Poet and Citizen. Struggle and Song

A new Russian writer I discovered this morning, while I continued my random sampling of the Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, is Nikolai Nekrasov.

Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-78) was a liberal poet, essayist, and publisher or literary entrepreneur of two major journals of nineteenth century Russian literature, The Contemporary, and Notes of the Fatherland. The Contemporary was the journal which Pushkin founded and then published in. In 1846 Nekrasov cannily purchased the publication, and revived its flagging reputation as Russia’s premier literary journal. It was here that Nekrasov first published Dostoevsky, and here that Nekrasov’s liberal views met trouble from the Tsar’s censors. Conflicts with the authorities caused the demise of Pushkin’s journal, and from its ashes Nekrasov raised Notes of the Fatherland.

Nekrasov’s poems themselves did not resonate stronglt with me, except for the struggle of his character dramatised within. He was very much a poet of liberal, radical causes and national character in the people’s name – the Maya Angelou of nineteenth century Russia. In Poet and Citizen (1855) expressed his viewpoint of the poet as an advocate of liberal causes of social justice.

“You’re not obliged to be a poet,/ but you do have to be a citizen.”

But he was a very divided character, in part because of the abuse he and his mother experienced at the hands of his father. He identified and celebrated peasants, the people and women, and was praised by the early populist radical movements. This tone intensified as he aged and through the progress of the narodniki movement in Russia in the 1870s. Some poems are early empathetic presentations of oppressed women, that surely are informed by his own observation of his father beating his mother. His masterpiece, according to Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, is ‘Red-Nosed Frost’ which tells of the death in the cold of a widow after burying her husband.

‘Are you warm enough now?’ Frost whispers,
his arms now encircling her waist –
and she hears not Frost but Proklyusha
and all she sees is long past.

Nekrasov, ‘Red-Nosed Frost’, 1864

Yet his verse verged at times on sentimental doggerel. His early poems were condemned by Belinsky for that reason. The divided loyalties of citizen and poet, liberal and nationalist, part-Pole and part-Russian, victim and abuser dragged his lyrics down.

And at times he speaks of how struggle gets in the way of song, and song in the way of struggle. Caught between multiple worlds (Russian father, noble Polish mother; wealthy aristocrats and poor even homeless intellectuals) he represented liberal, populist culture in nineteenth century Russia, such as in the poem, ‘A Hymn’ (1866).

“Lord, set your chosen followers free,/ release them from their ancient bands,/ entrust the flag of liberty/ at last, to Russian hands.”

Yet he shamed himself in 1869, when to forestall closure of his magazine, he read a poem celebrating General Mauravyov, who had suppressed the 1863 Polish rebellion brutally. This apostasy or hypocrisy or twist of doubt in the populist cause led some liberal friends to shun him. Still at his funeral, the radicals cheered him as greater than Pushkin, and the grateful Dostoevsky, now more conservative and mystical than his patron, spoke kindly at his grave in Novodevichy Cemetery in St. Petersburg.

His important poems are Who is Happy in Russia (1863-76), Red-Nosed Frost (1864), Russian Women (1863-78), which included a portrait of Princess Volkonskaya, wife of the Decembrist exile, so essential to the story of Russia in the nineteenth century.

Image Credit: Tretyakov Gallery via Wikimedia Public Domain Н.А. Некрасов в период “Последних песен” (картина Ивана Крамского, 1877-1878)

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