The poet’s work “On the Independence of Ukraine” has become Putin’s propaganda material, and it is a great disappointment. But beware of the exaggerations of those who say that the essence of Russian culture needs to be reconsidered
Odessa, from our envoy. On Sunday a Polish friend forwarded me an interview last October with the greatest Lithuanian poet, Tomas Venclova (1937), taken up in Polish by Gazeta Wyborcza, and, I hope soon, by Micol Flammini’s Foglio per la cura. Venclova talks about the relationship with the Russian language and culture, and with the past in general, a hot topic in his country and a burning one in Ukraine. Venclova was friends with Iosif Brodsky and Czeslaw Milosz, who were friends with each other, as well as shared by the Nobel. Irena Grudzinska Gross has dedicated a fundamental book to their friendship. I’m writing about it here for a topic that I didn’t know about until now except for a mention by Cataluccio in the Foglio last February, and which instead caused a sensation and continues to do so, in the incandescent context of relations between Ukraine and Russian culture. In 1991 or soon after, shortly after the independence of Ukraine and other former Soviet republics, Brodsky wrote (in Russian) a poem entitled precisely “On the independence of Ukraine”, which sounded like a lashing attack and, in his own words, a provocation. But he kept it to himself, save for a reading in Palo Alto in 1992, in front of a large audience in the Jewish community, then repeated in New York, at Queen’s College, in 1994. Brodsky never wanted it to be published, and the text, which circulated from hand to hand, was considered by many to be apocryphal, above all for the complacent virulence of the tone and lexicon – “spitting in the Dnipro”… – until someone published the video and recording of his reading. Since then, torrents of ink have poured on the theme of Brodsky’s sharing of a cultural and above all linguistic Russian imperialism: a paradox, for a Jew, imprisoned by the Soviet regime as a social parasite, exiled and becoming a writer and poet in another language, English… Was it an accident, or the revelation of a proud bond, if not certainly with power, with a literary and linguistic world tragically threatened with being lost with the collapse of the USSR? One can imagine how much the provocation hurt Ukrainian nationalism, which Brodsky derisively warned (the translation is very risky): “Rest in peace, Cossacks, atamans and gulag guards! / But remember: when it’s your turn / you will gasp and whisper, scratching the mattress of your deathbed, / not Taras’s loud noises, but Alexander’s poetic lines”.
Taras is Schevchenko, the poet “father of the Ukrainian language”; Alexander is Pushkin, “father of the Russian language”. The first reflex of the patriotic Ukrainian reader is to rush to dismantle the statue of Pushkin (it did indeed happen, and it threatens to happen again, although Brodsky is not responsible for it). Keith Gessen, who unlike me is a specialist, also became aware of Brodsky’s poetry late, but only until 2011, and observed in the New Yorker that “a close and dear friend of Brodsky was Tomas Venclova, considered the greatest Lithuanian poet, and certainly Brodsky must have thrilled to see Lithuania rise up against the Soviet behemoth in 1990 and fight for independence – and win it”. Brodsky – wrote Gessen – “He was a strongly anti-Soviet Soviet poet, and yet a Soviet poet.” “Russian was taught at school in Almaty, in Tashkent, in Samarkand; in Tallinn, Riga, Vilnius; in Sevastopol, Lvov and Kiev… There were more people learning Russian when Brodsky was writing his poems than had ever learned it before… These processes need time, but thirty years from now it is possible that there are very few Russian speakers on the streets of Almaty / Kazakhstan /; so in fifty or a hundred years in Kiev, where Mikhail Bulgakov was born, and in Odessa, the city of Isaac Babel’”. Others have not been as forgiving of Brodsky’s “real political incorrectness.” It seems to me that we can say that Brodsky did his best to demonstrate that the Russian language and the Russian people, its “national character”, are mutually indispensable, and therefore that Russian does not belong to those who speak it, including Ukrainians, but to Russians. Only this has become the essential distinction. A post of war, and no less.
