Poets better prove – the sacred craft challenges autocracy

Great Russian writers such as Turgenev, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky opposed Tsarist tyranny.  Their successors challenged the Bolshevik autocracy.

The Bolsheviks knew the power of literature.  Lenin never forgave Dostoyevsky’s devastating critique of revolutionary thinking in The Devils.  The Soviet regime sought to co-opt literature to its cause.  A Soviet ruling decreed that “any preaching of ideological emptiness, of an apolitical attitude, of ‘art for art’s sake,’ is foreign to Soviet literature, and harmful to the interests of the Soviet people and State.”

Stalin knew that Russian cultural achievement preceded and would survive him, that it defined people’s collective narrative, and that it could laud or demonise leaders.  He created a Soviet-era Pushkin cult, and co-opted Maxim Gorky to burnish his regime’s cultural legitimacy.  Gorky’s relationship with Stalin broke down in 1935, and he died in 1936 in mysterious circumstances.

The four greatest twentieth century Russian poets were Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938), Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941), Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) and Boris Pasternak (1890–1960).  Many Bolshevik leaders had a near superstitious reverence for poetry – and fear of it.  Russian poets were the abstract chronicles of the nation.  As Mandelstam wrote:

A people needs poems darkly familiar

to keep them awake forever…


Bukharin warned Stalin that “poets are never wrong”.  Pasternak’s prowess as a translator of Georgian poetry saved him from the NKVD, with Stalin instructing his secret police to “leave this cloud-dweller alone”.

However, poetry could also prove lethal.  Mandelstam remarked in the midst of Stalin’s terror:  “poetry is respected only in this country – it gets people killed.” He wrote his Stalin Epigram:

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.

One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.


Mandelstam was arrested, and he died incarcerated in December 1938.

His widow Nadezhda Mandelstam chronicled the Soviet suppression of literature in   two memoirs: Hope against hope and Hope abandoned.  She wrote that: “…they always knew what they were doing: the aim was to destroy not only people, but the intellect itself”.

Stalin aimed to undermine people’s critical faculties and replace them with simplistic faith in himself, the Party, and the ideology and identity politics that supported them. He sought a new narrative for Russia based on class warfare, the “New Soviet Man”, and “Heroes of Labour”.  These were stylised, abstract figures lacking authentic human nature.

Nadezhda Mandelstam argued that “the usual line was to denounce history as such: it had always been the same, mankind had never known anything but violence and tyranny.”  The Stalinist regime “attacked all old concepts just because they were old. . . Everything was dismissed as fiction.  Freedom?  There’s no such thing and never was!…Terms such as ‘honor’ and ‘conscience’ went out of use at this time…”

The result was the degrading of Russian culture and the destruction of those who safeguarded it.  The heaviest toll among the intelligentsia during the 1930s purges was among writers.

Marina Tsvetaeva’s husband died in a labour camp, and she committed suicide in 1941.  As writers died or fell silent, Stalin turned to Eisenstein’s cinematography to reconstruct Ivan the Terrible’s image, to strengthen his own.  Eisenstein’s Ivan the Terrible Part 1 was an apologia for the Tsar, and tacitly for Stalin.  Ivan the Terrible Part 2 depicted the Tsar’s mental deterioration, and was banned till after Stalin’s death…

However during the Great Patriotic War, patriotic poetry revived.  Konstantin Simonov’s Remember Alyosha drew on Russian history and cultural continuity to hearten Russian soldiers.http://lingualeo.com/pt/jungle/konstantin-simonov-remember-alyosha-the-roads-of-smolenshchina-31640#/page/1

Persecution then revived after the war, and continued into the 1950s.  On 12 August 1952, 13 Soviet Jewish poets, intellectuals and professionals were executed in Lubkyanka prison in Moscow.  By 1954, only 50 writers remained alive of the 700 who had met at the First Congress of the Union of Soviet Writers twenty years earlier.

The only two great writers who survived Stalin’s terror were Akhmatova and Pasternak.

Akhmatova’s husband was executed, and her son imprisoned.  The Russian people, as Stalin saw them, had “a craving for an all-embracing idea which would explain everything in the world and bring about universal harmony at one go.”  Nazism and Stalinism sought racially or ideologically pure utopias controlled by rulers who did the thinking for the compliant masses.  Akhmatova did not believe in utopias:


Our sacred craft has existed

For a thousand years.

With it even a world without light would be bright.

