Alexandr BLOK
. The greatest of Russia's Symbolist poets, Aleksandr Blok, was born in St. Petersburg in 1880. He spent his childhood with his grandfather on his country estate of Shakhmatovo, near Moscow. Blok began writing poetry in earnest at age 17. His major early influences were the early 19th-century Romantic poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin and the apocalyptic mysticism of Vladimir Solovyov (18531900). In 1902, at his grandfather's death, Blok inherited Shakhmatovo. Two years later he published his first book, the mystical Stikhi o prekrasnoi dame (Songs to the Beautiful Lady). In 1906 Blok received a degree in philology at the University of St. Petersburg.

After the failed Revolution of 1905, in which Blok was an ardent participant (carrying a red flag in street demonstrations), his poetry became ironic and pessimistic, especially in Kniga vtoraya (1904-08), and Na pole Kulikovom (1908), which, describing the battlefield of Kulikovo, (site of the Russian victory over the Mongols in 1380), struck a note at once ominous and prophetic of the cataclysms to come..

Henceforth Blok's poetry dwelt more and more on the theme of Russia herself, and on the disjuncture between his mystical vision of his native land and the spiritual deadness he perceived in its institutions and in so many of its inhabitants. Blok's disillusionment, exacerbated by poverty and heavy drinking, found expression in themes of bitter social protest and ruthless realism.

In 1916 Blok was conscripted into the army and served behind the front lines in civil defense work near Pinsk. In 1917-18 he worked for the provisional government in a commission interrogating Czarist ministers, whose findings he later published under the title The Last Days of Imperial Power

As did many of his writer compatriots, Blok greeted the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 with high hopes, though less for its promise of social and political reform, than for his own mystical conception of it, viewing it as a manifestation of the spirit of music.

Blok's greatest poem, Dvenadtsat ("The Twelve",), is perhaps also the greatest poem to come out of the Russian Revolution. In the poem a band of twelve Red guardsmen, apostles of destruction, march in the first winter of Bolshevik Russia through icy streets of Petrograd, looting and killing. The are led by a strange Christ figure, who appears beneath a red flag. Published in January 1918, amid considerable controversy, it enjoyed enormous sales. Along with The Twelve Blok published The Scythians, another of his greatest poems.

After 1918 Blok worked on government editorial and theatrical commissions. In 1919 he was arrested and nearly executed for alleged counter-revolutionary activities. From 1918 to 1921 he translated books for Gor'kii's publishing house Vsemirnaja Literatura. In 1919-21 he was chairman of the Bolshoi Theatre and the head of the Petrograd branch of the All-Russian Union of Poets in 1920-21. By this time Blok's mental and physical health was in decline. He died in Petrograd of heart failure brought on by malnutrition, on August 7, 1921.


Those Born in the Years of Stagnation

Those born in the years of stagnation
forget now how they found their way.
We ~ children of Russia’s tribulation ~
forget not a year, not a day.

What message, years of conflagration,
have you: madness or hope? On thin
cheeks trained by war and liberation
bloody reflections still remain.

Dumbness remains! ~ alarm bells clanging
have clapped all other tongues in chains.
In hearts, familiar once with singing,
a fateful emptiness remains.

And what if dark above our death-bed,
cawing, the ravens climb ~
Let those more worth, God, O God,
see your kingdom in their time.

8 Sept 1914


from The Twelve

The lads have all gone to the wars
to serve in the Red Guard ~
to serve in the Red Guard ~
and risk their hot heads for the cause.

Hell and damnation,
life is such fun
with a ragged greatcoat
and a Jerry gun!

To smoke the nobs out of their holes
we’ll light a fire through all the world,
a bloody fire through all the world –
Lord, bless our souls!

... On they march with sovereign tread...
‘Who else goes there? Come out! I said
come out!’ It is the wind and the red
flag plunging gaily at their head.

The frozen snow-drift looms in front.
‘Who’s in the drift! Come out! Come here!’
There’s only the homeless mongrel runt
limping wretchedly in the rear ...

‘You mangy beast, out of the way
before you taste my bayonet.
Old mongrel world, clear off I say!
I’ll have your hide to sole my boot!

