Sacred Violence in Blok’s “The Twelve.”

        He was pious, but rarely went

to Church and did not like priests. But he

spoke with rapture about Christ.

—Baron Vrangel on Dostoevsky.

Alexander Blok by Russian photographer, (19th century); Private Collection.

Alexander Blok’s narrative poem, “Twelve” is undoubtedly a central text of the Russian Revolution, an event that has served as one of the defining moments of the twentieth century. But since the Soviet Union eventually collapsed, never fully overtaking its rival — the bourgeois world—an increasing number of critics approached Blok’s endorsement of revolution as an embarrassing myopia, as the failure to comprehend both politics and religion. It is hardly surprising that the controversial image that concludes the poem, namely, the image of Christ leading the way for twelve violent and destructive Red Guardsmen, has been challenged and met with skepticism from the inception. When not openly criticized or dismissed, it is usually explained away by references to Blok’s embrace of various fashionable fin de siècle theories and thinkers: Marxism, symbolism, Nietzsche, Rudolf Steiner, Ernest Renan, Vladimir Soloviev, let alone occult practices, or even Blok’s own sexual pathologies.

The twenty first century, however, has discarded a number of previous certainties. History clearly did not end, neither with the triumph of Bolshevism nor with its collapse. Maybe the specter that wandered through Europe at the time of Blok hasn’t been put to rest after all. In that case, Blok’s musings on the Russian Revolution should be treated with the seriousness they deserve.  Blok’s criticism of militaristic, over-reaching, yet decaying empire acquires the relevance that no longer needs to be explained away by the reference to some long-forgotten literary, religious, or medical subtext. Consequently, his view of revolutionary upheaval, led by Christ–the liberator and a leader of the elemental revolt against the arrogant materialist civilization– acquires both relevance and urgency.

  Trying to come to terms with his puzzling and subversive ending, Blok articulated a number of rather contradictory pronouncements. These pronouncements can be grouped into two types depending on the type of argumentation that Blok uses. These two types underscore two rather different aspects of Blok’s Christ or rather two different functions that Christ was supposed to perform within his poem. 

One type of argumentation is rational and logical; it is presented as a self-evident truth for those who are willing or capable of considering Russia’s historical development through the Biblical context: “Had there been in Russia a true religious order and not just an estate of morally obtuse people of religious profession, they would have understood long time ago that Christ is with the Red Guardsmen. It is hard to challenge this truth, so obvious for those who have read the Gospels and thought about them.”(VII, 330)

Blok also articulates another, less rational reason for Christ’s presence: he attributes it to sensual, emotional, and artistic insights. It is not so much the result of intellectual deduction, but rather of poetic vision: “Did I really glorify? I simply stated a fact: if one stares into the pillars of snowstorm heading one’s way one would discern Jesus Christ” (ibid).

What becomes essential in this second approach is the ability to look and discern. This approach is artistic; it relies on one’s openness to sensual experience. Furthermore, Blok connects this process of foreseeing Christ with the ability to glimpse into elemental power: Christ is discerned through the pillars of snowstorm. Blok invokes here another aspect of Biblical tradition, the one that detects Divine manifestations through a whirlwind (Job), a pillar of sand (Moses), and other natural phenomena.   

  These two arguments can also be called culturological and artistic. The first one relies on tangible actions, and presumes Christ playing the roles of judge, liberator and so on. Paradoxically, the artistic argument does not suggest any action on the part of Christ, except his appearance ahead of the storm.

The combination of these two approaches suggests a certain dynamics: as a Judge and Liberator, Christ unleashes the violent and terrifying storm. Only artists and truly inspired people can stare into this storm and discern some new pattern emerging from it – the pacifying, harmonizing role of Christ. Beyond the elemental upsurge lurks a harmonious resolution: it is Christ who is expected to direct and transform the storm into something more creative and positive.

Let’s start with the first, culturological reason, which, in fact, is well studied by the scholars who “read Blok and thought about him.” Blok’s historico-philosophical essays such as “Catiline” (1918),  “The Decline of Humanism” (1921) as well as his other pronouncements, testify that Blok saw the late years of the Russian Empire as years of tremendous decline, the period that should be compared to Imperial Rome rather than revolutionary France. In Blok’s scheme, Christ has led Catiline in his uprising, as he is now leading Red revolutionary soldiers. Placed within the context of Blok’s writings of the period, the appearance of Christ at the head of the marching band of rebels against the decaying and corrupt empire appears almost inevitable.   

