Printer Friendly

24 May 1996 in St. Petersburg, Russia: the perceived significance of Joseph Brodsky's legacy.

The Russian-born poet and Nobel laureate Joseph Brodsky died on 28 January 1996 in New York. May 24th would have been his fifty-sixth birthday. In his native city of St. Petersburg, Russia, a series of events took place this past summer to mark that anniversary. Some were designed to praise the poet, others to lambaste him; both were inspired by Brodsky's emerging status as the greatest Russian poet since World War II. A brief discussion of these events in St. Petersburg will serve as a useful example of exactly how such status is being negotiated publicly in a country where any assessment of Brodsky's corpus until very recently was necessarily private or clandestine.

The above assessment of Brodsky's standing within our century's canon was made a few months ago by the (then) mayor of St. Petersburg, Anatoli Sobchak, outside the poet's childhood residence, 24 Liteinyi Prospekt. This building was already conspicuous as the home of two poets - Zinaida Gippius and Dmitri Merezhkovsky - from the turn of the century. Decades later, in fact at 2 P.M. on 24 May 1996, a massive slab of granite bearing Brodsky's name was unveiled on the side of the house; the wall has already cracked a little from the weight. An inscription reads: "In this house from 1955 to 1972 lived the poet Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodskii." Accompanied by the flash of cameras, this brief text was revealed to a crowd of perhaps 150 onlookers, enough people to spill onto the road and require traffic police to guide cars and trolley buses around a human kink in the otherwise perfectly straight Prospekt.

On this uncomfortably hot afternoon, Anatoli Sobchak stepped forth with a brief word of gratitude to the crowd, a few personal memories, and the request for a moment's silence. (One's thoughts during such a lull in the proceedings were occupied by Sobchak's bold comparisons of the deceased poet with Nabokov, Tolstoy, and Dostoevsky.) Aleksandr Kushner, perhaps the nation's most recognized poet, also recalled prior times with Brodsky, in particular within this building, within the communal "room and a half" subsequently celebrated in the latter poet's 1986 collection of essays. Kushner's modest memories and Sobchak's dithyramb define two extremes, toward one or the other of which almost all Petersburgian tributes over the summer tended: either the unwieldy magnitude of the marble, burdened further by its very Roman bas-relief of Brodsky's silhouette, or the memories of childhood friends; either what he has become, posthumously, or what he used to be.

Sobchak's enthusiastic parallels were actually extended by the next speaker, Nina Popova, from the neighboring Anna Akhmatova Museum. She invoked Goncharov, Dostoevsky, and even Pushkin as those who now constitute suitable literary company for Brodsky. Popova noted with gratitude the speed with which his achievements had been recognized locally - five months after his death, rather than the fifty years needed to celebrate Pushkin in a similar manner. Such remarks help to institute Brodsky's precedence both quickly and decisively; a more cautious approach came from Yakov Gordin, another speaker at the unveiling and editor of the venerable Petersburg literary journal Zvezda (The Star). He remarked that the magnitude of the poet's achievement was not yet clear. It remains for us, said Gordin, to discover and define the nature of that "enormous wealth."

The poet's considerable distinction in Russia has provoked considerable variance in how Petersburg perceives this "wealth" on his first posthumous birthday, so to speak. One salient antipode to the eulogies on Liteinyi Prospekt has been the publication of a booklet by the academic Yuri Begunov in a (very) limited edition of 999 copies. The publication is, as its title suggests, "The Truth About the Trial of Joseph Brodsky," a thoroughgoing reassessment of the legal process of 1964 which led to the poet's rapid dismissal into external exile for a proscribed period of five years.

The introduction to Begunov's work, by Aleksandr Sushko, declares that the time has come to entertain the oft-neglected "opposing side" of the eclat surrounding Brodsky. Begunov's endeavors, Sushko informs us, are "a refreshing shower upon the excited heads of the poet's supporters" (ii). He is looking only for the truth; in beginning his refreshing pursuit of veracity, he assails an (admittedly excessive) eulogy of Brodsky as the "Shakespeare of Our Times." For the author of this booklet, greatness is synonymous with literary nationalism, a goal of which the poet falls very short.

