(Rome) The recent death of the Russian poet with whom I was acquainted, Yevgheny Yevtushenko, prompted these considerations of the role of poets in social-cultural-political progress in general and in a particularly spectacular fashion in Russia. In few other countries have poets played a more significant than in Russia. Nonetheless, for centuries Russian poets have been harassed, persecuted, and punished for their songs. Dostoevsky imprisoned, Pushkin exiled, Yesenin, Mayakovsky and Tsvetaeva suicides, Mandelshtam and others perished in the cultural events of 1937. Poets seldom lead easy lives anywhere. The poet sees the ideals but he must flee from the world in order to rejoice in them and he cannot remain unaffected by the caricatures of these ideals around him.
Kierkegaard idealized the role and life of poets as despair. (Either/Or) Similarly also the greatest political idealists, those whose ideas can change the world—just as every poet aspires to do—experience extreme despair and doubt. They too quake in doubt and fear. Their passions are similar to those of the poet even though their mission requires a cruelty foreign to the poet. Tolstoy wrote that ordinary men also make history doing the things they do without knowing what they are doing. They too are poets in their fashion. I believe that only the truly arrogant—arrogant to the marrow—pass through life believing they have made real choices. As we see in the US President Trump today: he too probably believes he made a wise choice to strike the sovereign state of Syria, contrary to US and international law. In any case, no one chooses completely his own path and maybe there is less freedom of will in us than we like to believe. In any case, Tolstoy among others believed that everything is predetermined by the course of things, a belief we would like to refute but seems more and more valid today.
I have sketched here some aspects of the lives of four Russian poets: Pushkin, Mayakovsky, Pasternak and Yevtushenko. Some readers will question one choice or the other. No matter. For they were all important poets, lived very human lives, erring and loving and singing their songs and trying to find their way. I must add here that it is as risky as walking on a tight rope for a writer of the socialist left who values highly the role of the Soviet Union in the transformation of capitalism into Communism to write about the place of the writer in the new form of collectivism that was the Soviet Union. I personally keep in mind the great odds against the success of Soviet Communist society and the opposition against it so enduring, so deep-seated, that in the minds of many people capitalist Russia today is still (mysteriously) Communist. The leadership of the new Communist state fought tooth-and-nail against widespread opposition, both external or internal. Its political program of transformation had to be defended at all costs. After the Allied interventions on Russian territory following the 1917 Revolution, after a civil war of Communist Reds against anti-Communist Whites, and bellicose preparations for its destruction were underway in the USA and Nazi Germany, dissidence within the new state fighting for survival was discouraged and if need be eliminated. Bourgeois individualism in the arts was in opposition to Communist collectivism. Art for art’s sake was, if not suspicious, then frivolous and rejected. The arts were to serve the shaky new state, not undermine its objectives. Observed from this stance, there is more understanding for the difficult road of the adjustment of writers to the new. Just as today many aspects of socialist collectivism remain alive in capitalist Russia, yesterday in the new Socialist society many aspects of capitalism remained as a threat to its survival.
Lukomorye! You do not have to know Russian to love the very sound of the word. You have to love its promise. Lukomorye, the fictional land of Russian fairy tales. A land where miracles happen. Like a land of Oz. The word itself means the bay formed by bodies of water on a jagged shoreline. U Lukomorye (Y Лукомо́рье) is the title of Pushkin’s prologue to his epic Rusland and Ludmila in which he retraces parts of Russia’s long history, so apparently complex for us Westerners.
Widely considered the founder of contemporary literary Russian language, a Russian Dante (the latter standardized his Florentine language as official Italian), Aleksandr Pushkin (b.1799 in Moscow; d. in Saint Petersburg in1837) was a progressive—in those times in Tsarist Russia about the same as subversive—close to the progressive Decembrists of the early 19thcentury, for which the Tsar exiled him for a long period in south Russia. The Russian writer, Leonid Grossman, in his novel of 1929, The d’Archaic Papers (published in Poland under the title of Death of the Poet), describes Pushkin as a Liberal (not the same meaning as our Liberals today) and a victim of the Tsarist regime. In his short life Pushkin produced, besides four children, an enormous literary work including Yevgheny Onegin, The Bronze Horseman (a favorite of my Russian literature professor at UC Berkeley Graduate School), Boris Godunov, Mozart and Salieri, much prose and an unfinished Byron. Several of his works became famous operas.
