Russian Poetry Analysis

The poetry of Russia’s youth

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The earliest ancestors of the modern Russians, the agricultural East Slavs, settled the inland plateau of the thirteen-hundred-mile Dnieper River and were preyed on during the ninth century by the Varangians, piratical Scandinavian merchants who founded petty principalities around Kiev. Under Grand Prince Vladimir of Kiev, their loose confederation was converted to Byzantine Christianity in 988 c.e., an immense religio-cultural invasion that consolidated its position in Russia by introducing the Old Church Slavonic alphabet based on the spoken dialect, importing Byzantine Greek forms as literary models, and assimilating native pagan elements into religious ritual. Although Old Church Slavonic served as the chief vehicle of Russian literature from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries, it choked off exposure to the classical Humanistic heritage of the West and rigidly identified church with state, fortifying the autocracy of Russian rulers.

Russia’s earliest poetic form was the vernacular and formulaic bylina (plural byliny; literally, things-that-have-been). These oral epics celebrated mythological figures and, more frequently, human heroes in groupings that resembled the Arthurian cycles. In the Kievan byliny cycle centered on Grand Prince Vladimir, the hero Ilya becomes “a symbol of the self-consciousness of the people,” according to Felix J. Oinas in Heroic Epic and Saga (1978)....

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From Dark Age to Golden Age

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Kiev was destroyed in Russia’s literary Dark Age under the Tartars, and Russian culture was dominated by the Grand Duchy of Moscow, whose ruler Dmitri won a victory over the Tartars at Kulikovo, memorialized in the fifteenth century Cossack epic Zadónina (beyond the river Don). Ivan II at last drove the Tartars from a unified Russia in 1480, less than a generation after the Turkish conquest of Constantinople, and Moscow became the “third Rome.” Imperial power was inseparable from Orthodox belief, and Ivan II, wed to a Byzantine princess, regarded himself as the sole genuine defender of the Orthodox faith. His grandson and namesake, Ivan IV, popularly known in the West as Ivan the Terrible (more accurately, the Awesome), a talented political polemicist, practiced heinous excesses in the name of personal absolutism. After Ivan murdered his oldest son, his line died out, and for the next generation civil disorder was exacerbated by crop failures, famine, and plague. Finally, in 1613, delegates from all the Russias elected Mikhail, the first of the Romanov czars.

During the post-Ivan Time of Troubles, literature in Russia was confined to Old Church Slavonic, though the people clung to folktales and Russianized Western romances. Under the first Romanovs, every Western form of literature except theology began to be translated and widely promulgated with the advent of Russian printing in 1564. In 1678, Simeon Polotsky, tutor to Czar Alexei’s children, introduced a syllabic verse system, solemn and even pompous, that dominated Russian poetry for a century.

Westernization accelerated under Peter the Great, who during his reign from 1682 to 1725 reformed every aspect of Russian civilization. The czar personally directed this mammoth invasion of Western thought, but he enforced its adoption by ruthless, even barbaric means. Peter’s unprecedented debasement of the Church removed schools and literature from religious control, and from 1708, all nonreligious texts were published in a simplified Russian alphabet rather than in Old Church Slavonic. West Russian syllabic verse, originally panegyric or didactic, became fashionable among Peter’s courtiers as an instrument of amatory and pastoral poetry, in imitation of French and German models. Peter’s reformations were implemented at enormous cultural cost. The secularization of literature contributed to the dangerous rift opening between the general population and Peter’s sophisticated nobility, who largely abandoned the language and the folklore of the exploited populace.

In the thirty-seven years of political upheaval that followed Peter’s death in 1725, the first four greats of Russian literature imposed French classical standards on Peter’s simplified Russian language. All writers imported Western literary forms and theories while employing at the same time traditional Russian materials.

Prince Antioch Kantemir (1708-1744) is widely considered the first Russian writer to “blend life and poetry in his works.” Kantemir served as Russian ambassador to London and Paris, and as a confirmed neoclassicist concurred with Nicolas Boileau-Despréaux that the highest of literary forms were the ode and the satire, which he used to attack reactionary Russian political and social elements. Kantemir’s language is realistic, but his satires are framed in the imported syllabic verse dependent on fixed accents, a form of versification unnatural to the Russian language. Kantemir’s less talented and nonnoble contemporary Vasily Trediakovsky (1703-1769) freed Russian poetry from these unnatural constraints by introducing a syllabo-tonic system based on equal bisyllabic metrical feet, a rhythm found in the Russian popular ballad.

Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), a peasant poet, achieved scientific fame abroad and returned to found the University of Moscow in 1756. Lomonosov’s Pismo o pravilakh rossiyskogo stikhotvorstva (1739; letter concerning the rules of Russian prosody) set stylistic criteria for poetry: a “Noble Style,” employing Old Church Slavonic elements, used for heroic poetry and tragedy; a “Middle Style,” for ordinary drama; and a colloquial “Low Style,” for correspondence, farce, and everyday usage. Lomonosov’s syllabotonic odes exhibit conventional patriotic themes, but as Marc Slonim has noted, Lomonosov’s meditations are “still living poetry.” With Lomonosov, the aristocratic poet Aleksandr Petrovich Sumarokov (1718-1777) established the principles of Boileau and Voltaire as paramount in Russian letters.

Russia’s most famous empress, Catherine the Great, who ruled from 1762 to 1796, ranked herself with Peter the Great and consciously patterned her dazzling reign upon his. After the abortive Cossack uprising (1773-1775) under Emelian Pugachev and the sobering example of the French Revolution in 1789, Catherine tempered enlightenment with political conservatism. She extended education into the middle class and encouraged a fivefold increase in published translations from the major European languages. She also imported many foreign artists and sponsored secular music.

Catherine, who wrote widely herself, indelibly marked Russian literature by naming Gavrila Derzhavin (1743-1816) as her poet laureate. Nikolai Gogol called Derzhavin “the poet of greatness” who dominated Russian literature for more than thirty years. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837), however, accused Derzhavin of thinking “in Tartar,” a pungent assessment of Derzhavin’s sacrifice of Russian syntax in favor of voicing his deistic and epicurean love of the sublime. Derzhavin’s stylistic duality presaged the dismemberment of the Russian classical order; he pioneered Russian civic poetry, which burgeoned in the nineteenth century with Kondraty Rylevyev and Nikolai Nekrasov, and he left a...

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Other Golden Age poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Evgeny Baratynsky (1800-1844), an intellectual and classicist, lacked Pushkin’s sprezzatura, that attribute of genius which makes the most difficult achievement appear effortless. A poet with a strong metaphysical bent, Baratynsky decried the decay of human vitality that accompanies industrialism. Nikolai Yazykov (1803-1846) contributed intoxicating rhythms to traditional Russian poetic recitation. Alexei Koltsov (1809-1842) based his Burnsian lyrics on Russian folk life, while more progressive poets of the 1830’s, notably Aleksandr Poleshayev (1805-1848) and Prince Aleksandr Odoyevsky (1802-1839), rejected Pushkin’s classicism completely and stressed the emotional impact of poetry. Odoyevsky, who died as a private soldier in the Caucasus, is chiefly remembered because Mikhail Lermontov, the most widely recognized heir to Pushkin, wrote an elegy for Odoyevsky that is often cited as the most beautiful in the Russian language.

Mikhail Lermontov

A Eugene Onegin with a touch of the demon, Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841) was demoted and exiled in 1837 for circulating manuscript copies of a poem on Pushkin’s death, attacking “base lovers of corruption” who dared to “strangle freedom, genius, glory, and hide within the shelter of the law.” Lermontov had an unhappy early life. His mother had died young, and he was separated from his father by his wealthy grandmother, an unhealthy situation reflected in several of his poems. A precociously talented child, Lermontov matured into an unappealing young man who admired Lord Byron deeply, seeing in the English poet a reflection of his own passionate revolt and Weltschmerz. Lermontov nevertheless realized their essential difference: “No. I am not Byron; like him I am a persecuted wanderer, but mine is a Russian soul.”

While attending Moscow University, Lermontov was influenced deeply by secretly obtained works of the revolutionary Decembrist Ryleyev. At that time, Lermontov wrote an uncanny...

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Slavophiles versus Westernizers

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Although the glow of Pushkin’s literary gold, subtly blending Romantic and classic elements, lingered through the 1840’s, prose realism soon became the literary ideal in the harsh atmosphere inflicted on Russia by Nicholas I, determined to stamp out revolutionary liberalism at home. Discipline worthy of Ivan the Terrible was imposed on the Russian army, whose common soldiers served twenty-five-year terms. The czar’s secret police dominated the country’s political life, while “censors were unleashed on Russian literature like a pack of bloodhounds,” according to one contemporary. Paradoxically, in the thirty years of Nicholas’s rule, writers and philosophers flourished. Herzen wrote, “We devoted ourselves to science,...

