REPUBLIC OF THE SUN
Brief Overview of Russian Poetry in Exile
“First Wave” of Russian Émigré Poetry (1917-1945)
by Yelena Dubrovina
In layman’s language you won’t say as much,
As you’ll express in your poetic language.
We will return if we are still alive,
If God will guide us home all the way.
The history of Russian literature is a mirrored reflection of the tragic history of Russia herself. Russian drama, common to all mankind, became the tragedy of a single individual. In 1921, shortly after the execution by the Bolsheviks of one of the greatest Russian poets, Nikolai Gumilev, and the untimely death of their most beloved poet, Alexander Block, the “execution” of Russian intelligentsia and their creative process had taken place. “And in a prison they will be shot to death / Uncompromising, only the best” (Irina Knoring).
The question of survival now became the key question in their lives. Each one of them approached this problem differently, calling upon their inner conscience. One poet called them the generation of “bare conscience,” and not without reason. For example, some of the greatest Russian poets, such as Segei Esenin and Vladimir Maykovsky committed suicides; Alexander Block slowly faded away. “The poets were doomed to die/ Without any hope left to try.” (Georgi Adamovich). Those who could not become reconciled to destructions, cruelty, dictatorships and their own conscience, those who didn’t believe in the “bright future” of Russia, had been leaving her, but with a great hope of returning in the near future.
Leaving their homeland, Russian poets struggled to save not only their lives, but also their freedom to create. “The origin of life is creativity, freedom; and the personality, subject and spirit are the representatives of that origin, but not the nature, not the object,” wrote a Russian philosopher, Nikolai Berdyaev, in his book, Dream and Reality.
Needless to say that Marina Tsvetaeva and Vladimir Nabokov belonged to this “first wave” of Russian émigrés who fled Russian order to have such a freedom. Many famous poets and novelists were among those who rejected the Bolshevik regime, including Ivan Bunin. In 1933, living in France, he received the Nobel Prize “for the strict artistry with which he has carried the classical Russian traditions in prose writing.” By 1923, there were more than 300,000 refugees living only in Paris alone. Together, more than two million people fled Russia after the Bolshevik assumption of power in 1917.
Knowingly or unknowingly, the Russian writers and poets carried with them abroad the best traditions of the “Silver Age,” literally saving the most popular Russian poetic movement, when still trying to discover new forms in their self-expression. They saw the preservation and keeping of Russian literary traditions abroad as their task, the traditions that had been purposely destroyed in Soviet Russia. The sense of having to preserve Russian culture was especially summed up by leading Russian writers such as Nabokov, Aldanov, and Bunin among others. They believed that they were “not in exile, but on a mission.” The Russian intelligentsia was leaving coercive art for freedom of creativity and self-expression. That freedom came with a high price. They lost their roots, their identity and they were now living on foreign soil. The new country was not welcoming; on a contrary, it was unfriendly, and it did not embrace them, but instead, revealed to them its dark abyss of poverty and deprivation.
And never in our lives, were we as close to God,
As here, tired of nostalgia, tired of our lot,
And having not enough
So needed strength or money. We lived without love
Their artistic union, their deep friendship and impetus to create, based of the traditions of the “Silver Age,” helped them to survive. They tried to preserve the traditional comprehension of their artistic mission, as well as their “spiritually moral” mission. They considered that the purpose of their literary process, their goal was to resurrect and to record the image of their motherland that was fast fading away.
I trust thatRussiais there and might
It be in suffering, in dreams, in blood,
And thousands of times, a soul, you had died,
And come to life again with a much greater love.
However, the young generation of Russian writers, who came of age in exile, aimed to adopt both Russian traditions and the traditions of Western literature. They wrote their powerful verses not for fame and recognition, and not for future historians, but because their creative process, their poetry was the sunshine that warmed their souls and lit up their unbearable existence. In one of his articles Boris Poplavsky, the most tragic figure in the Russian Parisian circle, named their poetic union the “Republic of the Sun.” He wrote that such “Republic of the Sun” should invisibly exist inside our civilization. In that “Republic of the Sun,” Russian émigré literature and Russian art took its start. In that “Republic,” poetry, nostalgic and bitter, passionate and heartfelt, flew out like a stream of living anguish, anxiety, revealing the tragic fate and miserable conditions of their existence.