But not one poet has ever yet said

That there is no wisdom and no old age,

And that possibly there is no death.


The greatest intellectual threat to Stalin was Shakespeare, who was enormously influential in Russia.  Catherine the Great loved Shakespeare. In the years following the 1825 Decembrist revolt, Shakespeare’s works helped to interpret to Russia the meaning of the times.  Pushkin drew on Shakespeare’s inspiration to help create a Russian national literature.

Belinsky argued that “reading Shakespeare’s drama shows that each person is a legitimate artistic subject, however low he stands in the social hierarchy and even in humanity as such”.  Lermontov wrote that Shakespeare is “a genius too broad to comprehend, penetrating into people’s hearts and fates”. Turgenev placed him among Titans and semi-gods.  Dostoyevsky regarded him as “the prophet sent us by God to announce the mystery of man, and of man’s soul”.

During the 1940 blitz, when the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany, Ahkmatova telegraphed through Shakespearean imagery which side Russia’s literati were on in To the Londoners.

The twenty-fourth drama of Shakespeare

Time is writing with its indifferent hand.

We, ourselves, the guests at this awful event,

Better would read Hamlet, Caesar, and Lear

Over the river, in heavy lead clad;

Better – to bear, with singing and torches,

Juliet, the dove, to her family’s graves,

Peep into windows of Macbeth’s castle

Tremble with the knife of the hired assassin

But not this one, this one, this one –

This one we don’t have the strength to read…


Shakespeare’s plays and poems attack vaulting ambition, and power achieved through murder.  They allude to the tyrant’s stroke, and to art tongue-tied by authority.  In Shakespeare, death levels paupers and kings: “imperious Caesar, dead and turned to clay, might stop a hole to keep the wind away”.

The sonnets are about one individual’s feelings for another.  They are concerned with love, mortality, the uniqueness and value of individuality, and with moments in time, not with group narratives or collective morality tales.  They see love triumphing over princes’ monuments and tyrants’ brass tombs.

Pasternak turned to translation to avoid persecution for contentious writings, and became famous for his Shakespeare translations.  Only after Stalin’s death was his greatest prose work, Dr Zhivago published.  It is concerned with individuals not collectives. It was sharply criticized in Israel for its assimilationist views on the Jewish people.  Pasternak’s response was: “I am above race”.

Pasternak survived Stalin’s time, avoiding where he could literary meetings subject to state scrutiny.  At one gathering Pasternak knew his loyalty to the state would be questioned if he stayed away, if he attended and remained silent, or if he said anything that could be used against him.  Urged to speak, he finally stood up and said “thirty-two”, and then sat down again.  He was referring to his translation of sonnet 32:

If thou survive my well-contented day,

When that churl death my bones with dust shall cover,

And shalt by fortune once more re-survey

These poor rude lines of thy deceasèd lover,

Compare them with the bettering of the time,

And though they be outstripped by every pen,

Reserve them for my love, not for their rhyme,

Exceeded by the height of happier men.

O then vouchsafe me but this loving thought:

“Had my friend’s muse grown with this growing age,

A dearer birth than this his love had brought

To march in ranks of better equipage.

But since he died and poets better prove,

Theirs for their style I’ll read, his for his love”.



In this sonnet, Shakespeare imagines his lover outliving him.  While future poets may outshine him, this will not take away from Shakespeare’s love while he lived.

Sonnet 112 sees a scandalised Shakespeare surviving only through the love one person has for him. http://sonnetprojectnyc.com/portfolio/play-sonnet-112/    Simonov’s Wait for me sees a Russian soldier in the Great Patriotic War attribute his survival only to his wife’s confidence he would return, when all others assumed him dead, and were drinking to his memory.  The soldier survived, only because his wife, and only her, waited for him: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ2gMcFx3No

These intimate, humanised feelings between people are possible only when there is unique individuality. They are impossible when people are conceived as abstract group caricatures.


Stalin particularly hated Hamlet, ostensibly because “Hamlet’s indecisiveness and depression were incompatible with the new Soviet spirit of optimism, fortitude, and clarity”.  Hamlet was banned from 1941 until Stalin’s death.

The great Soviet theatre director, Vsevolod Meyerhold was obsessed with Hamlet, and had plans to stage it.  He was murdered by Stalin’s secret police, and his wife stabbed to death.  Meyerhold had told his friends “Engrave on my tombstone ‘here lies an actor who never played and never staged Hamlet’.” 