In this scheme Christ becomes a messenger of the Divine Judgment and the liberator from the oppressive godless regime. In the “Catiline,” the prose counterpart to “The Twelve,” Blok asserts: “Roman culture was indicted forever in a different, non-hypocritical court, the court of Jesus Christ.” (VI, 73) Blok viewed contemporary civilization as fully submerged in lies and corruption, and he yearned for some drastic renewal: “We (the whole world) are thoroughly enslaved by lies (izolgalis’). We need something new.”   

To stress the role of Christianity in the collapse of the pagan Roman Empire is one thing; yet to suggest, as Blok frequently does, that Christ is also behind the collapse of the Orthodox Russian Empire is something else entirely.

Already Dostoevsky understood as his image of the Grand Inquisitor testifies that the best way for a state to lose its legitimacy is to use Christ as the cover for all its earthly deeds, all its violence and arrogance. Furthermore, Dostoevsky had a premonition that revolutionaries who claim Christ on their side are the most dangerous and subversive enemies for any political regime. He thus allows one of his characters in The Brothers Karamazov to report the following words of a French security policeman.

We are not particularly afraid… of all these socialists, anarchists, atheists, and revolutionists; we keep watch on them and know all their goings on. But there are a few peculiar men among them who believe in God and are Christians, but at the same time are socialists. Those are the people we are most afraid of. They are dreadful people. The socialist who is a Christian is more to be dreaded than a socialist who is an atheist.     

It is that type of revolution — a true threat to the bourgeois status quo–that Blok envisioned in his “Twelve.” The revolution with the spiritual vision, the revolution that merges Christian values with social goals, and the one that is ready to challenge the corrupt and rotten regime from the perspective of these values and ideals. Such a revolution could truly transform things, as opposed to one that simply reverses the haves with have-nots.       

Blok clearly understood that such a vision for the Russian revolution had very little in common with the reality of the Bolshevik’s seizure of power. He thus concluded: “The Bolsheviks are correct to be afraid of ‘The Twelve.’” (VII, 329) Likewise, he is known to remark to Evgeny Zamyatin: “Bolshevism and revolution… are not to be found in either Moscow or Petersburg. True Bolshevism, i.e. the pious, (nabozhnyi) Russian one, lives somewhere deep in Russia’s heartland, perhaps in the villages. Yes, that’s probably where it is.” 

Blok’s position on the interaction between religion and revolution is unorthodox, to say the least. Within the Russian context, uprisings and revolutions are usually seen as atheistic, if not demonic. This diagnosis has been frequently articulated by Dostoevsky. Blok admired Dostoevsky, but in his attitude toward revolution and Christianity, he followed the spirit of his thinking, rather than their letter. Blok became convinced that in Russia–with Konstantin Pobedonostev in charge of its religious life and the last two tsars in charge of its politics– the center of gravity had really shifted; the Russian state had become anti-Christian so–as at the time of Roman Empire–Christ was needed to liberate his flock from the bondage.   

The Role of Pobedonostev: Sacralization and its Discontent. .    

It does not take just a pagan Empire to become anti-Christian. Pushing further the paradoxical insights of Dostoevsky’s “Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” Blok applied to Russia Dostoevsky’s separation of Christ from the official Church. For Blok, the Russian Empire of the 19th century has committed the mistake of 7th century Western: it has accepted Satan’s gift of “kingdoms on earth.”

Articulating his concern with “ossification” of the sacred, elemental, and artistic, Blok frequently attacked the official church for its decline into spiritual ossification. Thus, criticizing a collection of essays on religious and philosophical matters, Blok stresses the ease with which religious expression can stagnate, so that instead of moral and spiritual development, it produces stasis: 

Excessive and hypocritical piety is a stagnation of the kind, which is more terrifying than that of a physics professor. That type of mystical obedience cannot be sanctified… where is the path toward religion from here?… Only Andrei Bely fully understood that we are bequeathed development and not stagnation, the latter is even more terrifying in its results for the mystics rather than the “positivists,” the mystics of the Orthodox persuasion in particular. (V, 608-09)

aleksandr blok 9For Blok, the ossification of official Orthodox Church reached the point of no return once it became an instrument in the hands of the minister of Ecclesiastical Affairs, Konstantin Pobedonostvev. Throughout his writings Blok kept on returning to this notorious figure, casting him in the role of a vampire (upyr’), if not an antichrist.    

For Blok, Pobedonostsev’s interference into the politics of his time marked a virtual coup d’étatBlok viewed Pobedonostsev’s regime as the worst manifestation of state’s power and arrogance. Pobedonostev has turned into an equivalent of the Grand Inquisitor, a person whose cold theories have enslaved his subjects, serving thus Satan rather than Christ. As opposed to the Roman world that did not know Christ, modern day empires, including the Russian one, have consciously rejected and subverted the Christian message.   