…The mailman forgot the road home,
But letters are still coming from my brothers,
They write that life is harder to the bone
And they become like foes to one another.
There’s a letter that you don’t expect,
As there are words that nobody can hear,
As there are letters – nobody will write…
Yes, happiness exists, but nobody can find it.
“I don’t know if the future generation would agree with me that in those years we had a creative sunrise. Such a word may sound out of place, perhaps too trivial. But the fact is that it was life, it was an ascent and it was a genuine vivacity, which a historian would have to agree with…” These are the words of a poet and critic, Georgi Adamovich written in his book, Solitude and Liberty.
“Poetry penetrates our souls as water imbues a sponge,” said Russian poetess Zinaida Gippius at one of literary gatherings called “The Green Lamp,” a place for meetings of Russian literary intellectuals. Further, she expressed the idea that any conversation about poetry is always the conversation about a human soul, and that not a single soul can live without poetry. The difference is that one is imbued deeper than the other. You can emasculate it–they may say, “Does anybody need it now?” But it may be just the opposite; we should bring it to life, find a place in our hearts for it and let it permeate our lives.
In other words, if we follow the trail of thought of Zinaida Gippius we can claim that poetry is not only a part of our soul, but also a part of our life. And yet the question of if we can live without it remains unanswered. Does anyone really need poetry nowadays? And do we need poetry in general? If tracing the development of Russian literature abroad we have to note that the interest in poetry was not ascending, but descending–the process that finalizes every emigration process.
However, during the period between 1920 and 1930, poetry had become a very important part in the lives of Russian immigrants. Many literary journals had been successfully published. They were the shining reflection of the flourishing literary life in Paris during that decade. The new wave of émigrés gave more than 170 names in poetry. Many anthologies had been compiled with new, young and talented authors. The last anthology, Anchor, published in 1939, was the final tribute to the one phase of Russian poetic movement abroad that would soon be replaced with a new wave of émigrés.
It is also interesting to note that the geography of their dispersion was very widespread to Czechoslovakia, China, America, Germany, France and many other countries. The tragic circumstances of their escape from Russia and their resettlement disconnected and dispersed them all over the world. However, with the help of the printed word that disconnection only made them closer to each other. There were literary magazines, books, and newspapers in addition to the creation of various literary circles. At first, Berlin had become such a center of intellectual life which consisted of two literary currents–not yet shaped Soviet literature and not yet formed émigré literature. But by 1924, the center of Russian cultural life had moved toParis.
The “new thrill” had been sensed by Russian poets. Many of them made their first attempts at writing when living abroad, but there were also many who were already widely recognized in pre-revolutionary Russia, such as Konstantin Balmont, Dmitri Merezhkovsky, Zinaida Gippius, Georgi Ivanov, Igor Severianin and etc. However, not all of them could take the harsh conditions of their reality such as poverty, loss of recognition, isolation from their readers, where “the poet’s fiery speech/was like a cry in the wilderness.” (Gleb Glinka).
In Paris of 1931, Nikolai Berdyaev published a small book entitled, About Suicide. It was written at the most significant moment in the history of Russian immigration when some deep moral and financial decline took place, and some poets, not being able to sustain their miserable existence, committed suicide. “The question about suicide–one of the most unsettling and agonizing questions among Russian emigrants…The loss of sense in life, isolation from their motherland, ruin of their hopes, solitude, poverty, illnesses, sharp decline of their social status, when an upper-class man becomes a blue-color worker, and disbelieve in possibilities to improve their status in future – all of this contributed to the epidemic of suicides… Psychology of suicides is first of all — the psychology of despair.”
Of course, there is some fun:
The fear of poverty and torture of the one you love.
The sweet fruit-drop of art
And finally there is suicide.
