The Poet from the Black List

By Melnikova, Lidia | Russian Life, September 2000 | Go to article overview

The Poet from the Black List


Melnikova, Lidia, Russian Life


Poet Sasha Chyorny (1880-1932) has never been on the list of "must-read" authors for Russian students. Nor does he belong to any well-established movement of poets. But his art left too noticeable a trace in Russian poetry for us to ignore the 120th anniversary of his birth (October 1).

In fact, Chyorny ("Black") was even loved by the "leading light" of Soviet poetry, Vladimir Mayakovsky. The latter reportedly adored Chyorny and knew many of his verses by heart. Of course, in the official rankings of Russian poets, Chyorny would not likely make it into the top ten. He does not have the philosophical or historical genius of Pushkin, who could encapsulate an epoch in a stanza. Compare Pushkin's famous lines about Peter the Great, who "raised Russia ... with an iron hand" and the line dedicated to St. Petersburg: "I love you, Peter's creation", with how Chyorny, worn down by the city's nasty weather, "praises" Tsar Peter:

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Peter the Great, Peter the Great

Why, the hell, were you driven to the crazy North?

It's all your fault, more than anyone's

Cold, slush, rain and darkness

Makes one want to jump out of the window

And hit the pavement with one's wild head

An eight-month winter, cloudberries instead of dates

Indeed, Chyorny writes about the Northern capital in a more down to earth, less bombastic style. But when Chyorny is at his scintillating best, his verses can be bright and refreshing, like a glass of fruity wine savored on a hot afternoon in the South of France.

Perhaps this is because Chyorny has Southern roots. He was born on the Black Sea, in the port city of Odessa. Yet he spent his childhood and adolescence in Zhitomir (Ukraine). In 1905, he moved to the "Northern Palmira" -- St. Petersburg, where he began working on one of the best satirical journals of the time--Zritel (Spectator). But the journal did not last long, thanks to Chyorny's sharp satires on the Russian emperor and the Ministry of the Interior.

Later, Chyorny joined other satirical journals, and his pen was still targeted at the Russian government, and, later, Russia's petit bourgeois. In fact his satirical vignettes where he offers glimpses of the daily life of the obyvatel (petit bourgeois) -- eating, loving, cursing -- are some of his strongest.

I'm mad, so mad ... How to go on, my God?!

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Born to be a cashier in a quiet bathhouse

Or a sales agent in railroad ties

Semyon Bubnov, despite all expectations

Ended up in the editor's seat ...

In 1906 Chyorny fled the post-revolutionary crackdowns in St. Petersburg and ended up in Germany. He lived there for two years, producing the collection of verses Satires and Lyrics. (Satiry i Lirika). In 1908, he returned to Russia to become a staff writer on the new journal Satirikon (arguably the best and most famous satirical magazine of the era -- a Moscow theater is named after it to this day). Those were reactionary times. Prime Minister Pyotr Stolypin was carrying out liberal economic reforms with an iron hand. Chyorny's Satirikon verses, meanwhile, earned him nationwide fame.

By 1914, however, Chyorny had lost faith in the future and found himself on the brink of a deep spiritual and ideological crisis. In fact, he had anticipated this in an earlier poem, called "Into the Space" ("V prostranstvo"):

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In the literary annals

I am entered on the blacklist:

It could be said that I have talent

But I am a hopeless pessimist

Needless to say, Chyorny's pessimism was at odds with the enthusiasm of the Bolshevik era. Seeing no place for himself in Soviet Russia, he emigrated to Lithuania in 1920, then to Berlin and finally France, where he lived until his death in 1932 (he died of a heart attack helping to put out a fire in the village of Faviere). …

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