Konstantin Vaginov and the Death of Nikolai Gumilev

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теги: Константин Вагинов, современники, посвящения, смерть

In his “Poetic Responses to the Death of Gumilev,”1 Ivan Martynov has chronicled the repercussions of Gumilev’s execution by the Cheka in August 1921 in the poetry of his contemporaries.

Martynov recalls those poets who remained faithful to Gumilev and marked his death with memorable poems as well as the opportunists who publicly and loudly praised his executioners. Among those who betrayed Gumilev for selfish reasons, Martynov cites such former close friends as Elizaveta Polonskaia, Mikhail Zenkevich, Larisa Reisner, and Sergei Gorodetskii.2 Their cynicism and cowardice were, however, more than offset by the loyalty and resourcefulness of, among others, Anna Akhmatova, Georgii Adamovich, Nikolai Otsup, Ida Nappel'baum and Irina Odoevtseva. Despite the very real danger, these poets refused to renounce Gumilev in public. Because the Soviet censor would allow no overt references to Gumilev, much less poems in commemoration of his death, his friends were able to refer to him only obliquely in the months following his execution. Thus, while almost all of the poems in Akhmatova’s Anno Domini MCMXXI refer to Gumilev, his name appears nowhere in the text. In addition, two of his closest collaborators, Adamovich and Otsup, could allude to his death only in poems ostensibly on the death of Pushkin.3

Such Aesopian masquerades, while transparent enough for contemporaries in the know, become opaque and difficult to decode with the passage of time. Despite the uncertainties associated with interpreting such purposefully hidden subtexts, evidence suggests that a recently discovered poem by Konstantin Vaginov (1899-1934) is another covert tribute to the memory of Gumilev. Vaginov’s association with Gumilev began in 1920, when he was invited to join Gumilev’s poetry seminar at the Petrograd House of the Arts. There he became a member of the “Zvuchashchaia rakovina”4— fellow students with whom Gumilev collaborated in several poetic anthologies that were published in the following years.5 In the summer of 1921, Gumilev singled out Vaginov from the other members of the “Zvuchashchaia rakovina,” promoting him to the rank of podmaster' in the second Guild of Poets. Almost simultaneously Vaginov was accepted into the Petrograd Union of Poets, also headed by Gumilev.6

Several poets who were active in Petersburg in the 1920s have described the powerful impression that Vaginov’s poetry made on his contemporaries, including Gumilev.7 In an unpublished memoir Nikolai Chukovskii notes that while Gumilev and the other members of a poetry seminar did not really understand Vaginov’s poetry, they appreciated his talent: “There was a kind of solemn and tragic note in these poems that forced one to relate to them with respect, despite all their obscurity.”8 Georgii Adamovich, in an obituary for Vaginov published in Paris, also described Gumilev’s ambivalent reaction to Vaginov’s poetry:

Vaginov’s poems would provoke in [Gumilev] a restrained, powerless sort of irritation. They truly were “like nothing else”: no logic, no sense: the most absurd images, the most fantastic syntax . . . Sometimes you would feel like bursting out into laughter, or just shrug it off. But behind the nonsense of Vaginov’s text a melody lived and rang out. A melody about which you could say: “It’s impossible to listen to that without emotion.” Gumilev felt this. He understood that his other students, who had just read their facile and irreproachable poems, lacked precisely that quality which Vaginov possessed. It made him angry that he couldn’t convince Vaginov to write differently . . . But Vaginov would just smile, agree, get embarrassed, and the next day he would bring a new poem, “crazier” than the previous one, and still more musical.9

Vaginov’s association with Gumilev and the Guild of Poets was cut short by Gumilev’s execution and the subsequent breakup of the guild. While no surviving primary or secondary sources speak explicitly of Vaginov’s reaction to the death of his teacher, the following poem, for reasons I will summarize below, may well be Vaginov’s poetic response to Gumilev’s death.10

Грешное небо с звездой Вифлеемской,
Милое, милое, баю, баю,
Синим осколком в руках задремлешь,
В белых и нежных девичьих гробах.