In his thinking, Blok clearly follows Dostoevsky, as he re-locates the center of sanctity from the State and its official church elsewhere. Blok, for example, refused to attend the church service at St. Isaac, the main church of the Empire, because he viewed the church as being overwhelmed with state imagery, and thus de-sacralized. Conversely, the concept of holiness and the sacred begins to be associated with the anti-state rebellion. In Canto II of the poem, we learn that the revolutionaries attack the old world with the words, “Let’s shoot at Holy Russia,”  (III, 350) and that this attack is accompanied by the refrain “ekh, ekh, without a cross.” The same rebels, however, appeal to God and ask Him to bless their violent goal of setting the entire world on fire: “The world fire is raging in our souls, God bless us” (Mirovoi pozhar v krovi, Gospodi, blagoslovi) (Canto III) (III, 351).

Blok clearly partook of this process. For him, the tsarist regime didn’t just lose its legitimacy; it also lost its “holy” status, as opposed to the new revolutionary Russia toward which the Red Guards were marching. Rebellion against the Imperial status quo began to be seen by Blok as a “pro-Christian” action.   

  The process of stripping the old regime of its sacred elements (while reinvesting the new one with sanctity) is bound to be paradoxical; consequently, its verbal descriptions would be rife with oxymoron. Both the poem and Blok’s thinking on the matter thrive on contradictions and paradoxes.

Oxymoron overwhelms the text of the poem. One of the most blatant examples is Blok’s use of the concept of “zloba” (malice, anger), which already in the first canto becomes “sacred malice” (sviataia zloba), as well as “sad” or “melancholy” (grustnaia): “Malice, sad malice is boiling in the soul, black malice, sacred malice.”  Likewise, in the fifth canto we read: “Go on and sin, it will relieve your soul”; while seventh canto announces: “Ekh, ekh, it is not a sin to have a little fun… close your houses, today is robbery-day.” Canto VIII juxtaposes Pet’ka prayer for the soul of Kat’ka –“God, rest the soul of your servant” — with his desire to slash people with a knife and “to drink their blood in revenge for Kat’ka’s death.” And finally Canto XI depicts the rebels in the following extremely nihilistic terms: “And they march, having given up on the Holy, ready for anything, regretting nothing” (III, 349-356).

All these paradoxical assertions serve as an oxymoronic prelude to the concluding lines of the poem, in which Christ appears at the head of our bloodthirsty violent rebels.

Artistic Vision of Christ.

Blok arrived at his vision of Christ at the conclusion of the poem not only by cultural, political, and theological reasoning, but also by artistic insight. It is this artistic logic that the poem fully embodies, as it presents us with images of storm and wind and encourages us to discern Christ marching ahead of this elemental turmoil. It is my purpose to articulate this inner artistic logic of “The Twelve.” Why and how does Christ emerge from the spirit of “The Twelve”? Blok himself anticipates and makes his readers anticipate Christ ahead of the twelve, as the visual, audio, and emotional pressures are combined to materialize into his appearance. The inner logic of Blok’s poem captures his artistic insight: storm creates music, and if you listen and watch with attention, you’ll discern what emerges from the background. According to Blok, he almost physically perceived Christ ahead of the rebels.

Trying to come to terms with the image of Christ that crowns his poem, Blok frequently resorts to visual explanations. Thus in the note that he wrote to the poem’s illustrator, Annenkov, Blok explains: “The most concrete that I can say about Christ is this: white stain in front, white as snow, and it is swirling, persistent, yet ghost-like, and the red banner is beating there too, swirling and shaking in the darkness” (III, 629). 

The action of these colors, the waving in the wind of white, red, and dark calls to mind another powerful rendition of revolution: Eugène Delacroix, La Liberté guidant le peuple (1831). Delacroix’s painting with its elemental power and color dynamism captures –through imagery — the trajectory of Blok’s own poem: in both cases we have a group of revolutionary rebels—some of whom look like utter cutthroats—who are led by an allegorical figure as they march through the streets of the of revolutionary city. The comparison of Blok’s poem with Delacroix’s painting might be instructive for a number of reasons, since both the similarities and the differences put Blok’s own vision in a sharper relief. 

Similar to other radical Romantic authors (Heine, Ibsen, Carlyle), both Blok and Delacroix stress the elemental force that the revolution unleashes, the power rendered visually by the wind. Furthermore, this elemental uprising is connected with the unleashing of the sexual energy – a theme that both Delacroix and Blok capture and highlight. In the case of both the painting and the poem, the rebels present a far cry from the traditional class-conscientious revolutionaries aware of their historical or economic mission. 

