J. B. Priestley, in his wonderful book Literature and Western Man (1960), had this to say about the 20th century:
The modern age shows us how helpless the individual is when he is at the mercy of his
unconscious drives and, at the same time, is beginning to lose individuality because he is in
the power of huge political and social collectives. It is an age of deepening inner despair and
of appalling catastrophes …232
The twelve Russian poets in this collection of essays proved to be no exception to this devastating experience. The totalitarian nightmare left its tragic mark on their lives whether they were inner émigrés living in Soviet Russia or exiles living abroad. For the inner émigrés the enemy was always the Soviet regime and the consequences for being out of tune with the political ideology of the day varied for each poet. Mayakovsky and Esenin committed suicide; Gumilev and Mandelshtam were killed; Blok stopped writing; Akhmatova and Pasternak were persecuted to the end of their days. And though the exiles lived in a freer world, the consequences of exile were equally tragic: Tsvetaeva and Poplavsky committed suicide; Khodasevich stopped writing; and Brodsky’s poetic inspiration was undermined and, possibly, Vyacheslav Ivanov’s as well.
Another major contributing cause to their creative dilemmas, whether they were in Russia or outside, was a profound sense of rootlessness and loneliness. In Soviet Russia they were not allowed to speak. In the West they could finally speak but, more often than not, they had communication difficulties with their Russian émigré audience for political reasons, and even when this was not the case, they were not immune to a haunting sense of linguistic and cultural disconnection. A more existential cause of their undoing in both East and West, and varying from individual to individual, was their living in abject poverty - Brodsky was more fortunate towards the end of his life - and under enormous emotional stress, and suffering from poor physical and emotional health.
Indeed, these poets, like other European writers and poets, lived the grotesque traumas of the 20th century. In his fascinating study The Grotesque in Art and Literature (1957), Wolfgang Kayser observed that the grotesque tended to appear during times of turmoil and upheaval when reality was
232 J. B. Priestley, Literature and Western Man (New York, 1960), p. 443.