Умерла Восточная звезда сегодня,
Знаешь, прохожий у синих ворот.
Ветер идёт дорогой новогодней,
Ветер в глазах твоих поёт.

“Greshnoe nebo” is typical of Vaginov’s lyric poetry with its reliance on intertex- tual associations, complex “fractured” imagery, surprising thematic juxtapositions and shifts of voice, and subtle melodic orchestration. The poem proceeds by joining images drawn from opposing semantic fields and simultaneously foregrounding the reader’s conventional expectations. The association of the Star of Bethlehem, the signal of Christ’s birth, with a “sinful sky” in line 1 immediately jolts the reader to attention. The atmosphere generated by the lullaby of line 2 and the picture of the infant dozing in the arms of its mother in line 3 is threatened by the violence implicit in the image “sinim oskolkom.” Similarly, the substitution of “grobakh” for the expected “rukakh” develops this theme of violence injected into domestic tranquillity. This image shocks the reader who can already see in her mind’s eye the traditional picture of the Christ child in the arms of the Virgin Mary. The surprising transformation of the Nativity through the introduction of violence and death is developed in the poem’s second stanza, with the perplexing death of the Star of Bethlehem, here called the Eastern Star.11 Grammatical and referential ambiguities combine in the next line around the enigmatic “prokhozhii u sinikh vorot.” In the poem’s final two Blokian images the positive associations of the New Year and song are juxtaposed to the threat of the wind, perhaps associated with the force of nature and the revolution. Such an analysis, however, leaves several major questions about the poem’s interpretation without apparent answers. To what exactly does the death of the “Eastern Star” refer? Who is addressed in the poem? The “passer-by the dark blue gates?” What is the point of Vaginov’s combining images of violence and death with traditional iconographic references to the Nativity of Christ? The key, or keys, to the poem, it would seem, must be sought elsewhere.

The date of the manuscript, August 1921, supplies the first piece of evidence to associate the poem with Gumilev’s execution. One could also identify the “Eastern Star” with Gumilev on the basis of the role eastern themes and settings play in his poetry and life. The numerous textual and thematic correspondences between “Gresh- noe nebo” and one of Gumilev’s last poems, “Na dalekoi zvezde Venere,”12 provide the strongest evidence for the conclusion that Vaginov’s poem was a clandestine homage to Gumilev. Composed in July 1921, approximately one month before Gumilev’s death, “Na dalekoi zvezde Venere” describes the poet’s belief in the immortality of art and in the artist.

На далёкой звезде Венере
Солнце пламенней и золотистей,
На Венере, ах, на Венере
У деревьев синие листья.

Всюду вольные звонкие воды,
Реки, гейзеры, водопады
Распевают в полдень песнь свободы,
Ночью пламенеют, как лампады.

На Венере, ах, на Венере
Нету слов обидных или властных,
Говорят ангели на Венере
Языком из одних только гласных.

Если скажут ей и аи,
Это - радостное обещание,
Уо, ао - о древнем рае
Золотое воспоминание.

На Венере, ах, на Венере
Нету смерти терпкой и душной,
Если умирают на Венере,
Превращаются в пар воздушный.

И блуждают золотые дымы
В синих, синих вечерних кущах,
Иль, как радостные пилигримы,
Навещают ещё живущих.

