Theses Doctoral

The Independent Turn in Soviet-Era Russian Poetry: How Dmitry Bobyshev, Joseph Brodsky, Anatoly Naiman and Evgeny Rein Became the 'Avvakumites' of Leningrad

Shohl, Margo

The first post-World War II generation of Soviet Russian writers was faced with a crisis of language even more pervasive and serious than the "Crisis of Symbolism" at the beginning of the 20th century: the level of abstraction and formulaic speech used in public venues had become such that words and phrases could only gesture helplessly in the direction of mysterious meaning. Due to the traditional status of poetry in Russian culture and to various other factors explored in this dissertation, the generation of poets coming of age in the mid-1950s was in a unique position to spearhead a renewal of language. Among those who took up the challenge was a group of four friends in Leningrad: Dmitry Bobyshev, Joseph Brodsky, Anatoly Naiman, and Evgeny Rein. Because of the extreme position this group adopted regarding the use of language, I refer to them in this work not as "Akhmatova's Orphans"--a term commonly applied to the quartet--but as literary "Avvakumites," a name Anna Akhmatova suggested that invokes the history of Archpriest Avvakum, who by rejecting reforms in church ritual founded the Orthodox sect now known as Old Believers. In a similar fashion, the "Avvakumites" of Leningrad eventually became exemplary for their generation in their creation of an alternative cultural space that simply ignored the demands of Soviet literature, cleaving instead to the much older tradition of humane letters. For the purpose of establishing the development of the Avvakumites into poets of the humane letters who absolutely rejected the language and dictates of Soviet Realism, I have focused on the contemporary scene: poetry and living poets published in the Soviet press, radio waves from the West, and the lively interactions among various groups within the new generation of Russian poets. The four poets at the center of my study coalesced as a group in Leningrad by the late 1950s, eventually finding their shared link to the humanist tradition in Russian letters in the person of Akhmatova, with whom all four became more or less friendly. Chapter 1 of my dissertation begins with a consideration, based largely on the important and influential anthology Poetry Day (Den' poezii, 1956), of the state of Soviet poetry following World War II and especially after Joseph Stalin's death. In the second part of Chapter One I discuss poets represented in the pages of Thaw era publications in relation to the development of the Avvakumites' poetry. Among the poets under discussion here are: Nikolai Aseev, Viktor Bokov, Sergei Esenin, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Dmitry Kedrin, Leonid Martynov, Vladimir Mayakovsky, Boris Pasternak, Boris Slutsky, Marina Tsvetaeva, Konstantin Vanshenkin, Evgeny Vinokurov. Chapter 2 examines how the Avvakumites came to their uncompromising position in regard to publishing, via studies of the Leningrad Technological Institute's short-lived wall newspaper, Kul'tura (Culture) and of several poems written on the occasion of the launching of Sputnik (1957). In the final section of Chapter Two, I consider the role of poetry circles called Literaturnye ob''edineniia, or LITOs, in providing an alternative space in which to share poetry, their influence in the formation of distinct poetic groups [kompanii], and how the Avvakumites' humanist focus distinguished their group from other kompanii. Among poets discussed in this chapter are Mikhail Krasilnikov, Stanoslav Krasovitsky, Yaroslov Smelyakov, and Vladimir Uflyand. Chapter 3 takes up another influential contemporary source of exciting new rhythms and themes: the Voice of America's radio jazz program, Music USA, hosted by Willis Conover. Beyond showing how the Avvakumites incorporated jazz rhythms and themes into their poetry, I argue that Conover's interviews with jazz artists conveyed to the Avvakumites and their generation an attractive and influential narrative of independence and human dignity. Russian and western artists discussed here include Louis Armstrong, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Eartha Kitt, Gerry Mulligan, Valery Mysovsky, Charlie Parker, Nonna Sukhanova. In Chapter 4 I discuss how Anna Akhmatova became the culminating shaping force on the young Avvakumites. Akhmatova was a living bridge to the broken-off traditions of Russian poetry, the warmth of whose personal relations with these young poets marked an intense era of collective growth and sharing that ended with her death. The Avvakumites emerged early and strongly as a group of gifted poets who rejected the strictures of Socialist Realism while embracing the humanist tradition in Russian letters. Brodsky has become emblematic to the world at large in that regard, his pivotal role in the history of literature marked by the Nobel Prize in 1987. In this dissertation I have tried to place the emergence of Brodsky in its broader context, analyzing the surprisingly rich contemporary landscape of rhythms, sounds, and ideas, and especially the roles of the members of his friendship group in making the independent "Avvakumite" turn that signified, in a way, the beginning of the end of Soviet rule.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Slavic Languages and Literatures
Thesis Advisors
Gasparov, Boris
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 26, 2011