Berdyaev also stated that a person can survive any circumstances when they can make sense of them. It is this sense or comprehension that a poet tries to find in writing. Circumstances pushed them into a corner and this small space of time became their everlasting moment of existence, with the only way out–death, the end of their miserable suffering. Thus, death often sounded in their verses not like a minor score, but a major one, as a way out of their misery. “And there, where is death,/ there is a hope” (Argus). This is how Elena Antonova described death:
In a stylish dress with heavy gold,
With blush on chubby cheeks,
And with a flower in its splendid hair,
It brought us joy but no, not fear.
Poetry is mostly a personal and emotional expression, reflecting the poet’s comprehension of events and his surroundings through the poetic forms. Poetry may be sensible, but it may also be intuitive, baring the anatomy of the soul with the help of a cipher poetic image. One may write poetry that reflects the poet’s outer life, so-called “contemplative” poetry, but, one may also write poetry “introspectively,” drawing their subjects not so much from the outward world as from inner suffering. A poet is left alone with his own thoughts, his inner music, withdrawing into himself, into his own feelings, into some kind of abstract state, away from the outside world.
I am so cold. I want just to warm up,
Move closer to the stove. Drink tea. It’s hot.
And listen to the radio. And through my grief,
To watch my heart, my cooling down heart.
In the case of Russian émigré literature, Russia remained alive in their hearts, but outwardly “dead,” being more a subject of the inward comprehension, summoned up from their memory, from their past. Russia for those poets existed outside of reality–only in their conscience and their memory. The precious memory of a lost Russia was preserved in their verses. Their quest for inspiration lay in their abandoned homeland. “I remember Russia so little / I remember Russia forever.” (Nikolai Gronski). Their past experience was as tragic as the experience of present. “I am here a stranger as well as there.” (Vladimir Galski). From the tragedy of Russia where there is “the cold, hopelessness, despair,” the poet steps into his inner ice-cold, spiritual bankruptcy.
On deserted streets we will be frozen,
Speaking all the truth till dawn do us apart,
Blessing all the living deep in heart,
Writing verses… All of us will die,
Knowing well, there’ll be no reply.
Unfortunately, it was the fate of many poets living in exile to write, despite knowing that they had no readers. Such was the fate of Boris Poplavsky, the most talented poet of the Russian émigré poets, who died tragically at the age of 32 from an overdose of narcotics. “He left this world, hurt and misunderstood. I don’t know if anybody could save him from this dreadful exit. But something had to be done – and we didn’t do it…” (Gaito Gazdanov). These words could easily apply to many other poets who didn’t survive the harsh reality of life. Here are some examples: Nikolai Gronsky died at the age of 25 under the wheels of a passing train; Ivan Savin died in Finland at the age of 27 from lung disease. During the war, Mother Maria, Yuri Mandelshtam, Michael Gorlin and Raisa Bloch perished in German concentration camps; Evgeni Gessen disappeared somewhere in Germany. Ariadna Scriabina, daughter of the Russian composer Alexander Scriabin, had been captured by the Nazis and killed at the Belgium border while trying to save Jewish children. The list of names is endless. Ilia Britan was taken hostage and shortly thereafter murdered in a prison yard. He foresaw his future. “Perishable thought you should forget / Sensing resurrection from the dead.”
Falling into the blue abyss,
We forgot about the heavy mist
That we died together, hand in hand,
Lost somewhere in a foreign land.
But fate was not kind to those who lived where, “among stone hearts, in a land of stones, under the indifferent sky” they were struggling to survive. One of the greatest Russian poets, Georgi Ivanov, during his last poetry reading at the Paris Conservatory, recited his poetry with the only forty people in the audience. Poetry lovers were still there in Russia. It is therefore not surprising that their poetry was so rich in nostalgic motifs. Their poetry is a sort of memoir, an anthology of poeticized objective reality, memory.
And suddenly, like some folded fans,
Smiles and pine-trees and arches…Russia,Russia!
In your chilly nights so faraway
My nostalgia ascends as a mournful star.
