Russian Verse Libre in an Era of New Challenges

Now, in the second decade of the 21st century, we are witnessing an amazing renaissance of Russian free verse poetry, or poetry written, as Thomas Elliot defined it, “in the absence of traditional pattern, rhyme or meter” (Elliot). This unexpected phenomenon seems to have gone beyond the traditional Russian poetic narrative and has already provoked a heated debate among scholars, critics, and poets about its nature and the boundaries between free verse and cut prose, blank verse and rhymed verse, etc. (Manin 580-596). The purpose of this essay is to describe some features of contemporary Russian vers libre poetry as part of the ongoing process of development of the Russian poetic language in the era of new challenges.

To be precise, free verse is not a new phenomenon in Russian poetry. It appeared much earlier, in the 19th century, following Western literary trends, and was exemplified by the poets of the Silver Age until it was banned under Bolshevik rule in the 1920s. Underrepresented and marginalized in Soviet times, free verse has broken into the mainstream of the Russian poetic scene since the late 1990s. Once banned, free verse became one of the most popular hallmarks of Russian poetry in the 2000s and is now published by numerous literary magazines and websites. Twenty-five festivals, representing a wide range of poetic voices, were held in different Russian cities between 1990 and 2018, resulting in the publication of an anthology in 2020 (Sovremennyi russkii svobodnyi stikh. Antologia po materialam Festivalei svobodnogo stikha ). All this allows some critics to state that at the beginning of the 21st century it has established itself as “the dominant verse form in Russian poetry” (Orlitskaia 223).

This success is an indication of the great demand for this type of poetry in the Russian literary scene. In fact, its volatility seems to correspond to the new cultural trends in Russian society. The epochal change in Russian culture at the beginning of the twenty-first century reflects the end of the period of post-totalitarian mourning and the transition to a postmodern society. It has many dimensions in Russian culture, society, education, art, and literature. The concept of “new literature” has yet to be evaluated. However, it is clear that it includes changes in the genre structure of Russian poetry and the development of new poetic forms capable of reflecting these trends.

The era of unpredictable changes in Russia is generating new literary styles and new voices. With the growing crisis of personal communication and the apparent collapse of many ideological dogmas in Russian society, many poets are looking for new poetic tools to reflect on this new reality. In the second decade of the 21st century, a large group of talented poets writing in free verse has emerged at the forefront of Russian poetry. Among them are both established poets and poets of the younger generation. Alla Gorbunova, Andrei Sen-Senkov, Sergei Zavyalov, Nikita Sungarev, Nikita Safonov, Kirill Korchagin, Stanislav Lvovsky, Oleg Paschenko, Danila Davydov, Oksana Vasyakina, Igor Vishnevetsky, and many others have used the possibilities of free verse to create brilliant poetic texts outside the traditional content and metrical system of Russian lyric poetry.

Picture by Andre

At a time when linear self-expression is in crisis, a new trend is emerging: the expansion of non-lyric poetry. Free verse occupies an important niche in this process. According to the poet Fyodor Svarovsky, this is due to the fact that “traditional stylistics today is simply not suitable for many forms of poetic expression” (Svarovsky). This tendency follows the general logic of the development of Russian postmodern culture and its collision with obsolete structures. In poetry, it often takes the form of a lexical or syntactic deviation of the language. The contemporary development of the free verse in Russian poetry is consistent with the Western model of free verse, which allows the poet to narrate a poetic reality without a clearly organized structure or a pronounced lyrical attitude. This style is prevalent in Anglophone poetry today, and many contemporary poets are exploring the possibilities of free verse. For example, the American poet -laureate Austin Smith writes in the poem “The Hotel” (2011):

……the room
itself is simple
the sort rented out
night by night
to the poor to make
more poor or to die in
but it is not night
nor is she poor. She
could have afforded
a nicer room and it is

This almost documentary statement is full of drama and demonstrates an important aspect of free verse – its ability to express psychological momentum without any lyrical undertone. Its content is dense and aimed at the reader’s imagination. The same pattern of verbal communication or conversation on a “hot topic” can be observed in many works of modern Russian poets. Unresolved problems of the past, as well as current issues of social movements, injustice, and oppression, come to the fore as an example of civic self-expression and are popular with poets writing in free verse. Take, for example, Nikita Sungatov’s poem “What Have We Done to You?” (В чём мы провинились перед вами? (2015); its first verse consists of a direct appeal to the reader. It’s an invitation to dialogue on one of the most dramatic themes in contemporary Russian history and culture:

В чём мы провинились перед вами?
За что вы ненавидите нас?
Зачем вы воюете с нами?
Противопоставляете себя нам,
высмеивая и оскорбляя наши ценности.