“Na dalekoi zvezde Venere” prefigures and anticipates the central images and themes of Vaginov’s “Greshnoe nebo” in several important ways. Gumilev’s poem raises the possibility that Vaginov’s Star of Bethlehem or Eastern Star can be identified with Gumilev’s “Star Venus,” called the “Morning Star” because it is the first and brightest star to appear in the eastern sky in the morning.13 The repetition of dark blue in the two poems (Vaginov: sinim oskolkom, и sinikh vorot; Gumilev: sinie list'ia, v sinikh, sinikh vechernikh kushchakh) also supports the connection between them. In addition, the poems are related thematically by the central role death plays in each. While Vaginov’s poem transforms the celebration of the Nativity into a lament for the dead, Gumilev’s poem treats death in a more positive light. On Venus there is no death, only transfiguration: “Esli umiraiut na Venere, / Prevrashchaiutsia v par vozdushnyi.” And the souls of the dead, “like joyful pilgrims,” continue to visit the living.14

Vaginov was not the only one to use this poem as a subtext to refer to Gumilev’s death. In the following poem by another of his students, Irina Odoevtseva, Gumilev appears in a dream and describes the afterlife in images which can be traced to “Na dalekoi zvezde Venere”:

Мы прочли о смерти его,
Плакали громко другие.
Не сказала я ничего,
И глаза мои были сухие.
А ночью пришёл он во сне
Из гроба и мира иного ко мне,
В чёрном старом своём пиджаке,
С белой книгой в тонкой руке -
И сказал мне: «Плакать не надо!
Хорошо, что не плакала ты;
В синем раю такая прохлада,
И вохдух тихий такой,
И деревья шумят надо мной,
Как деревья Летнего сада.»15

Odoevtseva’s poem is an open and direct response to Gumilev’s death as well as an affirmation of the final image of “Na dalekoi zvezde Venere,” the dead poet visiting the living. Odoevtseva also picks up the color dark blue (Gumilev: U derev'ev sinie list'ia; Odoevtseva: v sinem raiu) for her vision of the poet’s final resting place. Finally, through the image of the “trees of the Summer Garden” with its inevitable association with Pushkin, she connects the “dark blue paradise” and Gumilev’s “Star Venus,” where “the trees have dark blue leaves,” with the tradition of Russian poetry. There is no reason to grieve for Gumilev, the poem argues, because his immortality in Russian literature is guaranteed.

Although the outlines of a reading of Vaginov’s poem as part of a complex web of contemporary poetic reactions to Gumilev’s death are now visible, another key subtext, Vaginov’s reading of the October Revolution, remains to be explored. A prose work of this same period, “Zvezda Vifleema,”16 sums up Vaginov’s historicism with images strikingly similar to those of “Greshnoe nebo.” A complex mosaic of thirty-seven short numbered sections, “Zvezda Vifleema” moves freely in time and space — merging Athens, Rome, and Jerusalem of the first centuries a.d. with Petrograd of the 1920s. Appropriating a Spenglerian notion of historical recurrence popular in Petrograd intellectual circles of the time,17 Vaginov emphasizes the historical parallel between the Christian and Bolshevik revolutions. Deploring the Christian destruction of the pagan religion and culture of the classical world, the poet fears that the Bolsheviks (called “mal'chiki novoi religii” and “vifleemtsy”) pose a similar threat to the thousand year tradition of Christian and humanistic culture in Russia. The result of the author’s consistent erasing of the temporal, geographical, and historical differences between revolution in the past and the present is a generalized picture of a world poised on the brink of cultural revolution, a double exposure of a decadent empire whose political, religious, and cultural hegemony has come under attack from adherents of a new religion on the rise.

This disorienting loss of spatial and temporal boundaries is emphasized in the story by the central characters’ own lack of a stable identity. The poet describes himself alternately as the pagan Philostratus (“la poslednii Zevkid-Filostrat”) and as a poet in the revolution (“la v sermiage poet.”).18 Venus is continually substituted for the Virgin Mary (“Ekh, pravoslavnye, — za uzhinom govorit pop u predispolkoma, — slyshal grekh i soblazn: govoriat, ‘Veneru s mladentsem vezut v Petrograd, nashli ее v pole’”) and is transformed into an old woman before the eyes of Philostratus (“Posmotrel na ее ruki Filostrat, smorshchennye ruki u nee, podnial golovu — nad nim litso starukhi”).

