1917 in their own words
A compelling anthology of Russian writing from 1917 illuminates a long-obscured cultural moment.
1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, an anthology of prose and poetry from in and around October 1917, selected, edited and, in large parts, newly translated by Boris Dralyuk, does something remarkable for an event seen all too readily in hindsight. As Dralyuk himself puts it, 1917 aims to capture the experience of the revolution among those for whom it was yet to be a fait accompli. We see that for some, it was a source of trepidation, to others, inspiration. But to all, it was unfolding, its destination uncertain.
1917 is remarkable for another reason, too: the bringing into the light of hitherto obscure figures and movements, poetic voices too long deemed by all sides to have been on the wrong side (of history). There is the fear, loathing and black-as-night humour of Nadezhda ‘Teffi’ (1872-1952), a literary celebrity of noble stock, long admired by Lenin. Not that his admiration stopped her from skewering him after seeing him speak at a meeting on the eve of October: ‘Medium height, greyish and absolutely ordinary. Something not quite right about his forehead, though. A very protuberant, stubborn and heavy forehead. Not an inspirational forehead, not a truth-seeking forehead or a creative forehead. A forehead that looked stuffed full… with the history of socialism.’ And in a more searching, less snide, piece, ‘The Guillotine’, which is dedicated, with intentional irony, to Trotsky, she tells an almost Kafkaesque tale of the bourgeoisie happily and fastiduously colluding in its own execution.
Then there is the resolute enthusiasm of Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936), an upper-class aesthete with a flair for the ménage à trois. His support for the Bolsheviks shines through in ‘Russian Revolution’ (written in late 1917):
‘This is no funeral – we’re building a new house.
Will there be space for all of us?
We’ll think of that later.
Remember the first dispatches from the Soviets,
the dizzying, “For all, for all, for all!”
It’s like telling a starving man, “Eat!”
And him replying, “I’m eating!” with a smile’
And then there is the ambivalent embrace of Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), who, in an untitled 1918 poem, from which the following verses are taken, evokes the effort and hardship of human freedom:
‘Let’s praise, O brothers, liberty’s dim light,
the great and sombre year!
A forest of thick snares is plunged
into the boiling waters of the night.
You are ascending into god-forsaken years,
O people — sun and judge…
‘Well then, let’s try it: an enormous, ponderous,
The Earth sails. Courage, men.
Cleaving the sea as with a plough
we shall recall, even in Lethe’s bitter cold,
that the Earth’s price was all ten spheres of paradise.’
To help us explore this rich, explosive cultural moment, the spiked review spoke to Dralyuk himself.
spiked review: Do you feel that many of these writers and poets – the big names like Mayakovsky or Pasternak excepted – have been unfairly neglected outside Russia? And perhaps even inside Russia, too? And, if so, why do you think this is?
Boris Dralyuk: You’re quite right: many of the authors in this anthology have been neglected. The reasons for this neglect are not too difficult to surmise. Writers who fled Soviet Russia out of hostility to Bolshevik rule – and, often enough, fear for their lives – preserved their freedom of expression, but at great cost. Literary stars like Teffi – a great humorist whose work had won the admiration of both Nicholas II and Lenin – found themselves writing almost exclusively for an isolated émigré audience. Paris became the capital of the Russian emigration, but many French intellectuals perceived members of the Russian colony as unfashionably conservative and retrograde; to their minds, the émigrés were, in Nabokov’s words, ‘hardly palpable people who imitated in foreign cities a dead civilisation, the remote, almost legendary, almost Sumerian mirages of St Petersburg and Moscow, 1900-1916’.
There was far more interest in translations of new Soviet works than in the melancholy scribbling of Russians who had split off from the march of history, consigning themselves to oblivion. I quoted Nabokov, who saved himself from oblivion by switching languages. Few of his fellow émigrés could manage that transition. They had to wait, on the one hand, for Soviet censorship to collapse, and, on the other, for translators to take up their causes. Teffi won back her Russian readers after 1991, and it is only in the past decade that Anglophone audiences were exposed to sparkling translations of her prose; Robert and Elizabeth Chandler, Rose France, Irina Steinberg, Anne Marie Jackson, and Clare Kitson have ushered in a proper Teffi renaissance in English, and I was grateful to feature two of this master’s pieces, in Rose France’s translation, in 1917. Anyone interested in the great variety of prose that Russians produced in emigration between the wars should pick up Bryan Karetnyk’s brilliant anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky, which was released by Penguin Classics earlier this year.