  The impact of Delacroix’s painting, powerful as this painting is by itself, must have been magnified for Blok by Heinrich Heine’s famous description of this canvas. Heine saw the painting immediately after its first exhibition in the 1831 Salon; he left a memorable description that stresses its “sensualistic nature,” its message of liberation, and even more importantly, Heine’s explicit sanctification of its half-criminal figures.

At the time of writing “The Twelve,” Blok was fully engaged with Heine, editing his collected works, writing explicatory essays, arguing for the increased relevance of Heine for revolutionary Russia: “Today, Heine has become closer to our world than ever, so that now we can hear the voice of true Heine against the background of that stirred sea of the European world, in which humanistic civilization is being cracked at its seams. Heine’s note rings in the air of entire Europe.” (VI, 126-7).

Blok’s assertion of Heine’s relevance should be seen against the background of his complaints about the Russian liberal intelligentsia’s failure to appreciate the complexity of Heine’s artistic thought– the plight that has clearly befallen Blok’s own “Twelve.” (VI, 124) Indeed, if one compares the original text of Heine’s reading of Delacroix with its Russian translation–the one that Blok had in his library—Blok’s anger at his peers’ failure to comprehend Heine becomes clear.   

The comparison immediately reveals a peculiar choice of words that the translator, Petr Veinberg, has utilized to translate the rather explicit and non-ambiguous terminology of Heine. Consistently, Veinberg replaces Heine’s heiligeor de-heilgentern  (saint, sacred, sanctified) with Russian terms velikii or vazhnyi (great, significant or important)–undermining Heine’s project, further developed by Blok’s poem, to cast revolutionary activity in religious and even Christian terms. Furthermore, at a certain moment, Veinberg simply drops Heine’s assertion that Delacroix renders the revolutionary idea in such a way that it “sanctifies people.” Blok had to find Heine’s interpretation–rather than its translations–extremely congenial, since both poets are engaged in a similar process of sanctity-redistribution, so to speak, of shifting it toward the rebels and outlaws.

Below is the Heine’s description of Delacroix rendered in contemporary and accurate English (I highlight Heine’s original wording indicating Vainberg’s substitutions in parenthesis):

The sanctity (velikaia vazhnost’) of the subject permits no rigorous criticism of the color, which might have proven less than flattering… A group of people during the revolution is depicted, and in their midst, nearly an allegorical figure, a young woman stands out, a red Phrygian cap on her head, and flintlock in one hand and in the other a tricolor flag. She strides over corpses, calling men to battle, naked to the hips, a beautiful, impetuous body… a curious blend of Phryne, fishwife, and goddess of liberty… [her] figure seems rather to depict the savage power of the people throwing off an oppressive burden…

The hero charging forward with his gun has on his face the mark of the galleys and in his wretched clothes the smell of assizes; but that is just the point, a great idea has ennobled these common people, this crapule, and sanctified them [missed in Veinberg translation] and awakened the slumbering dignity within their souls. Sacred (velikie) July days of Paris. You will ever bear witness to the essential nobility of mankind that can never wholly be destroyed…. Sacred(velikie) July days! … The gods in heaven who watched the great struggle cheered in admiration, and gladly would they have risen from their golden chairs and gladly would they have come down to earth to become citizens of Paris!

Both Delacroix and Heine suggest a pagan of composite image–“a goddess, Phryne, and fishwife” in the words of Heine, the figure that combines license and transgression as the emblem of revolution. Blok, however prefers an image that strikes one as rather incongruent with the chaos and violence of revolution: the image Christ.

Neither Delacroix nor Heine seems to suggest what we might call “an exit strategy,” they just seem to savor and sanctify revolutionary energy itself. Delacroix’s Liberty can clearly unleash the stormbut does she possess the mechanism to control it? What happens once the furies of revolution are unleashed and total license prevails? Who will harness the storm and reintroduce order into the violent upheaval? As opposed to his rebellious predecessors, Blok seems to be aware that the Christian intervention of love and forgiveness is needed to rein in the terror. 

In fact, the comparison of those who march in avant-garde of rebellion point to Blok’s desire to modify if not to rewrite the Delacroix’s and Heine’s understanding of revolution. In Delacroix, it is a half-dressed, strong and assertive woman who carries the red revolutionary banner, and who unleashes the elemental energy of the revolution. Blok’s banner carrier is an ephemeral Christ adorned by a wreath of white roses. The femininity of Christ, which Blok highlighted when he called Him “feminine spirit” (zhenstvennyi prizrak), only underscores how different is Blok’s Christ from feminine Liberté

Furthermore, the victims of the revolution, those who lie under the feet of the marching rebels, are men in the case of Delacroix, and Russian girl, Kat’ka, in the case of “The Twelve.” Judging by the dresses of Delacroix victims, they are fellow rebels killed by the government’s soldiers. Kat’ka, on the other hand, is killed by the rebels themselves. But most significantly, Delacroix’s Liberté fits perfectly into the world of the painting – -she moves in the same rhythm and is carried by the same storm as the rest of the group. Christ, in Blok’s poem, is the figure not of this world. Christ does not seem to belong to it either rhythmically, visually, or thematically. 

