Pride and Poetry - Joseph Brodsky

Joseph Brodsky caught the attention of the outside world for the first time in 1964, when he was tried in Leningrad for the crime of writing poetry. That is not how the indictment read, of course: his “crime” was that he did not have a regular job, and was therefore a “parasite.” But a scurrilous article attacking Brodsky in the Evening Leningrad newspaper not long before his trial gave the game away. He was charged with being a “literary drone,” a writer of pointless doggerel, and therefore useless to society unless he was made to do “real” work. The newspaper attack and the subsequent trial were badges of honor for someone as young as Brodsky. He was only twenty-four and virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of his admirers, and campaigns of this sort were ordinarily reserved for famous older figures, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.

Brodsky was in fact the victim of political events far beyond his control. Khrushchev’s “Thaw” experiment of 1956–1962, designed, among other things, to do away with such embarrassments as show trials, had badly backfired in 1962 with the sensational success of Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which scared the living daylights out of the Soviet leaders. They needed scapegoats, and so they launched a crackdown on all branches of the arts, especially literature—always a bellwether in Russia—looking for young and vulnerable writers less able to fight back than their elders.

So it was that in March 1964, the young Brodsky found himself alone in the dock in a large hall in Leningrad, facing a hostile judge and twice as many witnesses for the prosecution (none of whom knew him personally) as for the defense, and charged with not having a regular job. It was a setup, of course. A large placard outside the hall set the tone: “Parasite Brodsky on Trial.” The prosecutor made no bones about what the verdict would be. Brodsky’s defenders were “crooks, parasites, lice, bugs,” and Brodsky “a parasite, a lout, a crook, an ideologically corrupt human being.” After five hours of insulting innuendo and hostile questioning, much of it by the judge, Brodsky was informed of his pre-determined sentence, which was five years of exile from Leningrad, with compulsory physical labor.

The palpable injustice of this vindictive show trial aroused the ire of the liberal wing of the Russian literary community. They concluded that literature itself, and especially poetry, was on trial, and that the verdict set a dangerous example. Brodsky became “a symbol, an archetype—the Poet misunderstood and vilified by an ignorant rabble,” as the late Lev Loseff puts it in his illuminating but uneven biography (which has been admirably translated by Jane Ann Miller). Brodsky’s case was taken up by two older writers, Lydia Chukovskaya and Frida Vigdorova, who understood perfectly the threat to all writers posed by the trial. They enlisted a galaxy of cultural celebrities in support of the young poet, and Vigdorova circulated her unofficial transcript of the trial in samizdat (a new phenomenon in those days), which quickly found its way abroad and was published there. John Berryman, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender were among those galvanized by the trial to protest the persecution of a fellow poet, and instead of fading into oblivion the little known Brodsky became a minor celebrity.

Joseph Brodsky caught the attention of the outside world for the first time in 1964, when he was tried in Leningrad for the crime of writing poetry. That is not how the indictment read, of course: his “crime” was that he did not have a regular job, and was therefore a “parasite.” But a scurrilous article attacking Brodsky in the Evening Leningrad newspaper not long before his trial gave the game away. He was charged with being a “literary drone,” a writer of pointless doggerel, and therefore useless to society unless he was made to do “real” work. The newspaper attack and the subsequent trial were badges of honor for someone as young as Brodsky. He was only twenty-four and virtually unknown outside the narrow circle of his admirers, and campaigns of this sort were ordinarily reserved for famous older figures, such as Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova.

Brodsky was in fact the victim of political events far beyond his control. Khrushchev’s “Thaw” experiment of 1956–1962, designed, among other things, to do away with such embarrassments as show trials, had badly backfired in 1962 with the sensational success of Solzhenitsyn’s short gulag novel, A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, which scared the living daylights out of the Soviet leaders. They needed scapegoats, and so they launched a crackdown on all branches of the arts, especially literature—always a bellwether in Russia—looking for young and vulnerable writers less able to fight back than their elders.

So it was that in March 1964, the young Brodsky found himself alone in the dock in a large hall in Leningrad, facing a hostile judge and twice as many witnesses for the prosecution (none of whom knew him personally) as for the defense, and charged with not having a regular job. It was a setup, of course. A large placard outside the hall set the tone: “Parasite Brodsky on Trial.” The prosecutor made no bones about what the verdict would be. Brodsky’s defenders were “crooks, parasites, lice, bugs,” and Brodsky “a parasite, a lout, a crook, an ideologically corrupt human being.” After five hours of insulting innuendo and hostile questioning, much of it by the judge, Brodsky was informed of his pre-determined sentence, which was five years of exile from Leningrad, with compulsory physical labor.

The palpable injustice of this vindictive show trial aroused the ire of the liberal wing of the Russian literary community. They concluded that literature itself, and especially poetry, was on trial, and that the verdict set a dangerous example. Brodsky became “a symbol, an archetype—the Poet misunderstood and vilified by an ignorant rabble,” as the late Lev Loseff puts it in his illuminating but uneven biography (which has been admirably translated by Jane Ann Miller). Brodsky’s case was taken up by two older writers, Lydia Chukovskaya and Frida Vigdorova, who understood perfectly the threat to all writers posed by the trial. They enlisted a galaxy of cultural celebrities in support of the young poet, and Vigdorova circulated her unofficial transcript of the trial in samizdat (a new phenomenon in those days), which quickly found its way abroad and was published there. John Berryman, W.H. Auden, and Stephen Spender were among those galvanized by the trial to protest the persecution of a fellow poet, and instead of fading into oblivion the little known Brodsky became a minor celebrity.

VIGDOROVA’S TRANSCRIPT was a work of art in itself—a two-act drama full of tension and conflict, which revealed the reviled young poet, with his back to the wall, as a genuine (if involuntary) hero. The first act consisted of a preliminary hearing, after which the trial was halted for Brodsky to be sent to a prison psychiatric hospital for mental evaluation. (This was in the days before the Soviet authorities started regularly committing dissidents to psychiatric hospitals instead of putting them on trial—a rehearsal, perhaps.) Brodsky was there for only a few weeks, and the “barbaric treatment” he suffered there did not break him. Quite the contrary, as the transcript showed:

Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Poet. Poet and translator.
Judge: Who said you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
Brodsky: No one. (Nonconfrontational.) Who assigned me to the human race?

Such exchanges were numerous and continued throughout his interrogation, which went on for several hours. “What struck me,” wrote a sympathetic observer, “was that this young man, whom I finally had a chance to see and observe at close range, in circumstances both cruel and unusual for him, radiated a sort of peaceful detachment—Judge Savelyeva couldn’t hurt him, couldn’t goad him into blowing up; he wasn’t frightened by her shrieking at his every other word.” Brodsky’s behavior in the Soviet Union in 1964 was astonishing, a sign both of the changing times and of his extraordinary courage. He did not cave or confess or plead for forgiveness, nor did he make a stirring political speech. He had not publicly opposed the Soviet system or its censorship (even though he had suffered from it), and he had no political message to communicate. He appeared to float above and beyond the realm of politics and ideology. He stated calmly (and prophetically, as it turned out): “I’m no parasite. I’m a poet, who will bring honor and glory to his country.”

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