Brodsky's verse is an act of clear poetic images, a passionate and energetic line, one that is musical and - at the same time - abrupt as a trumpet's call. Where here is the melodiousness and musicality of genuine Russian accentual verse? Where are the reminiscences of epic folklore, such as one finds in Tsvetaeva, or those of Ancient Rus, such as in Voloshin, even of the Baroque or Rococo? There is nothing of the kind. Or perhaps one hears in Brodsky's poetry. even a weak imitation of the great Pushkin? No, one does not. There is only a strong imitation of the work of the Anglo-American poet T. S. Eliot. . . . All this Oxford poetry is meant for chosen, refined intellectuals, who do not support what is natural in art. They dream about the priority of universal values over national ones. Here one can clearly discern the path to what is cosmopolitan and universal, to that which beats everything to death and suffocates the final shoots of what is one's own in Russia. (5)

Any accusations of cosmopolitanism are likely to recall Soviet anti-Semitic policies of prior decades, and indeed such attitudes color the main section of Begunov's work, a transcript of Brodsky's trial. He offers materials documenting both preparations for the trial and subsequent events in the courtroom. These records are presented in their entirety, but a question persists as to their authenticity. They used to be the property of a certain Yakov Lerner, who passed away in 1995. Begunov states that Lerner had a complete collection of all the pertinent legal papers, both originals and copies. The director Nikolai Yakimchuk, who recently made a documentary film about the trial, had previously reported that these papers were officially destroyed once the usual, stringently observed term of preservation had expired.

On 25 May 1996 the scholar Konstantin Azadovsky, writing in the St. Petersburg newspaper Nevskoe Vremia (The Neva Times), voiced suspicions concerning the genuineness of the documents. In his article Azadovsky hazarded the cruel supposition that since Lerner knew he would soon die, he wished quickly to justify all his prior, despicable behavior. (Lerner wrote an initial November 1963 complaint in the newspaper Evening Leningrad about Brodsky's supposedly subversive poetry. The article to a large degree occasioned the subsequent state interest in the poet's activity - and thus the trial, exile, and so forth.) Azadovsky, recalling Lerner's efforts, is amazed now to see included in the booklet materials supporting the latter's claim that in fact he tried constantly to ameliorate the convicted writer's lot!

Russia's extremely influential Literaturnaia Gazeta also cast aspersions on "The Truth About the Trial of Joseph Brodsky": "From the fact that Yuri Begunov is the author, one can tell exactly what kind of truth this is. He is scandalously well known for his scholarly expertise concerning the case against the nationalist-patriotic paper Our Fatherland, where he became a virtual apologist for . . . anti-Semitism" (Foniakov).

Anti-Semitism is the primary concern of the trial transcripts offered by Lerner. The version of the trial known to us for many years in the West is that of the late journalist Frida Vigdorova, which was recorded surreptitiously in the courtroom. Brodsky in Vigdorova's record says very little and remains rather aloof from the proceedings. Lerner and Begunov, on the other hand, claim we have been duped for years by a fraudulent transcript. They offer instead the true chronicle, in which Brodsky's behavior becomes, quite frankly, outrageous and his speech is replete with bitter accusations of anti-Semitism. The transcript ends in the following way, with the peremptory verdict of Judge Savelieva:

SAVELIEVA PRONOUNCES THE VERDICT: In accordance with the 4 May 1961 Decree of the Supreme Soviet of the Russian Soviet Federal Socialist Republic, and having carefully studied the documents pertaining to this case, having heard the witnesses both for and against Brodsky, this court decrees that J. Brodsky be sent from Leningrad to a place specially determined and with the necessary assignment of labor, for a term of five years.

CRIES: That's right! (Applause.)

SAVELIEVA: Citizen Brodsky, do you understand the court's decision?

BRODSKY: I understand everything. I never expected anything good from anti-Semites.

TOROPOVA (for the defense): Joseph, calm down! Control yourself and behave properly.


