-tolerated poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko (born 1933) was regarded as a "super poet" in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. He was worshipped by millions, his readings packed soccer stadiums. His stature was so great even KGB and the Communist Party couldn't touch him. He produced "ringing, defiant" poetry and was lauded for his talent and charm. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, his stature dropped and he was largely forgotten.

One of Yevtushenko's most famous poems, Babi Yar, honored the Jews that were massacred by Nazi in the Ukraine and Soviet silence about it. He also wrote Don't Die Before You're Dead. Yevtushenko cashed in on his fame doing poetry readings in the West. One reviewed at a Boston appearance said he looked "like a prosperous capitalist banker."

The Bard Movement was popular in the 1950s and 60s. Popular poet-singers, who sang their often satirical verse while strumming a guitar, included Alexander Galich, Bulat Okudjava ad Vladamir Vysotsky. Vladimir Vysotskiy was widely popular in the Soviet Union but was denied official recognition because of his iconoclastic lyrics. *

Vysotsky was the most well known poet-singer. Based in Moscow, he was a hero of the underground and had a huge following among Russians from all walks of life. His music was privately circulated on copied cassettes. Vysotsky like to sing about the idiosyncrasies of the Russian soul. Many of his songs were about drinking, women and fighting. He drank himself to death in 1980. The Soviet government allowed tens of thousands of people attend his funeral.

Other great 20th century Russian poets include Marina Tsvetaeva and Andrey Voznesensky (born 1933), Gennady Aigi from Russia's Chuvashia region is often named as possible recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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