Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born in Leningrad on May 24, 1940. Brodsky’s mother worked as a translator, an occupation her son was to take up as well; his father worked as a news photographer. During the German blockade of the city, Brodsky spent some time with his grandparents. He has recalled a somewhat later time of fear during the government-orchestrated anti-Semitic hysteria of 1953, when it seemed that his family might be “resettled” far from Leningrad. During these last years of Stalinism, Brodsky was an unenthusiastic student; he left school in 1955 to pursue independent studies in various languages and literatures. In 1956, he began learning Polish, a language that gave him access to Western literature not available in Russian; he recalled that he first read the works of Franz Kafka and William Faulkner in Polish translation, and he encountered the poetry of Czesaw Miosz, whom he called “one of the greatest poets of our time, perhaps the greatest.”
The year 1956, when Brodsky was only sixteen, was crucial in establishing his sense of himself and of Russia. When Brodsky referred to himself as a member of the “generation of 1956,” he had in mind the shock of recognition forced by the invasion of Hungary, a recognition of his status as a poet in a totalitarian state. If Brodsky saw Stalinism less as a political era than as a “state of mind,” then the events of 1956, three years after the death of Stalin, proved the ugly endurance of a repressive regime that soon began to harass Brodsky personally.
Brodsky made several trips away from Leningrad on geological expeditions, traveling throughout the Soviet Union to the Amur River near China, Central Asia, the Caspian Sea region in the south, and the White Sea area in the north, where he was to spend nearly two years in exile a few years later. These travels exposed Brodsky to a variety of landscapes and may in part account for the powerful, if unattractive, natural descriptions in his mature verse. His travels permitted him a great deal of freedom, but his vaguely unorthodox movements and affiliations eventually drew the attention of KGB officials. Brodsky was first arrested in 1959 and twice confined to mental hospitals. These visits provided the setting for his most ambitious long poem, a dialogue between “Gorbunov i Gorchakov” (“Gorbunov and Gorchakov”). Brodsky had begun writing poems as early as 1958, though he later dated his first serious work from about 1963 (the year of his...
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