Delacroix captures the social storm that for Blok characterizes the French Revolution. Similar to Catiline, Libertémarches through corpses, she is full of sound and fury, but she lacks the ability to transcend and rein in the violence. For Blok, however, the Russian Revolution was different from the French. It aspired to something higher than liberty. To explain the Russian Revolution, Blok had to go back to the events in Rome, which he perceived as a more embracing, and more transformative phenomenon. In his “Intelligentsia and the Revolution,” Blok wrote: “An artist’s job is to see what is conceived, to hear that music with which ‘the air torn by the wind’ resounds… What then is conceived? To redo everything. To arrange things so that everything becomes new.” (VI, 12)

An important part of such transformation was clearly the transformation and rechanneling of elemental fury. Blok had obvious difficulties imagining anyone–other than Christ– capable of redeeming revolutionary violence. For Blok, Christ is consistently tender and feminine; he is called a “gentle lamb in white robes” and is seen “in chains and roses” (II, 84).

As much as Blok resents the old world, he does not want to settle solely on its destruction. He keeps on returning to the most basic values of Christianity: love, peace, harmony that should be reintroduced once the destruction is over. In his “Intelligentsia and Revolution,” a seemingly bloodthirsty justification of revolutionary violence, Blok nevertheless stresses the fundamental value of Christianity. “Perfect love casteth out fear,” he quotes St. John, then continues, “love creates miracles, music pacifies the beasts… And we all lived without music and without love… Only the spirit can confront the terror… And the spirit is music” (VI, 16-20). Likewise, Blok is known to remark: “Only music is capable of stopping bloodshed that becomes a sad banality when a holy madness stops.”

Love, spirit, and music frequently merge in Blok’s mind, and they clearly merge in the conclusion of “The Twelve.” The most revealing feature of Blok’s Christ is the change in the rhyming and rhythmic pattern through which He is introduced into the narrative. He is the carrier of that music that intends to pacify the revolutionary madness.

Furthermore, the last stanza of the poem also introduces a break in the rhythmical pattern. A marked shift in the stress distribution highlights Christ’s “tender gait that soars above the storm” (nezhnoi postupiu nadviuznoi) (III, 359). Christ is marching to a different drummer from the Red Guard soldiers. This marked change of marching pattern indicates Christ gliding above the earthly rhythms: he controls the storm, rather than being controlled by it.

Christ’s tender gait marks a different music; it transforms the established poetic rhythm into a different pattern. As the result, Blok’s presentation of Christ invokes the Gospel miracle of Christ walking on waters toward his disciples. In this miracle, Christ not only walks on water; he calms down the wind that agitates the waters: “A strong wind was blowing and the waters grew rough. When they had rowed three or three and a half miles they saw Jesus approaching the boat, walking on water; and they were terrified. But he said to them, ‘It is I; don’t be afraid’“(John, 6:15-20). This chapter from John mentions, in fact, Christ’s twelve disciples.

Similar episodes in other Gospels specifically mention Christ pacifying the storm, which scares his disciples. These passages stress Christ’s ability to calm down the storm, while challenging the lack of faith in his disciples. Christ’s reproach of his disciples scared by the storm reminds one of Blok’s “Intelligentsia and Revolution” (1918) and its reproach of intelligentsia for its failure to come to terms with the revolutionary storm.

The biblical God does not always appear at its most awe-inspiring: in the shroud of storm, or wind, or other elements. In one passage, which was well-known to Blok (he referred to it in his prose), God reveals himself as a comforting small voice that calms down and encourages Elijah, who has just escaped from prosecution into the mountains. I believe it is exactly this role of a comforter that Blok envisions for Christ in his poem. Blok writes: “We remember the feminine image of the Comforter (Uteshitel’) in the terrifying vision of the Elijah-the-Prophet and on the icons of Old Believers… the tender feminine image of the Holy Spirit rising upward and promising us that time shall be no more.“ (V, 598)   

In his comment on the Elijah’s Comforter, Blok merges together the Old Testament vision of Elijah, the Apocalypse’s “end of time”, and a very popular Orthodox prayer to the Holy Spirit, the Comforter, known as “The Tsar of Heaven” (Tsariu Nebesnyi). Here are the words of the prayer that seem to capture Blok’s own aspirations for the revolution: “The Tsar of Heaven, the Comforter, The Spirit of truth, Who is present everywhere, the one who grants life and other graces, come and dwell within us, and cleanse us from all our sin and save our souls, you Blessed One.”

