In ‘1917,’ the Feverish Poetry of Russia’s Revolutions
Few socio-political shifts have seen such immediate, impassioned literary attention as the events that shook Russia in 1917. One hundred years have passed, yet many of the poems and stories wrung from this historic moment remain as able to speak to us as they were a century ago.
In 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, writer-translator Boris Dralyuk has assembled a brilliant, fiery, and motley crew of Symbolist, Futurist, and Acmeist poets, and social-realist, satirist, and science-fiction prose artists. Their works alternately express wild enthusiastic about revolution, or cautious pleasure, or fear and disgust.
None of this literature takes a long view. Most of the works in 1917 were written and published that very year, amidst the fire of the February and October revolutions. Dralyuk does extend his frame a little, to literature published in 1918 and 1919, when it seemed the White Army might still triumph. Yet all of it exudes the heat of uncertainty.
These poems and fictions were written by some minor talents, but also some of the twentieth century’s great literary forces: Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Mikhail Bulgakov. The collection bristles with literary energy. After all, if early 1900s Russia was a cauldron of political activity and dissent, then it was equally a cauldron of literary foment. Literary groups met, splintered, argued, and issued manifestoes.
Those not familiar with the Great War or the forces at play in Tsarist Russia might, at times, be left adrift. The collection’s brief introductions focus on the writers’ lives, not political history. Yet the most important aspect of the collection is not that it gives us the scent of living Russia 100 years ago. It’s that the writing remains able to speak to revolutionary energy, whether from mid-twentieth-century anti-colonial uprisings, or Arab uprisings of 2011, or the political uprisings yet to come.
Dralyuk, who also did a number of the translations, clearly didn’t aim at a stiff, academic textual fidelity or a frozen representation of times past. Instead, he produced and curated translations that capture the buzzing vibrancy of the originals. Mostly, he lets the literature speak for itself.
There are occasional moments where Dralyuk seems to undercut or second-guess his writers, as when he throws shade on gay writer Mikhail Kuzmin’s enthusiasm for revolution. Kuzmin’s poem “Russian Revolution,” trans. Dralyuk, embraces joy:
a “Hurrah” clings like a cloud of dust
to the motorized clamour.
Laughter? What’s the point of being dour?
This is no funeral—we’re building a new house.
Will there be space for all of us?
We’ll think of that later.
As it turned out, Kuzmin wouldn’t find much space for himself under the Soviet regime. Dralyuk focuses his brief editorial notes on how the writers’ lives turned out: usually, not well. For Kuzmin, his “companion” Yurkun became a police informant and the poet died of pneumonia in 1936, during the Great Purges, before Yurkun was arrested and executed in 1938.
The collection features a few lesser-known poems from 1917, such as Zinaida Gippius’s forgettable “Now.” But it also has fresh translations of the central works, such as Alexander Blok’s brilliant “The Twelve,” published in January 1918.
Blok’s poem was never quite on track with the Soviet vision. After all, in the twelfth stanza, the poem reveals the leader of the revolutionary forces: “crowned with snowflake roses—/ up ahead—is Jesus Christ?” Still, this stirring work, which casts the reader into the hot and cold of early twentieth century Russia, earned praise from Trotsky. The Reds’ one-time leader understood “Blok is not one of ours,” yet also saw that “The Twelve will remain for ever.”
The translation of “The Twelve,” by Dralyuk and Robert Chandler, is a feat. It manages not only to call to the sound and rhythm of the original, but also echoes how Blok’s poem played with poetic forms and shifts in register.
Nearly all the verse included in 1917 fully inhabits and foregrounds the historical moment, whether with excitement or, occasionally, with disgust. As the narrator says in Valentin Kataev’s “The Drum,” the atmosphere of the time “was charged like a Leyden jar with intense and fast-moving thoughts.” Yet with few exceptions, the stories and story fragments are different. They keep revolution to the background, looking at 1917 through a squinted, often satiric, gaze.
The tone of most of the collection’s stories is darker and wittier than the poems. As Dralyuk writes, the authors who witnessed the first revolution of February 1917 “registered their reactions in verse.” Later in the year, authors continued to express themselves in poems or, if not, in newspaper articles.
Fictional responses were fewer, but the ones included give a glimpse of the black humor of 1917, from satirists like Yefim Zozulya and Tiffi (Nadezhda Teffi). They also demonstrate the wide range of early-twentieth-century prose experimentation, as by Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of the pioneering dystopic science-fiction novel We.
Oddly, the most disappointing work in the collection is the final story fragment, “Future Prospects,” the literary debut of the great Mikhail Bulgakov. It was written by a twenty-eight-year-old Bulgakov and does reveal his thoughts in 1919, when serving with the White Army. But this piece, unlike most of the collection, is largely of a historic, not literary, interest.
Mostly, though, this collection is not history. It shows off, and revels in, the explosive literary energy of early twentieth century Russia. The openness of its translations allows us to re-interpret those century-old works and to see how their energy might respond to pro- or anti-Trump uprisings to come.