The Poem

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Vanka

Vanka, one of the revolutionaries marching through the streets of Petrograd. At the time the marchers are depicted in the poem, he is seen only in the distance, prancing with Katka, the girlfriend of another revolutionary, Petrukha. By eloping with Katka, he betrays not only his friend but also the revolutionary cause. His former comrades accuse him of defecting to the enemy and becoming a bourgeois, a soldier in the enemy camp, and an enemy to the Red revolutionaries. He clearly possesses, in his speech, qualities of a seducer that others lack. His army coat symbolizes his betrayal in comparison with the ragtag and even prison garb of his former comrades. He has somehow gained superiority over them, as illustrated by his miraculous escape from Petka’s avenging bullet.

Katka

Katka, or Katya, a pretty girl involved with the only two named revolutionaries, Vanka and Petka. By abandoning Petka in favor of a more dashing and richer Vanka, she shows that she is interested primarily in pleasures and a better life. She dances and frolics in the evening snow and flashes Vanka a pearly smile, indicating that the two of them complement each other. She shows no remorse for betraying Petka because she is not generally faithful, as indicated by the knife scars on her neck and under her breasts received during another, most likely equally faithless, affair. She owns lacy attire and has plenty of money, received for her amorous services (or whoring, as Petka calls it).

Petrukha

Petrukha, or Petka, the aggrieved party in the triangle, stricken by jealousy and by the loss of his love. The extent of his grief is such that he almost forgets the cause for which he is fighting. In this sense, he shows himself to be a credible human being, wallowing in his sorrow rather than pursuing the loftier, abstract goal of his comrades. He shows that he is capable of resolute action when he tries to kill his rival; that he kills his beloved instead only underscores the depth of his personal tragedy. The intensity of his love is measured by his willingness to take back Katka even though he is fully aware of her shoddy character and infidelity. In fact, it is through him that the reader discovers the extent of her promiscuity. He trudges under the burden of his sorrow throughout the poem, despite the admonitions of his comrades that the times are too serious for such trifling personal concerns as unhappiness in love. Petka acts as most people in his position would act. The fact that the author gave all three characters common Russian names underscores the popular nature of both the love triangle and the revolution.

Jesus Christ

Jesus Christ, who appears at the end of the poem not as a person but as an apparition. For that reason, he cannot be termed a true character despite the important role the poet gives him.

Bystanders

Bystanders, who include an old woman, a bourgeois, a writer, a priest, an aristocratic lady, and a prostitute. They are not presented as individual characters. Like Jesus Christ, they contribute substantially to the overall plot of the poem as types, each symbolizing a segment of the society opposing the revolution.

The Poem

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The Twelve is a poem about the Russian Revolution. It consists of twelve parts, or cantos, of various forms and lengths. Aleksandr Blok’s title refers to the twelve revolutionaries marching on the streets of Petrograd, or St. Petersburg, as it was known in English (later called Leningrad).

The poem opens with a long canto setting the stage for the entire poem:...

(This entire section contains 367 words.)

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The blackness of the night is contrasted with the whiteness of the snow, while the blowing wind makes the footing difficult. A band of twelve revolutionaries marches down the middle of the street as bystanders watch not only with interest but also with apprehension. Among the bystanders are an old woman who fears that the Bolsheviks will be the death of her yet; a bourgeois with his collar “right up to his ears”; a writer who is cursing the revolutionaries as “the treacherous swine”; a fat priest, “a cassocked roly-poly”; two rich ladies in caracul, who cry and cry; and a tramp begging for bread. A number of prostitutes mimic a torn sign that reads ALL POWER TO THE RATIFYING ASSEMBLY by declaring that they, too, had a parley—to decide how much to charge per night. All these characters are considered to be enemies of the revolution or at least ignorant of its goals.

The focus shifts to the twelve marching revolutionaries, who are shooting, looting, and yelling the slogans of the revolution. Some of them are clad in prison garb. The only named ones among them are Vanka, Katya, and Pyotr. Katya is Pyotr’s girlfriend, but she ran away and is frolicking with Vanka. In a fit of jealousy, Pyotr shoots at Vanka but kills Katya. Although grief-stricken, he is berated by his comrades for his concern with personal matters at such a historic moment.

In the final canto, the revolutionaries, followed now only by a mangy mongrel, meet an apparition and shoot at it, not knowing what it is. A vision of Christ appears waving a red flag and with a garland of white roses on his head. Immune to their bullets, he seems to take over the leadership of the band as they continue to march into the snowy night.

