Critical Evaluation

Many critics consider Aleksandr Blok to be the best Russian poet of the twentieth century and one of the best in all of Russian literature. He was a leading representative of the second wave of symbolist poets around the beginning of the twentieth century. His poetry is distinguished by, among other things, a refined taste, which Blok acquired through his aristocratic upbringing, and a pronounced spiritual content. When The Twelve first appeared, readers of all kinds were astounded that this work was written by a poet of such credentials.

The action of The Twelve takes place in Petrograd (or St. Petersburg, later renamed Leningrad, and now St. Petersburg again), the city known to have provided a spark for the Bolshevik Revolution. The poem also includes a reference to the Neva River, which flows through Petrograd. The behavior of the rowdy marchers resembles that of the Bolshevik revolutionaries as recorded in history. The atmosphere displayed in the poem corresponds to the tumultuous events of 1917 and throughout the revolution and subsequent civil war. Finally, Blok himself confirmed in his diaries and letters that he had the Bolshevik Revolution in mind when he was writing The Twelve.

Blok was not a communist or even a communist sympathizer. He supported the February Revolution of 1917, during which the czar was dethroned and a democratic government was installed for the first time in Russian history. As the months wore on, however, and the assembly failed to solve the country’s problems, Blok became increasingly disillusioned. When the October (or Bolshevik) Revolution broke out, he lent his support to it even though he was not an advocate of its ideas. As the appearance of Jesus Christ in The Twelve would indicate, Blok was no Bolshevik.

Blok had, however, lost faith in the ability of the government to solve the country’s problems, which had worsened with the difficulties brought on by World War I. Like the prostitutes in the poem, the parliamentarians debated every issue to death. Like most Russian intellectuals, Blok hoped for reform that would sweep away centuries of injustice, which is exactly what the October Revolution promised to do. Finally, his health was deteriorating during the last years of his life, and he was going through a period of severe stress and fevers. These ailments, it turned out, contributed to his untimely death two years later. The writing of The Twelve was a kind of catharsis for Blok.

Most of the first readers of The Twelve expressed confusion regarding the poem. The main reason for the negative reaction by both revolutionaries and their opponents was the inclusion of Jesus Christ. The revolutionaries saw the depiction of Jesus as a leader to be a farce; they wanted to have nothing to do with religion. The opponents of revolution also...

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