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No Time for Poets.

Mikhail Kuzmin: A Life in Art

By John E. Malmstad and Nikolay Bogomolov

Harvard University Press 512 pages, $52.

AMID the turmoil and carnage that followed the Russian Revolution, a young gay poet called Leonid Kannegiser had a lover who was an army officer. With the Bolsheviks controlling Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, the center of Russia's lively literary scene), many perceived that "enemies of the revolution" were being targeted for elimination, and one night Kannegiser's soldier-lover was taken out and shot.

Kannegiser avenged his lover's death by assassinating Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd secret police and a leading Bolshevik. The poet was tracked down, tortured, and killed, and everyone listed in his address book was seized and imprisoned. Among those herded into the cells was the Lithuanian-born Yuri Yurkun, a good-looking young bisexual poet sometimes known as Dorian. For several months, while Yurkun wondered in his cell whether he would meet the same fate as his friend Kannegiser, his mother and his lover agonized together over his fate. Eventually, literary friends with some influence in high places were able to get him released (a power they would not have for long).

Yurkun's lover was Mikhail Kuzmin, a small, dark man with large, expressive eyes and long lashes, well-known in the salons and cabarets for performing his poems and songs on the piano: a Russian version of Noel Coward, John Betjeman, or Eric Bentley. Kuzmin's account of his enormous relief the night Yurkun was finally released into his arms is one of many riveting passages in this engrossing new study of one of Russia's greatest poets.

Kuzmin the campy cabaret performer was also Kuzmin the poet, novelist, dramatist, and composer, one of the greatest talents of Russia's "Silver Age," that protracted flowering of the arts that was brutally crushed by the regime of Lenin and Stalin. During this extraordinary time, from the end of the 19th century into the 1920's, all sorts of new ideas and attitudes were in the air, including a new acceptance of homosexuality among many of Russia's intelligentsia. The authors of this first full biography of Kuzmin show that it was he who did the most to bring this subject into the open and "give it a modernist cachet."

A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Kuzmin had begun as a pianist and composer. (One would like to hear his "March of the Monkeys"!) But his talents could not be contained in one medium: he wrote plays, several books of poems, a novel about Cagliostro, translations of many foreign writers (including Shakespeare and Apuleius), a study of the great Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, and the controversial novel Wings, the story of a young gay man who tries to steer a course between hedonism and asceticism, and to soar into a free, fulfilling life.

Kuzmin's lighter verses came as welcome relief from the plodding seriousness of much of the Russian literature of the previous era; he included chronicles of life's minutiae in his poems, rather like Frank O'Hara half a century later. Fellow poet Vladimir Mayakovsky found his conflation of the miraculous and the everyday "revolutionary." Kuzmin also wrote the preface to Anna Akhmatova's first book, Evening, and was an early champion of Pasternak, who dedicated one of his best stories to him.

As a young man, Kuzmin was part of cultural impresario Sergei Diaghilev's glittering "World of Art" group. Later, in Soviet times, he worked with the famed director Meyerhold. His formally precise poems frequently have gay themes that fuse the erotic and the spiritual. He was open about his homosexuality and seems to have had few qualms about it: "Has not the Lord created all this--the water and the trees and the body?" he wrote. "The sin lies in resisting the Lord's will. ... When someone is marked out for something and longs for it with all his might and it isn't permitted, now there's sin for you!" Kuzmin was fascinated by the figure of Antinous, favorite of the Roman Emperor Hadrian, who used a wax impression of Antinous's profile to seal his letters. His many interests included Rosicrucianism and other esoteric writings, and he had close family ties to the Christian religious group known as the Old Believers. He was never well-off and was often poor. For a few years he was able to maintain a collection of fancy waistcoats and "reeked like a scented icon"; later he often had to pawn belongings and books, unable at one point even to answer a lover's letters because he couldn't afford stamps. During the Soviet regime, Kuzmin, Yuri Yurkun, and Yurkun's mother lived in part of a communal flat: Kuzmin's crowded room was used as a corridor by the other tenants.

It was in 1913 that the 41-year-old Kuzmin met Yurkun, then in his teens, who would become his lifelong partner. The book includes two photos of the couple taken at different periods. Before meeting the young poet he seems to have had a varied love life--affairs, crushes on young straight men, visits to the bathhouses (unfortunately, these visits are not described), and "sexual encounters with the typical male pin-ups" of the day, including guardsmen and coachmen.