Concentration of emotions, inner contemplation and comprehension, awareness of their existence–these are the distinguishing features of Russian poetry of that period. Such emotional concentration, the tension of poets’ inner feelings and, at the same time, the simplicity and clarity of their verses, their individuality and yet their spiritual closeness united them all. Their creative process, with some tragic elements of their existence in a foreign land, and their unfulfilled dreams of a prompt return, was colored with mysticism and spiritual disturbance.
We won’t be asked if we have sinned,
We will be asked if we have loved,
Without raising heads, in disbelief,
We will reply with grief:
Oh, yes, alas,
We loved…oh how we have loved…
However, this “introspectiveness” does not mean a limitation of their poetic themes. Their spiritual wealth, erudition, tragic environment and existence, the ability to see the world through the prism of their inner suffering and subtle, almost painful perception of the world, only enriched their poetic themes.
The inner flame, the purity of their images and their thoughts, philosophical comprehension of life, were necessary to find their spiritual place in life. Their poetry is the biography of their spiritual world: inner combustion, agonizing pain for human suffering and a long heroic path to immortality.
The dreams are gone; the truth has been revealed.
A simple bar of cross…
The final symbol of the final page, –
The book of life has been forever closed…
“Second Wave” of Russian Poetry in Exile (1945-1975)
With the World War II the “first wave” of Russian émigré literature began to die out. In the post-war years, Paris ceased to exist as a cultural center of the first wave of Russian emigration. New York gradually emerged as the new home for the “second wave” of a new generation of Russian poets that began their life abroad after the World War II.
Many of them had faded away.
In a sounding blueness of May
In the cemetery, the lilac shrub,
Like then, inRussia, had blazed up.
And then we can continue the same thought with some other verses because poetry is not only a chronicle of one human life, but of the whole generation lost and dispersed all over the world.
But years had matured and rattled with war,
All hopes were burning in raids…
The so-called “second wave” of Russian emigration consisted mainly of former Soviet citizens who remained in the West after the war ended due to different circumstances. “The rise of the second wave of emigration in the West was a complicated and sudden phenomenon… A dreadful threat hung over the Soviet citizens, the threat of forced repatriation,” wrote Valentina Sinkevich in the introduction to her anthology, The Coasts, dedicated solely to the poetry of the “second wave.”
Although this surge of new writers and poets was far less impressive intellectually than the “first wave,” they were, nevertheless, talented artists. The new generation of Russian émigré writers had been united inNew York. Unfortunately, they were deprived of any printed magazines where they could have published their work, except one. Since 1942, The New Review, the only printed journal at that time, began its long life journey (it is still published inNew York), But to have your work accepted to this popular journal was extremely difficult. A poem that had been read in a circle of friends or at any poetry gatherings had a short life.
The concert is over,
It’s time to go home!
But where’s my home?
These verses, written by Boris Filippov, can be easily applied to any written and unpublished poem. These verses lived only for a moment. They may have left some memory with their listeners, but they may have also been forgotten or unnoticed. Nevertheless, when a poem is published, a reader can always return to the published verses, as one would return to his favorite musical scores. A published poem has its own home where the reader may always go back. Poetry, as well as people, needs a home, and its authors need mutual communication with their readers. It gives them the impetus to create, incentive to write, and perhaps a long, immortal life. But what about their readers? And here I would like to repeat the words of Zinaida Gippius that not a single soul can live without poetry. And no matter how hard we would try to remove it from our lives, we still need it as we need music, or a song, or just a quiet evening at the fireplace with the one we love. We need poetry as an echo from the past, as a flash of memory and as life itself. We need it as:
In our pungent memory
In a dark wilderness,
The voice — tender, blossoming and bitter…
With the entry of the “second wave” of Russian poetry abroad, the direction of the poetic movement had also changed. The heartfelt, lyrical motifs had been replaced with the motifs of the civil movement, traditional for Soviet Union. The rising star in this movement was Ivan Elagin.
My Motherland, I saw you very seldom.
We have departed when the wind was vast,
The heartfelt song embraced the road fast,
My faithful ally chosen at random.
