Provincial Russia by Maria Stepanova

Among many voices of  young contemporary Russian poets, the poetry of Maria Stepanova is one of the most intriguing. Her first major collection Songs of Northern Southerners       (2001) was so unusual, that the critics immediately called her poetic style a “new epic” and announced it as a new direction in the development of modern poetry in Russia. It was defined by the absence of the author’s presence or any kind of emotional interpretation of the developing story in the verses. Her poetic language is deceptively simple; the story in the verses develops without the emotional intervention of the author. But her ability of creating the dramatic undertones in the poetic story is outstanding.

The story usually starts as a non-emotional narrative staged in several small cities in a Russian province, but then the attention shifts to powers beyond the comprehension of the author, or the readers. Similar to Airman, or in The Prose of Ivan Sidorov the story develops into a metaphysical saga where ordinary Russian people or personages have certain places in the process. Among the main characters of The Prose are the drunken man, the chicken and the sleeping girl – an incredible combination  of the personages…However, their place was only one part of the general movements of space and time which constructed the contemporary epic in the poetry of Stepanova.

The story in The Prose of Ivan Sidorov starts with the appearance of the main hero in the small provincial town somewhere in Russia:

In the provincial town, so to speak,
but in a low-minded way
with white steep cliffs,
with on-shore over the giant strides,
with the tubes of heavy industry,
with women, similar to the touch
like bottles with tight tops, arrives a drunken man.

The background around him  is that of the peaceful Russian provincial city:

“The city, say, under the Snowy Shroud. The lights are off.
Carefully-painted, fences are dark, and even in the square there are no cops.
The new emptiness breathes a quilt,
the Moscow bullet train
that night, is about to depart.”

But  this tranquility concealed the phantasmagoria of the incredible events  starting with the meeting of the drunken man with the chicken and a sleeping girl and ending with the skirmish and the reunion of the heroes in the different reality:

In a waiting room a screaming hen runs across.
In the glass doors emerges a night patrol.
A sleeping girl – below the steering medium-sized adult bike –
and where is her mother? and who is she, trash?
Her eyes open, with nodes stands up –
and accounting, as if in water, into the arms of a neighbor
and “grandfather” murmurs with her lips, all uselessness,
but to sleep for some reason does not cease”….
…“A bullet train stretches along the platform,
long and silky, like a stocking.
The author draws on the memory
and stops the narrative,
leaving the hero to show us yet unknown talent.

The inner consonance with the historic development of Russian folklore and ballad poetry  makes the poetry of Stepanova remarkable example of modern epic  folklore. The Prose of Ivan Sidorov was first published on-line in 2006 at Vavilon.

Since 2007 Maria Stepanova has been the chief-editor of the Russian literary web portal and the participant in the project Vavilon  –  publication of  contemporary Russian literature on-line, started by Dmitry Kuzmin. Maria Stepanova is the recipient of  several major international prizes for her poetry, among them the Joseph Brodsky Foundation memorial fellowship (2010).

Russian texts on-line in Zhurnalniy Zal.

From Airman by Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova at Dacha on Pokrovka. From:

When he returned from there,
he screamed in his sleep and bombed towns,
and spirits appeared to him.
 He used to get up to smoke and open the window,
our ragged clothes lay together in a heap
and I gathered up a bag for them in the darkness.
But that is nothing yet”.

Translated by Richard McKane


Excerpt from Russian text:

“Когда он вернулся оттуда, куда,
Во сне он кричал и бомбил города,
И духи казались ему,
Курить он вставал, и окно открывал,
Совместные тряпки лежали внавал,
И я в темноте собирала суму,

Но это еще ничего.

Копать приусадебный наш огород,
Семейного рода прикорм и доход,
Не стал он и мне запретил.
Не дал и притрагиваться к овощам.
Отъелся, озлел, озверел, отощал
И сам самокрутки крутил.

Но жизнь продолжала себя…”

Translations of the excerpts from the works of modern writers are made under Fair Use.

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Vladimir Vysotsky


“But I am certain of what is false and what is sacred,
I understood it all a long time ago.
My way is straight, just straight, guys,
And luckily there is no other choice!”
-Vladimir Vysotsky


Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980)  was the greatest bard in Russian history whose influence and popularity among Russian people during the second half of the 20th century was unprecedented and is still not understood in full, even now more than 30 years after his death.  Vladimir Vysotsky was an actor and a balladeer; he wrote and sang his own songs, always with a guitar, in the Russian genre of bard poetry. As Vysotsky himself explained it to the audience, “I write author’s songs and I believe them to be a specific genre. Generally speaking they are not songs even but poems on a rhythmical base…The point is that author’s songs give me a chance to tell you what worries me, what is of concern to me, that sort of thing”(1). What was so extraordinary about the balladeer Vysotsky’s music and his persona that made his songs the voice of the Russian soul and him a true folk hero?

