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The Russian Boys and Their Last Poet

The Russian Boys and Their Last Poet

Mini Teaser: The recently deceased Joseph Brodsky was a man who overcame formidable obstacles on his way to becoming a great Russian poet and Nobel Laureate...

by Author(s): Dmitry Shlapentokh

The recently deceased Joseph Brodsky was a man who overcame formidable obstacles on his way to becoming a great Russian poet and Nobel Laureate: lack of a formal education, harassment by the Soviet secret police, and, perhaps most formidable, exile to a foreign land. His land of residence became not the culturally sophisticated Europe to which Russians are intimately connected, but the United States, a country--according to the stereotype--of pragmatic and philistine money seekers.

Despite these odds, Brodsky established himself as one of the greatest contemporary poets. His professional achievements are remarkable, but they are not what make him unique; after all, quite a few authors, Russians included, have blossomed in exile. Many others, too, have mastered the language of their adopted country, Nabokov and Aldanov among them. It is, rather, another trait that sharply divides Brodsky from other Russian exiles--his persistent unwillingness to visit his native land. He refused to return for even a short visit, even when such a trip was easy after the regime that had banished him had fallen from power. Brodsky's rejection of even a temporary return was especially strange given that in his work he constantly brooded on the loneliness of exile. He implicitly compared himself to Ovid, the Roman poet whom the relentless Augustus sent away to a distant hinterland of empire.

Many Russian intellectuals used to put off leaving the country in Soviet times because of the famous "Russian nostalgia"--and the fact that Soviet authorities would never allow them to return to the motherland if they "defected." As a native of Russia, I can attest to the fact that this was not an empty threat. It would seem logical, then, that Brodsky would at least occasionally have longed to visit his home and the "Third Rome", Moscow. Yet he did not.

One could attempt to explain Brodsky's reluctance to return by his Jewishness. He was a Jew not in a religious but in an ethnic sense. It is nonetheless true that Jews regularly suffered ostracism and worse in Soviet Russia, and this is why the bitterness of so many Jewish émigrés is so deep that they have cut off all ties and emphasize that they are American or Israeli--not Russian. For them, the linguistic departure from Russian to English is a sign of belonging to the "higher" civilization of the West. The problem with this explanation is that none of this mentality could be found in Brodsky. While he had mastered the English language perfectly, and though he was a man of the world, more inspired by the images of European and world history than by those of his native Russia, he nevertheless retained a genuine love for Russia and its culture. His love was not the sort one sees in those many émigrés whose linguistic weakness is reflected in a cultural parochialism, and who belittle the culture of the adopted country as an act of psychological self-defense. Brodsky's love for Russia and its culture was free of all this--it was deep and it was real. The proof can be found in his poetry and public life after emigration.

Brodsky's poem on the death of Marshal Zhukov, the Russian World War II hero and military leader, for example, was one of the best poems on the war written by an author of the post-Second World War generation. After his emigration, too, Brodsky engaged in a polemic with the celebrated Czech dissident writer Milan Kundera, who had asserted that it was not only Russian political tradition but Russian culture that was responsible for the rise of the brutish communist regime and Soviet enslavement of the peoples of Eastern Europe. Whether Kundera was right is not the point here, which is Brodsky's response: He defended Russian culture for its universalist and humanist leanings.

So if Brodsky's attachment to Russian culture and Russia was unquestionable, why did he never return? The fate of another Russian Nobel Laureate, Alexander Solzhenitzyn, might provide a clue. After spending several years in America, Solzhenitzyn returned to Russia expecting to find a receptive audience for his work and views. The opposite happened. A television program he was involved in was canceled, but not for political reasons, even though he was highly critical of the present regime. It was canceled for lack of viewer interest. His books, too, have found few publishers and readers. Indeed, few Russians nowadays exhibit any interest in serious intellectual pursuits in general, and in literature in particular.

More than a century ago, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, whom both Brodsky and Solzhenitzyn regarded as one of the major manifestations of the Russian spirit, presented a striking picture of the Russian national character. He wrote in one of his novels of the "Russian boys" and the burning question of their lives. According to Dostoyevsky, these "Russian boys" might not have known each other before they met, say, in some dirty canteen, nor would they likely ever meet again afterward. But what would they discuss when they did meet? They would discuss the problem of the immortality of the soul, and those "who did not believe in God" would plunge into a discussion of socialism and the possibility of global changes that would make all humans happy. Dostoyevsky defined this as the "real Russian question." It was this spirituality and universalism, this genuine worship of a culture of the spirit, that marked Russian intellectual life from the time of Dostoyevsky to the time of Brodsky's youth, when "Russian boys" (and here ethnicity did not mean anything for, in this context, a "Jewish boy" could be a "Russian boy") still discussed the same questions and problems.

But today when the "Russian boys" meet, it is not in some cheap canteen, but in the expensive restaurants of Moscow and abroad. One can easily predict the topic of their conversations: how to change rubles into dollars or Swiss francs, or dollars into rubles, and then invest the money in some shady venture. How to launder this money to invest in real estate in Chicago, Paris, or Miami. These are the only "real Russian questions" these days. In such discourse the poet is a very marginal figure, more so in Moscow than even in Manhattan.

Most Russian intellectuals, both abroad and within, sense this pervasive corruption and despiritualization. Most of them rail at the Yeltsin regime, as if it were somehow responsible. They are different from Brodsky, for they believe that there is a remedy, somewhere or somehow, that will restore Russia to its spiritual splendor so that, once again, the poet and writer will be the focal point of society. But Brodsky, possibly because he was a Jew, did not buy this.
As with most Russian Jews, Brodsky was thoroughly Russified. Only the family name, facial features, and the stamp in his internal passport under the clause "nationality" (ethnicity) identified his Jewishness. But while he loved Russia and its culture, it was not always reciprocated. Many Russian nationalists reject the notion of him and other Jews as being part of the country and the culture. Indeed, they refer to him not as a Russian, but a "Russian speaking", poet.
Maybe they are right in the sense that Brodsky was never fully absorbed into Russian daily life and political play. This provided him with a sense of a detachment, and the ability to observe his surroundings with an unusual degree of impartiality. And he might well have come to the intuitive conclusion that the present despiritualization of Russian life, the loss of the centrality of poetry and writing intellectual discourse, represents not just a temporary and curable disease but a terminal condition.

Russia will most probably survive the social and political upheaval that has befallen it. The ruble will stabilize, industry will flourish, the living standard may even rise as high as the living standard of the advanced countries of the West. Even poor Russian science may be restored to its former glory. Yet the "Russian boys" who passionately discussed "immortality" and "socialism", the globalism and spiritual uplifting that made the poet, writer, and philosopher the center of national life, are probably gone forever. Those Russian writers, like Solzhenitsyn, who rush back to the country thinking that what they see is something that is temporarily sick, something they can help cure, will end up disappointed. Brodsky suffered from no such illusion. He knew that he would find only a corpse, the "dry bones" of a perished civilization. The old "Russian boys" were dead, and he loved them too much to see them in decay. This is why he never returned; he understood that for such a trip he would need not a Boeing 747, but a time machine. And only poetry can truly travel in time.

Essay Types: Essay