U Lukomorye in English which for linguistic reasons cannot capture the rhythm of its music in Russian, begins:
There’s a green oak by the bay,
on the oak a chain of gold:
a learned cat, night and day,
walks round on that chain of old:
to the right – it spins a song,
to the left – a tale of wrong.
( У лукоморья дуб зелёный;
Златая цепь на дубе том:
И днем и ночью кот учёный
Все ходит по цепи кругом;
Идет направо – песнь заводит,
Налево – сказку говорит.)
Pushkin was a man of passions: he loved passionately his wife, for whose reputation (and his own) he fought and died in a duel at thirty-seven years of age. He loved his family whose descendants today live spread across the world. He loved his friends, for many of whom he wove his new language into beautiful songs as in U Lukomorje. Vladimir Nabokov credited Pushkin with the creation of the extremely rich modern Russian language based on Old Church Slavonic, foreign influences, colloquialisms of his times and popular speech. This is the modern poetic language that exploded in the great Russian literature of his 19th century. Pushkin’s work and his new language inspired many writers after him such as Gogol, Tolstoy, Turgenyev, Yesenin, Gorky. Museums in Russia have been dedicated to him and the town of Tsarskoye Selo was renamed Pushkin. Puskinskaya Square is one of the busiest in the world, a major site in downtown Moscow, with a statue of the poet, served by the Pushkinskaya metro station and the Pushkin Cinema.
The Bronze Horseman, about the equestrian statue of the Peter the Great in Saint Petersburg, is a narrative poem written in 1833 but not published until after Pushkin’s death, censored for the political nature of his writings in general. A key theme is the eternal conflict between political power and the individual, in this case between Tsar and the citizen, in general a protest in the name of the individual. Like any epic hero, the little man is disinherited. How modern this theme—this version written nearly two centuries ago—rings to our ears today. The poem is considered one of the most influential works in Russian literature, the reason Pushkin is called by many the founder of modern Russian literature. And he died in a stupid duel over vanity.
The Cubo-Futurist poet of the Russian Revolution, admired, pampered and promoted by Stalin and some Russian revolutionary leaders, mistrusted and criticized by others, apparently shot himself in his Moscow office one day in April in 1930. His death ultimately became the subject of speculation for historians and mystery thriller writers alike: suicide or murder? Both versions are tempting and facile: either he committed suicide because of disillusionment with the Revolution or he was murdered. But most likely it was a more mundane question: his love life.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (b. in Georgia, 1893;d. in Moscow, 1930 (died at 37, the same age as Pushkin) moved with his family to Moscow in 1906 from Georgia (Gruzia) where both he and Stalin were born, he, Russian; Stalin, Georgian. Legend has it that he was a member of the Bolshevik Party at age fourteen, a messenger and distributor of leaflets for which he was arrested before the Revolution. He wrote his first poem in solitary in Butyrki Prison when he was sixteen. In 1912 he published together with a group of avant-garde painters a Futurist manifesto entitled A Slap In the Face of Public Taste which demanded that earlier writers such as Pushkin and Tolstoy be thrown overboard. Fiery eccentric Mayakovsky became a famed name in the revolutionary period because of his booming voice, exciting reading, showman abilities and the revolutionary idea in his work.
…grab stones, bombs, knives, whatever you can find and those of you who have no hands
hit with the forehead. March you oh hungry ones
Skinny, dirty, full of parasites
During the Bolshevik coup in Petrograd, Red sailors marched on the Winter Place chanting one of Mayakovsky’s slogans: Eat pineapples, chew on quails, Your last day is coming, bourgeois! Left March, his poem of 1918 about the proletarian courage, discipline and optimism of those engaged in the struggle against counter-revolution, was typical of his lyrical poetry, clear and simple, fully intelligible to the masses and admired by Lenin and soon by Stalin. When with his strong, powerful voice resounding through the whole square, he read Left March, the whole square repeated his verse:
‘The Commune will never go down.
Who’s marching out of step?
The poet of the Revolution scorned the official Proletarian Culture establishment, Proletkult. Producing posters and placards and slogans for the revolutionary government, he believed he embodied the Revolution. In his many films, none really successful, and in his greatest poetry, his major theme was the proletariat. He traveled over the world from Paris to Mexico to visit the Communist Diego Rivera and to the USA where he read his revolutionary works. In one poem he boasted of the fright his red Soviet passport created in the world of those times when immigration officials touched it as if it were a bomb.