It is this message of comfort, protection, and purification that Christ ushers in at the end of “The Twelve.” The need to pacify the destruction and storm and transform it into something more productive became of paramount importance for Blok. In the year of his death, Blok wrote a letter congratulating the mother of a newly born, in which he articulates the need to rein in the violence: “There might be a part in me, maybe 1/100 of me, which should be bequeathed to someone. And I invoke this best part of me as I express my wishes for your son… Let him be a man of peace and not of war, let him slowly and peacefully restore what has been destroyed through seven years of terror” (VIII, 532). 

Christ as an Artist, and as Transcending and Harmonizing Third Force.

So far we discussed rather traditional, if contradictory roles of Christ as the Liberator who unleashes a storm against the ossifying empire and as the Comforter and the Prince of Peace.  Blok’s imagination, however, frequently envisions Christ as some sort of a mediator between the storm-bringer and storm-pacifier. For Blok, Christ can do so because he partakes of both, of storm and peace; he is a synthetic entity, similar to that of a true artist. Even though Blok’s view of Christ performing two opposing roles can strike some as highly idiosyncratic, it is this dialectical view that Blok frequently articulates, presenting Christ as a third force, a mediator between conservatism and revolution. Thus, in his comments on the role of Christ in the collapse of Rome, Blok contrasts this collapse with the dismantling of the ancient regime in France, and observes:

Of course, the Roman world, similar to today’s Europe, was split in half: the old half was melting, dying, sinking into shadows. The new one was entering the historical stage with barbarian violence and genius-like angry obsessiveness. But…. clearer and clearer one could discern the third sound, dissimilar from the first two.… I am talking about the third force that entered the world at that time and became the mediator between the two worlds that did not expect it to have lasting power. This force was called Christianity. The eighteenth-century Europe hasn’t provided us with any hints at the presence of a similar force yet. (VI, 156-57)

The above quotation taken from Blok’s essay on Vladimir Soloviev (1912), contains, in fact, a peculiar synopsis of “The Twelve.” In Blok’s poem we witness the death of the old world, the barbaric energy of the new one, and the presence of one more force that strives to counterbalance the confrontation. Blok asserts that at the time of Rome such force was called Christianity. For Blok, the French Revolution hasn’t manifested any similar third force. The Russian Revolution does. Similar to the events in Rome that introduced Christianity into the pagan world, the Russian Revolution goes beyond social and political order; it strives for the spiritual reorientation of the world: “’To redo everything.’… Peace and brotherhood of nations.” (VI, 12)  In Blok’s scheme of things, a true religious leader, Christ in particular, manages to partake of both dimensions: of elemental uprising, and of pacifying force that harmonizes this uprising, re-channels it from pure destruction. For Blok, as for a number of other Romantic poets, such as Blake or Heine, Christ becomes first and foremost an artist, a person open to the elemental, yet capable of harmonizing it.

In his essay “Art and a Newspaper” (Iskusstvo i gazeta) (1912), Blok would provide the following gloss on the issue:

The storm is on the horizon or the iceberg in the sea– these unknown elemental forces are similar to the elemental power of art, whose power hasn’t been explored even by the world geniuses who were imperfect ‘instruments of God,’ and who, as all human beings, were distracted by everyday worries. So they could not hear the full voice of the elements. At the time of the storm or at the moment of collision with an iceberg above the sea, above the elements, a vision of the Cross appears, as in the legends of Brittany. This is religion, which fills the uncultured fishermen rather than the civilized billionaires from the Titanic with anticipation and helps them make peace with the elements (V, 475)

This vision of the Cross, which rises above the rebellious elements, is the direct equivalent to the vision of Christ walking above the storm at the conclusion of the “Twelve.” And, as Blok knew already in 1912, this vision is bound to become more accessible to those uncultured fishermen and ignorant rebels than to the civilized intelligentsia.

Only those who stay in touch with the elemental (artists, uncivilized fishermen) are capable, through sensuous intimation, of detecting the cross barely visible beyond the storm. Blok also suggests here that this new religion opens one’s eyes toward the elemental and helps one to embrace it (mirit so stikhiei). For Blok, both art and religion partake of the elemental, yet are capable of harnessing and harmonizing it due to their ability to be part of and go beyond the elements.