In several passages in “Zvezda Vifleema,” Vaginov portrays the revolution as both the dawn of a new era and a threat to cultural continuity. The explicit allusion to Pushkin’s death in the following passage, for example, implies a more general threat to Russian culture: “A Filostrat . . . snova padaet u nog Apollona v Letnem sadu. No kogda zari vspykhnula kolesnitsa, vidit on sebia ne v Letnem sadu, a na Chernoi rechke na grecheskom sarkofage.” The Summer Garden symbolizes the continuity of the Russian cultural tradition; the classical sarcophagus at Chernaia Rechka, the site of Pushkin’s fatal duel, represents the fragility of that tradition. The author’s concern for the fate of Russian culture in the Soviet era is also apparent in Philostratus’s final lament for all the dead civilizations of the world: “Skloniv golovu, plachet on nad mirom. О gorodakh, kotorye nikogda ne vernutsia, о narodakh, kotorye nikogda ne uvidiat solntsa, о religiiakh, v sumrak ushedshikh.”

Vaginov’s story “Zvezda Vifleema” explains the poet’s ambivalence toward the poem’s central image, the Star of Bethlehem. When seen through Vaginov’s historical double vision, the Star of Bethlehem comes to symbolize simultaneously the births of the Christian and the Soviet eras—the death of the culture of the classical world, and the present threat to the Christian and humanistic literary tradition in Russia. Thus, the image is both joyful and tragic, positive and negative, symbolic of life and death, a nativity and a funeral. Pushkin’s death in “Zvezda Vifleema,” a symbol of the revolutionary threat to the literary tradition in Russia, supports the parallel use of an allusion to Gumilev’s death—necessarily covert—in “Greshnoe nebo.”

Odoevtseva’s assertion that the dead poet is at home in an ideal world of Poetry, a continuing inspiration to poets and friends, seconds the positive tone of Gumilev’s poem. Vaginov’s vision is appreciably darker. Gumilev identifies the “Star Venus” with a deathless realm of pure art and an escape from the real world (“Na Venere, akh, na Venere / Netu slov obidnykh ili vlastnykh, / Govoriat angeli na Venere / Iazykom iz odnikh tol'ko glasnykh.”). Vaginov’s image of the Eastern star is associated with the shattered culture of the past, the death of the artist, and, perhaps, the future death of poetry itself. Vaginov’s juxtaposition of images of birth and death ironically transforms Gumilev’s (and Odoevtseva’s) positive treatment of death and resurrection. The “song of freedom” sung by Gumilev’s “reki, geizery, vodopady” reflects the poet’s sense of unbridled creativity; Vaginov’s poem, however, ends with the bleak wordless song of the wind: “Veter v glazakh tvoikh poet.” “Greshnoe nebo” serves several ambivalent purposes: it commemorates Gumilev’s death and presents a strategic and ironic reworking of one of Gumilev’s last poems. Vaginov presents an increasingly apocalyptic vision of the future of Russian culture and poetry in Soviet society.
1. Ivan Martynov, “Poeticheskie otkliki na gibel' Gumileva,” Gumilevskie chteniia, 1980-1981, ed. Ivan Martynov (Leningrad: 1982), 107-131.

2. Ibid., 108-121.

3. G. V. Adamovich, Chistilishche: Stikhi (Petrograd: Petropolis, 1922), 11-12; N. A. Otsup, Grad: Stikhi (Petrograd: Tsekh poetov, 1921), 13, cited in Martynov, “Poeticheskie otkliki,” 126-127.

4. Nina Berberova, Kursiv moi: Avtobiografiia (Munich: Fink, 1972), 135-136.

5. Zvuchashchaia rakovina (Petrograd: 1922); Ushkuiniki (Petrograd: 1922); Gorod (Petrograd: 1923).

6. Leonid Chertkov, “Poeziia Konstantina Vaginova,” K. Vaginov, Sobranie stichotvorenij, ed. L. Chertkov (Munich: Verlag Otto Sagner, 1982), 214-215.