Are these documents genuine? Work in the government archives of St. Petersburg is required to either vindicate or inculpate Begunov, who meanwhile maintains that his "word of truth is an obstacle to falsehood" (36). As mentioned, he set up 999 such obstacles, but a much greater influence upon public opinion was effected in May 1996 by television. Local news broadcasts reported the unveiling of the plaque with seemliness, yet their constant proclivity to quote a few lines of a (constantly misinterpreted) early poem by Brodsky tended instead toward the maudlin. These lines speak of coming back to the city's Vasilevsky Island to die and were used by many commentators to bemoan Brodsky's absence from Russia (first enforced and then voluntary) since his exile in 1972. Again and again the poet stated his resolve not to return (cheerless though that decision was), yet many such as Mayor Sobchak maintained that the poet - sooner or later - would enjoy a triumphant homecoming.

The television news magazine "Zerkalo" (The Mirror) of 25 May 1996 provided some scenes from a prospective documentary. In the ramshackle, "specially determined" place to which Brodsky was exiled, there still live some elderly peasant women who remember him, and whose memories were broadcast to mawkish ends. One recalls "how happy, how happy" she and others were to learn of Brodsky's eventual emigration, how troubled they were by his battles with a weak heart (a lifelong ailment), and how glum they were on hearing of his death: "Oh . . . I cried, my head hurt. I said the Kingdom of Heaven unto you, Iosif."

Another television broadcast of the following day also subjugated literature to biography. A documentary entitled "Joseph Brodsky: A Little About Myself" was composed of three sections: a recent interview with the poet in New York, followed by responses of friends such as Yakov Gordin, Yevgeny Rein, and Vladimir Ufliand to that interview after a subsequent screening in Petersburg. The third and final section consisted of footage from a memorial evening after Brodsky's death, held at the Akhmatova Museum on Liteinyi Prospekt. The interviewer in New York confined her scrutiny to matters domestic: asking Brodsky to name those in photographs around his Morton Street apartment, an extended discussion of his 1972 day of exile, a surprisingly exhaustive description of Americans' passports, their freedom of movement, and the (minimal) paperwork involved!

Away from the limitations of a question-and-answer format, the Petersburgian discussions in this documentary were more discerning. Brodsky's acquaintances offer a few thoughts on the consistency of the poet's character, despite his travels. Such genuinely touching moments help to counteract the rather lachrymose leanings of the Russian media toward Brodsky as an entity lost twice over - through exile and death - and instead to focus upon the man's enduring and positive presence. In the closing moments of the program, Yakov Gordin - ever a voice of decorous moderation, it would seem - is shown at the memorial evening. Once again he evaluates Brodsky - contrary to most newspapers and television offerings - as a persisting presence. "The fact that Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodskii died . . . is, of course, a great sadness, . . . but the fact that he lived - that's a joy."

Gordin's words epitomize the basic competition over the significance of Joseph Brodsky. Extraliterary organs (of great influence) diminish or ignore the linguistic nature of his accomplishment - which, after all, is what matters. Brodsky's literary contemporaries, on the other hand, view the biographical in the light of the literary. These two approaches came together during the week of Brodsky's birthday, in the Petersburg supplement to the popular newspaper Argumenty i Fakty. This article reinforces a few cliches of exile and death by equating the former with undesirable isolation and the latter with an undesirably universal leveling. "Only Death Alone Gathers Us . . . ," reads the headline, followed both by the quote "He accepted all sufferings" and an introductory paragraph noting that 24 May 1996 would have been Brodsky's fifty-sixth birthday, were he still alive: "The subjunctive is not for a Poet; greatness equals Eternity. The absence of details gives birth to legends. That does not concern us. Brodsky was born in our city. He lived in it for thirty-two years. Here there are enough true friends, who preserve a multitude of details from his life."

Despite this disclaimer, the Petersburg media in May 1996 tended to draw grand conclusions from few details. To document numerous biographical details - as in Argumenty i Fakty - means that memoirs remain the enduring focus of interest, rather than poetry. Brodsky always objected to the interpretation of literature through biography, but it would appear - unfortunately - that a miscellany of stories and anniversary anecdotes will often be used to personalize (and publicize) the poet in otherwise verse-shy journals. The irony inherent in such miscellanies is that by turning to biography on 24 May 1996, in order to bolster (or occasion) the mythical magnitude of a poet, magazines give rise to a portrait so multifaceted, so diffracted through the memoirs of many, that what results is a picture of completely customary human behavior in its irreducible, variegated normalcy. By this I mean that the poet ends up as an utterly typical man, a quirky, unpredictable entity that is not particularly conducive to the "canonizing" intent of (local, in this case) broadcasts and magazines.