Vysotsky did not have any official status as a poet in the official Soviet hierarchy as though he were completely invisible in the eyes of authorities. He was not a member of the Writer’s Union and did not belong to the official establishment, which would usually generate prestige and money. He sang his songs in his free time and traveled, giving concerts all around the Soviet Union. His voice is still alive in recordings and Russians continue to mourn the great bard who wrote to Russian people:
“People!  I loved you! Be merciful!”( 2).


Where are your seventeen years?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi
Where are your seventeen troubles?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
Where is your black revolver?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
And where are you not today?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25, 1938 in the family of a military officer. As a child,  he spent several years in Eastern Germany with his father’s family. After his return to Russia he lived in the hideous creation of the Soviet regime, the communal apartment, with several other families on Bolshoi Karetnoi Street. He studied at an actors’ school, and after his graduation worked as an actor in several theaters.  The famous director Luybimov accepted him as an actor at the Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy on Taganka in 1964. In 1971 Vysotsky received the role of Hamlet and played it till his death. Well-liked by the public, he never received any official recognition. His salary of 170 rubles at the theater was not even enough to pay for the rent. He also played various movie and television roles, among them captain Zheglov in the popular serial Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzia (1979).

But as he told in the interview at Pyatigorsk TV studio in 1979,  the work on verse meant for him more than “anything else:“It is mostly here that I have this thing that is called inspiration, which will come at night, alight on your shoulder…that’s it: above all, work on verse. As long as I live, as long as I think, I shall of course, write poems, write songs” (3).

He started to write and sing songs as a student in the 60’s. It was his  “courtyard hooligan” songs which made him famous very fast ( 4).   By 1967 the entire country already knew about Vysotsky.  Sometimes there were the dubious texts, but their simplicity and humor made them popular very quickly:

I happened to be walking around
And I hurt two people by chance,
They took me to militia grounds
Where I saw her…and broke down at once.

At the beginning it was always songs for his friends. As Vysotsky explained: “I began with songs that were called by many street songs or even gutter songs (blatnoi) for some reason. Doing so I  paid tribute to the urban romance. Generally speaking, when I began to write my songs, I had no idea that I would write for such an audience as I have now – in great halls, palaces and stadiums. In those days my songs were intended for a narrow circle of very close friends. We were a bunch of students then…the atmosphere was one of trust, complete ease, and what is most important friendliness”( 5).

Among his close friends at the time were Igor Kochanovskii, Andrei Tarkovskii, Oleg Strizhenov, Lev Kocharian, Vasilii Shukshin; all of them became actors and writers. Later on appeared the friends who would stay with him for his entire life: the actor Vsevolod  Abdulov and the artist Michail Shemiakin, who is very talented himself. And among them the young Vysotsky sang:
I was the soul of bad company.
And I can tell you, that
My last, first and middle names
Were well known to the KGB (6).

And indeed, the company spent a lot of time drinking, singing songs and wandering around through public parks and from this time period Vysotsky became addicted to alcohol.

There would be more of them in the future: songs about criminals, workers, sportsmen and scientists, even animals – dozens of them – written with such elegance and humor that they spread among listeners very quickly. It is the unparalleled encyclopedia of the Russian  life in 20th century embodied in the poetic form.

Russian Bard

Some consider his poetry as a Soviet mass-culture phenomenon based on the absorption of Vysotsky’s phraseology into everyday Russian language. The characters of his songs and their lexicon became modern day folklore. “Vysotsky’s language” became the prominent feature of the linguistic scene in Russia ( 7).

But who was Vladimir Vysotsky for the Russian people and for Russian culture in general? The influence of the bard Vysotsky on Russian culture in the second half of the 20th century was enormous, not just that of a singer or poet, and definitely went beyond the limits of mass culture. It was much more complex and touched the very nerve of the Russian soul at the end of the Soviet era.