What have we done to you?
Why do you hate us?
Why are you at war with us?
You are confronting us,
mocking and insulting our values.

The beginning of Igor Vishnevetskii’s poem “CAPSA” (Vishnevetskii 64) is reminiscent of a casual conversation:

Мы приехали туда поздним вечером –
у меня чудом сохранилось расписание поездов –
в 21.34. Огромное многозвёздное синее небо
накрывало Сахару шатром. В чайных работали                                  телевизоры:
шёл чемпионат Франции и здесь, на дальних выселках
сначала римского, а после и галльского мира
все обсуждали марсельцев, прозевавших дурацкий гол.

We arrived there late in the evening –
I miraculously kept to the train schedule –
at 9:34 p.m. A huge, starry blue sky
loomed over the Sahara like a tent. TVs were on in the tea rooms:
the championship game with France was on and there, in the                 outskirts of the Roman world at first, and then the Gallic world
everyone was discussing the Marseilles, who had missed a foul goal.

Sometimes free verse is just a polyphony of thoughts and observations, as is seen in the striking short poem by Vasily Borodin “The Banner will Flutter” (Stiag zavyotsia 2011):

стяг завьётся сор взовьется свет ворвётся сердце взорвётся
время порвётся
всё остаётся

the banner will flutter the dust will rise the light will burst

the heart will explode
time will break
everything will remain

Fantasy, dry humor, or satire often testify to the poet’s detachment from difficult experiences, an inability or unwillingness to accept the realities of an ever-changing world. Published in Nikita Sungatov’s book The Debut Book of the Young Poet (Debyutnaya kniga molodoga poeta, 2015), a poem about the creative process of poetry, “There is a Method” (“Est takoi sposob” 2015), simultaneously reveals the experience of a young man in a modern urban environment:

Я хочу рассказать о том, как однажды
я принёс себя в жертву идеологии.
И о том, как, прогуливаясь по центру столицы,
вдруг обнаружил, что моё зрение
подчиняясь определённой логике
выхватывает из окружающей среды
некоторые детали
кажущиеся незначительными со стороны

I want to tell you about the time
I sacrificed myself to ideology.
And how while walking through the center of the capital
I suddenly discovered that my vision
followed a certain logic
it picked up
certain details that seem insignificant from the outside

An important feature of free verse is that the abandonment of the traditional pattern of meter and rhyme and structured form frees the poet in his quest to format the sound of the stanza as a whole. The ability of free verse to create new and unique prosody appeals to the reader’s perception rather than to syllabic meaning. In this case, the unity of non-metrical verse is preserved by the rhythm hidden in the sounding word, by a complex system of changing rhythm and intonation, which the reader perceives as the music of poetry. Free verse allows the author to encode many meanings and images in the short space of the stanza and which can still be perceived as a poetic utterance. The linguistic experiments of contemporary Russian authors often contain semantic deviation and metonymy: they allow a combination of both figurative and sound patterns.

One of the experimental poems by Lada Chizhova “Color. Practice” (Tsvet. Praktika) opens with the image of the “snowed-in city” but then moves the reader into different dimensions full of emotions and bewilderment:

город выбелило
в белила вляпаться всеми конечностями
и лицом
как смириться с телом готовым перемещаться
и расти

the snowed-in city is whitened
as if all limbs were plunged into white paint
and the face
it burns
and how to reconcile with a body ready to move
and grow up

Whether the nature of this kind of prosody represents a “repetitive metrical” or “irregular accent” topology (Manin 581-582) is up to interpretation. However, one of the important aspects of the modern free verse form is that it gives the poet the freedom to experiment with the word as the basic element of poetic speech and create an unpredictable pattern of changing rhythm. It also allows the poet to use different language registers within a single poetic stanza.