The shivering cur, the mongrel cur
bares his teeth like a hungry wolf,
droops his tail, but does not stir ...
‘Hey answer, you there, show yourself.’

‘Who’s that waving the red flag?’
‘Try and see! It’s as dark as the tomb!’
‘Who’s that moving at a jog
trot, keeping to the back-street gloom?’

‘Don’t you worry ~ I’ll catch you yet;
better surrender to me alive!’
‘Come out, comrade, or you’ll regret
it ~ we’ll fire when I’ve counted five!’

Crack ~ crack ~ crack! But only the echo
answers from among the eaves ...
The blizzard splits his seams, the snow
laughs wildly up the wirlwind’s sleeve ...

Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
Crack ~ crack ~ crack!
... So they march with sovereign tread ...
Behind them limps the hungry dog,
and wrapped in wild snow at their head
carrying a blood-red flag ~
soft-footed where the blizzard swirls,
invulnerable where bullets crossed ~
crowned with a crown of snowflake pearls,
a flowery diadem of frost,
ahead of them goes Jesus Christ.

Jan 1918


from The Scythians

….Come to us ~ from your battlefield nightmares
into our peaceful arms! While there’s
still time, hammer your swords into ploughshares,
friends, comrades! We shall be brothers!

If you do not, we have nothing to lose.
Our faith, too, can be broken.
You will be cursed for centuries, centuries,
by your descendants’ sickly children!

We shall take to the wilds and the mountain
woods, letting beautiful Europe through,
and as we move into the wings shall turn
an Asiatic mask to you.

March all together, march to the Urals!
We clear the ground for when the armoured
juggernauts with murder in their sights
meet the charge of the mongol horde.

We shall ourselves no longer be your shield,
no longer launch our battlecries;
but study the convulsive battlefield
from far off through our narrow eyes!

We shall not stir when the murderous Huns
pillage the dead, turn towns to ash,
in country churches stable their squadrons,
and foul the air with roasting flesh.

Now, for the last time, see the light, old world!
To peace and brotherhood and labor ~
our bright feast ~ for the last time you are called
by the strings of a Scythian lyre!

30 Jan 1918

~~~ translations by Jon Stallworthy & Peter France

Ilya EHRENBURG. Ilya Ehrenburg was born in Kiev, Ukraine, in 1891. He attended the First Moscow gymnasium, but was arrested in his early teens for revolutionary activities and excluded from the 6th grade. Among his close friends during these years was Nikolai Bukharin, the Russian revolutionary who was shot in 1938 during Stalin's terror. Ehrengburg was imprisoned for five months. After his release he lived for a time in Poltava with his uncle. In 1908 Ehrenburg immigrated to Paris to avoid trial for revolutionary agitation. He frequented Left Bank cafes, became friends with Picasso, Apollinaire, Modigliani, and met Lenin, who questioned him closely regarding the views of his contemporaries in Moscow. Also during this period he began writing poetry under the influence of Verlaine, Jammes, and Balmont. His first collection of verse appeared in 1910. During the war Ehrenburg was a war correspondent at the front. His anti-communist poem, 'Prayer for Russia', appeared in 1917.

Nikolai Stepanovich GUMILEV, 1886-1921. Born in Kronstadt. Husband of the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose reputation would surpass his own. At first a Symbolist, he later rejected its tenets and formed the Acmeists. With outbreak of war, immediately volunteered for active duty. Served in the Leib-guard lancer regiment. He also served in the Gusarsky Alexandrisky regiment, and was honored with two Georgievsky Crosses. He related some of his war tales in "A Cavalryman's Notes", which was printed in the daily newspaper Birzhevy Vedomost from February 1915 to January 1916, and a collection of poems entitled Kolchan in 1915. In 1917 he was sent to France to join Russian Expeditionary Corps, but mostly spent time in Paris & London awaiting assignment. Gumilyov was executed by firing squad in 1921 for counter-revolutionary activities, the first great poet (though not the last) to be executed by the Bolsheviks.

Nikolay TIKHONOV, 1896-1979. Served as hussar in WWI, then in the Red Army. The Horde, 1921, reflects his war experiences.
Picture to right shows cover of his 1929 volume of poetry Braga, designed by Yuri Annenkov.

A - C
D - L
M - R
S - Z