Around the world Fascists burned Mayakovsky’s books along with those of Lenin, Stalin and Gorky. Enemies everywhere feared the poet of the proletarian revolution. For the poet of socialist realism the dialectic of historical development and the change of social system is clear. He wrote that Capitalism once played a progressive role: it ripped open ‘the feudal rights’, sang the Marseillaise, and (then) putrefied; it ‘lay down on the road of history’. And so there is ‘only one way out—blasting!’
My deceased friend, Angelo Maria Ripellino, a Communist, intimate lover of Russian literature and former Chair of the Slavistics Faculty at Rome’s La Sapienza University, in his magnificent Letteratura Come Itinerario nel Meraviglioso spoke of Mayakovsky as “an extraordinary illusionist of the metaphor, in whose verses-spectacle the objects, the architectures, the elements are unleashed in a furious cake-walk, slipping away from their traditional postures, rebelling against man.”
In 1925 Mayakovsky had criticized suicide in a poem dedicated To Sergey Yesenin (whom he did not particularly admire) when that revolutionary poet committed suicide: In this life, to die is not so difficult, To make life is considerably more difficult. Active in diverse fields and the mouthpiece of the Proletariat till the end, Vladimir Mayakovsky shocked everyone when on April 14, 1930 he shot himself. He left this note:
“As they say, the incident is closed. The love boat wrecked by daily life. I’m all even with life and nothing would be gained by listing mutual hurts, troubles and insults. This is not the way I recommend but there is no other way out. Don’t think I’m a coward. Seriously, it could not be helped. Lili, love me”
His dramatic exit from life occurred when he and his movement were winning. For much of his life Mayakovsky was concerned with death. Like most artists he was sensitive to criticism, and, as a man he was disappointed in love. He wrote a play about suicide and love called Vladimir Mayakovsky, especially about the great love of his life, the writer, actress and sculptress, Lili Brik, and about the tensions between history and personal love. Following Stalin’s death in 1953 rumors arose that Mayakovsky did not commit suicide but was murdered at the behest of Stalin. That made little sense since Stalin, after a silence following the poet’s death, wrote that ‘Mayakovsky was and remains the best and most talented poet of the Soviet epoch.’
Boris Pasternak (b.1890 in Moscow; d.1960 in Peredelkino, the artists’ colony near Moscow). Best known abroad for his novel, Doctor Zhivago, for which he was awarded the Nobel in 1957, Pasternak for most of his life was more dedicated to his poetry. His masterful collection, My Sister, Life, was written quickly in a stream of inspiration in 1917, but published only in 1923, long after the manuscript had circulated among most poets of Moscow. That work revolutionized Russian poetry and influenced poets like Osip Mandelshtam and Maria Tsvetaeva.
Born into an assimilated Ukrainian Jewish family, he converted to Christianity. His father, Leonid Pasternak, was a well-known painter and portraitist. (An old copy of his portrait of Lev Tolstoy hangs in the book room in my house in Rome.) The Pasternak home was frequented by leading figures in the arts: Tolstoy, Rachmaninoff, Scriabin, Lev Shestov, and Rainer Maria Rilke, who was impressed by the young Pasternak. According to Pasternak he later had to “break” with Rilke in order to escape his stylistic and syntactical influence; he feared he was imitating a foreign style.
Although in his early years Pasternak had favoured music he soon recognized poetry as his calling. In a 1912 summer semester he studied philosophy at Marburg University under the neo-Kantian Hermann Cohen before returning to Moscow to finish the university. Marburg, where I once lived in the nearby countryside, was a must for many European intellectuals, including Ortega y Gasset, Paul Tillich, Hannah Arendt, T.S. Eliot, Mikhail Lomonosov, Otto Hahn, Jacob Grimm and also Ulrike Meinhof of the Rote Armée Faktion, the German terrorist organization.
After Marburg, Pasternak began to write. Not sporadically but … “often and constantly, as one paints or writes music.” In those years between the 1904 Revolution and World War I, Russia was in a literary, musical and pictorial fever, part of which Pasternak shared. Eventually he joined a group of Cubo-Futurists , the only art movement to survive the 1917 revolution and which fell under the domination of Mayakovsky. Pasternak met Lenin. He joined the Bolshevik Party. His collection of poetry, My Sister, Life, made of him a model for younger poets like Osip Mandelshtam. The latter wrote: “Reading the verses of Pasternak is to purify your throat, strengthen your respiration, renew your lungs, such verses should be an effective cure for tuberculosis.” At the 1934 Writers Congress, Bucharin hailed Pasternak as “the major Soviet poet” and the year after in Paris at a congress of anti-fascist culture he received a great ovation. During the purge of 1937, Stalin himself allegedly struck Pasternak’s name off the list of those to be arrested. However, while making his mark as a poet in those years, story fragments and various writings indicate that the idea of the novel, Doctor Zhivago, had begun maturing, the writing and publishing of which was to change his life.