In addition to sound, poets sometimes use visual effects, such as the interruption of lines and the empty space between lines. This expands the space of the poem, as is seen in Sergei Zavyalov’s poem “Autumn. Peterhof” (Osen’. Petergof; 1994):

Кто-то скажет тебе
что это только        засохшей листвы под твоими ногами

someone will tell you
that it’s only          the rustle of dried leaves under
your feet

After all, the discussion about the nature and future direction of contemporary Russian free verse is still in its early stages. Gennady Aygi, the once unrecognized genius Chuvashian poet, called poetry a universal tool of world consciousness, which cannot be defined only by the traditional strict syllabic-tonic prosody. The Russian poetic scene includes the vers libre as an essential part of the postmodern literary landscape.

A жасмин надвигается:
словно душа – отодвинувшаяся
сразу – легко – от греха! …

Jasmine is emerging:
like a soul –
having pushed aside instantly
easily – the sin! …

– Aygi, 1969

 Elena Dimov

Works Cited

Aygi, Gennady. “Poiavlenie Zhasmina.” Pamiati Muziki. Shubaskar, Russika – Lik Chivashii, 1969, p.6.

Borodin, Vasily. “Stiag zaviyotsia.” P.S. Moskva, Gorod-Zhiraf. Stikhi, 2005-2011. N.Y.: Evdokiia, 2011, p. 29. <>

Chizhova, Lada. “Zaneslo gorod vybelil,” Tsvet: Praktika. Tsykl stihotvorenii, 2013.  <>

Eliot, Thomas S.”Reflections on Vers Libre.”  The text of “Reflections on Vers Libreby T.S.Eliot.  <>

Manin, Dmitrii Y. “Chopped-up Prose or Liberated Verse? An Experimental Study of Russian Vers Libre.” Modern Philology, vol. 108, no. 4, 2011, pp. 580–596 <>

Orlitskaiia, Anna. “Posleslovie.” Sovremennyi Russkii Svobodnyi Stikh: Antologiia Po Materialam Festivalei Svobodnogo Stikha (Moskva, Sankt-Peterburg, Nizhnii Novgorod, Tverʹ S 1990 Po 2018 G.). Edited by Orlitskaia Anna and Orllitskii, Iu. Moskva:  2019. vol. 2, p. 223. <>

Svarovsky, Feodor. “O razrushitelnoi sile verlibra.” Novosti literatury, 10.06.2011. <>

Smith, Austin. “The Hotel.” The New Yorker, Sept. 17th,  2012. <>

Sungatov, Nikita. “V chem ny provinilis pered vami?” Debi︠u︡tnai︠a︡ kniga molodogo poėta. M.: Translit, 2015.

______________. “Est’ takoi sposob.” Debutnaya kniga molodogo poeta.

Vishnevetskii, Igor. “CAPSA.” Sovremennyi Russkii Svobodnyi Stikh: Antologiia Po Materialam Festivalei Svobodnogo Stikha,  vol. 1, p. 64.

Zavylov, Sergei. “Osen’ Petergof.” Ody i epody. St. Petersburg: Borey-Art, 1994. <>


Translations of excerpts from works by contemporary Russian authors on this website are used under Fair Use solely for literary criticism and educational purposes.



Live Stream of “Centrifugal Forces: Reading Russia’s Regional Identities and Initiatives”, March 26-28

slavic poster 43The proceedings of the UVa conference, “Centrifugal Forces: Reading Russia’s Regional Identities and Initiatives, ” March 26-28, will be broadcasted as a free online streaming event. Please find instructions to access the stream here. A PDF version of the instructions with screen caps of each step is available for download at the bottom of the page.

Updates regarding the conference will be posted on the official Twitter account for the event, @RussiasRegions. We welcome and encourage the participation of diverse online audiences. While watching the live stream, you can direct questions to the panelists via Twitter (@RussiasRegions), or email at <>. Throughout the event, a team of graduate students will be monitoring the Twitter and email accounts to communicate your questions to the associated speakers.

For more information on the conference, please visit 

Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice by Dmitrii Bykov

Following is an excerpt from the chapter “A Manual on Levitation” from the 2010 novel Ostromov, ili uchenik charodeiia: posobie po levitatsii, (Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice) by Dmitrii Bykov. In 2010, the work was awarded “Best Form” by the Ukrainian literary organization Portal, which consists of authors, publishers and editors. It was the best-selling book in Russia throughout 2011.