But it isn’t only émigré writers who have suffered from neglect. Ironically, some of the authors who were most enthusiastic about the October Revolution – the true believers – had been most thoroughly effaced from Russian literary history. I’m thinking of the poets associated with the Proletkult, or ‘proletarian culture’ movement, whose verse from the first years of Soviet rule radiates fiery conviction. In subsequent years, as Soviet economic and literary policy shifted, this conviction gave way to disillusionment. I include the work of three Proletkult poets in my anthology. The dates of their deaths – 1937, 1937 and 1941 – say a great deal. Mikhail Gerasimov and Vladimir Kirillov were both arrested and executed at the height of Stalin’s purges, and Alexey Kraysky died during the blockade of Leningrad. Their work was suppressed or simply forgotten for decades.
review: What is interesting about many of those approaching the revolution with hope and excitement (no matter how laced with ambiguity this was) is that, as you make clear in your introductions in 1917, they were often already involved in artistic revolutions, as part of avant gardes (the Acmeist group, the Scythians, and especially the Symbolists, etc). Many seem explicitly to desire the end of the old world, to dream of tossing Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and the other old masters ‘from the steamship of modernity’, as Mayakovsky had it, to ‘trample the past beneath our feet’, as Vladimir Kirillov put it in the incredible ‘We’. So, to what extent did the Russian Revolution appear, to many of those you feature, to be part of a broader cultural and aesthetic transformation? Did they almost project on to it possibilities they had hitherto only conceived in artistic form? Did they even see the revolution as the fulfillment of their artistic imaginings?
Dralyuk: The Russian literary milieu of 1890-1917 was vibrant to the point of explosiveness, undergoing one revolution after another. By 1910, the Symbolists, who were fractious and factious enough, had to contend with Acmeists and Futurists. These groups depicted themselves not only as superior to their competitors but as representative of the next – and perhaps the last – phase of literary development. There was an eschatological tenor to Russian literary debates, a search for the one true way.
In this, the Russian literary world mirrored the world of Russian politics. In fact, these worlds didn’t just mirror each other, they intersected. Most of the leading Futurists were Bolsheviks or at least sympathetic to the Bolshevik cause. After all, the two groups had a common enemy: the tasteless and exploitative bourgeoisie. And some of the visionary Symbolists, like Alexander Blok and Andrey Bely, who had grown disgusted with the dreary reality of late Imperial Russia, hoped that the October Revolution would cleanse their nation in a purifying fire. Other Symbolists, like Zinaida Gippius, hoped that the February Revolution would deliver the democracy of which generations of Russian revolutionaries had dreamt; in her view, the Bolshevik coup had betrayed that promise. I would say that many writers and artists of the period had been working toward a twinned revolution – toward a new mode of expression that might not only capture but actually bring forth a new mode of life. Some greeted the upheaval of 1917 as the arrival of that revolutionary moment, and some recoiled from it in terror.
review: It’s notable how tolerant of artistic freedom the Bolsheviks initially were, of how they allowed a great deal of autonomy in the arts. Trotsky’s criticism of Proletkult, and its demands, effectively, for a new cultural orthodoxy, stand out in this regard. Could you say a bit more about the Bolsheviks’ seeming tolerance, and even encouragement, of literary experimentation? Did they, as the political avant garde, find common ground with artistic avant gardes?
Dralyuk: It never ceases to amaze me that Trotsky had time to write his remarkably perceptive Literature and Revolution in 1924. He had clearly been keeping very close track of the cultural front – while leading the Red Army on the military front, among other things.
