The poet Andrei Voznesensky died on 1 June. One of the former “big 4” Soviet poets, he managed to hang on to his cult status until the 1990s as that of the outspoken Joseph Brodsky rose ever higher. The poet Elena Fanailova reviews his position in the pantheon of Soviet writers and assesses his contribution to Soviet and Russian poetry.
Strange as it may sound, the death of a Poet (how many of those have there been in Russia?) [a reference to Lermontov’s poem The Death of a Poet railing at Pushkin’s death in a duel 1837 ed] compels us to consider his place in the history of the country and of literature.
In the new millennium Andrei Voznesensky seemed more like the shadow of a former age: his fame as a Soviet rebel was eclipsed by the fame of Brodsky, the anti-Soviet rebel, whose life was more dramatic and whose work was recognised by the Nobel committee.
The tragedy of Voznesensky’s hounding by Khrushchev and his part in the “Metropol” Almanac pale beside Brodsky’s court case, internal exile and then forced emigration. Voznesensky’s friendship with American beatniks, the artistic avant-garde and members of the Kennedy family are somehow shallower, closer to pop culture, than Brodsky’s creative friendship of many years with W.H Auden and Czeslaw Milosz. Moreover Soviet power didn’t only persecute Voznesensky: it allowed him to be published quite extensively, travel abroad and write lyrics for musical hits, especially at the end of the Brezhnev Era of Stagnation.
If we consider the historical path of the Soviet Union once it had fallen apart, the shift of public interest from one poet to another seems logical. Interest in Brodsky was at its peak during the years of perestroika, when Western freedom values became hugely important for the intelligentsia and the long-term dissident Andrei Sakharov was a People’s Deputy. Brodsky became Russia’s main poet and was at that time more interesting than Voznesensky. Until the 90s Voznesensky’s poetic journalistic comment in the spirit of the literature of Khrushchev’s “thaw” combined with the early 20th century traditions of Russian modernism had without any doubt enabled him to lay claim to that status for himself. Even his youthful friendship with Pasternak, who was so proud of the young poet, was eclipsed by Brodsky’s friendship with Akhmatova. She was completely out of favour and a figure of greater integrity and independence from the authorities than Pasternak.
The political shift in perception of the two “main poets” is interesting for one more, very significant, reason. Brodsky, as he said himself, was “infected with normal classicism”. Voznesensky was an admirer of futurism, Kruchenykh and the Soviet avant-garde, which, in the figure of Mayakovsky, had legitimised the relationship between art and authority.
Throughout the 90s and, indeed, the first half of the current decade, literary Russia was embarrassed by this collaboration. Literature, especially poetry, wanted only to distance itself from anything to do with government: it was divided between ironic criticism of Soviet style (Moscow conceptualism and Soviet pop art or sots-art) and a retreat into metametaphorism, complex forms and internal contemplation. So the normal classicism of St Petersburg, which Brodsky represented, triumphed for the time being over the Soviet Moscow avant-gardism of Voznesensky.
The public perception of Voznesensky was very affected by the changing information situation. The end of the 80s and beginning of the 90s saw the publication of countless writers and poets formerly banned by the Soviet censors. These were authors of the first 70 years of the 20th century and those writing in the 70s and 80s. Complete editions of Gumilyov, Khodasevich, Mandelstam, Shalamov, Kuzmin and the Real Artists [Rn oberiuty ed] were widely available and the works of Sapgir, Vsevolod Nekrasov and Prigov were published in numerous editions. All Soviet poetry’s achievements paled into insignificance beside these new publications. It became clear that religious themes, amazing metaphors and elegant writing were by no means the prerogative of Voznesensky alone. The poet Elena Shvarts died earlier this year at a much younger age. The body of her work, the power of her poetry and the enormous artistic world she created enable her to be ranked with Brodsky and Voznesensky.
Competition in the domain of poetry has grown since the times of the Soviet “big four”: Voznesensky, Evtushenko, Rozhdestvensky and Akhmadulina, whose youthful glory was so much part of the legendary poetry readings at Moscow’s Polytechnical Museum. Brodsky’s style of declaiming, completely unsuited for entertainment, and his poetry, so full of complex and overloaded cultural messages, make it impossible to imagine him in the company of these Moscow “cool” poets, as they’d be called today. Brodsky, Yevgenii Rein, Dmitri Bobyshev and Anatolii Naiman (also four – an important number for “main figures” in Russian poetry) were Petersburg teddy boys. They didn’t fill stadiums.
If we are to redress the historical balance, then the story is roughly the following. At the end of the 70s readers had never heard of anyone called Brodsky. It was difficult enough to find journals with Akhmatova’s translations or to buy the trademark blue (“Poetry Library” series) edition of Mandelstam on the black market. The whole of the Silver Age could be read in samizdat, though that wasn’t as widely available as is thought today. Other books that could be found only on the black market included Voznesensky’s “Triangular Pear” and even “Violoncello Oak Leaf”: these collections of his poetry cost up to 30 roubles, only a little less than Polish records of Western rock groups.