Love and companionship were central to Kuzmin's world view. His ideal was to travel through Italy with a lover who shared his artistic interests, going to concerts and driving around the countryside, "laughing like children, bathing in beauty." In an era when the most popular actor in Petersburg kept "a veritable male harem at his apartment," Kuzmin was initially among those who hoped the Bolshevik coup of 1917 would liberalize Russian society. His hopes were soon dashed, and he quickly came to despise the Bolsheviks, prophesying that their "vile" example would "serve others as a kind of emetic."

Under Communism, Kuzmin was able to publish less and less. He was restricted to minor operetta reviews--and then condemned for the decline of his talent (a ploy not restricted to the Communists). This state of affairs lasted for about ten years. Contacts with the outside world diminished, though he was able to meet the great German sexologist and advocate of homosexual rights Magnus Hirschfeld, whom he found pompous and politically naive.

Kuzmin's last public reading and the "last public demonstration" of the homosexuals of Petrograd (now renamed Leningrad) came in 1928, and the authors provide a too brief description of this surprising event. After that came the excommunication of Bukharin, the exile of Trotsky, and the "great purges" of the late 30's, in which millions were executed or sent to Siberian concentration camps. As Stalin tightened the screws further, surveillance and harassment by the secret police increased, manuscripts were confiscated, and Yurkun was detained again, threatened, and intimidated. In 1934, homosexuality was recriminalized, and a wave of arrests and suicides followed. Maxim Gorky, leading the charge in an article published simultaneously in Pravda and Izvestia, barked, "Destroy homosexuality and fascism will disappear!" (At the same time, the Nazis were attacking gays as "sexual Bolsheviks.")

Two years later, Kuzmin, ill with heart disease and pneumonia, was hospitalized and placed in a draughty corridor to die. Had he survived, he would certainly have been arrested soon afterwards when Yuri Yurkun and many literary acquaintances were rounded up, accused of planning to assassinate Stalin, tortured, and shot. By the end of the 30's, Mayakovsky, Esenin, Mandelstam, Klyuev, Pilnyak and a host of other writers had committed suicide or been killed in the Gulag. It is estimated that over 1,500 important writers lost their lives; many others were silenced or forbidden to publish.

The cross over Kuzmin's grave was used for firewood during the grim wartime siege of Leningrad. It was replaced with a simple headstone which remains there today. "The writer's existence," he had once written, "is wretched, carefree, and sacred. ... Whom Love has once welcomed will not die an orphan."

Fortunately, most of Kuzmin's diaries have survived, and their account forms the backbone of Malmstad and Bogomolov's fascinating book, which makes good use of newly available material and offers tantalizing glimpses into Russian artistic and gaybisexual life in the early 20th century. Since the Glasnost era, official Russian archives have begun to open (though much remains inaccessible). Details of the lives, works, and deaths of numerous writers are now being unearthed, including some enormously important finds like the text, long thought irretrievably lost, of the 4,000-line masterwork The Song of the Great Mother, by another major poet, also gay: Nikolay Klyuev.

Some readers will regret that Kuzmin's works, so little known in the West, are not more fully described in this book. Nor are any of his book covers depicted. Such colorful characters as the novelist Andrey Bely are introduced on the assumption that the reader already knows about them. Mikhail Kuzmin could have used a glossary of dramatis personae like the one in Nadezhda Mandelstam's classic memoir of the nightmare years, Hope Against Hope. A selective list of Kuzinin's writings, especially those available in English, would also have been useful. (A translation of Wings was published by Ardis in 1972, and Kevin Moss's 1997 Gay Sunshine anthology Out of the Blue includes 58 pages by and about Kuzmin.)

For its research alone, Mikhail Kuzmin is an impressive achievement. It deserves to stand beside Roberta Reeder's Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet as an essential English biography of a major Russian writer.

Ian Young is the author of The Stonewall Experiment: A Gay Psychohistory (Cassell Books, 1995).
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Title Annotation:Review; Mikhail Kuzmin: A Life in Art
Author:YOUNG, IAN
Publication:The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 1, 2001
Words:1571
Previous Article:No Shield for the Endangered.
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