Translated by Kristina Uvarova
Edited by Michael Marsh-Soloway

A Manual on Levitation

Aleksey Alekseevich Galitsky was a hopeful man and it ruined him. Until 1918 he played in Berk’s private theater, but Berk left and the theater was closed. It was easier for Galitsky than for many: he did not have to provide for a family, preferring the comforts of a bachelor and non-burdensome contacts to the shackles of a household. In 1918 he was 48 years old, robust, and, as they said, trustworthy. His search for income led him to a group of lecturers, PCCMS (PECUCU) – The Petrograd Commission of Cultural Management of Scholars, founded by the passionate propagandist of the spoken word, Tabachnikov. Tabachnikov proposed that since oral language is easier to master than written language, all teaching in the schools of the victorious proletariat should be converted to verbal lectures on all branches of knowledge, but especially on reading aloud, and for this Galitsky proved indispensable. He was there, rain or shine, he started in the high school and university classes, but then, when Tabachnikov expanded his power, he went to the factory workers; his voice rose, he wheezed, and Galitsky read.

It was certainly a joyless activity. Aleksey Alexeyevich never admitted it to himself, boasting to his friends that an audience always filled him with gratitude and energy. But it was hard to read to children or workers, especially in long, cold halls with dusty windows. The new repertoire consisted mainly of verses by the proletarian poet Kirillov, which were long and passionate, like bright red ribbons. The verses didn’t affect the audience, and yet they were disagreeable to him, and even the old people almost completely fell into illegality. He departed from the routine and instead mastered the compositions of Balmont and Minsky, who had enough red ribbon in their time. But he managed to drag a love letter, no more than five verses. The rest of the time the proletarians were sleepily fixed, as they are always tired after any work.

But he was so happy to return home on foot through the sleeping city, where for some reason he did not meet a single one of the legendary thieves about whom there was so much gossip. Aleksey Alekseyich walked through the snowy Petrograd, the fair city without lights, and read everything he wanted to the frozen drifts. These returns were saved only by his blessed memory and the readings in front of proletariat he completely forgot. They provided him with a poor ration and it was all that was required of them. Well, sometimes he appeared grateful in the proletarians’ eyes and even astonished, with which the love toward art always begins. And shortly somebody from among the grateful proletarians informed against him. They didn’t get together after the work day for listening about the old regime; and Tabachnikov set a great scandal for Aleksey Alekseyich.

He shouted that his innovative theory met unbridled resistance, that there is a necessity to read to the workers and not lyrics about the bouqu-u-u-ets (which Galitsky had never read in his life), but to give them basic knowledge, at least of physics, and in case the actors are too useless to read from a course on physics, then at least let us give them an unperturbed program, so that nobody acts audaciously! Aleksey Alekseyich felt that something important was not said and hence he grinned widely out of delicateness, submitted his resignation from PCCMS, and suggested that he should find other opportunities so that nothing terrible happens… In a minute Tabachnikov calmed down, became softer and even called him his dear friend, he shook his hand for a long time and swore to return Galitsky to his position as soon as the opponents of the oral reading calmed their villainous heat, and you know, took a deep breath.

So Aleksey Alekseevich remained without service, but as we know, he was a hopeful man, so he didn’t lower his head, and turned to Victor Petukhov the director of SHKURa number five, althought it was called the Grade A school on the Vyborg side. Petukhov was also an experimenter, but so was everybody else. Nothing was to be taught in simplicity, everything only with the help of an unprecedented methodology. So it seemed to Petuhkov that for proper assimilation one needs an active body, and in general he expressed that the memory of the body was stronger than that of the mind. Every physical law corresponded to its own physical exercise. Aleksey Alekseevich came to the Petuhkov and offered him his service. Already in the fall of 1919, he started teaching a course, where, with time, the comrades of SHKURa‘s members had been drawn. They not only put on “The Tale of Tsar Saltan”, and “The Flea”, but also took up Shakespeare. Of course, it had to all to be within the limits of the antimonarchical repertoire, just to strike social evils under the curtains, but Aleksey Alekseevich contrived here to twist his own evil, to read them Bryusov, and to see in their eyes…

What could be seen in the hungry yellow eyes of high school students in 1919? But it seemed to him that that his word was cascading upon a gentle soil, and indeed, as though a pair, hunted and hopelessly abased, began to bloom and even imitate something, Aleksey Alekseevich invited them to his home to drink carrot tea and to talk intimately, and several times, he was trusted to lead the lesson when the philologist was ill, but most unbearable was the demand of Petuhkov to sit during the reading of “Eugene Onegin”, so that the whole class also sat.