Hamlet posed an existential threat to Stalin.  Like Claudius, Stalin had murdered for power.  Hamlet was just a sword stroke away from the head of state.  He was intellectually autonomous. Squares in tyrannous states are huge to make individuals feel small.  Hamlet could be bounded in a nutshell and count himself the king of infinite space.

Claudius might justify his actions because Denmark was subject to external threat, needed strong leadership, and could not afford internal strife.  Stalin used such arguments to justify his tyranny.  Shakespeare never believed that individuals should be sacrificed for power or “the good of the masses”.

Stalin lived a life of public “adulation” and private loneliness. His wife committed suicide.  Stalin executed almost all his closest Bolshevik colleagues, and was left without any close friendships.

Millions died in the gulags from 1929 to 1953.  In 1937 and 1938 Stalin signed lists condemning masses of people to execution.  When reviewing one such list, he muttered: “Who’s going to remember all this riff-raff in ten or twenty years’ time? No one.  Who remembers the names now of the Boyars that Ivan the Terrible got rid of?  No one.”

However, those who survived the gulags remembered those who had died.   The ghost in Hamlet wanted to be remembered, as much as to be avenged.  Did Stalin fear that survivors might seek revenge?  Or was his fear how he would be remembered in Russia’s cultural memory?

At Pasternak’s stage-managed funeral in 1960, party officials were horrified when mourners spontaneously recited a banned Pasternak poem comparing Hamlet to Soviet reality.

The sacred craft outlived autocracy.



About Peter Winsley

I’ve worked in policy and economics-related fields in New Zealand for many years. With qualifications and publications in economics, management and literature, I take a multidisciplinary perspective to how people’s lives can be enhanced. I love nature, literature, music, tramping, boating and my family.
This entry was posted in Economics, Shakespeare. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Poets better prove – the sacred craft challenges autocracy

  1. David Lillis says:

    Hi Peter.

    A nice blog, focusing on poetry. However, it’s worth noting that Stalin used the arts, music, sports and chess – not just poetry – to promote soviet ideology. Artists, musicians, sports-persons and chess players were also turned into gods and showered with accolades, while some fell afoul of Stalin. Eddie Rozner, the jazz musician, went to the gulag after a spell of popularity. You can see him in some early film, such as this one:

    Prokofiev fell out of favour and had the good sense to die on the same day as Comrade Stalin, and even Shostakovich came within an inch of real trouble after several face-to-face warnings from the great man about the tenor of his music, which Stalin deemed un-Soviet. We are given to understand that the atmospherics within those meetings was not civil. Reportedly, Stalin indicated that he feared that things would end badly unless Shostakovich were to write a different kind of music.

    The jewish Soviet world chess champion of the 1940s and 1950s, Mikhail Botvinnik, was held up as the archetypal Soviet man and upholder of Soviet cultural and intellectual supremacy. Other players, notably the world title Challenger for 1951, David Bronstein, and possibly the great Estonian player, Paul Keres, were ordered to lose critical games to Botvinnik in order to maintain the impression of Soviet supremacy.

    Many went to the Gulag, lost their lives or were publicly humiliated. The chess player Vladimir Petrovs died in a Gulag. Stalin once suggested to Nikita Khruschev that he perform a Ukrainian country dance on a table in public view. Khruschev, who was short and fat, with an unusually large bottom, was forced to humiliate himself by dancing on the table. After Stalin’s death, he was asked why he had allowed himself to be humiliated like that. He said: “When Stalin says “dance” , a wise man dances”. After that, as you know, Khruschev embarked on a long-term de-Stalinization programme, which initially caused great outrage in Communist society.

    Much later, the world chess Champion of 1960, Mikhail Tal was grounded for two years and banned from travel to international tournaments for dancing with someone’s girlfriend at a nightclub in Havana around 1963 – admittedly long after Stalin’s departure. As a matter of record, the boyfriend smacked Tal over the head with a wine bottle, requiring several stitches and alerting the Soviet authorities to his misdemeanour. They had been unaware that Tal and Grandmaster Boris Spassky had sneaked out of their Hotel one night during a chess tournament to check out the local talent. Strictly against the KGB rules for Soviets travelling overseas! Stalin was long gone by now, but the politics of this case (and many other cases involving Soviet chess players) are a legacy of his time in power.

    David Lillis

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s