“Night, street, lamp, drugstore” (1912)
Night, street, lamp, drugstore,
A dull and meaningless light.
Go on and live another quarter century –
Nothing will change. There’s no way out.
You’ll die – start from the beginning anew,
And all will repeat, just like before:
Night, icy ripples on a canal,
Drugstore, street, lamp.
Ночь, улица, фонарь, аптека,
Бессмысленный и тусклый свет.
Живи еще хоть четверть века –
Все будет так. Исхода нет.
Умрешь – начнешь опять сначала
И повторится все, как встарь:
Ночь, ледяная рябь канала,
Аптека, улица, фонарь.
Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok (Алексáндр Алексáндрович Блок, (1880 – 1922) was one of the most gifted lyrical poets produced by Russia after Alexander Pushkin. Alexander Blok was born to talented members of the gentry. His mother, A.A. Beketova, was a writer, and his father was a jurist, musician, and professor at Warsaw University. Blok studied law at St. Petersburg University, but then moved into philolgy. In 1903 he married the daughter of the famous chemist Mendeleev, joined the Symbolists circle of Bely and Solovyov, and published his first poems. Two years later he brought out his first collection, Verses on a Beautiful Lady, which was well received. Blok graduated in 1906, and a year later produced two collections: Inadvertent Joy and Land in Snow, promptly following these up with Free Thoughts, an oddly realistic blank verse collection. Plays, essays and poems appeared at regular intervals through to the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, with which Blok initially warmly sympathized. In 1921 he was elected head of Petrograd’s All-Russian Union of Poets, but a year later wrote To Pushkin House and On the Poet’s Calling. Blok’s health was now failing, possibly from venereal disease, and he died, disillusioned with the Revolution in 1922.
Blok’s first poems drew on Zhukovsky, Fet and the German romantics. But by his first collection, Verses on a Beautiful Lady, he had become a Symbolist, with his own mythology, exalting beauty, light and worship of the Divine and the eternal feminine, all vaguely connected to utopia and universal catastrophe. Passion and spiritual crisis became more marked in Inadvertent Joy and Land in Snow, and these were joined by gritty realism in Free Thoughts. Developing rapidly, Blok published Lyric Dramas in 1908, and staged The Unknown Woman. A year later found him in Italy, whence he travelled to Warsaw at his father’s death, a journey that inspired his verse epic Retribution. A year later he produced another collection, Nocturnal Hours. More plays appeared in 1913 and 1914, but in 1916 Blok was drafted and stationed near Pskov. Now a supporter of the Revolutionary Government, Blok wrote the essay Intelligentsia and Revolution and arguably his most important poem: The Twelve, a verse epic where the twelve Red Army soldiers represent the twelve apostles.
The poem describes the march of twelve Bolshevik soldiers through the streets of revolutionary Petrograd, with a fierce winter blizzard raging around them. The mood of the Twelve as conveyed by the poem oscillates from base and even sadistic aggression towards everything perceived bourgeois and counter-revolutionary, to strict discipline and sense of “revolutionary duty.”
In a violent clash with a vigilante deserter, a prostitute (who is accused of killing an officer) is killed by one of the Twelve (Peter), who appears unusually struck by the accident and later reveals to his comrades that he had been in love with the woman. However, after the others remind him that in these revolutionary times one’s personal tragedies are nothing, the murderer regains his determination and continues the march.
In the last stanza of the poem, most controversially, a figure of Christ is seen in the snowstorm, heading the march of the Twelve.
Blok also wrote The Scythians, which explored Slavophile issues and Russia’s mediating role between Europe and Asia. But Blok was now parting company with the Revolution, and his essays To Pushkin House and On the Poet’s Calling celebrate the secret freedom of art in the face of banality and officialdom. A year later Blok was dead, killed by disease, apathy and hunger rather than by purges that were to follow in the Stalinist period.
The spiritual father of Russian literature is Alexander Pushkin and from him derive the dream sequences of Gógol, Bély, Blok and Mandelstám. Also the belief that the writer must be the moral and political conscience of his age: Akhmátova, Pasternák, Solzhenítsyn, Yevtushenko. Blok’s great contributions were his expressiveness, melodiousness and play on multiple meanings in words. Reaction to Symbolist ‘vagueness’ came in Mikhail Kuzmin (1875-1936) who aimed at ‘a beautiful clarity’, and the acmeist school of Nikolaj Gumilev (1886-1921), Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Osip Mandelstam (1891-19238), who all stressed pictorial aspects that did not shy away from the cruelty, desolation and mediocrity of contemporary Soviet life. Mandelstam died in a concentration camp (probably) and Akhmatova’s masterpiece was denied publication while Stalin lived. Very different, but persecuted just the same, were futurists like Velimir Khlebnikov (1885-1922) and Vladimir Majakovstij (1894-1930), and urban futurists like Nikolaj Kljuev (1885-1937) and Sergej Esenin (1895-1925). One who did survive was Boris Pasternak (1890-1960) whose passionate lyrics remained true to the legacy of Fet and Rilke, but who is better known for his novel Dr. Zhivago.