His friend, the artist Mikhail Shemiakin, wrote about him: “Vysotsky was a great poet … He did what nobody had done before him – the synthesis of the absolutely reckless Russian soul with the clear abstract thinking of the genius philosopher.”(8)

The transformation from  Vysotsky the actor to the great bard did not happen all at once, but was the result of many factors influencing him in the 1970’s. Russian post-war society was in deep ideological and moral crisis at the time. The appearance at that moment of Vysotsky, who had an unusual charisma, great talent, a powerful personality, and most importantly, who spoke truth  in his songs, gave the Russians a cultural hero. However, only by looking at Vysotsky’s ability as a poet to reach into the depths of the human soul and “raise to the surface the eternal subjects” of humanity can we get an explanation of the enormous love ordinary Russian people felt toward him. Sometimes it was his immense humor provoking laughter or his  reckless nature sounded  in the songs,  but it were always the words of truth. Vysotsky said in one of his songs: “I do not lie by any of my words” and considered himself as the servant of the pure Word. Yuri Andreev wrote that Vysotsky’s songs, in their fundamental essence, were” the assertion of the prevalence of the good in life and in every person”, and of the “overthrow of evil of any kind”  even at the price of one’s own life.

Everything around Vysotsky was extraordinary, especially his ability to connect to ordinary people and to evoke a sense of trust. As Shemiakin remembered: “Volodya [Vysotsky] wrote about everything. He was never at war, never did time in the camps, and never hacked at coal in the mines. But he sensed everything vividly, and this emotion combined with great poetic genius deeply touched the soul of the former warrior, prisoner…His entire work is that of one of the greatest analysts of the Russian land”(9).

Vysotsky in Siberia

This young man carrying a guitar could potentially be seen anywhere in the Soviet Union, including Siberia and the Far East. He sang his songs, talked to people, and somehow during his journey he understood very important things about his country and the human soul. The vital thing was that his poetic genius let him to embody this knowledge in his songs. In doing so he succeeded in bringing his truth to the Russian people at a very high level of communication. Vysotsky’s struggle to bring the words of goodness to the world was one of epic proportions and as a tribute to the great bard we should say that he succeeded in bringing his knowledge to the people.

Political Vysotsky

As Vysotsky became older, the themes of his songs changed with him. From the end of 60’s, the “hooligan” Vysotsky gave place to the analyst Vysotsky, a citizen of his country and a warrior. He made the progress extraordinarily swift.  His songs evolved into complex ballads creating a panorama of Russian life. Vysotsky’s poetic universe consisted of thousands of characters, put into different situations, struggling and loving, suffering and laughing. It included fairy tales and war stories, ballads and parables.  With the analytical eye of a thinker he recognized the disconnected state of his country.  His poetic genius allowed him put the feelings of many into words.


Much was written about his travels around Russia. It stimulated his growth as an artist and as a political figure in Soviet society.  What he understood during his traveling and contacts with the people, he was determined to bring to his listeners, and he did not allow anyone interfere with his personal message. Vysotsky said once: “I even believe that these songs became so well-known precisely because there is this desire that people should trust you, the desire to tell them about something extremely important, that’s why people listen to them, that’s why they are drawn. .
It was only words, but these words were powerful because on an intuitive level they explained the true nature of the current state of Russia to almost anyone:
It’s my fate till the end, till the cross,
Shout till I’m coarse, after that only numb,
To pursue and argue, till the mouth has froth,
That it’s all wrong, that it’s not right!

That the hucksters are lying about Christ’s mistakes,
That until the flagstone would press into dirt,
Three hundred years under the Tartar yoke were all a waste,
That was just it – hundreds years of indigence and shame.

But there was Ivan Kalita who did what he could,
And not only one but many who stood up to all,
The sweat of goodwill and the revolts in vain.
Pugachov, blood, and misery again…

Let the people not get it at first,
I’ll repeat it again even in the image of a fool.
But sometimes even the theme isn’t worth it,
And the vanity is the same old vain…

I am breaking my nerve, guys, to do what I can,
And someday one of you may for me light a candle,
For the naked nerves’ sting as I sing and I choke,
For the jolly manner in which I am joking…

“Was he Soviet or anti-Soviet? We did not discuss it with him. Most accurately, he was neither…. He simply could not tolerate unfairness and evil in any form “ (10).

Vysotsky often used metaphors in his songs: The Parable of the Truth and Lie, Wolf Hunt (1968), The Old House (1969), The Apples of Paradise (1973), but the listeners usually understood the true meaning within the songs. In 1975 he wrote Kupola (The Domes) – his  prayer for Russia, which he devoted to Mikhail Shemiakin. [youtube width=”300″ height=”200″][/youtube]

His songs were accepted by the Russian people as desperately needed words of truth about themselves, about the society in which they lived, about their hope and desperation, and about philosophical problems of the fate of individuals. It was never about abstract ideas, but always the personal choice between good and evil.

