The Poem

(Great Characters in Literature)


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, 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...

(The entire section is 539 words.)

The Poem

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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: 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

(Literary Essentials: Poets and Poetry)

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...

(The entire section is 806 words.)

The Poem

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)


*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.


(Great Characters in Literature)

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.”