7. Nina Berberova, “Iz peterburgskikh vospominanii,” Opyty (New York: n.p., 1953), 163-180; Leonid Borisov, Roditeli, nastavniki, poety. Kniga v moei zhizni, 2nd ed. (Moscow: Kniga, 1969) and Za kruglym stolom proshlego. Vospominaniia (Leningrad: Lenizdat, 1971); Veniamin Kaverin, Zdravstvui, brat. Pisat' ochen' trudno (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1965), Sobesednik (Vospominaniia i portrety) (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1973), and Vechernyi den'. Vstrechi. Portrety (Moscow: Sovetskii pisatel', 1982); Vera Lur'e, “Petrogradskoe,” Dni [Berlin], no. 232 (5 August 1923); Irina Odoevtseva, Na beregakh Nevy (Washington, D.C.: Kamkin, 1967); Nadezhda Pavlovich, “Pis'mo iz Peterburga (Peterburgskie poety),” Gostinitsa dlia puteshestvuiushchikh v prekrasnom [Moscow], no. 99 (November 1922): 30-31; Vsevolod Rozhdestvenskii, “Peterburgskaia shkola molodoi poezii,” Zapiski peredvizhnogo obshchedostupnogo teatra Gaideburova i Skarskoi [Petrograd], no. 62 (7 October 1923).

8. Nikolai Chukovskii, “Iz vospominanii.” typescript. No date, 6. In possession of author.

9. Georgii Adamovich, “Pamiati Vaginova,” Poslednie novosti [Paris], no. 4830 (14 June 1934).

10. Vaginov copied the poem into the album of Konstantin Konstantinovich Man'kovskii (1904-1938), a minor writer who, along with Vaginov, was a member of the Ego-Futurist group “Kol'tso poetov imeni К. M. Fofanova.” The poem bears a dedication to Man'kovskii. In the 1970s Man'kovskii’s widow sold this album to the Institute of Russian Literature at the Pushkin House (IRLI) in Leningrad.

11. Matthew 2:1-10.

12. Nikolai Gumilev, Sobranie sochinenii (Washington, D.C.: Kamkin, 1964) 2:378-379. The poem is dated July 1921 and was published for the first time in the second installment of Tsekh poetov (Petrograd, 1921) along with Gumilev’s last poem “la sam nad soboi nadsmeialsia.”

13. Sir James Frazer makes the same association in The Golden Bough, part 4, vol. 1, Adonis. Attis. Osiris (New York: Macmillan, 1935), 258-259.

14. This positive attribution to the star runs counter to the well-known acmeist rejection of the symbolists’ astral realm in favor of the here and now on earth, as well as to Gumilev’s own “Zvezdnyi uzhas,” where stars are described as “nedostiipnye chuzhie zvezdy.” For an illuminating and far-ranging discussion of astral imagery in Russian poetry, see Omry Ronen, An Approach to Mandelstam (Jerusalem: Magnes, 1983), 61-74.

15. Tsekh poetov, kn. 3 (Petrograd, 1922), 22, quoted by Martynov, “Poeticheskie otkliki,” 125.

16. Konstantin Vaginov, “Zvezda Vifleema,” Abraksas (Petrograd, 1922), 10-16.

17. For Spengler’s influence at the time, see the collection of essays Osval'd Shpengler i “Zakat Evropy” (Moscow, 1922).

18. For a fuller discussion of the figure of Philostratus in Vaginov’s works, see my “Konstantin Vaginov and the Leningrad Avant-Garde: 1921-1934” (Ph.D. diss. University of California, Berkeley, 1985), 126-134, 155-170. Compare with the following line from a poem of 1922, “Pomniu posledniuiu noch' v dome pokoinogo detstva:” “la v tolpe sermiazhnogo voiska.” Vaginov, Sobranie stichotvorenij, 68.