But there was such happiness to arrive home on foot in that wonderful hour, when the day declines into night, but it was still luminous and just above Petrograd stretched a carrot-tinged, no better to say apricot dawn! How pleasurable it was to read to the trusting booby, Anisimov, anything from a beloved work, noticing that he asked more and more meaningful questions! In everything, positively in everything, it was possible to find charm and meaning, and if you could look with uncomplicated eyes, Aleksey Alekseyich Galitsky could have been happy at this post, if Petuhkov had not committed an offense with something before the authorities and his school was dissolved. What’s more, the dejected Anisimov and Malakhov, who had just understood and committed something to memory, went to work: one of them to the depot, another one to the Trotsky tobacco factory, and there they were immediately destined to forget everything that they were taught by the eccentric artist.”


Translations of the excerpts from the works of modern writers are made for the educational purposes only.

The Early Poetry of Vladimir Nabokov Remembered Today


Gleb Struve, a renowned twentieth-century critic, called Vladimir Vladimirovich Nabokov “émigre Russia’s greatest gift to Russian literature”. Born in 1899 to a family of aristocrats in St. Petersburg, Nabokov received an excellent education, attaining fluency in English, French, and Russian before the age of five. Fleeing the turmoil of the Russian Revolution in 1917, Nabokov traveled first to the Crimea, then to England in 1918, where he enrolled in Trinity College at Cambridge, then to Berlin in 1922, where he first took up his professional career of letters, then briefly to France before the onslaught of World War II, and then to America, where he continued his literary pursuits while teaching at Wellesley, Harvard, and Cornell.

Despite the controversial nature of his novels, Nabokov’s works have received international acclaim and scholarly recognition. His most famous texts include The Defense (1930), The Gift (1938), The Real Life of Sebastian Knight (1941), Lolita (1950), Speak Memory (1951), Pale Fire (1962). It’s been a privilege this semester to be enrolled in Professor Julian Connolly’s seminar here at the University of Virginia on writings by Nabokov and other émigre authors.  See Professor Connolly’s most recent work A Reader’s Guide to Nabokov’s “Lolita.”

Before finding his artistic strengths in the realm of prose, Nabokov tried his hand at poetry. The following two short works represent foundational expressions of Nabokov’s creative consciousness and provide a glimpse into the early outlooks a great artist whose works seem ready to span generations and cultural contexts.


Live. Do not complain, and

Do not count past years or planets,
And well-composed thoughts will merge
Into a single answer: there is no death.
Be merciful. Do not summon kingdoms.
Gratefully value all.
Pray– for a cloudless sky,
And cornflowers in wavy rye.
While not despising the dreams of the worldly-wise,
Persevere to create the best.
Among birds, the trembling, and the scant,
Learn to bless, learn to bless!

–February 14, 1919

Translated by Michael Marsh-Soloway

Original Russian

Живи. Не жалуйся, не числиlaura-i-ee-original-200x300

ни лет минувших, ни планет,
и стройные сольются мысли
в ответ единый: смерти нет.

 Будь милосерден. Царств не требуй.
Всем благодарно дорожи.
Молись — безоблачному небу
и василькам в волнистой ржи.

 Не презирая грез бывалых,
старайся лучшие создать.
У птиц, у трепетных и малых,
учись, учись благословлять!


The almond tree blossoms at the crossroads,

The almond tree blossoms at the crossroads,
Mist flickers over the mountain,
Silver speckles hurry
Along the azure surface of the sea.
The chatter of birds, inspired
The evergreen leaf more brightly.
Blessed is he who on this spring day
Exclaims earnestly: “I am pure!”

– March 24, 1918

Translated by Michael Marsh-Soloway

Original Russian
Цветет миндаль на перекрестке,
Мерцает дымка над горой,
Бегут серебряные блестки
По глади моря голубой.

Щебечут птицы вдохновенней,
Вечнозеленый ярче лист.
Блажен, кто в этот день весенний
Воскликнет искренно: “Я чист!”

– By Michael Marsh-Soloway