During the 1940s and early fifties he worked on Doctor Zhivago; in 1954 he published in the literary journal Znamya (Banner) some poems from Zhivago. In that period in an introduction to a collection of his poetry, he wrote that everything he had written thus far was only a premise for the only work of which he was not ashamed: Doctor Zhivago. In September, 1956 the major literary journal Novy Mir, rejected the novel which it considered “hostile to the Revolution and Socialism”. Since no other Soviet publication would touch it, the Italian Communist publisher, Feltrinelli published it in Italian, despite Pasternak’s subsequent request for restitution of the manuscript. And despite pressures from the Italian Communist Party and the Soviet Writers Union on Feltrinelli NOT to publish. But it was too late. For by then the Cold War CIA got into the act and saw to it that it was published throughout the world, in translation as well as in Russian by Mouton Press in The Netherlands, while exerting pressure on the Nobel Committee to give the literary award to Pasternak. The Royal Academy of Sweden announced the award to Pasternak on October 23, 1958. Radio Moscow announced the attribution of the Nobel Prize to Pasternak on October 25, while simultaneously Literaturnaya Gazeta launched a violent attack on Pasternak, followed by Pravda and others. The Union of Writers expelled him while others demanded Pasternak be exiled from the Soviet Union. Pasternak meanwhile renounced the Nobel Prize and obtained from CPSU Secretary Nikita Khrushchev permission to remain in the USSR. He died two years later.
A critical comparison of Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn—two Nobel Prize winners of the Soviet Union in the most crucial period of the Cold War—is a unique experience On one level, Pasternak chose Russia, avoided loss of citizenship and exile abroad and, above all, remained personally free of the long hand of the CIA. On the other, Solzhenitsyn, not from Moscow and its schools and an ex-gulag inmate, was deprived of Soviet citizenship and deported to West Germany, ultimately ending up in the USA and in the firm grip of the CIA. Though he was one of the great writers of the twentieth century, I did not include Solzhenitsyn here because of the Cold War role of his work and his perhaps forced (or naïve) acceptance—however much he must have disliked his situation—of being a tool of the CIA. Though Solzhenitsyn, a former Communist, became anti-Communist, he continued to react responsibly to international events such as his condemnation of the US/NATO bombardment of Serbia in 1999: “There is no difference between NATO and Hitler.” This reading has conditioned my own general dislike of Solzhenitsyn the writer/actor in favour of the human being, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn.
I had occasion to meet Yevtushenko three times, meetings which affect my research, chiefly on Internet, for this fourth part dedicated to the enfant terrible of the 1960s in the Soviet Union. Yevgheny Yevtusheno ( b. Zima Station in Siberia, July 18, 1933; d. Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA, April 1, 2017). As an aspiring journalist I met him in Helsinki at the World Festival of Youth in 1962. With a journalist friend who had an appointment with him in a downtown café we spent most of an afternoon in a booth over coffee, beer, wine and vodka. I mostly listened to the conversation dominated by Yevtushenko. My friend asked questions and Yevtushenko expounded in his already good English, ranging far and wide and at some point reciting some verses from his famous poem, Baby Yar, published the year before in Literaturnaya Gazeta. His poem was a denunciation of the distortions of the Nazi massacre of the Jewish population in a ravine in Kiev called Baby Yar and of the anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union.
After the death of Stalin, the new Secretary of the CPSU, Nikita Khrushchev declared a cultural “thaw” that produced a flowering of the arts in Russia. Yevtushenko was one of the active poets of the period. In 1961 he wrote what became his most famous poem, Baby Yar. After its publication in Literaturnaya Gazeta, the poem achieved wide circulation, and was later set to music along with four other Yevtushenko works by Dmitri Shostakovich in his Thirteenth Symphony, subtitled Baby Yar.
There are no monuments over Babi Yar.
But the sheer cliff is like a rough tombstone.
It horrifies me.
Today, I am as old
As the Jewish people.
It seems to me now,
That I, too, am a Jew.
Shostakovich’s remark concerning Baby Yar has been widely quoted: “Morality is a sister of conscience. And perhaps God is with Yevtushenko when he speaks of conscience. Every morning, in place of prayers, I reread or repeat from memory two other poems by Yevtushenko: Career or Boots.”
