Death of a Poet

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Subject essay: James von Geldern

On August 7, 1921 in the city of St. Petersburg (since 1914, Petrograd), the great poet Aleksandr Blok died from a combination of maladies that might have included syphilis, but surely included exhaustion and ennui. His funeral attracted crowds of mourners, for whom his passing meant the death of a tradition. Blok had welcomed the revolutions of 1917 as outpourings of popular will, and believed that his duty as an intellectual was to give expression to the inchoate feelings of the people. For two decades prior, he had provided words for the longings and anxieties of the intelligentsia. The naive idealism of Verses on the Beautiful Lady (1904); the playful mockery of Balaganchik(1906); the ominous prophecies of the Retribution cycle (1910-1921), all led to Blok’s two famous 1918 poems on the revolution, Scythians, which saw revolution as a cleansing wave of barbarism; and The Twelve, in which revolutionary chaos gives birth to a messianic leader.

Son of a professor and jurist, with both parents harboring artistic interests; son-in-law of the great chemist Mendeleev; friend of Andrei Belyi (author of Petersburg, the first great modernist novel), Blok inspired a generation to understand the world through artistic expression. When he died, so too died St. Petersburg, once the imperial capital, now a second city slipping into decades of intentional neglect. Magisterial avenues such as Nevskii Prospect now bore revolutionary names; its spacious apartments and broad sidewalks were clogged with parvenu newcomers; its plaster cracked and chipping. As Blok faded visibly from life, his city faded too, along with the elegant traditions of its elites. His most worthy successors were perhaps the great poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelshtam, whose verse rejected Blok’s filmy mysticism for a grounded world of things, yet whose lives upheld his example of honor and courage.

The generational shift promised by the October Revolution finally happened in 1921, as older poets left the scene and new ones arrived. Konstantin Balmont, inspiration for two generations of Symbolist poets, emigrated to France. Marina Tsvetaeva published a collection of poetry, Versty, and received word that her long-lost husband was alive in Berlin. That coming May she left Russia for almost twenty years of artistic accomplishment and personal misery in Paris. Nikolai Gumilev, once husband of Anna Akhmatova, and the organizational leader of the Acmeist movement, was shot for alleged counter-revolutionary activities. These poets were spiritually and politically alien to the Bolsheviks; yet old leftists too fled revolutionary Russia. Maksim Gorky, friend of Lenin and future progenitor of socialist realism, left Russia for a decade of residence in Europe; and Evgenii Zamiatin wrote his prophetic essay “I’m Afraid,” warning against the alliance of literature and the state. Signs for the future were mixed. October 1920 witnessed the modest birth of VAPP (The All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers), which in the late 1920s would foment the Cultural Revolution; but in December the radical proletariat cultural organization Proletkult was shut down. The dreaded Cheka was finishing its life in 1921; but early 1922 gave birth to the OGPU, the new and more structured state security police that could, in time, more efficiently intervene in literary life.

Soviet literature was coming into being in 1921. Dmitrii Furmanov, a Red Army commissar during the Civil War, published Red Landing Force, and in two years published his classic novel Chapaev. The Serapion Brotherhood was formed that year, sheltering talented writers who were not fully aligned with the Bolsheviks: these including the great humorist Mikhail Zoshchenko, Aleksei Tolstoi, Marietta Shaginian, Leonid Leonov. They joined “Fellow Travelers” (poputchiki: Trotsky’s term for non-socialists willing to engage Soviet reality) such as Iurii Olesha, Vsevolod Ivanov and Isaak Babel, found print in a new thick journal Red Virgin Soil (Krasnaia nov’), founded with Lenin’s approval by the old Bolshevik Aleksandr Voronskii and devoted to the best prose and poetry, and imposing no political tests beyond a general sympathy for the Revolution.

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