Thursday, January 7, 2010

Poets Against Despotism: Words That Get You Killed

The history of Russian despotism and literature are closely intertwined. Alexander Pushkin, who is considered to be the founder of modern Russian literature, received a classical Western education and was deeply influenced by the Enlightenment, with French, not Russian, being basically his first language. That’s the reason why Russian literature from Pushkin on up was not something uniquely “Russian”, as some firebrand “patriots” claim, but mostly Western in its nature.

Influenced by classical liberalism, Pushkin wrote the Ode to Liberty, which promotes the rule of law and political freedom. In this poem, Pushkin warns against the dangers of both royal despotism and radical democracy and calls for “a government of laws, and not of men” in the Aristotelian-Lockean-Madisonian tradition:

Royal heads are only safe
Where sacred liberty and solid laws combine
Where law shields everyone
Where the sword of justice equally hangs over every citizen (…)

Kings! Your crowns and thrones
Are granted by law and not by nature
You may stand above the people
But immutable law is above you
Woe betide the nations
Where the law is ignored
Where either the people or the king
Have the power to bend the law (…)

Kings, you should learn that
Neither penalties nor awards
Nor dungeons, nor alters
Are proper safeguards for you
Instead bow your heads
Before the secure aegis of the law
And peoples’ liberty and peace
Will be your thrones’ eternal protection


(the translation is mine, it’s indirect, not word-for-word)

In the poem, Pushkin also deplores the tyranny of Emperor Paul and describes his tyrannicide. This paltry despot banned book imports, prohibited young people from studying abroad, censored foreign correspondence, closed down private printing presses and sent armed troops to the streets of St. Petersburg in a Neroesque fashion to enforce his preferred dress code.

Pushkin also devoted a similar pro-liberty poem to his friend Pyotr Chaadayev, another Gallicized local thinker who criticized Russia’s backwardness in his disputes with Slavophiles, a variety of nationalist fanatics:

The star of pure happiness will ascend
Russia will awaken from its slumber
And our names will be written
On the debris of autocracy


In one of his poems Pushkin also expressed his disappointment at the failure of the Decembrist revolt, which sought to replace czarist despotism with a constitutional government.

The poet was (at least initially) opposed both to earthly and heavenly tyranny. He wrote the Gabriliead, a witty satire on Christianity that is widely considered blasphemous by religious fanatics. It’s not surprising that the czarist regime exiled Pushkin to Bessarabia for his activities and subsequently he was closely monitored by the third section of the Imperial Chancellery, a forerunner of KGB. However Pushkin had to fight against a much milder brand of tyranny than that faced by poets living in the Soviet Union.

Prominent Acmeist Osip Mandelstam is a typical example. In 1933, he wrote the Stalin Epigram:

His fat fingers squirm like worms
His words as heavy as lead weights
His mustache pitch black as a cockroach
His boots gleaming dazzlingly
Surrounded with a clique of cowardly henchmen,
He toys with his subhuman entourage
They whistle, purr and snivel
He alone talks and points with his regal arm
He forges decree after decree
His edicts slice groins, knife foreheads, pierce eyes and chop eyebrows

(the translation is mine)

The poem, described as a “sixteen-line death sentence,” initially got him exiled to the Urals and afterwards he was forced to write an ode to neo-absolutist Stalin in a way reminiscent of ancient royal despotism. In 1938 Mandelstam was sent to a forced labor camp and died in the GULAG. His prediction did indeed come true:

"Only in Russia is poetry respected — it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

1 comment:

Reasonsjester said...

The Stalin poem translation is perfect. I love Pushkin, but he is much better in the original, though he takes a while for me to translate.