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Toward the Silver Age

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Except for Count Aleksei Konstantinovich Tolstoy (1817-1875), a popular neo-Romantic poet in the German vein who opposed civic poetry bitterly and sought to reestablish the old norms of art, the 1860’s and 1870’s were dominated in Russia by fine poetic translations, not native Russian poetry. The costly Crimean War (1854-1856), a shocking waste of Russian lives brought about by the neglect and shortcomings of Russian leadership, had drained the nation’s spirit. Russian prestige suffered a mortal blow through the ill-advised conduct of this war, and Alexander II and his government reluctantly faced the necessity of domestic reform. After taking the throne in 1855, Alexander freed the forty million Russian serfs in 1861, two...

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Acmeist poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Symbolists’ nebulous Westernized ideals did not prevail for long against the literary realism being promoted by Maxim Gorky in the relatively stable bourgeois climate of Russia between 1910 and 1914. Acmeism was born in 1912, a movement primarily based in St. Petersburg and resembling the controlled, concrete Imagism of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot. The three major Acmeist poets, Nikolai Gumilyov, Anna Akhmatova, and Osip Mandelstam, despite significant differences in style and message, concurred that “we want to admire a rose because it is beautiful, and not because it is a symbol of mystical purity.”

Nikolay Gumilyov (1886-1921), leader of the Acmeists, had a “bravura personality” that blossomed in physical danger and exotic landscapes. In his 1912 article “Acmeism and the Heritage of Symbolism,” he stressed the Greek meaning of “acme” as “the point of highest achievement,” as well as Théophile Gautier’s rule, “The more dispassionate the materialthe more beautiful will the work come out.”

Anna Akhmatova

Often likened to Rudyard Kipling’s, Gumilyov’s virile style could not have differed more strikingly from that of his wife for eight years, Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966). Akhmatova’s earliest poetry, mostly small lyrics that sang of the woman’s inevitably unhappy role in love, was extremely popular immediately upon publication, and her work has since completely overshadowed Gumilyov’s. Even today Russian readers memorize Akhmatova’s poetry, and she remains Russia’s foremost woman poet, unforgettably uniting passion and asceticism. Periodically suppressed by the Soviets, Akhmatova’s work has endured; among her greatest works is the cycle Rekviem (1963; Requiem, 1964), her lament for the victims of Joseph Stalin’s purges.

Influence of the political state

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Russia’s human losses in the twentieth century defy comprehension. The agony of World War I, closely followed by the February Democratic Revolution and the October Bolshevik Revolution, both in 1917, combined with the ravages of the civil war, cost millions of lives. Later, the famines, the collectivization of agriculture, and the purges of the 1930’s established a dark backdrop for the staggering losses, estimated at twenty to twenty-five million lives, that the Soviet Union sustained during World War II.

The Bolshevik Revolution and the consequent establishment of the Soviet state enormously affected Russian literature, although seldom in Russia’s history, if ever, has literature enjoyed the freedom of...

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Futurist poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The Acmeists’ contemporaries, the Futurists, opposed literary and artistic tradition with a zeal that owed a considerable debt to Nietzsche. In 1912, their manifesto, “Poshchechina obshchestvennomu vkusu” (“A Slap in the Face of the Public Taste”), presented Russian readers with an extreme literary case of shocking the bourgeois. One of its authors, Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), described himself in his important poem Oblako v shtanakh (1915; A Cloud in Pants, 1965), as “the loudmouthed Zarathustra of our day,” and his associate Velimir Khlebnikov (1895-1922), a linguistically experimental poet, rejected all emotional emphasis derived from previous ages from his powerful poems. Russia, he...

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Folklore and Russian heritage

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Diametrically opposed to Mayakovsky’s idiosyncratic poetic style is that of Sergei Esenin (1896-1925), a “peasant poet” who harked back to Russia’s traditional past, its rich folklore, and its Orthodox religion. Esenin, a poet from the people, founded the Imaginist school of poetry between 1914 and 1919. His personal excesses led to a self-image he described in Ispoved’ khuligana (1921; Confessions of a Hooligan, 1973), and his unhappy marriages, first to the American dancer Isadora Duncan and then to Tolstoy’s granddaughter Sofya, contributed to his final breakdown. He attempted to write political poetry on contemporary topics, but near the end of his life his work was filled with nostalgia for the...