Elagin is considered now as one of the greatest Russian poets and scholars. He lived in Pittsburgh and taught at Pittsburgh University. Evan Elagin died in 1987 of pancreatic cancer. His most famous poem, I’m not familiar with nostalgia, became his classic. It is a nostalgic poem with its powerful and mournful emotion, and its simplicity expresses his feelings.
I’m not familiar with nostalgia.
I like the foreign land.
Out of the wholeRussia– which I left
I only miss a Russian window…
The structure of versification (its music and construction) have also changed. They have been modernized.
The night comes early,
But may be, still may be
It’s a smell of the day…
Somewhere the wind is flying,
and a bark along the grass,
young wind and a bark
along the spring trams,
not protecting life.
The poets of that period were also the artists. They often used words, as an artist would use his brush.
In the colored shade of the umbrella, under the tent
Of the colored coffee shop, in the twilight,
It happened having been so radiant from the light,
The blush of face and whisper of a wing.
The new era of the émigré poetry was born, and the core of it was the same tragedy of their past, isolation from their motherland and impossibility of return, solitude, nostalgia, loss of their relatives and the reader’s vacuum. And this common, but differently comprehended tragedy and experience, united them with the same theme and also opened the road to new poetic forms.
He was a poet in his own way.
And an inevitable beginning
Of a new era had emerged to stay
For thousand of years
And more forthcoming days.
The theme of Russia and the nostalgia still pains in verses of the post-war poets. The poets of the “first wave” of emigration used the theme of Russia as the theme of their inner emotional experience, comprehension and memory. Their poetry was a monologue of a lonely man, searching inwardly for an answer. As for the poets of the “second wave,” the nostalgic theme sounded more subdued, while the theme of war dominated.
And even today, the deadly-dense
Smoke still hovers above the planet.
Poetry is always concentration of feelings and emotions, meditation over life and death, the meaning of existence, and love. Poetry does not solve any problems, but only invites its reader to meditate along with a poet himself.
The fate of almost every poet can be learned through his poetry. Their work tells us about the dramatic events in their lives, the lives of two generations of Russian poets living abroad. As for us, we give homage to their memory, to their gift of writing poetry, and resurrect their often forgotten verses. There were many difficulties in their tragic lives, but no matter where their fate took them their creative process remained subtle and noble. Reading their poetry, we plunged into their inner world that lifted the veil of their mystery. And giving ourselves to the cryptography of their poetry, we get away from everyday reality. We were enchanted by their voices, the beauty of their fancy colors, the depth of their emotions and most of all, by the yielding power of their verses. One of the greatest Russian writers, Vasili Yanovsky, who lived in Paris and in New York, concluded about the “two waves” of Russian writers and poets in exile: “The great Russian emigration is dying out. One after the other, classics and epigones depart, vanish: the cemeteries have opened wide their brotherly embrace. Some have come to rest around Paris or Nice, others in New York or California.”
Poetry Translated by Yelena Dubrovina
 The concept of “Silver Age” was first offered by Nikolai Berdyaev and Nikolai Otsup as an image of some spiritual world which existed outside of the habitual idea of “time” and “space,” and outside of any politics.
Yelena Dubrovina is the author of two books of poetry Preludes to the Rain and Beyond the Line of No Return, in addition to a book of short stories, The Dying Glory. Her bilingual anthology, Russian Poetry in Exile is scheduled for publication in 2012. She co-authored a novel with Hilary Koprowski entitled, In Search of van Dyck. Her short stories, poetry and literary essays have appeared in different periodicals, such as The World Audience, 63 Channels, Bent Pin Quarterly, Cantaraville, Ginosko Literary Journal, Bewildering Stories, Pens on Fire, hoi polloi, Gold Dust Literary Magazine, Liquid Gold Anthology (UK), Ophelia Street, Apollo’s Lyre, The Write Room, etc. She is a bilingual writer, published in two languages, Russian and English. Yelena was born in St. Petersburg, Russia and in 1978 immigrated to theUnited States. She currently lives in Philadelphia, PA.