Marina Vlady

I would not compare anyone with you.
Even kill, shoot me for that!
Look how I am admiring you
Like the Madonna of Rafael!

It was like a gift from above to Vysotsky that, in the midst of his popularity as an actor and bard, among all turbulence of his life, in 1968 he met Marina Vlady, a beautiful French actress of Russian origin. Marina became his soul mate. They were married in 1970; it was the third marriage for both of them. Their life together was described in Marina’s memoir Vladimir or the Interrupted Flight; it was one of the poignant love stories of the 20th century.  Marina was his guardian angel until his death. A lot was said about her by the Russian media, but her love kept him alive for twelve years.

Interrupted Flight

With smiles they were breaking my wings,
My scream sometimes was like a wail.
And I was numb from pain and helplessness,
And could just whisper: thanks to be alive!
Who were “they” in this famous song? During his lifetime, the authorities’ oppression of Vysotsky was tremendous. As the actor Bortnik from Taganka remembered, it seemed as though the invisible evil of Soviet empire was trying to suffocate Vysotsky at every level (11). Marina wrote that his poems were never published in Russia during his life; his songs were removed from soundtracks, his concerts canceled, his book and record deals revoked at the last moment.

His humor and ability to laugh through the most difficult times as well as the connection with the ordinary people from all corners of Soviet Union helped him to overcome the failures but the level of stress was enormous.

What Vysotsky did in these conditions would not have been possible for anybody else: over thirteen years he held more than 400 personal concerts in the Soviet Union. From 1973 he started traveling abroad, first to France and Europe, then to the USA in 1978 and 1979, Canada and other countries. In New York he met with Joseph Brodsky and two of them spent a lot of time together.  Ironically, the meeting of two last greatest Russian poets of the 20th century happened in America.

The repression only added to his charisma in the eyes of the Russian people, who saw in him the sole hero against the oppressive regime. In his last years he had all the moral and material support of the Russian people: it was not possible for the authorities to either expel him or silence him. But “it was his unusual, suffering, vulnerable soul” – according to Shemiakin’s words – “that made him suffer because of all the unjustness he saw in the world.”  In 1972 he wrote one of his most tragic songs, Capricious Horses, full of reflection on the fate of the individual.

The wave of popularity and the material success of the preceding years did not mean a lot to him. Excessive oppression, stress, and addiction led to his early death.  Vysotsky died on July 25th   during the Moscow Olympic Games. The authorities did not write a word about his death, but people somehow found out and several hundred thousand people came to bid their farewell to him.

Vysotsky stated in his last poem to Marina in summer 1980 that his mission in life was fulfilled:  “…I have a lot to sing to the Almighty.
                    I have my songs to justify my life”

By Elena Dimov.
Excerpts from the unpublished manuscript.
Translations of the poems by Oleg Dimov

Resources and collection of Vysotsky’s songs

Britannica about Vysotsky

Capricious horses


Along the ledge, on a brink of a precipice.
I lash my horses, drive them on.
Somehow the air is not enough for me,
I drink the wind, I swallow the fog,
Feeling with a reckless delight, that I am vanishing, vanishing.
Slow down my horses, slow down!
Don’t listen the tight whip!
But somehow I got the capricious horses –
I didn’t finish living; I will not end my song.
I will let my horses drink water,
I will finish sing my verse.
For a moment, somehow I will stand
on the edge….
 I will go like a feather from a hand – the hurricane will sweep me,
And the galloping horses will pull my sleigh on the morning snow.
Pace yourselves, my horses, do not hurry,
Let my last way to the shelter will be longer, just a little!
Slow down, my horses slow down!
The whip and lash are not your overseers!
But somehow I got the capricious horses –
I didn’t finish living; I will not end my song.
I will let my horses drink water,
I will finish sing my verse.
For a moment, somehow I will stand
on the edge. We’ve come in time: no late comings to God, –
Why then angels sing with such vicious voices?
Or is it a ringing bell got numb from sobbing?
Or is it me, crying to the horses not to carry the sleigh so fast?!
Slow down my horses, slow down!
I beg you, do not ran at such fast pace!
But somehow I got the capricious horses –
I didn’t finish living; I will not end my song.
I will let my horses drink water,
I will finish sing my verse.
For a moment, somehow I will stand
on the edge.