There was indeed a degree of cultural tolerance in the early years of Soviet rule. Lenin readily admitted that he had little interest in belles-lettres, while Anatoly Lunacharsky – the Commissar of Enlightenment – Trotsky, and Nikolay Bukharin were all sensitive readers, who recognised the importance of culture. Their attitude was, to put it very crudely, those who are not explicitly against us are with us. They resisted, for instance, the Proletkult’s attempts to assert total control over Soviet cultural production.
But that tolerance was not total. The unabashedly monarchist Nikolay Gumilyov, one of the great poets of his era, was executed in 1921. And not everyone in positions of power agreed on what was and was not allowed. A low-ranking official could ruin a writer’s career. The fates of ‘fellow travelers’ – Soviet authors who did not join the Communist Party – were precarious. Mikhail Bulgakov, for example, was a great success until the mid-1920s, but was essentially banned from publishing or staging his new plays after the end of that decade. The 1920s were indeed the ‘vegetarian years’ of Soviet rule, as Gumilyov’s one-time wife Anna Akhmatova put it; things would get worse when Stalin, himself a poet manqué, consolidated his rule and Socialist Realism became the order of the day.
review: Regarding Bolshevik tolerance, Mayakovsky makes for an interesting case. Even Stalin, as you remind us in 1917, called him ‘the best, most talented poet of our Soviet era’, so he was more than tolerated; he was celebrated. Yet Mayakovsky himself writes of how ill at ease he is in revolutionary Russia, a ‘tropical bird’ in wintery climes. And in the concluding stanza of ‘To Russia’ (1917), there’s a sense of foreboding: ‘Exotic, outlandish, / I might as well vanish / under the fury of all Decembers.’ So how would you characterise Mayakovsky’s relationship to the revolution? And to what extent was his poetry energised, or depleted, or perhaps even inhibited by Communist Russia?
Dralyuk: The poem you cite is one of my personal favourites, brilliantly translated by James Womack, whose Vladimir Mayakovsky & Other Poems (Carcanet, 2016) is, as far as I’m concerned, the best volume of Mayakovsky’s verse available in English. As I mention in the anthology, Mayakovsky wrote ‘To Russia’ directly after the October Revolution, but he later pre-dated the poem to 1915-16. This nonconformist’s lament, this tragicomic plea for the artist’s ultimate freedom did not suggest total confidence in Soviet power. By pushing the poem back into the tsarist period, Mayakovsky was actively crafting his image – an image of the poet aligned with the revolution, in step with the march of history. (The other poem he wrote in December 1917, which I also include in the anthology, is ‘Our March’; he felt no need to misdate that stirring lyric.)
Mayakovsky was programmatically unique in all respects, and that included his relationship to the revolution. After some hesitation, he embraced Soviet power and fought for the right to speak globally on its behalf. He won that right – which is not unsurprising. After all, the cause of Communism was being heralded by the consummate individualist – the author of Vladimir Mayakovsky: A Tragedy, the collection I, and the autobiography I, Myself. And, in fact, Mayakovsky never did join the Communist Party.
Soviet literature of the 1920s was liberal enough to contain this poet who contained multitudes (to quote Whitman, whom Mayakovsky admired). But by the end of the decade Mayakovsky found himself facing increasing pressure from the literary establishment and sharper criticism from the official press. His suicide in 1930 should not be blamed on the state; he was a troubled man. Still, it serves to keep in mind that Stalin canonised Mayakovsky as ‘the best, most talented poet of our Soviet era’ in 1935, when this ‘most talented poet’ was safely dead. It’s impossible to predict what would have happened had Mayakovsky survived into the mid-1930s, the years of the Great Terror. Would he have lived through those years?
review:To what extent did some of the anti-Bolshevik writers you feature – I’m thinking of Vasily Rozanov, for instance, or Teffi – experience the revolution as something they, as part of ‘the old world’, as members of hated bourgeoisie, had brought upon themselves?