Furthermore–and Blok is rather explicit here– there is an inexorable connection between elemental rebellion and true religion (true art-for Blok lags behind religion in this respect. Religion, therefore, plays a dual role for Blok: it partakes, if not unleashes the elements, but it also has the ability to function as a harmonizing force (mirit), as a bridge or mediator between the elements and society. In his “On the Task of the Poet,” (1921) Blok explains the poet’s vocation in similar terms of both partaking of the elements, yet harmonizing them: “The poet is the son of harmony… He has three tasks: first, to release sounds from their native primal elements where they dwell; second, to turn these sounds into harmony; and third, to introduce this harmony into the external world.” (VI, 162) 

Blok was well aware that revolution releases primitive energies, the long sleeping hatreds and angers. Once the revolutionary storm is unleashed, who will rein it in? Thus, almost reluctantly, Blok had to return to Christ, who in his unique position of being part of the elemental yet capable of harmonizing it, becomes the only sufficient force that can carry out the double function. After the revolutionary storm is unleashed, only He has enough power and authority to control it.

Like a snake charmer, Blok desires both to unleash the elemental forces but also charm and control them. At a certain moment he proclaims, “let every man, by any way he can (and ways are different for everyone), conquer beastliness. It does not matter whether it is spiritual or physical, whether it belongs to the government, or to the intelligentsia, or to the people. Beastliness exists everywhere.” (VIII, 304)

Blok’s dual aspiration of unleashing and controlling the storm becomes obvious when one considers his attitude toward the bourgeoisie. On the one hand, Blok can’t wait to see the end of the bourgeoisie; he seems to exhibit almost pathological hatred toward this class.

Oh, Lord. Give me strength to free myself from my hatred for him [the bourgeois].… which confuses my thoughts and drowns me in malice… I choke on hatred, which produces in me some sort of pathological, hysterical disgust, preventing me from living. Go away from me, Satan, go away from me, bourgeois… I don’t know whether I am better or worse than he is, but I feel disgust and nausea; go away from me, Satan. (VII, 328)

It is hardly surprising, therefore, that “The Twelve” is overflowing with this anti-bourgeois venom: “Well, Van’ka, you son of a bitch, bourgeois” (III, 350) or “you, bourgeois, better run for cover, I will drink your blood in revenge for my sweetheart” (III, 355) (Cantos II and VIII).

But Blok is also aware that the animosity that the bourgeoisie provokes is such that this animosity dismisses such positive qualities associated with a bourgeois as spiritual wealth. Blok knows that material and spiritual wealth are frequently connected. The key is to destroy the stifling power of the material, but keep the spiritual; otherwise, all will be ruined:

Anyone who has amassed values, including spiritual values, is called bourgeois. This dogma resurfaces with every revolution. Its appearance marks the acme, the highest rise of the swing, when the swing is ready to turn over the top bar. This outlook on the bourgeois is one of the most extreme and terrifying in the revolution – its highest tension is when it is ready to destroy itself. The task of any provisional government to keep the swing from overturning, while making sure that the swinging goes at full force…. To lead the country along the edge of the abyss without letting it fall. Without retreating to the safe and smooth road where the country would lose its way and be abandoned by the Spirit of Revolution. 

This statement reveals the dialectical complexity of Blok’s thinking in general, and his poem in particular. For Blok, any revolution has to learn to differentiate and harness its destructive energy by directing it against the material and not against the spiritual. Even Blok’s diction points to the complex paradox that he is articulating: even though he does not want the swing of rebellion to go full circle, the very etymology of the word “revolution” suggests exactly that. It is clear that the complex task that Blok expects a provisional government to carry out can only be performed by a divine force. Consequently, “The Twelve” depicts how the political banners that promote  provisional government are abandoned to the snowy slush on the ground, proving its failure to carry out its complex task.

During the summer of 1917, however, Blok continued to be rather optimistic, as he expressed his hopes for a true revolutionary dynamism that could go on with the uprising and transformation, while destroying only that, which needs to be destroyed:

In millions of souls, the fire of enmity, malice, anger, humiliation, backwardness, barbarism, mistrust, revenge is smoldering here and there. Russian Bolshevism is on the loose, yet we still do not have rain, and God does not send it. O, Lord, how much do we depend on you… We have ignored your guidance, but lack our own… 

Here is the task of Russian culture: to direct this fire toward that which needs to be burnt; to transform the turbulence of Sten’ka and Emel’ka into a musical wave with a will; to impose borders on destruction so that it will organize the fire without weakening its force.… To direct the slowly dwindling fire that still contains the possibility of wild explosions … toward the Rasputin-like corners of the soul and then fan it into a blaze that reaches to the skies so that crafty, lazy, servile lust is burned out” (VII, 296-7).