Forms and Devices

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The Twelve is a ballad, offering a variety of poetic and prosodic features. Almost each canto is different in form from the preceding one. Free verse is followed by couplets and a quatrain by five-or six-verse stanzas or by a combination of all of these. Blok also uses imitations of folk and factory songs and popular jingles in cantos dealing with the revolutionaries, to indicate their folklike character. The prosodic variety serves two purposes: to underscore the dramatic quality of the poem and to enhance the rhythm of the march as one of the most telling features of the poem.

The most striking device in the poem is symbolism. A leading symbolist in Russian poetry in the first decade of the twentieth century, Blok relies heavily on symbols even though he had ceased to be regarded a symbolist when The Twelve was written. Symbolism is evident even in the title of the poem. Because both groups had a mission, the twelve revolutionaries are likened to the twelve apostles of Christ. The number of cantos (twelve) follows the same symbolism. The black night of the first verse symbolizes the darkness at that moment in Russia’s history, while the white snow stands for the purifying force of the revolution. The wind and blizzard stand for the revolution itself. Thus, in the first three verses the poet has poignantly set the stage for the dramatic events to follow.

The onlookers on the sidewalks are all symbols: For example, the old woman represents the older generation afraid of sudden and unpredictable changes. She cannot grasp the meaning of the slogan on the canvas, complaining that it could be used for a much more practical purpose, such as leggings. The bourgeois is standing on the corner, symbolically at a crossing, not knowing which way to turn. Similarly, a writer is equally confused. Long-haired and unshaven, he speaks in a half-voice, revealing his cowardice.

It is interesting that Blok depicts a member of his own class as an enemy of the revolution, most likely to criticize those writers who either opposed the revolution or, more often, remained indecisive about it. As if to underscore the scribe’s irrelevance, Blok uses an archaic term for a poet (vitiya). The greatest scorn is reserved for a priest, who is ridiculed not only for what he stands for but even for how he looks. On his fat belly shines a cross that is supposed to be a guiding light; instead, it is the huge belly that leads. Of the two rich ladies, one falls on some ice, placing herself in an embarrassing position.

The prostitutes’ derisive comparison of their trade to the demeaning role of the ratifying assembly symbolizes in the poet’s eyes the assembly’s futility and degradation. The tramp’s begging for bread signifies the inability of the existing government to provide basic necessities for its people. All these characters are ridiculed in one way or another, symbolizing the futility of opposition to the revolution. In fact, Blok ridicules all the traditional values, as illustrated by the use of a mangy dog as a symbol for the old ways.

Another formalistic device is the musical quality of the poem, expressed primarily in the heavy rhythm, which corresponds to the staccato pace of the march. This rhythm can be discerned in a good translation, but it can be best enjoyed in the original. An illustration of the effectiveness of this device is the onomatopoeic sound of gunfire rendered as “bang-bang-bang” or “rat-tat-tat” (“tra-ta-ta” in the original).

A consummate craftsman, Blok used the form to complement the subjects of his poems. There is an intricate system of concentric rings in The Twelve that under-scores the relatedness of all involved, as well as the whirlwind effect of a revolution. Six concentric rings can be seen in this scheme: The first and the twelfth cantos represent the first ring, followed by the second and the eleventh, the third and the tenth, and similar pairings.

Not only are the respective rings related by the subject matter, but they also usually reveal a deeper similarity. The first canto, for example, starts with the whole world caught in the snowstorm, only to narrow down to specific individuals at a specific place. The twelfth canto, on the other hand, starts with specific individuals in a specific place and then widens to a much more universal world, that of Jesus Christ and his meaning in the revolution and for all humankind. Furthermore, antitheses are built into both cantos—black night and white snow in the first and the position of behind (mangy cur) and ahead (the apparition of Christ) in the last canto. Similar parallels can be found in other respective rings, with the inner ring, cantos 6 and 7, highlighting the most dramatic happening in the poem, the killing of Katya.