We come to today’s Venclova. “In Lithuania many people, who are anti-Soviet and anti-Russian, have just a Soviet mentality, a Komsomol mentality: they change names, tear down old symbols and immediately put their own, they take down the commemorative plaques and so on. That is to say, to destroy and, by doing so, to gain prestige for oneself, to secure oneself. This mentality leads to no good. It’s not patriotism at all… Journalist Andrius Uzhkalnis wrote that we don’t need the Russian language and it shouldn’t be taught in schools. It seems to me that perhaps it should be taught less, but in the same way as French, German or Polish. It’s a neighbor’s language… Also, Russia is now Lithuania’s enemy. It is necessary to know the language of the enemy…”. There are those who say that “we should reconsider the essence of Russian culture. After all, this is what, according to some, created the Russian imperialist mentality. There are exaggerated, even grotesque opinions. I read somewhere that Mayakovsky was not a talented poet. He unfortunately he was a talented poet, a tragic figure, destroyed by the Soviet regime. Or it is said that Leo Tolstoy wrote badly in Russian and had written half of ‘War and Peace’ in French… Let’s say that Pushkin was a cantor of Russian imperialism. There are examples of this in his poems: he is clearly against the Lithuanian November Uprising. ‘It is a Slavic dispute, a family domestic dispute…’. By Slavs, Pushkin means the Poles, because Lithuania, the intelligentsia, the Lithuanian nobility of that time spoke Polish. Furthermore, Pushkin, like everyone at the time, did not make much distinction between the Baltic and the Slavic world. Now let’s make a strict distinction between the two. However, Pushkin in general does not have too many poems with imperialist overtones to his credit. Lermontov wrote a poem, ‘The Dispute’, with an imperialist accent, but it was not Pushkin and Lermontov who created Russian imperialism. Pushkin and Tolstoy are not to be confused with Minister Uvarov, who created the Russification slogan ‘Orthodoxy, self-government, people’, which was opposed by most Russian writers… Just read War and Peace or Haji Murat to to realize that in Tolstoy there is no trace of imperialism. With Dostoevsky the matter is a little more complicated. But if you don’t read Dostoevsky, you become impoverished in the field of psychology and philosophy. How Russian classics would behave now is difficult to say. But intuitively I am sure that neither Dostoyevsky nor Tolstoy nor Pushkin would have supported Putin and the attack on Ukraine. For me personally, the unfortunate thing concerns Iosif Brodsky. I loved him very much and still love him, but he wrote anti-Ukrainian, unintelligent and very offensive verses. I advised him not to print them and under no circumstances to read them in public. And if he had read them, he would have had to do it in Kyiv, face to face with the Ukrainians, even at the risk of being thrown tomatoes and perhaps stones… Brodsky has not published these verses, but he recited them once in public, in America or Canada, that is, behind the backs of the Ukrainians, and this is not cool. And the poem became famous. It is now being used by power and by Putin’s propagandists. It’s very serious. Adam Michnik said: ‘I don’t know who will win the Ukrainian war, but I definitely know who lost it: Iosif Brodsky. He’s ruined his reputation for many decades, perhaps centuries.’ More than Pushkin with his poem ‘To the slanderers of Russia’”..
In 1990 Lithuania was the first to rebel and claim independence. At that time the head of the Soviet air forces for Estonia and the Baltic was a young man, the only Chechen general, who had shown himself in Afghanistan, Dzochar Dudayev. Instead of repressing the Baltic independence activists, he helped them, left the Russian army, and became his country’s pro-independence leader before being assassinated by the Russians in 1996. Lithuania then took in his family. I also knew little about Lithuania, and now I know all the essentials, thanks to the beautiful travel book by Francesco M. Cataluccio, “There is no Ithaca”, Humboldt Books 2022. (Cataluccio recalls Brodsky’s love for Vilnius and Kaunas, and the phrase – ambivalent, moreover – on the eve of his departure for the United States: “The Lithuanians are the best people in the empire!”) In Vilnius there is a square named after Dudayev.CopyAMP code
Once, in Odessa, Professor Tomas Venclova explained that one of his favorite poems by Joseph Brodsky was “To the Pushkin Monument in Odessa”. Venclova now concludes: “Listen to the Lithuanians. They know what Russia is”.