Thus, as happens in the memories and anecdotes of Argumenty i Fakty, the miscellany hardly lives up to the martyrological overtones of its heading. Talk of "courage" or suffering from the interviewees which might correspond to this heading falls more suitably under the rubric of self-assertiveness or self-definition rather than stoicism in the face of fate. Aleksandr Kushner makes the following observation: "Now people talk about him like a toy in the hands of fate. True, he was thrown out of his country, but all the same he was an unusually courageous person and always made decisions himself."

To make decisions oneself does not sound like a conventionally heroic trait; it is more of a natural claim for existential constancy, for normality in the face of unnatural regimes. This customary human condition is noted by Yakov Gordin, who describes not what the poet opposed, but what he endorsed or revered: "He loved everything that a normal person ought to love." If one lists scores of similar biographical details, none of them will be allowed the splendid isolation required to create a generalized myth. In the Literaturnaia Gazeta of the same week there is an extended overview of Brodsky's poetics by Boris Khazanov, who notes the constant intrusion of normal, everyday, or even obscene language into the poet's work. Khazanov, however, uses that common element to engender yet another myth, not of the magnitude required for inclusion in the literary establishment, but a sixties' version: an anti-establishment literary figure instead.

Brodsky grew up in the Russia of the twentieth century: in the lumpen Russia of camps and an unprecedented degradation of speech. He tried to rehabilitate this speech which was both debased and had debased itself. From time to time this patrician dons some soiled rags and sets off incognito into the housing blocks of the people, into the caves of the language. Just as Pushkin once used to walk in his red shirt among the peasants: "In the evening I hear folktales - and this compensates for the inadequacies of my damned education. What a joy these tales are!" Mon Dieu . . . what kind of tales will you hear near Norinskaya [the village of Brodsky's exile]? You can say the opposite, too: from time to time this thieves' cant dresses itself in the patrician's toga. . . . The black bubbles of the language fill the comers of this aristocrat-waif's mouth. Among them peacefully coexist almost all dialects of Russian poetry, the copper and bronze of the eighteenth century, the mannered refinement and elegant vulgarity of the twentieth.

Brodsky's own experience of the Russian language as a subjective, cosmogonical tool, as a creator of private existence, is here transformed into a tale of mythmaking, universal proportions. If, once again, we turn to Brodsky's close acquaintances, the private is stressed over the public, the mundanely subjective over the dramatically objective. Private memories are offered in increasing numbers, to the point where - thankfully - they mean very little when used as a tool to interpret poetry, because they are nothing unusual. Aleksandr Kushner's monologue on Brodsky in the Nevskoe Vremia of 25 May 1996 is a good example. The poet knows what death can do to the reputation of an innovative writer, especially in Russia: "When a poet dies, something changes in the attitude toward him, his scale alters. Such is the rule. But I must say that in the case of Brodsky it does not apply, because his scale was clear from the very beginning." Kushner, however, keeps that biographical scale small, utterly typical, irreducible to a generalization, and wholly literary in its relevance: "Brodsky did not belong to any church. He was not baptized, not a Christian, not a Judaist. He had his own relations with God, his own, just as every thinking person does. I think each of the poet's verses is a prayer. A person who writes verses has his own way of talking with God. And he is an individual. That's why the ceremonial aspect, the ecclesiastical, is somehow foreign. Pushkin, too, probably cannot be characterized as either a believing Christian or an atheist. Nothing fits; it's all incorrect."

Nothing fits in terms of simplified literary movements either. During a lengthy series of interviews I conducted in St. Petersburg and Moscow last summer with Brodsky's contemporaries (as part of a different project), the issue of simplified myths often arose. Kushner, for example, is loath to talk of any literary or artistic movements since the 1920s: "Beyond that point [in time], each artist, each poet is acting at his own risk. Each was a school unto himself." To subsume - or expand - the poet's innovation into a grander scheme is both uninformative and contrived.