Dralyuk: A religious mentality often carries with it a sense of guilt, the burden of sin. Rozanov certainly felt that the modern world had invited what he saw as the disaster of 1917. As he writes in The Apocalypse of Our Time, ‘There is no doubt that the profound cause of all that is happening now lies in the fact that in European (and not just Russian) society great voids have appeared where Christianity once was, and everything is falling into these voids: thrones, classes, ranks, labour, wealth.’ Teffi was far less abstract and spiritual in her appraisal; like most Russian liberals, she knew full well that the tsarist system was doomed – that it was as weak as it was cruel. The Russian Empire had been heading off a cliff.
Speaking of cliffs, one of Teffi’s strongest articles is ‘The Gadarene Swine’, titled after the ill-fated pigs into which Jesus cast the demons he had exorcised from a tormented man. The piece, now available in Rasputin and Other Ironies (Pushkin Press, 2016), was first published in Odessa in 1919, when Teffi was escaping the Bolsheviks. It concerns some of her fellow refugees: the vulgar anti-Semites and hypocrites whom she had despised before 1917 and whom she would continue to despise in emigration. ‘The crazed swine,’ she writes, ‘are escaping from Bolshevik truth, from socialist principles, from equality and justice, while the meek and frightened are escaping from untruth, from Bolshevism’s black reality, from terror, injustice and violence.’ It is this ability to see clearly in the midst of chaos that separates Teffi from many of the authors who witnessed the events of 1917 firsthand.
review: On the other side to Teffi, there are those who dream of a self-determining humanity – the realisation of ‘the great holiday of freed will’, in Dovid Bergelson’s cutting phrase. Again, ‘We’ captures it very well:
‘We love life, with its heady and exuberant delight.
Our spirit’s tempered by a battle fierce and raw.
We’re all and everywhere—the flame of victory, its light.
We’re our own Deity and Judge and Law.’
Yet at the same time, often in the same poet or writer, there’s a strongly religious element, too, a kind of recourse, at the last, to an external authority, above and beyond the people. I was wondering if you could say a bit more about this religious element? For instance, in Blok’s ‘The Twelve’ (which Trotsky called ‘the most significant work of our epoch’), the vengeful march of the revolutionary soldiers-cum-apostles, both revels in the reduction of ‘the old world’ to ‘a mongrel dog’ crouching behind a bourgeois, ‘nose buried in his collar’, while fearing that very same reduction – and at the end they seem to be searching for, yearning for, even firing their guns at Jesus Christ!
Dralyuk: Yes, I alluded to this earlier, when I mentioned the eschatological tenor of Russian literary culture. There is so much to say about this religious element, which was evident both in the revolution and in the literature that sprang from it.
In The House of Government, the historian Yuri Slezkine presents the early Bolsheviks as a millenarian cult. He draws a convincing analogy between the Christian and socialist communities of late Imperial Russia, both of which were awaiting a Last Judgement in their lifetimes. Some predicted a sacred revelation, others a secular one – but they all prophesied the dawn of the ‘Real Day’.
The writers in my anthology – be they enthusiastic, like Blok, or despairing, like Alexey Remizov and Vasily Rozanov – naturally drew on religious language and imagery to describe events of millennial significance, which appeared to exceed the bounds of modern secular reality. How else could these writers explain or even depict the collapse of everything they had known? Were they witnessing the birth of a new era, or the end of time? Either way, only the language and imagery of religion – of the Apocalypse and the Second Coming – seemed suited to the subject. Of course, Blok himself was surprised to see Christ leading the twelve Red Guardsmen in his vision, but there Christ was, perhaps inevitably.
Boris Dralyuk is a literary translator and the executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books. 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, is published by Pushkin Press. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)
Picture from Wikimedia Commons, showing the Praesidium of the national Proletkult organisation elected at the first national conference, September 1918. Sitting from left to right: Fedor Kalinin, Vladimir Faidysh, Pavel Lebedev-Polianskii, Aleksei Samobytnik-Mashirov I. I. Nikitin, Vasili Ignatov Standing from left to right: Stefan Krivtsov, Karl Ozol-Prednek, Anna Dodonova, N. M. Vasilevskii, Vladimir Kirillov