1. Vladimir Vysotsky. On My Songwriting. In: Hamlet with a Guitar. Sergei Roy. Moscow, 1990, pp.201, 203)
2.Vladimir Vysotsky.  Pesni i stikhi. V.2. New York, 1983, p.140.
3.Vladimir Vysotsky.Chelovek,Poet,Aktior. M., 1990)
4.Cherniavsky, G. I. Politics in Poetry of the Great bards. Russian Studies in Literature, vol.41, no.1, Winter 2004-5. p.63-65)
6.Resources and collection of Vysotsky’s songs
7.Hamlet… pp. 10-11.
8. Vladimir Vysotsky. Vse ne tak. Memorialnii almanakh-antalogia. Moscow, 1991, p.42).
9. Hamlet… p. 315
10. Vladimir Vysotsky v zapisiah Michaela Shemikina. N.Y., 1987. p.67.
11.  Vse ne tak. Moscow, 1991, p.36
*Italics are used for Vysotsky’s quotations.


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The Magnificent Garden of Brodsky


Listen, my boon brethren and my enemies!
What I’ve done, I’ve done not for fame or memories
In this era of radio-waves and cinemas,
But for the sake of my native tongue and letters !”

—  Joseph Brodsky
Translated by Alan Myers with the author

The name of the last great Russian romantic poet of the 20th century, Joseph  Brodsky, hardly requires an introduction. His life in exile after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1972 became a story of success; in 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, became the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991, and published numerous books of poems and essays. Today, Brodsky is considered one of the greatest romantic poets of the 20th century and has gone into the annals of 20th century world literature.

His whole life, however, was divided in two – before and after his expulsion – and the success of the last years of his life seems to overshadow the beginning, the life and poetry of a rebellious youth in the Soviet Union, where the right to be a poet was denied to him.

One can now look at his early poems with bewilderment at how they had already demonstrated the strength and ability of his powerful talent. Notably, Brodsky himself explained the nature of poetry to a judge at his infamous trial in 1964. When asked whether he studied to be a poet, he answered very simply: “I did not think you could get this from school.”The judge replied “But how, then?” and Brodsky said “I think it … comes from God…”(The Trial of Iosif Brodsky, A Transcript. The New Leader, Aug.31, 1964).

At the origin of Joseph Brodsky’s destiny was not the famous trial or the expulsion from the Soviet Union as described in numerous works, but rather the gift of poetry, accepted by him with great humility. Joseph Brodsky told his friend Losev: poetry is when you start to write, one word leads to another. And this gift came to Brodsky absolutely unexpectedly in 1958 or 1959.  He remembered during his conversation with Solomon Volkov how somebody showed him a book of Vladimir Btitanishsky:” Well, I thought that surely someone could write better on that topic. So I started composing something myself, and that’s how it all began” (Volkov, S. Conversations with Joseph Brodsky.N.Y., 1998, p.32.)

Brodsky was born in May 1940 in Leningrad to a Jewish family. Joseph was their only child and the family was not prosperous; his father worked as a photographer and his mother was an accountant. Brodsky remembered:”Sometimes my father had work and sometimes he didn’t. Those were the times, troubled times”. They led their lives in the hideous creations of the Soviet regime – “communal” apartments – together with several other families, which was typical of the time.

Brodsky’s earlier life was as normal as it could be in the Soviet Union, but as a teen he dropped out of school and started to do odd jobs as a worker in Leningrad as well as in geological expeditions all around the Soviet Union. It was an unusual and rebellious act at that time. The young Brodsky was never a conformist; even his appearance was extraordinary. According to his acquaintances he was a strong youth with red hair which appeared to burst as a flame on his head.

At that time Brodsky started to write poetry, often during the expeditions. Later, he never included his early poems in his selections in English. They were published by Pushkin Fund  in Sochinenia Iosifa  Brodskogo ( St.Petersburg, 1992), and then in Tallinn and in  Russian selection Pisma Rimskomu drugu (2010). Among them are Pilgrims, The Garden, Goodbye and others.

Already in his first and not quite as polished poems one see the qualities that later became the marks of his lyric poetry: the strength and beauty of his feelings and emotions, intellect, and the fascinating ability to incorporate them into images of certain places; and the interrelations with his emotional and metaphysical inner universe. One of his early poems, The Garden, had poignant strophes that could be considered the leitmotif of his life:

O, how empty and silent you are
In the autumn’s twilight
how spectrally the garden’s transparence reigns,
where the leaves approach the earth
through the great attraction of the collapse.

O, how silent you are!
Doesn’t your destiny
foresee challenge in my fate,
and the rumble of the fruits, which have left you,
like the sound of the bells, is it not close to you?

Great garden!
Grant my words
the whirling of tree trunks, the whirling of the truth,
where I am shuffling through the winding branches
into the fall of the leaves, into the twilight of the resurrection.