Anatoli Naiman - poet, contemporary of Brodsky, and once the secretary of Anna Akhmatova - also thinks that such innovation cannot be easily schematized. "Somehow intuitively, we began to write with words." Soviet poetry was a collection of expressions, phrases, and aphorisms, and a new "word" was needed to create a new, subjective experience ab ovo. Each new word of Brodsky and of poets such as Naiman becomes "an end in itself. When you write in words, then you unavoidably enter into a profound contact with language." Andrei Ariev, coeditor at Zvezda, tempers this sense of cultural genesis by stressing the need for Brodsky, Naiman, Yevgeny Rein, and Dmitri Bobyshev (to name Brodsky's immediate circle) to enter into a dialogue with another, greater, and prior cultural force before realizing their own. He proffers the view that through their literal (social) contacts with the then-aging poet Akhmatova, these young men by the early 1960s "already calmly considered themselves the recipients or inheritors" of a tradition interrupted by five decades of Soviet rule and rule-bound esthetics: novelty needed tradition. Such a conclusion binds Brodsky to Akhmatova, herself wholly canonized and subjected to a large number of mythologizing practices. For those who knew the woman, however, contact - either social or written - with her was an entirely private and natural part of the creative process. The young men and women of the 1960s picked up where Akhmatova and Pasternak left off. "I don't think our generation was anything very new for Russian literature," holds the poet Vladimir Ufliand, a close friend of Brodsky. Gordin agrees, maintaining that even in the late 1950s, an entirely natural "meeting of the generations" took place: the young, novel poets maintained literary and social contacts both with those such as Akhmatova and with the recently rehabilitated writers and translators returning to St. Petersburg from labor camps.

If such meetings are a natural part of the dialogue between innovation and tradition, does that not suggest a certain process of repetition and cyclicality? "Yes, of course," says Kushner, who is inclined to interpret the esthetic oscillations of literary history in terms of complexity versus simplicity. Vladimir Ufliand also resorts to conventional terminology in order to explain his view of esthetic evolution in terms of its reception. Ufliand sees this evolution as the creation of "classic" literature from works which were "avant-garde" in their original intention: "It all gets repeated, it all gets repeated. Whether or not there had been any kind of Soviet power, some kind of change would have appeared."

Naiman is more specific, believing that generations of poets change once every ten years or so, though "the calendar of poetry does not coincide with the calendar of politics." So, the dialogic movement forward which Brodsky either forges or of which he is simply a figurehead is ultimately undergone by all (innovative!) writers in their relationship with tradition, yet this movement is not contingent upon the vagaries of politics. In other words, its significance is created in a dialogue not with the makers of policy but with the makers of poetry, most of whom have passed away. A poet is left talking at rather than with these deceased interlocutors; he enters into a dialogue with their language, with the medium of his own utterances. This reflexive process could not be more subjective and would certainly lessen the import of any simultaneous (extraneous) biographical events.

If this reflexivity is indeed undergone often, then what is the significance of Brodsky's influence as felt by the younger poets today, who find themselves in his position of the early 1960s vis-a-vis Akhmatova? Brodsky's friend, the art historian Era Korobova, thinks his influence is "huge," but that "maturity" will lead the new writers beyond the "inertia" or "echoing" which can result from working under the spell of a renowned and contemporary fellow countryman. Andrei Ariev agrees, but goes one step further: Brodsky's influence does indeed "already exist," to the point where more than half of today's talented poets begin under his influence. Yakov Gordin broadens the view yet again and thus, as with the moot significance of biography, "lessens" the pomp of literary history, even, to a quiet and private process of self-awareness grounded in both unexciting, customary behavior and literary custom. Current literature, he claims, is largely a response to decades of Soviet socialist realism, but the resulting extreme experimentalism is not yet grounded in actual, normal experience. It is almost abnormally, childishly extreme and born of "a fear in the face of life's seriousness," of a rasteriannost' (confusion or perplexity) in the face of life. Each young writer must mature on his own.