On a number of other occasions, Blok stresses the need to avoid and overcome the inevitable but destructive abysses of the Russian spirit, the abysses that he tends to associate with notorious figure of Rasputin.  Blok keeps on returning to the urgent need to change human nature if the revolution is to succeed: “human nature is clearly imperfect, and should be replaced by a more perfect breed of beings.” (VII, 406) The figure of Rasputin suggests that the main obstacle to this process is the connection of elemental energy (admired by Blok) with lust, greed and sexual rivalry, the forces that can easily disintegrate into civil war and slaughter. In “The Twelve,” Kat’ka’s murderer is driven by sexual rivalry after all.

Likewise, in his notebook entry of May 3, 1919, Blok observes: “What destroyed the revolution (the spirit of music)? The War.“  And the war– in Blok’s imagination–is frequently driven by lust, greed, and other Rasputin-like elements. The question, therefore, remains: who can rein in the lust, violence, and other Rasputin-like features?   

In his letter to Mayakovsky, Blok articulates the complex task of a revolution to simultaneously destroy and create; to become, therefore, a dialectical force capable of combining the two: 

Destruction is as old as construction, and as traditional. While destroying that which is nauseating, we still yawn and feel bored when we look at the construction. The tooth of history is much more poisonous than you think. One cannot avoid the curse of time… Your scream is still the scream of pain, and not of joy. Destroying, we still remain the slaves of the old world, the destruction of tradition is also a tradition… Some will destroy, some will build… but all will remain slaves until a third something will appear which is equally dissimilar from both building and destruction. (VII, 350) 

  Blok argues for a mediating third force to emerge. In the case of Rome, such force was Christianity, the power capable of overcoming the bad infinity of the Freudian conflict, of rivalry and mayhem. Already St. Paul, proclaimed in his epistle to the Galatians the paradoxical unity in Christ, the unity that manages to transcend the most basic oppositions of our ways of life– ”neither Jew nor Greek…neither slave nor free… neither male nor female” – turns everyone into God’s children and rightful heirs to God’s universe. The eternal rivalry between haves and have-nots, between the children for their father’s inheritance is overcome in Paul’s utopian vision.   

Blok was aware that the social and political liberation is hardly sufficient; it would inevitably lead to the escalation of violence contained only by one more civilization of the Roman type. Something else, along the lines of St. Paul’s vision was needed: a transcending force capable of transforming rivals into brothers.  Blok appears to act like shaman who tries to talk Christian spirit into the violent upheaval that overtook Russia. But how realistic were such expectations?


Blok frequently juxtaposed his utopian dreams and aspiration with the sense of irony and resignation. On a number of occasions he would suggest that the eternal return is all there is to human affairs. Thus, in his notebooks, he observed: “Catiline. What a familiar, well-known, and sad world. And immediately– the bitterness of the fall. How boring, how predictable everything is. So what if Christ comes. Catiline wanted something, which is not-boring, not-pompous, not-beautiful, something unreachable. And this is boring too.“  Similar to his hero, Heine, Blok does not always seem to know where irony ends and heaven begins. 

Blok has also learned from Dostoevsky that Christ would have to appear again to the European world, since his original mission of transforming the Roman Empire and its values has failed. Dostoevsky recognized this tragedy in his Legend of the Grand Inquisitor. The storm, unleashed by Christ, has been subdued by the stifling regime of the Grand Inquisitor. Foreshadowing and clearly influencing Blok’s thinking on the matter, Dostoevsky felt the need for Christ’s return. This return would not be the one prophesied in Apocalypse–accompanied by heavenly pyrotechnics and overwhelming force– but rather a gentle return in the form of a reminder – the reminder to people of their need to wrestle the power away from the Grand Inquisitor and to put their freedom to better use. Yet, simple seizure of power through violence would signify simply an eternal return. Thus, Christ offers no more and no less than a kiss – in response to the Grand Inquisitor’s sophisticated justifications of violence and slavery. This paradox, recognized by Dostoevsky, is further developed by Blok, as he presents his tender silent Christ who argues through movement and gestures, rather than through words or force.

It appears that Blok’s hopes are as strong or as weak as that of Dostoevsky who felt the need to bring back both Christ and his message, remaining fully aware, however, that the only force that is acceptable to Christ (love) does not guarantee immediate results. In Blok’s “The Twelve” rivalry, envy, sexual tensions threaten to tear apart the world of the poem, generating a dangerous cycle of violence ready to engulf the revolution.  By the time he finished “The Twelve,” Blok was forced to pin his hopes on Christ: everything else in this earthly world surely fail. 

Vladimir Golstein is a professor of Slavic studies at Brown University, Rhode Island, USA. He was born in Moscow and emigrated to the United States in 1979. Professor Golstein’s scholarly interests embrace Russian culture, religion, philosophy, and poetry, of the past two centuries.

Originally published in The Greanville Post

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License


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