Russia's proud poetic heritage is revived brilliantly in English in this new anthology from Penguin Classics, which has been edited and translated by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk and Irina Mashinski.
Russian poetry had its so-called 'golden' (nineteenth century) and later 'silver' age (early-to-mid twentieth century), the latter marked by a brave defiance of censorship and repression by poets whose work is valued to this day. Some paid the ultimate price.
But the lives of the best-known poets in the 'golden' age also ended tragically, even if literature may have little to do with it. In 1837, a year after the publication of his much-celebrated verse novel, Eugene Onegin, Alexander Pushkin was killed in a duel.
His fellow poet, Mikhail Lermontov was killed in a duel in 1841, one year after publication of his classic novel, A Hero Of Our Time. Moving forward to the 'silver' age, in 1930, the poet Vladimir Mayakovsky committed suicide.
In 1946, Anna Akhamatova and Mikhail Zoschenko were expelled from the Writers Union. In 1958, Boris Pasternak declined the Nobel Prize for Literature under pressure from the Soviet authorities.
In 1987, Joseph Brodsky - a long-time friend of the late Seamus Heaney - won the Nobel Prize. He accepted it, on this occasion, despite appalling treatment at the hands of the Soviet authorities. In June 1972, he was forcibly put on board a plane to Vienna, from where he later emigrated to the United States. In 1991 Brodksy was appointed US Poet Laureate, three years after he had been guest at the International Writers Conference in Dun Laoghaire in 1988. He died of a heart attack, aged 55, in January 1996.
The first two of the four poems included here by Brodksy are inspired by his lover Maria Basmanova. He addresses his son by Maria, from whom he was separated by exile, in the third of the poems, Odysseus To Telemachus:
Grow up, then, my Telemachus, grow strong./Only the gods know if we will see each other again.
Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) is afforded generous space in this 572-page collection. Mandelstam’s story is one of constant defiance and attendant persecution throughout the 1930s. He made no secret of his contempt and hatred for Josef Stalin. He called Stalin ‘the Kremlin mountaineer’ in one of his poems, comparing the tufts of his moustaches to `cockroaches.’
His 1933 epigram about the Russian dictator was read at small gatherings in Moscow. “Executions are what he likes best./ Broad are the highlander’s chest, “ goes the concluding couplet, in Alexandra Berlina’s translation.
Six months after its first readings, Mandelstam was arrested. He could have been shot, but was sent to the Urals instead, because Stalin was interested in Mandelstam's case and aware of his standing and influence in the literary community. After the poet attempted suicide, his sentence was changed to banishment from the main cities of Russia. He and Nadezhda settled in the city of Voronezh in Easter Russia and the poet died in a transit camp near Vladivostock in December 1937.
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