O, how can I live
until the future spring
to your branches, to my soul in sorrow,
when all your fruits are gone
and only your emptiness is real.

No, I’ll leave!
Let the colossal carriages,
take me somewhere.
My low path and your high path –
now they are similarly vast.

Goodbye, my garden!
For how long? ..Forever.
Keep in yourself the silence of the daybreak,
Great garden, shredding the years
on the bitter idylls of the poet.

Tr. by Elena Dimov , Ed.  by Margarita Dimova.

Brodsky was only twenty years old when he wrote The Garden,but it isamasterpiece full of metaphysical and philosophical reflections on the fate of a poet. His poetic language was already refined, and his inner universe correlated with the magnificent garden full of the moving sense of the distant future as a time of a separation from everything he loved. Later this theme would be developed into the poetic universe of Brodsky, as well described by modern critics, but in this early poem it is just a magic garden of life and poetry.

How could a poet of such extraordinary ability survive in the brutal world of Soviet reality? It is the mystery of the poetry in the face of the prose of the real life. Brodsky could transfer the outside world into philosophical and even metaphysical messages through his poetry and did it with the easiness and grace of the true romantic talent.

After The Garden it happened that Brodsky became a poet noticed by many, especially by Anna Akhmatova, who proclaimed him to be the greatest poet among their generation. Anna Akhmatova became his mentor and friend until the end of her life.  The Garden was  followed by  several outstanding poems  Christmas Romance, The Black Horse and  Procession. Another of Brodsky’s poems, Pilgrims, (1960) became famous and popular with the intellectual public in Leningrad.

Marina Basmanova ЦГЛА фото

Marina Basmanova
ЦГЛА фото

At this time, another fateful event in his life occurred: his meeting with Marina Basmanova, a young painter, the “enchantly silent and beautiful girl” (see:Gessen, Keith.The Gift. Joseph Brodsky and the Fortunes of Misfortune. The New Yorker, 2011, May 23). Their meeting and extravagant love affair inspired the most beautiful and poignant lyrical poems such as On Love (1971). Eighty of these were published by Brodsky in the collection New Stances to Augusta. Poems to M.B., 1962-1982, in 1983.


They never married, however, as another person became involved in their relationship: the poet Dmitry Bobishev, a friend of Brodsky’s, who appeared in the life of Marina Basmanova when Brodsky was especially vulnerable in 1963. It was in November 1963 when an article was published in which Brodsky was ridiculed for almost everything: his poems, his appearance, and even his corduroy trousers. It was the beginning of the famous process which was ended by his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1972.

It was then that Brodsky knew about the affair. Brodsky was in a mental hospital in Moscow during New Year’s Eve and then, almost insane from jealousy and grief, went by train to Leningrad to confront Marina and Bobishev (The Gift). The escalation of the tension in his relationship with Basmanova continued until his arrest and exile to northern Russia in 1964.

Brodsky was arrested on February 11, 1964 on a street near his house. His parents did not know about the fate of their son for 24 hours. On February 18th, the process – which according his friend and bibliographer Losev, “reminisce of the Kafka’s process of presumed guilt in something that could not be defined “(Losev. Joseph Brodsky.Moscow, 1989, pp. 88-95) – started in the Dzerzhinsky district court in Leningrad.

TuneiadezThe case was founded on the basis of the“social parasitism” of Brodsky (tuneadstvo) – a ridiculous article in Soviet law that allowed the arrest of almost anyone in the creative professions who was not a member of the official Union of Writers.

It was surprising for such a young man – Brodsky was only 24 – to be so calm during the trial. The witnesses observed that nothing could distress Brodsky or overturn the absolute tranquility of his spirit in the face of the hostile trial. The level at which these two individuals, Brodsky and the judge, spoke revealed an absolute split between the spirit of the poet and the vulgar prose of the district court authority looking for petty criminals. The judge asked him “What are you doing for a living?” and the poet answered    “I write poems. I translate.” This was not accepted by the judge, and she repeated “Do you have a permanent job?” – “I thought it is permanent job – to write poetry” – “Why you did not work?” And the poet answered “I worked. I wrote poetry.” The judge: “What is your profession?” – Brodsky: “I am a poet” – “  Who recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?   Brodsky:  “No one. And who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?  Judge:” Did you study this?” –  “This?”  Judge:  “To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?” Brodsky: “I didn’t think you could get this from school”.  Judge: “How then?”  Brodsky: “I think that it . . . comes from God. (The New Leader, pp. 6-8). This dialogue is quintessential of the overall relationship between Brodsky and the state in the Soviet Union.