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Absurdist poets

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

It was not until the 1980’s that the Russian reading public became fully aware of the work of a small group of absurdist poets from the 1920’s and 1930’s who named themselves Oberiu (Association for Real Art), the existence of which was declared in a 1928 manifesto. The leading figures in the group were Daniil Kharms (Yuvachov; 1905-1942), Aleksandr Vvedensky (1904-1941), and Nikolai Zabolotsky (1903-1958), the primary drafter of the manifesto. Zabolotsky was able to publish one book of poems, Stolbtsy (1929, columns), but the other two were able to publish only a few individual poems and stories for children. Their work, which included plays and, in the case of Kharms, short prose sketches that have since become...

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Post-Stalin era

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The cooperation between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union during World War II dissolved in Cold War tension during the 1950’s, but after Stalin’s death in 1953 a degree of artistic freedom was temporarily achieved by Russian writers. An amnesty decree a month after Stalin’s death led to the release of prisoners who had survived the rigors of the gulag, and the Writers’ Union restored the membership of Akhmatova in 1954. By 1955, the “thaw” had occasioned the posthumous rehabilitation of many writers who had died in the camps and prisons; this revisionist movement reached its peak with Nikita Khrushchev’s famous speech at the Twentieth Party Congress in February, 1956, denouncing Stalin. Despite the suppression...

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Poems “to remember”

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

The stream of samizdat and tamizdat poetry that emerged from the Soviet Union bears the self-imposed charge: “to remember”—to memorialize the victims of Stalin’s gulag, and to speak out against the punishment of dissenters in labor camps and psychiatric hospitals. Poets who dissented against the Soviet government had to choose between writing “for the desk drawer,” exile, or death, as the fate of Yuri Galanskov (1939-1972) demonstrates. In 1956, when the Hungarian revolt was suppressed by the Soviets, Galanskov gathered a samizdat collection of protest poems. After he set forth his “Human Manifesto,” “calling to Truth and Rebelliona serf no more,” Galanskov was held in a Soviet special...

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The underground

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Parallel to the public existence of poetry in the post-Stalin period represented on one hand by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky, and on the other by Galanskov and Brodsky, there was a more private, underground development that occurred in formal and informal poetry circles. Formal circles centered around officially sponsored clubs and seminars in which senior poets mentored younger aspiring poets. This was in part a subtle way for the authorities to keep an eye on the younger generation, but in the better groups, for example, those led by Mikhail Svetlov (1903-1964) and Kirill Kovaldzhi (born 1930), some talented poets did find useful mentoring and occasional outlets to publication. More important were the informal groups of the...

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Bard poetry

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Along with the poetry underground there developed another trend that had its roots in popular and folk song, namely, the guitar poetry of the so-called bards. These poets chose to set their texts to melodies with simple guitar accompaniment and sing them in private gatherings and around campfires. The recognized founder of this trend was Bulat Okudzhava (1924-1997), who began to compose such songs immediately after World War II. With the advent of readily available tape recorders in the 1960’s, Okudzhava’s songs became well known and popular throughout the Soviet Union, despite the lack of official recordings. Other important figures in this genre were Aleksandr Galich (1918-1977), whose songs developed a social protest edge...

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Poetry of freedom

(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

With Gorbachev’s accession to power in 1985 and his introduction of a policy of glasnost, official censorship began to be reduced. By 1989, it was virtually eliminated, producing an ever-increasing wave of poetry publications. Initially, much of this was past work that finally emerged from the underground to reach the general reading public. Soon new voices and new work by older generations began to flood the public sphere, creating an impression of postmodern Babel. Where earlier there had been only a handful of published poets worth reading, there now were dozens, if not hundreds, with a range of orientations and styles. Parallel with this was a sharp decline in popular interest in poetry. What had been a narrow and exciting...

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(Critical Explorations in Poetry)

Blok, Aleksandr. Us Four Plus Four: Eight Russian Poets Conversing. New Orleans, La.: UNO Press, 2008. An extensive collection of poetry from eight important Russian poets. The poems are arranged as a conversation.

Bristol, Evelyn. A History of Russian Poetry. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991. Covers Russian literature from the tenth century to the 1970’s, placing writers and literary movements in a historical context. Biographical essay and commentary on each poet.

Bunimovitch, Evgeny, ed., and J. Kates, trans. and ed. Contemporary Russian Poetry: An Anthology. Champaign: Dalkey Archive...

(The entire section is 565 words.)