Elegy to a Russian Poet

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The celebrated Russian Poet Andrei Voznesensky died in Moscow on June 1 at the age of 77. He had been weakened by Parkinson's disease and suffered a stroke. Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, with uncharacteristic eloquence, mourned the loss. According to the Moscow Times, Putin said that Voznesensky's "poetry and prose became a hymn to freedom, love, nobility and sincere feelings." Reports from Moscow said thousands of people came to the Central House of Literary Workers to pay their respects before Voznesensky's burial in Peredelkino, a writers' village outside the capital where the grave of Boris Pasternak has long been a shrine.

Voznesensky's death also was duly noted here in the U.S. Raymond Anderson, a former correspondent for the New York Times in the Soviet Union, wrote in his obituary that Voznesensky's poetry "epitomized the setbacks, gains and hopes of the post-Stalin decades in Russia. His hundreds of subtle, ironic, and innovative verses reflected alternating periods of calm and stress as the Communist Party's rule stabilized, weakened and then, in 1991, quickly disintegrated."

Literary critics in the West generally agree that Voznesensky's work could be dazzling, with powerful imagery and themes, but his singular skill was presentation. He was a great showman and at the peak of his popularity in the 1960s and 1970s, he and other Russian stars such as Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Robert Rozhdestvensky, and Bella Akhmadulina could fill stadiums with adoring fans in the tens of thousands. Writing in the Washington Post in 1977, I observed that "in the Soviet Union today there is no movie star, no athlete, no ballet dancer better known than he is. Russia is a land that makes heroes out of those who write verses and Andrei Voznesensky...is one of the most famous Russian poets in history." Time will judge Voznesensky's true place in Russian literature—as it has Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Pushkin, Chekhov, and so many others. Verdicts are hard to predict. Alexander Solzhenitsyn, once considered on a par with those masters, is now in something of a critical trough, considered more a polemicist than a craftsman.

I am not in any position to judge the lasting value of Voznesensky's literary work, but I do think that he and the others of his generation played an extraordinary social role in the Soviet Union of the Cold War years. In a system dominated by police state vulgarity and ideological self-deception, Voznesensky and his counterparts somehow managed a position of cultural stature that preserved a civility in daily life that was otherwise colorless and grim. The period after the denunciation of Stalinism by Nikita Khrushchev in 1956 became known as "The Thaw" and was symbolized by the publication of Solzhenitsyn's One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. The outpouring of novels and novellas, ballads, films, and poetry of the era made it seem possible that the Soviet system could tolerate and even perhaps encourage artistic traditions and talents that are, historically, among Russia's greatest natural attributes.

That trend toward open expression did not last, and Khrushchev memorably rebuked Voznesensky publicly in 1962: "You want to get a [foreign] passport tomorrow? You want it? And then go away, go to the dogs. Go, go there." According to the Moscow Times, there was "rapturous applause from the communist retinue," and Voznesensky whispered, "I am a Russian." Yet over time, Voznesensky and most of the others of his generation found a groove which allowed them to keep writing, maintaining popularity and a measure of integrity. One exception to those who stayed was Joseph Brodsky, who went to the United States in exile and eventually won a Nobel Prize.

I came to know Voznesensky and his wife, the writer Zoya Boguslavskaya, in the mid-1970s when I was a correspondent in Moscow for the Washington Post. Anyone who had regular contact with Western journalists then was assumed to have an arrangement with the KGB that required reporting on those encounters. But the Voznesenskys were good hosts at their Peredelkino dacha, and it seemed unnecessarily harsh for us to judge their compromises with the authorities, particularly considering how much pleasure they provided to Russian audiences and readers who were so very grateful. The heyday of these poets lasted well into the period of Glasnost in the 1980s. Voznesensky made repeated trips to the United States and spent three months as a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center's Kennan Institute of Advanced Soviet Studies. As he aged, and Russian tastes were drawn to the glitz of material satisfactions, Vozenesensky was much less visible, and some reports from Moscow after his death suggested that this once gregarious superstar had become a recluse. Yevtushenko, another figure who gloried in the Soviet-era limelight, has taught in recent years at Queens College in New York and the University of Tulsa, Oklahoma and seems to cause barely a stir.

The collapse of the Soviet Union seems to have ended the age of poet-heroes, and certainly diminished their role as symbols of Russia's cultural identity, resisters to the Party's suppression of literary values. But theirs was a glorious run in a decidedly inglorious time for Russia; the kind of paradox Russian poets would appreciate.

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Peter Osnos is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He is the founder and editor at large of PublicAffairs books and a media fellow at the Century Foundation.

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