Serapion Sister: The Poetry of Elizaveta Polonskaja

Article excerpt

Leslie Dorfman Davis. Serapion Sister: The Poetry of Elizaveta Polonskaja. Studies in Russian Literature and Theory. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2001. 268 pp. Notes. Bibliography. Index. $85.00, cloth.

Davis has written an important book for those who study Soviet literature. Elizaveta Grigor'evna Polonskaia's (1890-1969) life demonstrates the powerful selfcensorship that drove many promising young writers to compromise with State power in order to survive and prosper. Although she envisioned herself as a poet throughout her life, she supported herself through translation and, thereby, avoided the persecution that befell many who were more outspoken.

The book begins with a short biography. Davis stresses the centrality of Polonskaia in the formation and ideas of the Serapion brothers. This group, comprised of many of the most important Russian writers of the 1920s, argued that freedom of expression should take precedence over ideological conformity. Polonskaia was an original member and one of the first of the group to publish during and after the Civil War. Although it is difficult to find evidence of her direct contributions, her presence and support was significant. The Serapions fell apart under increasing pressure from the Communist party in the late 1920s, but Davis argues that Polonskaia never strayed far from their original understanding of poetry and art.

However, it became much more difficult for her to publish poetry and she turned to translation, abandoning her medical career to become a full-time writer in 1931. Throughout the 1930s, she published little poetry and concentrated on journalism and translation under the pressures of Stalinist attacks on literature. By the 1950s, she briefly rose to be the head of the Translators Section of the Writers Union. …