Robert Chandler writes about one of the hidden gems in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, and how the annexation of Crimea sheds light on the past struggles of poets in the Soviet Union
Maximilian Voloshin was for many decades seen as a rather minor poet. During the last twenty years, however, his reputation has been steadily growing. And the Russian annexation of the Crimea, a region with which Voloshin is closely identified, has made his poetry seem startlingly relevant to the present day. Voloshin’s concern with questions of Russia’s historical destiny, together with his own political ambivalence, makes his poetry appealing to liberals and to Russian nationalists alike. Some elements of this appeal, such as the faith he often professes in Russia’s purification through suffering, can seem facile, but we should not allow this to obscure his real greatness, both as a poet and as a defender of freedom.
Part of Voloshin’s appeal lies in his steadfast refusal to accept any ideology as absolute truth. One of the slogans most often repeated by Putinites today is ‘Whoever is not with us is against us’. Such thinking was anathema to Voloshin. A famous poem titled ‘Civil War’ ends:
And from the ranks of both armies
I hear one and the same voice:
‘He who is not with us is against us.
You must take sides. Justice is ours.’
And I stand alone in the midst of them,
amidst the roar of fire and smoke,
and pray with all my strength for those
who fight on this side, and on that side.
Born in Kiev, Voloshin spent much of his childhood in the Crimea. In the early 1900s he moved between Paris, Moscow and St Petersburg, but from 1907 he again spent much of his time in the Crimea, finally settling there in 1916. For over a decade his large house in Koktebel, where he both wrote and painted, was a refuge for writers and artists of all political and artistic persuasions. Among his hundreds of guests were Maxim Gorky, Nikolay Gumilyov, Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva. In 1924 the house became a ‘House of Creativity’ for Soviet writers, the first of the many such closed-access hotels that became a central part of the Soviet cultural world.
Voloshin published five books of poems. The last, Poems on the Terror (1923), was published only in Berlin, but these and other post-1917 poems circulated widely in hand-typed copies, loved by both the Reds and the anti-Bolshevik Whites, within and outside Russia’s borders. The poems are uneven, but there is much that is incisive and moving.
Nadezhda Teffi’s Memories (an account of her last journey across Russia, before emigrating) includes this portrait of Voloshin in Odessa in 1919: ‘Wherever I went, I would glimpse his picturesque silhouette: dense, square beard, tight curls crowned with a round beret, a light cloak, knickerbockers and gaiters. Reciting his poems, he was doing the rounds of government institutions and people with the right connections. There was more to this than was at first apparent. The poems served as keys. To help those who were in trouble Voloshin needed to pass through certain doors – and his poems opened these doors. He’d walk into some office and, while people were still wondering whether or not to announce his presence to their superiors, he would begin to recite. His meditations on the False Dmitry and other Russian tragedies were dense and powerful; lines evoking the fateful burden of history alternated with flights of prophecy. An ecstatic crowd of young typists would gather around him, ooh-ing and ah-ing; in blissful horror they would let out little nasal squeals. Next you would hear the clatter of typewriter keys – Voloshin had begun to dictate some of his longer poems. Someone in a position of authority would poke his head around the door, his curiosity piqued, and then lead the poet into his office. The dense, even hum of bardic declamation would then start up again, audible even through the closed door.’
After an account of Voloshin saving a woman poet from execution, Teffi ends: ‘In Novorossiisk, in Yekaterinodar, in Rostov-on-Don I would again encounter the light cloak, the gaiters and the round beret crowning the tight curls. On each occasion I heard sonorous verse being declaimed to the accompaniment of little squeals from women with flushed, excited faces. Wherever he went, Voloshin was using the hum – or boom – of his verse to rescue someone whose life was endangered.’
During the Red Terror following the evacuation of the White Army from the Crimea, Voloshin showed still greater courage. His belief in the power of his words – what Marianna Landa, in her article ‘Symbolism and Revolution: on Contradictions in Voloshin’s Poems on Russia and Terror in the Crimea (1917–1920s)’ (SEEJ, Summer 2014), refers to as ‘his Dostoevskian faith in the divine spark in the soul of the abominable criminal, and his Symbolist belief in the magic of the poetic word’ – seems to have been unshakeable; his personal appeals to Red and White officials and commanders, on behalf of individuals, and his verse-prayers addressed to God, on behalf of his country, have much in common. Voloshin believed he could affect the course of events – and sometimes he did. That he escaped arrest and execution is astonishing.
The working day started at night.
Denunciations, papers, certificates.
Death sentences signed in a hurry.
Yawning, drinking of wine.
Vodka, all day, for the soldiers.
Come evening, by candlelight,
time to read out lists, herd
men and women into a dark yard,
remove shoes, clothes, underwear,
tie the stuff in bundles, pile
it up in carts, take the carts away,
share out rings and watches.
Nightfall, men and women forced
barefoot, naked, over ice-covered stones,
into waste ground outside town,
in wind from the north east.
Rifle-butted to the edge of a gully.
The lantern light wavering.
Machine-gunned for half a minute;
finished off with bayonets.
Into a pit, some not quite dead.
A covering of soil, in a hurry.
And, with a broad-flowing Russian song –
back into town, back home.
At dawn wives; mothers; dogs
made their way to the same gullies;
dug the ground; fought over bones;
kissed the flesh they held dear.
(26 April 1921, Simferopol)
tr. Robert Chandler