Between sessions of the trial, Brodsky was confined to a mental hospital again, where it was determined that he was psychologically fit to work. The sentence was short:

“From the report of the committee on work with young writers it is apparent that Brodsky is not a poet. He was condemned by the readers of the Evening Leningrad newspaper. Therefore the court will apply the Ukase of February 4, 1961 to send Brodsky to a distant locality for a period of five years of enforced labor.”

What could be more different then the mystic garden as conceptualized by Brodsky and the pettiness of the authorities?  In March 1964, he was sentenced to exile to Northern Russia, and spent 18 month in the labor camp near Archangelsk. He was released in 1966 after the protests of the literary world

Paradoxically, Brodsky remembered his time in exile as the happiest time in his life. At the same time, according to his friend Eugene Rein in Noreskaya, Brodsky’s poetry took high forms spiritually and metaphysically.

His relationship with Marina continued sporadically; she came to visit him several times in his exile, and words from her meant much more for him than the activities of his release from the northern exile. In 1964  Brodsky wrote the poignant poem to M.B.:“In the darkness of night/baring hope’s powerlessness/mile by mile/love is backing away/from the mindlessness“.

He was released in 1966. In 1967 his son Andrei was born. However, his spiritual and intellectual conflict with the existing authorities escalated until the exile of 1972, leading to world infamy and the Nobel Prize in literature.

Brodsky in America, 1972His relationship with Marina also deteriorated. Marina refused to give their son his last name choosing her own: Basmanov.  In the spring of 1972, the authorities gave Brodsky three weeks to pack his bags and leave Russia. In 1972 he lost everything: his family, his friends, and his love, all at the same time. The Russian language in which he wrote his poetry became as distant as the fatherland, which expelled one of its greatest sons. Before leaving the USSR, Brodsky wrote in open letter to Brezhnev about his full assurance that he would come back to his motherland “in the flesh or on paper”: ‘even though my people don’t need my body, they still need my soul..”

Brodsky never returned to Russia, nor did he see Marina Basmanova or his parents ever again. According to Losev, his son Andrei, came to visit him in New York once and this meeting did not bring a  reconciliation. The poet Brodsky gradually gave way to his role as an essayist. The metaphoric strophes of The Garden became true. He started to lose his great gift. In 1996, Brodsky left this world at the age of 55.

Paradoxically, his poetry initially became more popular among the Western literary public then it was in the Soviet Union where he was considered in the beginning too cold and too intellectual. During his lifetime, he never became as loved by the Russian people as the other great poet, the bard Vladimir Vysotsky. Their relationship is yet to be analyzed: it is a different story. Brodsky touched on it in his Nobel Lecture when he said that:”…there exists a rather widely held view, postulating that in his work a writer; in particular a poet should make use of the language of the crowd. For all its democratic appearance, and palpable advantages for a writer, this assertion is quite absurd.”(Nobel lectures from the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006. N.Y.-London, 2007, p.259

Joseph Brodsky never considered himself outside of his predecessors, the poets of the Silver Age. Among them were his mentor Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. There are many epithets to describe the poet Brodsky: Intellectual, Exile, and Traveler. The magnificent garden of Brodsky’s poetry continues to attract the attention of readers.

From Outskirts to the Center

And then: no partitions.
Only a massive meeting,
as if someone from the darkness
is suddenly embracing us
and, full of darkness,
full of darkness and peace,
we all stand at the cold, gleaming river.

-Joseph Brodsky
(2011)Translated by Oleg Dimov. Edited by Austin Smith

By Elena Dimov

©Featured picture by Alexander Borisenko


The University of Virginia library has a rich collection of Brodsky’s works in English and Russian.

Pictures used: photo by Yakov Gordin, RIAF ;  Martha Pearson;  film stills:”Иосиф Бродский – Возвращение” Документальный фильм, Россия, 2010. Авторы Алексей Шишов; “Joseph Brodsky: In the Prison of Latitudes”.  Documentary by Jan Andrews, Anny Carraro  Italy, USA, 2010.

Other Resources

Library of Congress Online Resources

The Nobel Prize  in Literature, 1987

Nobel Lecture



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Remembering Joseph Brodsky

                                                        After Two Years
By Joseph  Brodsky
Translated by Margarita Dimova

No, we did not grow mute or older.
We speak our own words, as before,
And our coats are the same dark color,
And the same women do not love us.

And again we are playing with time
In great amphitheaters of solitude,
And all the same lamps burn above us,
As exclamations of the night.

