Nikolay Zabolotsky - Biography

Nikolay Alekseevich Zabolotsky, an outstanding Russian author of the Soviet era, was a poet, children’s writer and translator. He was a member of Leningrad’s last avant-garde group, OBERIU (the “Association of Real Art”). Today the books of this once forbidden and suppressed author are shelved among the literary classics.

Who were the Oberiuts? Born in the early years of the 20th century, they were practically children at the time of the 1917 October Revolution. They were the last representatives of Russian modernity; they transformed and completed the entire spectrum of that modernity from mystically disposed Symbolism to avant-garde leftist futurism.

Zabolotsky was born into a family that had only just risen above its peasant origins. His father was a local agricultural advisor and his mother had been a schoolteacher. He grew up in the village of Sernur (now in the Republic of Mari El) and the small town of Urzhum, in the rural province of Vyatka. By the age of seven, he had apparently chosen his future career. After a good but unremarkable education at school, he became an indigent student first of medicine in Moscow, and then of literature at the Herzen Educational Institute in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) during the stricken years following the Revolution. He was briefly tempted by academia, but his desire to become a professional writer prevailed.

Zabolotsky was arrested in 1938 and spent six and a half years in prison and two more in exile. He wrote of this experience in “The Story of My Imprisonment” (not published until 1988). Yet he survived and managed to re-establish himself as a writer.

His first book of poetry, “Columns,” was a series of grotesque vignettes on the life that Lenin's NEP (New Economic Policy) had created. It included the poem “Zodiac's Dimming Every Feature”, an absurdist lullaby that, 76 years later, in 2005, provided the words for a Russian pop hit. In 1937, Zabolotsky published his second book of poetry. With his “Second Book of Verse” he attempted, brilliantly but unsuccessfully, to reconcile his originality with the dictates of “Socialist Realism.” This collection showed the subject matter of Zabolotsky's work moving from social concerns to elegies and nature poetry and is notable for its inclusion of pantheistic themes.

Zabolotsky was a thoroughly professional man who saved his liveliness for his poetry. He also made his mark early with “Scrolls,” a collection of verse distinguished by its pictorial energy and inventive rhyming. A disciple of the painter Pavel Filonov, he transposed the maitre's colorful and grotesque visions into verbal landscapes of urban life, reflecting the tenets of the OBERIU, whose manifesto of 1928 Zabolotsky helped write, and whose key techniques were unexpected transitions, absurd coincidences and brevity of montage. Zabolotsky aimed to free the poetic word from the semantic freight of poetic tradition. Making poetic language strange was a way of rediscovering the world.

A philosophical strain emerged in a second collection that was banned at the last moment in 1932. Influenced by the fashionable utopian doctrines and evolutionary theories of Fedorov and Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, in the 1930s, Zabolotsky developed a complex Naturphilosophie in his long poems, most famously in “The Triumph of Agriculture” (1933) where the speakers, who are animals, articulate a belief in the union of man and environment.

Although not anti-Soviet, this work was hardly in tune with the usual hymns to Stalin's policy of collectivization. The penalty was a decade in the Gulag that left him a broken man. Following his release, he settled in Moscow, where he mainly worked as a translator. What remained of his creative spirit went into translating poetry from Old Russian and Georgian, including Rustaveli's epic poem “The Knight in the Panther's Skin” as well as more modern Georgian poets such as Vazha-Pshavela, Grigol Orbeliani and David Guramishvili. ...

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