The Poem

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On a cold, snowy night, twelve revolutionaries march together down a Petrograd street at the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. A blizzard is blowing at full strength, but it does not slow their advance. As the revolutionaries march in the middle of the street, several bystanders on sidewalks look on with fear and incomprehension etched on their faces. An old woman trembles, afraid of the marchers; she declares that the Bolsheviks will be the death of her and people like her. Looking at the revolutionaries’ poster made of canvas, which declares “All the Power to the Constituent Assembly,” she complains about waste, noting that all that material could have been used to supply children with foot-clouts. Also watching the marchers are a bourgeois, standing alone with his face buried in the collar of his coat, and a long-haired writer, who curses at the traitors and laments that Russia is dead. A fat “comrade priest” comes slinking through the snow in a black and bulky cassock, with a pendant cross on his belly. A woman wrapped in a Persian fur, confiding to a companion that she has cried and cried, falls flat on her back on the slippery ice. A group of prostitutes at the scene, plying their trade, also look at the canvas poster and declare that they, too, have an assembly that debates how much to charge for their services. All these onlookers are horrified by the uncertainty of the future and by the ferocious looks and behavior of the marching revolutionaries.

The revolutionaries pay little attention to them, however, marching on inexorably, shouting revolutionary slogans, shooting off their guns, singing rowdy revolutionary songs, killing and burning whatever stands in their way, and striking fear into bystanders. Some of them are clad in prison garb. Vanka, a member of the revolutionary group, has run off with Katya, a girlfriend of another revolutionary, Petrukha. In the distance Vanka can still be seen frolicking and dancing with Katya, a woman with a shady past. A shot is heard, and all see Petka shooting at Vanka in a fit of jealousy. He hits Katya instead, killing her, which throws him into inconsolable despair. His comrades try to comfort him, but they also chide him, saying that the times are too serious for little personal matters like that. Petka finds little consolation in their comradely admonition; he tries to explain plaintively to anyone who will listen how good Katya was and how much he loved her.

As the Bolsheviks march on, they suddenly see an apparition in the distance. At first they think it is only a mangy mongrel and they shoot at it, but as they peer into the darkness they see someone with a garland of white roses on his head, waving a red flag. They finally realize that it is Jesus Christ. Immune to their bullets, he seems to take over leadership of the revolutionaries as they continue to march into the snowy night.

Places Discussed

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*Petrograd

*Petrograd. Russian city in which the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 started, when the city was known as St. Petersburg. Blok places the action of his ballad in the streets of the city during a blizzard at night. Twelve revolutionaries march through the almost deserted streets, chanting and yelling revolutionary slogans. They are rowdies, mistreating the bystanders, robbing and burning homes. Blok emphasizes their proletarian background by having them wear convict attire. They are looked upon with fear, suspicion, and hatred by their traditional enemies on the sidewalks—an old lady, a bourgeois, a writer, a priest, and two fur-coated ladies—all representing the old world that is crumbling in that winter night. The observers stand, as if nailed to the ground, while the revolutionaries move ahead, signaling progress.

The poem reaches a climax by having an apparition of Jesus Christ appear in front of the twelve. Blok himself was not sure why Christ appears. Is he leading or confronting them? If he is leading them, why is he facing them and why are they shooting at him? Despite many rejections of this symbol on the part of the critics and readers and despite Blok’s own misgivings, there is no question that, by using clear symbols such as the number twelve (perhaps representing Christ’s twelve Apostles), Blok wanted to express his acceptance of the revolution as necessary, hoping that it would bring about badly needed reforms. He would soon change his mind just before he died in 1921, but The Twelve remains artistically the best-known literary work about the Bolshevik Revolution.

Bibliography

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Hackel, Sergei. The Poet and the Revolution: Aleksandr Blok’s “The Twelve.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. One of the best analyses of the content and the form of Blok’s The Twelve.

Kisch, Cecil H. Alexander Blok, Prophet of Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1960. A study of Blok’s life and work, illustrated by translations from his poems and his writings.

Mochulskii, Konstantin. Aleksandr Blok. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983. A perceptive study of Aleksandr Blok by an émigré critic of spiritual orientation, with an emphasis on Blok’s relationship to the revolution.

Pyman, Avril. The Life of Aleksandr Blok. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979-1980. The most exhaustive treatment of Aleksandr Blok as a man and a writer, by a leading former Russian scholar of Russian literature. The Twelve is discussed from page 274 to page 305.

Vickery, Walter, ed. Aleksandr Blok Centennial Conference. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1984. A collection of twenty-one articles about various aspects of Blok’s life and works. Of special interest is “The Polyphonic Structure of Blok’s Dvenadtsat.”

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