Yevtushenko became one of the best known poets of the 1950s and 1960s, writing thousands of poems and acquiring a wide reputation throughout Soviet Russia. He was part of the generation which included a long list of fine writers not all of whom shared adoration for Yevtushenko. Yevtushenko possessed the capability to balance moderate criticism of the Soviet regime, which gained him popularity in the West, and, at the same time to maintain a strong Marxist–Leninist ideological stance, which sufficed for Soviet authorities. By 1963 his popularity was so wide that he was proposed for the Nobel Prize for Baby Yar.
Over two decades later, I got to know him somewhat better when he spent a couple of weeks in Rome for an exhibition of his paintings (unexceptional) organized by Italy’s Radical Party in a beautiful location near the Pantheon. I did a long interview with him in the exhibition site and on another day returned for a visit. There were never many visitors so he was content to just chat. This was in the 1980s and he might have sensed that the Communist experience was ending so he was quite frank in both his praise and his criticisms of the Soviet Union. However, his already shaky position among other Soviet writers was not helped when in 1987 he became an honorary member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters; in the Soviet Union he was often accused of duplicity because his criticisms of the Soviet Union were those more or less recognized by the Kremlin (where Mikhail Gorbachev and his program of perestroika and glasnost ran things), while at the same time he was considered a fearless dissident abroad. Some nicknamed him Father Gapon, the Russian priest who during the 1905 Revolution was a leader of rebellious workers and an agent of the secret police.
Perhaps it is too early to determine if Yevgheny Yevtushenko left behind an important literary legacy apart from his few masterpieces like Baby Yar and The Heirs of Stalin. I did note however that news of his recent death in the USA where he had been teaching literature at the University of Tulsa made no particular stir among my Russian Facebook “friends”. The fact that Yevtushenko spent so much time abroad in his later years in the post-Soviet period did not sit well with many Russian citizens of today’s very nationalistic generation. Nonetheless, his influence during his most active years of writing and his thousands of readings mark him as an important poet and artist whose name may well outlast those of his critics.
Like writers, each of us faces difficult life choices. With the idea of political choices in mind I wrote in Yahoo Search the words “American Left” with the intention of investigating the reasons behind the socio-political choices many of us make in life. And what comes up? A long list of hate articles about even the mere idea of Left. Especially Socialism. And collectivism. From Right Wing Watch and People For the American Way. One wrote “The Left is brainwashing us of our patriotism!” (sic) Such knee jerk hate reactions make choice seem like a rare luxury. I believe instead that we can and do choose in life.
One problem political writers face is receptiveness. That is, the lack of it. When your receptors are geared to receive only what they have heard before, what they have heard all their lives, all the rest seems like propaganda. And truth a stranger. Yet ignorance is not bliss. I believe that the better part of each of us cares about the collective, about what some progressive Christians call “fellowship”. I do not believe that deep down we really believe—even though many accept—the clichés about rugged individualism. I believe that as human beings we have a collective heart, whether or not we live in Western cities like Paris or London or in lesser known places in the Orient. We yearn for those epiphanic moments that change our lives. All of us. Every individualistic capitalist bastard yearns for the feeling of belonging to the collective—to the bosom—of the human race. Therefore we should want to know what we believe in. And why. What we stand for. Who wants to be forever conditioned? Poets tell us those things. Though trees too have life, humans are not trees. Trees grow and flower if they are allowed to, though abused and kicked and starved, they condition us and react to us even if they perhaps don’t face either/or choices. Perhaps in our lives we only choose partly; sometimes circumstances choose for us. Maybe choice is also chance at work in our lives. A chance meeting. An event. A book. A poem. We have to wonder. It often seems that way. In any case you have to wonder how old we have to be, what preparation is necessary, before we can savor the understanding and the satisfaction of having made a significant choice.
Bibliography and notes:
For this article I referred to the following books, plus Internet:
- Letteratura Come Itinerario Nel Meraviglioso, Angelo Maria Ripellino, Giulio Einaudi Editore, Torino, 1968
- Pasternak par lui-meme, Michel Aucouturier,”Ecrivains de Toujours, Editions Seuill, 1963, France
- Boris Pasternak, Yves Berger, Pierre Segher Editeur,1958, France
- Pasternak, Cesare de Michelis, Il Castoro, 1967, Florence, Italy
Gaither Stewart is a veteran journalist and essayist on a broad palette of topics from culture to history and politics, he is also the author of the Europe Trilogy, celebrated spy thrillers whose latest volume, Time of Exile, was recently published by Punto Press.
Originally published in The Greanville Post