I can remember being taken on out of town trips in the winter by older friends, the first people to set up discotheques. We were a group of girls from the same institute. They took us to a secret market, which was a small collection of people in a cemetery under the pines. The books were set out on polythene on the ground and records were held under the coats of their would-be vendors. The danger of a raid by the authorities only intensified the impressions. The boys bought records and the girls the books. Then we swopped. I remember a particularly dashing verse of Voznesensky’s from that time
“..to see once more that blinding snow,
yellow at the edge of the forest,
and your fur-trimmed sheepskin coat,
Alexander I Empire style».
I think this is about my friend, whose father had brought her something very rare for that time from France. Readers of this verse immediately became part of an elite: those who read poetry, listened to music, went to the «Beryozka» shops [hard currency only ed] and to semi-private showings of films and theatrical first nights. These young non-conformists were not prepared to dissent openly, but they were ready to accept another, non-Soviet culture in all its manifestations, from the lowest (consumer) level to the most exalted.
Voznesensky was the first inoculation of Westernism which my generation received and, to repeat myself, the first inoculation of cultural modernism, albeit in a rather simplified form. Voznezensky had a lot to do with my youthful interest in American poetry and the 20th century art, which he publicised. His political style was no less infectious than Brodsky's would be later on. They were both poets, who were important for the mindset of a whole generation of readers and who dictated their style. Voznesensky promoted the relative level of freedom permissible in a totalitarian state and Brodsky – absolute freedom.
At the beginning of the 80s Voznesensky became an important poet-lyricist. He wrote the words for the immortal hit «A Million Scarlet Roses» to music by the leading song writer of the day Raimonds Pauls for the diva Alla Pugacheva. About 50 songs were written to his lyrics. Quotes from Alexei Rybnikov's rock opera «Juno and Avos» («Юнона и Авось») produced at the Lenkom Theatre by Mark Zakharov have gone into the popular lexicon. «You will wake me at dawn», a romantic pop song from «Juno» was another hit of the generation and is played in restaurants to this day.
At the end of the 80s censorship was relaxed and Voznesensky became one of the main protagonists of pop music: without his personal support the group «Aquarium» would never have been able to publish their first album. He also promoted the writers of the «Poetry Club» who used the journal «Youth» to shatter the contemporary poetic scene. These included the «metametaphorists», Parshchikov and many others. Voznesensky considered that they were carrying on the tradition of the poetry readings at the Polytechnical Museum.
Conventional wisdom has it that Voznesensky's poetic talent waned in the 90s and the 00s. He became an active member of the new liberal establishment. He received most of his public awards during this period and was involved with the «Triumph» youth prize; he moved on to «videoms» (combinations of drawing and text) and travelled around the country performing. His former supporters remained constant.
In the final years of his illness (he had two strokes) he almost completely withdrew from public life, but this only made his appetite for creative work the more amazing. He continued to publish large selections of his poetry – less in journals amd more in the popular press newspapers, such as «Moskovskii komsomolets» and «Izvestia». These publications are loyal to the government, but Voznesensky was given a latitude not permitted to other authors. He wrote a long poem about Anna Politkovskaya and verses about the Kursk submarine accident.
Attention should be drawn here to another curious fact which rebuts the idea of Voznesensky as a kind of «literary general». In the 00s Voznesensky had a great facility for doing what younger poets could only dream of: would civic poetry be a possibility today, after it had been so discredited by the Soviet experience? At a time when echoes of Nikolai Nekrasov and Vladimir Mayakovsky, read in conjunction with 20th century American rebels, were only beginning to feature in the writings of young authors (mainly the political «new left»), Vozesensky was confidently writing poetry on civic themes. Actually he had always done this. At the end of his life he was reproached for having let it spoil his poetry.
The poem about Anna Politkovskaya is good, not so much for its poetic phrases, as for its accessible intonation and raptorial powers of observation. There is a description of Anna meeting Yuri Shchekochikhin and Voznesensky's own feeling of guilt that he had underestimated her when he met her. There is a down to earth, though visually precise, description of the cemetery in winter with the militiamen and spies, all the banality of Russian life and the sadness at the banality – from everyday life to the morality which permits the killing of a woman.
I remember another important Voznesensky text, «Nuclear Winter», written in the 80s when he had been translating Byron.
In times of naivety,
With a groan the fashionable poet
Has understood your symptoms.
Is it the witches that are burying us
In the Boldino vortex of strophes?
The poet is clearly a barometer
For climate catastrophes.
Модный поэт со стоном
в наивные времена
понял твои симптомы,
Ведьмы ли нас хоронят
в болдинском вихре строф?
Видно, поэт — барометр
A fashionable poet. Barometer for catastrophes. Naïve times. May his memory live on.
Andrei Krzhanovskiy's film about Brodsky, A Room and a Half, will be reviewed on Open Democracy Russia soon