We live the past, as if it is the present,
As though it does not resemble the future.
Again not sleeping, we forget the sleeping ones
And engage in business as usual.

Keep, o humor, the youths merry
In continuous whirlpools of dark and light.
Keep them great for honor and for shame,
And keep them kind – for the vanity of the ages.


 Five poems by Joseph Brodsky


Selected books  of Joseph Brodsky at UVA Library

Collected Poems in English (2000)

Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1966)

So Forth:poems (1996)

To Urania. (1988)

Pis’ma rimskomu drugu (2010)

Бродский читает Письма римскому другу



Selected Bibliography

Brodsky, Joseph. Ann Kjellberg ed. Collected poems in English. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.2000.

Brodsky, Joseph. Elegy to John Donne, and other poems. Translated by Nicholas Bethell. London: Longmans.1967

Brodsky, Joseph. Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia. 1957-1992. Moskva: Panorama.1993

Brodsky, Joseph. Izbrannoe. Moskva: Izd-vo  Tretia volna.1993.

Brodsky, Joseph. Kholmy: bolshie stikhotvoreniia i poėmy. Sankt-Petersburg: LP VTPO Kinozentr.1991.

Brodsky, Joseph. Konez prekranoi ėpokhi: stikhotvoreniia. 1964-1971. Ann Arbor, Ardis.1977.

Brodsky, Joseph.Marbles: a play in three acts. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.1989.

Brodsky,Joseph. Mramor. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers.1984.

Brodsky, Joseph. Nativity poems. Translated by Petr Vail, Melissa Green, and Joseph Brodsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.2001.

Brodsky, Joseph. Novye stansy k Avguste: stikhi k M.B., 1962-1982. Ann Arbor, Ardis.1983.

Brodsky, Joseph, Vladimir Ufliand, and Olga Abramovich.Osenniĭ krik yastreba. 1990.

Brodsky, Joseph. Ostanovka v pustyne: stikhotvoreniia i poėmy. New York: Izd-vo im. Chekhova.1970.

Brodsky, Joseph.Peĭzazh s navodnenieṁ. Dana Point: Ardis.1995.

Brodsky, Joseph, Peresechennaia mestnost: puteshestviia s kommentariiami. Moskva: Nezavisimaia gazeta.1995.

Brodsky, Joseph. Pisma rimskomy drugu.St.Petersburg: Izd. Gr.Azbuka-Klasika. 2010.

Brodsky, Joseph. Rimskie ėlegii. New York: Russica.1982.

Brodsky, Joseph. Petr Vail ed.Rozhdestvenskie stikh; Rozhdestvo, tochka otscheta : beseda Iosifa Brodskogo s Petrom Vaĭlem. Moskva: Nezavisimaia gazeta.1992.

Brodsky, Joseph. Selected poems. Baltimore: Penguin books. 1974.

Brodsky, Joseph. So forth: poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.1996.

Brodsky, Joseph. Sochinenia.Vol.1-4. Sankt.Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond. 1998.

Brodsky, Joseph. V okrestnostikh Atlantidy: novye stikhotvoreniia. Sankt-Petersburg: Pushkinskiĭ fond.1995.

Brodsky, Joseph. Verses on the winter campaign .Translated by Nicholas Bethell. London: Anvil Press.1980.

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Welcome to Contemporary Russian Literature at the University of Virginia. Contemporary Russian Literature started in the summer of 2011. The goal of this ongoing project is to introduce the works of modern Russian writers to readers, students and scholars alike, interested in finding out about the happenings in the exciting world of modern Russian literature.

The changing publishing landscape in Russia and the entrance of Russia into the modern literary world has created an unprecedented challenge to readers of Russian literature – the emergence of many talented young writers in Russia, previously unknown. Their names have only begun to be recognized by Western readers, but the magnitude and the quality of the new literary wave from Russia exceeds all expectations.  It is difficult to speculate whether the appearance of these new talents will match the literary genius of the past, but it is obvious that the fresh, new voices of the younger generation of Russian poets and writers have become much more visible today.

The University of Virginia Library continues to develop its collection of contemporary Russian literature.  Our goal is to make this collection available to the university community and to evoke interest among all generations of readers as well as to provide reviews and textual examples of new Russian literature. Our hope is to become a place where readers can find  translations and reviews of modern Russian writers.

The partnership with UVA’s Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network Technological Initiatives (SHANTI) has provided valuable assistance and guidance.

For more information about our contemporary Russian literature collection, or to present translations and reviews please contact Elena Dimov or Bud Woodward at UVA Library.

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