The lives of too many of the major Russian poets of the twentieth century were tragic. One common cause of their tragedy was political, in that the Russian revolution of 1917 and the totalitarian order that it brought into power, put political demands on their poetry which interfered with the natural flow of their creative development.
This collection of essays concerns itself with twelve major Russian poets who were not willing - some earlier, some later - to let political ideology dictate their poetic work. In so doing, they left a significant mark on the history of twentieth-century Russian poetry.
The political impact of Soviet Russian totalitarianism on these poets forced them into internal or external exile which, more often than not, brought persecution, death or suicide in its wake, and homelessness, poverty and misery, coupled with a profound sense of isolation and loneliness. Though they belonged to the most important poetic modernist movements of their time - to symbolism, acmeism, futurism and imagism - they were, one and all, exemplary of Osip Mandelshtam’s definition of poetry as expressing each poet’s “consciousness of his or her own rightness”1 to follow their own individual creative paths.
They paid a heavy price for this sense of poetic rightness and its consequences in a merciless totalitarian world at home, or in other exclusive social environments abroad. Vladimir Mayakovsky, Segey Esenin and Marina Tsvetaeva committed suicide. Nikolay Gumilev died in front of a Bolshevik firing squad. Mandelshtam perished in a Soviet concentration camp. Alexander Blok, mentally and spiritually distraught, died, in his own words, from the lack of creative freedom. And though Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak survived Stalin’s reign of terror which ended with his death in 1953, they remained inner émigrés in their own country. Pasternak was literally hounded to death by the communist regime after being awarded the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his novel Doctor Zhivago. Akhmatova too, though she was honoured with the Taormina Prize for Poetry in Italy in 1964, and with an honorary degree from Oxford in 1965, just before her death in 1966,
1 Osip Mandelshtam, Sobranie sochineniy, edited by G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov (3 vols.;
Washington, 1967-71), II, 236. Further references to this edition will be given in the text as
Ma. The translations are mine.