Perhaps now more than ever, a callow writer might feel such perplexity, given that two strong points of reference have vanished: the Soviet tradition (to reject) and Brodsky (to embrace). How might one define this post-Brodskian, post-Soviet blank slate? At a roundtable of Petersburgian writers on 4 June 1996 in the city's university I posed just such a question, asking how Brodsky's influence was felt. I was promptly (curtly, even) informed by the prosaist Valeri Popov that with Brodsky and Kushner, the "classical" strain of Russian poetry and its influence had ended. Kushner himself suggested instead to me during a private conversation that in Russia the death of a great writer only makes him "greater." The poet was here developing a thought to which I have already referred, that of his published monologue of 25 May, where he tells his Russian readers that the nation has "its own eternal way of relating to death, to the death of a poet, with some kind of hysteria. I'm afraid that a new Vysotsky [a popular songwriter and poet of the 1970s] will be made of him. Brodsky has absolutely no need of that. His poems are beautiful because they are complicated, because they're not accessible to just anyone. And it's no good pretending that you can perform them to the guitar, that they'll be comprehensible that way. I want us to get by without vulgarity."

It sounds elitist (in fact it probably is), but Kushner's words are simply designed to stop a normal - and normally complex - man from being made (primarily by the media) into a simple or simply incorrect formula for mass comprehension and consumption. (One can certainly sympathize, though, with any post-Soviet suspicions about "social" esthetics.) There may be a current rush for memoirs and biographical material to satisfy that consumption, but, just as the poet always claimed, poetry is such a subjective and linguistic experience, that a poet's social and objective "real-life" experiences will tell you nothing about his craft. The people who know this insignificance of biography - ironically - must surely be those who constitute it (and are closest to Brodsky's verse): his acquaintances. The last word should not, therefore, be mine. Here instead is Yakov Gordin: "As for what's being written about Brodsky as a genius of isolation - I'm not sure that's true. There's a usual confusion here of literature and life. Iosif's internal life was fairly hard, and that's understandable in a person of such perspicacity and strength of thought. But people who knew him remember that he was a happy man, in distinction from most of his poems, and he joyfully accepted life. He loved everything that a normal person ought to love."

Dalhousie University


Azadovskii, K. "Sokhrani moiu ten' ...," Nevskoe Vremia, 25 May 1996, p. 4.

Begunov, Iu. K. Pravda o sude nad Iosifom Brodskim. St. Petersburg. Mezhdunarodnaia Slavianskaia Akademiia Nauk, seriia "Istoriia Rossii." 1996. P. 7.

Foniakov, I. "Vesti iz Sankt-Peterburga." Literaturnaia Gazeta, 12 June 1996, p. 5.

Khazanov, B. "S tochki zreniia voron." Literaturnaia Gazeta, 22 May 1996, p. 6.

Kushner, A. "Iosif I ego stikhotvoreniia." Nevskoe Vremia, 25 May 1996, p. 4.

"On prinimal vse stradaniia." Argumenty i Fakty (St. Petersburg), 21:144 (1996), p. 10. (Contains comments by A. Kushner, Ia. Gordin, A. Sobchak, F. Iskander, and Z. Tomashevskaia.)

Porotov, E. (dir.). "Iosif Brodskii: Nemnogo o sebe." Television broadcast, 26 May 1996, St. Petersburg, Channel 5.

Vol'tskaia, T. "On sdelal vse, chto mog ..." Nevskoe Vremia, 25 May 1996, p. 4.

"Zerkalo." Television broadcast, 25 May 1996, RTR.

DAVID MACFADYEN received his doctorate from UCLA in 1995 and is in his second year as Assistant Professor in the Russian Studies Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, N.S. Much of his recent time has been spent preparing a book on Joseph Brodksy's corpus for publication, the result of several years' work.
COPYRIGHT 1997 University of Oklahoma
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1997 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:MacFadyen, David
Publication:World Literature Today
Date:Jan 1, 1997
Previous Article:The demons of Carlos Rojas.
Next Article:No place I was meant to be: contemporary Japan in the short fiction of Haruki Murakami.

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters |