The New Russian Literature

One of our goals is to introduce the new Russian literature to readers in America. Despite the appearance of many talented new authors, only a few of them have had works translated into English and become known to the western public. Even less known in the West is the younger generation of Russian authors, whose talented and fresh voices have begun to change the literary landscape in Russia in recent years.

Since 2000, the Russian Foundation’s Debut Prize has helped to discover and aid a new generation of Russian literary talent by nominating and awarding the Debut Prize to the most outstanding and original works by young authors.

This new generation of writers and poets has the potential and ambition, and most importantly – the  talent – to become potential future classics of Russian literature. The works of the finalists of the Debut Prize create a vibrant, colorful image of the new Russian literature, free from the limitations of the past and now more open to the world.

As part of the outreach program, the New York-based non-profit  Causa Artium, in partnership with the Debut Prize Foundation, started the New Russian Literature Program and in February 2012 sponsored a tour of the prize-winning young writers from Russia: Alisa Ganieva (2009),  Dmitry Biryukov (2005), Irina Bogatyreva (2006), and Igor Savelyev (2004). The thematic and literary styles of these authors are different, as different as their experiences. In all of their works, however, one can see the talent, humor, and optimism which are influencing the phenomenon of the New Russian Literature – genuine, multifaceted, and fearless.

Among the works submitted to American audiences in Washington DC, Boston, and New York were “Salam, Dalgat!” by Alisa Ganieva (2009) and collections of short stories like “Off the Beaten Tracks” and Squaring the Circle  (short stories by winners of the Debut Prize), 2010. 

Olga Slavnikova

Olga Slavnikova is one of the most renowned contemporary writers in Russia. She was born in Sverdlovsk (now Yekaterinburg)  in the Urals  to the family of  aerospace engineers. After graduating from  Yekaterinburg State University, Slavnikova worked as a fiction editor, then managing editor of the literary magazine ‘Urals’. She has lived and worked in Moscow since 2001. Her first novel was published in 1988. Among her acclaimed novels are  Стрекоза, увеличенная до размеров собаки (‘Dragonfly the Size of a Dog’), Бессмертный (‘Immortal’).

But her real magnum opus is 2017  –  a fascinating love story set in her native Urals Mountains region. The novel is also a philosophical reflection on the dramatic history of Russia and its future, beauty of the nature, and  it’s full of references to the mythology of her native Urals. It won the Russian Booker Prize in 2006.

Alisa Ganieva

Alisa Ganieva was born in 1985 in Moscow, but soon moved with her family to their native Dagestan. A graduate of Moscow’s  Literary Institute, Ganieva has since won numerous awards for her prose and also a prize for her literary criticism.

She was propelled to true stardom by her work Salam tebe, Dalgat! (2009).

From the first strophes of Salam tebe, Dalgat! one is introduced to the marvelous world of the Caucasian  Dagestan village where people are discussing subjects unimaginable from a Western perspective – how to steal a bride and where you need to drink your vodka till the last drop –  which are all happening at a party with various colorful personages. And  there the party could end in the assassination.

Sometimes the tale is written with an incredible sense of  humor, but beneath the exotic facade is an exploration of the problems of humanity written with such talent that it makes the story about Dalgat the true discovery.

It is all the more unusual that this work was a written by a young woman, who was hiding behind the name of a young Dagestani fighter named Gulla Khirachev, and who uncovered her true identity only after the announcement of the award of the Debut Prize.   This literary mystification only adds to the charisma of Alisa Ganieva. Salam tebe, Dalgat! has since been translated into English.

Dmitry Biryukov

Dmitry Biryukov was born in 1979 in Siberia and lived in Novosibirsk’s “Academic City.”  Novosibirsk holds a special place in Russia; it is situated in the heart of Siberia and is populated by a special kind of people who are called “sibiriak” in Russian – strong and independent people.

Biryukov holds degrees in history and philosophy in addition to his post-graduate work at the Institute of Philosophy and Law and the famous Literary Institute in Moscow. After the success of his short story, Birukov has started work on a long novel.

In America Burykov was reading the excerpts from his story Uritsky Street.

Irina Bogatyreva

Irina Bogatyreva was born in 1982 in Kazan, Tatarstan. She is a graduate of the Literary Institute in Moscow in 2005. Since then she has been recognized by numerous literary awards for her stories published in Russia’s leading literary journals.

Bogatyreva’s  autobiographical hitchhiking trip from Moscow to Altai was described in her work Off The Beaten Track. What made this story so fascinating to young people? It is a story about a girl alone on the road having adventures and meeting all kinds of people. It is an everyday story but written with a talented eye to the details and  understanding of the psychology of young people.

Igor Saveliev

Igor Savelyev was born in 1983 into a family of writers in Ufa, Bashkiria.  He still lives there  and works as a crime reporter for the local news agency.  In 2005, his short novel Pale City won the Debut Prize. It is a wonderful narrative about his native Ufa and young people.  One can see the freshness of his style and association with modern cultural icons which attract the young readers to him.

Contemporary Russian Poetry in Translation

Brodsky in Norenskya We continue our series of contemporary Russian poetry in translation. One of the early masterpieces of Joseph Brodsky was  written in the transit prison after his infamous trial in 1964. The translation of this poem was submitted at the first  MPT Poetry Translation Competition 2011.

“Freedom”  by Joseph Brodsky

( Gripping my ration of the exile… ) 

Gripping my ration of the exile
in embrace with the rattling lock,
arriving at the places of dying,
again I turn to my native tongue.
The radiance of the Russian iambic
is more stubborn – and hotter than fire,
like the finest lamp,
in the night it illuminates me.
I can hardly raise my pen,
and my heart is fearfully beating.
But the shadow from behind my back over Russia,
like the bird in the grove, cries,
and the proud scattered echo
caught in my chest in white pallor.
Only hatred from the South to the North
hastens, overtaking the spring.
Burning up with a hacking cough,
bowing still lower in the night,
I am almost ablaze. Thereby
I obstinately keep the likeness of a candle
from dying out,  like the very last wall.
And this great flame flickers along with me.

March 25th, 1964
Arkhangelsk Transit Prison

Translated by Elena Dimov


The Librarian by Mikhail Elizarov

Born in 1973 in Ivano-Frankovsk, Ukraine, Mikhail Elizarov could barely remember the Soviet era of his parents’ and grandparents’ generation. In 2007, however, the young writer wrote a book that would come to be associated with the lost generation of Soviet people and won the 2008 Russian Booker Prize. It was the fourth and biggest book of the bright debutant of the 90s and, in essence, the first major post-Soviet novel showing the reaction of the generation of the 30s to the world in which they lived.

The title of the book,  Библиотекарь (The Librarian), deceptively conjures up the expectation of perhaps a quiet evening’s reading. Indeed, The Librarian is a novel about books, about the mystical powers of the written word. At the beginning, one hardly expects the strange upheavals that such books can cause, including the violent refusal of the books’ readers to acknowledge the end of the era by the obscure writer Gromov, and an almost Kafkaesque ending to the book. Gromov’s books had deceptive titles like Fly Happiness or Silver-Flat Waters, but in fact they had the magical power to change the person who read them, and readers began to organize “libraries” or armies to fight for these books.  Alexei inherits a The Book of Memory and becomes a “Librarian” without knowing it.  Gromov’s books gave different powers to readers; Narva, known as the Book of Joy, has a euphoric effect, and Книга Ярости (The Book of Rage) stimulates anger. But the most important prize in the battle between the libraries is the lost Book of the Meaning. We understand that it is Gromov’s eulogy to Stalin.

The Librarian starts with a quotation from The Foundation Pit by Andrei Platonov. And in a way, Elizarov’s book is a continuation of the ideas of Platonov’s great and tragic book about wasted lives:

The worker must fully understand that baskets and engines can be made as necessary, but it’s not possible to simply make a song or a sense of excitement. The song is more valuable than mere things…”

 Andrei Platonov


The writer Dmitry Alexandrovich Gromov (1910-1981) lived his final days in complete obscurity. His books completely disappeared in the debris of Lethe, and when political disasters destroyed the Soviet motherland, it appeared as though there was nobody left to remember Gromov.

Hardly anyone read Gromov. Of course, the editors who determined the political loyalty of the texts and the critics read it. But it was unlikely for somebody to be worried about and interested in titles like “Proletarian” (1951), “Fly, Happiness!” (1954), “Narva” (1965), “On the Roads of Labor” (1968), “The Silver Flat-Water” (1972), or “The Calm Grass” (197).7).

The biography of Gromov went side by side with the development of the socialist fatherland. He finished middle school and pedagogical college and worked as executive secretary in the factory newspaper’s editorial board. The purges and the repression did not touch Gromov; he quietly endured until June of ‘41 before he was mobilized. He came as a military journalist to the front. In the winter of 1943 Gromov ‘s hands were frostbitten; the left wrist was saved but the right was amputated.

Thus, all of Gromov’s books were created by a forced left-handed man. After the victory, Gromov moved his family from the Tashkent evacuation to Donbass and worked in the editorial office of the city newspaper until his retirement.

Gromov started to write late, as a mature forty-year-old man. He often addressed the theme of the formation of the country, glorified the cotton being of the provincial cities, towns and villages, wrote about mines, factories, the boundless Virgin Soil and harvest battles. The heroes of his books were usually the Chairmen of the Kolkhozes, red directors, soldiers returning from the front, the widows keeping their love and civil courage, the pioneers and Komsomol members – strong, cheerful, and ready for heroic labor. Good triumphed with painful regularity: the metallurgic factories were built in record time, the recent student during his sixth month internship at the factory became a skilled specialist, the plant exceeded the plan and accepted the new one, and the grain in the fall flowed by the golden mountains to the Kolkhoz’s granaries. Evil was rehabilitated or went to prison.”

*                               *                               *                               *

“Although Gromov published more than half a million copies of his books, only a few copies survived in club libraries in distant villages, hospitals, ITKs, orphanages, or otherwise rotting in basements among party congress materials and serials of Lenin’s collected works.

And yet Gromov had devoted fans. They scoured the country for surviving books and would do anything for them. In normal life, Gromov’s books had titles about some shallow waters and grasses. However, Gromov’s collectors used significantly different titles – “The Book of Power”, “The Book of Strength”, “The Book of Rage”, “The Book of Patience”, “The Book of Joy”, “The Book of Memory”, “The Book of Meaning”…

By Mikhail Elizarov

Moscow: Ad Marginem, 2010.

Translated by Elena Dimov, edited by Margarita Dimova


Translations of the excerpts from the works by the contemporary writers are used in educational purposes for students of modern Russian literature or for literary criticism only.

Many Talents of Dmitrii Bykov

Dmitrii Bykov is one of the most prominent contemporary Russian writers but he is still not known in the West. In 2006  Bykov won the National Bestseller Prize for his book “Boris Pasternak . He became the winner of the National Bestseller Prize again  in 2011 for his novel  “Ostromov, or the Sorcerer’s Apprentice” . Only several of his works were translated to English:  his novel Living Souls was translated to English and published by Alma Books in 2010.  Dmitri Bykov is also a poet.

Excerpts  from Amid the Empty Meadows…

By Dmitri Bykov
Translated by Michael Marsh-Soloway

“Amid the empty meadows,
In the amber brume of the afternoon,
My sweetheart lies
Curled up beside me.

The bay willow is blooming,
Honey thicket and dogrose,
I, her lover,
Dozed off in the thick grass.

She gazes off somewhere,
Above the thick grass,
Above my pileous,
Dozed-off head–

And thinks, which of
The centrifugal forces
Will sweep us away, shattering
The remnants of our wings.

And all the while, I sleep blissfully,
She looks there,
Where hellish Hades
And black water,

Arms stretching out,
Embrace on the stoop,
And separations are long
And eternal– in the end.

For the time being,
The sultry heat of Hades frightens her–
A dream, warlike and playful,
Through and through, comes to me.

But my dreams are not things
In which there is something prophetic.
I dream only of objects,
And scents, and color.

I dream not of separation,
Or a foreign land,
But the curve of brushwood,
And, perhaps, of her.

And this malachite
Rug beneath my head–
With the dispersal of the battlefield
Into its protective color.

I dream of automatons,
Cartridge pouches, boots,
Some squares,
Some circles”.

Russian text©2000, Dmitry Bykov

Translations of excerpts of the works of  modern writers are used for educational purposes and literary criticism  only.

Next Generation of Russian classics

Recently, I have heard many questions about who should be considered the best contemporary writer among the new generation of Russian writers. Making predictions about the future is always risky. What do the writers themselves think?

From the interview of the winner of SuperNatsBest ( bestseller of the decade) Zakhar Prilepin for the published on January 14th, 2011: “  “Who, in your opinion, is the best writer of your generation and why? (You don’t need to mention a specific name.)”

Z.P.: “In my generation (the thirty-year-olds) the ones with the best chance of becoming classics are Sergei Samsonov and Mikhail Elizarov. In the next generation up (the forty-year-olds) – Dmitry Bykov and Alexander Terekhov. I can’t say who the best writer is. For example, I like the work of Mikhail Tarkovsky and of Dmitry Danilov. But could I call one of them the best? And why would I? One possible answer to this question is to say that the best is the one who can do more than anyone else. Then the best is Bykov. Another possible answer is that the best is the one who can do something that no one else can. Then it’s Terekhov. The third answer is that the best is the one who does something in a way only he can. Then it is Danilov and Elizarov and Senchin and Shargunov and Ildar Abuzyarov and Andei Rubanov. OK, let’s make this simpler. In reply to your question I’ll name a person who recently wrote a great novel. His name is Alexander Kuznetsov-Tulyanin and the book is called The Pagan. Not many people have read it, which is a real shame”.

Zakhar Prilepin’s interview gave an outline of the modern literary process in Russia. We should not forget however the appearance of the literary tendencies connected to the New Realism in Russian Literature. We will continue the conversation about the best contemporary Russian writers.

By Elena Dimov

Provincial Russia by Maria Stepanova

Among many voices of  young contemporary Russian poets, the poetry of Maria Stepanova is one of the most intriguing. Her first major collection Songs of Northern Southerners       (2001) was so unusual, that the critics immediately called her poetic style a “new epic” and announced it as a new direction in the development of modern poetry in Russia. It was defined by the absence of the author’s presence or any kind of emotional interpretation of the developing story in the verses. Her poetic language is deceptively simple; the story in the verses develops without the emotional intervention of the author. But her ability of creating the dramatic undertones in the poetic story is outstanding.

The story usually starts as a non-emotional narrative staged in several small cities in a Russian province, but then the attention shifts to powers beyond the comprehension of the author, or the readers. Similar to Airman, or in The Prose of Ivan Sidorov the story develops into a metaphysical saga where ordinary Russian people or personages have certain places in the process. Among the main characters of The Prose are the drunken man, the chicken and the sleeping girl – an incredible combination  of the personages…However, their place was only one part of the general movements of space and time which constructed the contemporary epic in the poetry of Stepanova.

The story in The Prose of Ivan Sidorov starts with the appearance of the main hero in the small provincial town somewhere in Russia:

In the provincial town, so to speak,
but in a low-minded way
with white steep cliffs,
with on-shore over the giant strides,
with the tubes of heavy industry,
with women, similar to the touch
like bottles with tight tops, arrives a drunken man.

The background around him  is that of the peaceful Russian provincial city:

“The city, say, under the Snowy Shroud. The lights are off.
Carefully-painted, fences are dark, and even in the square there are no cops.
The new emptiness breathes a quilt,
the Moscow bullet train
that night, is about to depart.”

But  this tranquility concealed the phantasmagoria of the incredible events  starting with the meeting of the drunken man with the chicken and a sleeping girl and ending with the skirmish and the reunion of the heroes in the different reality:

In a waiting room a screaming hen runs across.
In the glass doors emerges a night patrol.
A sleeping girl – below the steering medium-sized adult bike –
and where is her mother? and who is she, trash?
Her eyes open, with nodes stands up –
and accounting, as if in water, into the arms of a neighbor
and “grandfather” murmurs with her lips, all uselessness,
but to sleep for some reason does not cease”….
…“A bullet train stretches along the platform,
long and silky, like a stocking.
The author draws on the memory
and stops the narrative,
leaving the hero to show us yet unknown talent.

The inner consonance with the historic development of Russian folklore and ballad poetry  makes the poetry of Stepanova remarkable example of modern epic  folklore. The Prose of Ivan Sidorov was first published on-line in 2006 at Vavilon.

Since 2007 Maria Stepanova has been the chief-editor of the Russian literary web portal and the participant in the project Vavilon  –  publication of  contemporary Russian literature on-line, started by Dmitry Kuzmin. Maria Stepanova is the recipient of  several major international prizes for her poetry, among them the Joseph Brodsky Foundation memorial fellowship (2010).

Russian texts on-line in Zhurnalniy Zal.

[slideshare id=12185075&doc=rossia-120327215919-phpapp01]

From Airman by Maria Stepanova

Maria Stepanova at Dacha on Pokrovka. From:

When he returned from there,
he screamed in his sleep and bombed towns,
and spirits appeared to him.
 He used to get up to smoke and open the window,
our ragged clothes lay together in a heap
and I gathered up a bag for them in the darkness.
But that is nothing yet”.

Translated by Richard McKane


Excerpt from Russian text:

“Когда он вернулся оттуда, куда,
Во сне он кричал и бомбил города,
И духи казались ему,
Курить он вставал, и окно открывал,
Совместные тряпки лежали внавал,
И я в темноте собирала суму,

Но это еще ничего.

Копать приусадебный наш огород,
Семейного рода прикорм и доход,
Не стал он и мне запретил.
Не дал и притрагиваться к овощам.
Отъелся, озлел, озверел, отощал
И сам самокрутки крутил.

Но жизнь продолжала себя…”

Translations of the excerpts from the works of modern writers are made under Fair Use.

Vladimir Vysotsky


“But I am certain of what is false and what is sacred,
I understood it all a long time ago.
My way is straight, just straight, guys,
And luckily there is no other choice!”
-Vladimir Vysotsky

Vladimir Vysotsky (1938-1980) was one of the greatest bards in Russian history whose influence and popularity among Russian people during the second half of the 20th century was unprecedented. It is still not understood in full, even now more than 40 years after his death. Vladimir Vysotsky was an actor and a balladeer; he wrote and sang his own songs, always with a guitar, in the Russian genre of bard poetry. As Vysotsky himself explained it to the audience: “I write author’s songs and I believe them to be a specific genre. Generally speaking, they are not songs  but poems on a rhythmical base…The point is that author’s songs give me a chance to tell  what worries me, what is of concern to me, that sort of thing.”(1)

What was so unusual about the balladeer Vysotsky’s music and personality that made his songs the voice of the Russian soul and  himself a true folk hero? He had no official status as a poet in the official Soviet hierarchy, as if he were completely invisible in the eyes of the authorities. He was not a member of the Writer’s Union, and did not belong to the official establishment, which would usually generate prestige and money. He sang his ballads in his free time and traveled, giving concerts all around the Soviet Union. But his voice is still alive in recordings and Russians continue to mourn the great bard who wrote to Russian people: “People!  I loved you! Be merciful!“(2)


Where are your seventeen years?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
Where are your seventeen troubles?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
Where is your black revolver?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.
And where are you not today?
On Bolshoi Karetnoi.

Vysotsky was born in Moscow on January 25, 1938 in the family of a military officer. As a child,  he spent several years in Eastern Germany with his father’s family. After his return to Russia,  he lived in the hideous creation of the Soviet regime, the communal apartment, with several other families on Bolshoi Karetnoi Street. He studied at an actors’ school, and after his graduation worked as an actor in several theaters.  The famous director Lyubimov  took him on as an actor in the Moscow Theatre of Drama and Comedy on Taganka in 1964. In 1971, Vysotsky received the role of Hamlet and played it till his death. Well-liked by the public, he never received any official recognition. His salary of 170 rubles at the theater was not even enough to pay for the rent. He also played various movie and television roles, among them captain Zheglov in the popular serial Mesto vstrechi izmenit nelzia (1979).

But as he had told in the interview at Pyatigorsk TV studio in 1979,  the poetry meant for him more than “anything else: “Mostly inspiration comes to me, usually at night… when I’m working on poems. As long as I live, as long as I think, I will of course write poems, write songs.” (3)

He started to write and sing songs as a student in the 60’s. It was his  “courtyard hooligan” songs which made him famous very fast. (4)   By 1967 the entire country already knew about Vysotsky. Sometimes there were the dubious texts, but their simplicity and humor made them popular very quickly:

I happened to be walking around
And I hurt two people by chance,
They took me to militia grounds
Where I saw her…and broke down at once.

At the beginning,  they were songs written for his friends. As Vysotsky explained: “I began with songs that were called by many street songs or even gutter songs (blatnoi) for some reason. Doing so, I  paid tribute to the urban romance. Generally speaking, when I began to write my songs, I had no idea that I would write for such an audience as I have now – in great halls, palaces and stadiums. In those days my songs were intended for a narrow circle of very close friends. We were a bunch of students then…the atmosphere was one of trust, complete ease, and what is most important friendliness”( 5).

Among his close friends at that time were Igor Kochanovskii, Andrei Tarkovskii, Oleg Strizhenov, Lev Kocharian, Vasilii Shukshin; all of them became actors and writers. Later, appeared  friends who would stay with him for his entire life,  the actor Vsevolod  Abdulov and the artist Michail Shemiakin. And among them the young Vysotsky sang:
I was the soul of bad company.
And I can tell you, that
My last, first and middle names
Were well known to the KGB. (6)

Indeed, the company spent a lot of time drinking, singing songs, and wandering through public parks, and from that time Vysotsky became addicted to alcohol.

There would be more of them in the future: songs about criminals, workers, athletes and scientists, even about animals – dozens of them – written with such grace and humor that they quickly spread among listeners. It became an unrivaled encyclopedia of Russian urban life in the middle of 20th century embodied in the poetic form.

Russian Bard

Some critics view his poetry as a phenomenon of Soviet mass culture, based on the incorporation of Vysotsky’s phraseology into everyday Russian language. The characters from his songs and their vocabulary became a prominent feature of the linguistic scene in Russia. (7)

But who was Vladimir Vysotsky for the Russian people and for Russian culture in general? The bard’s influence on Russian mass culture in the  the second half of the twentieth century was enormous, not just that of a singer or poet, it definitely went beyond the limits of mass culture. It was much more complex and touched the very nerve of the Russian soul at the end of the Soviet era.

His friend, the artist Mikhail Shemiakin, expressed this idea very clearly: “Vysotsky was a great poet… He did what no one before him had done – a synthesis of the absolutely reckless Russian soul with the clear abstract thinking of a brilliant philosopher.”(8)

The transformation from actor to great bard did not happen immediately, but was the result of many factors that influenced Vysotsky in the 1970s. Russian post-war society at the time was in a deep ideological and moral crisis. The emergence of Vysotsky, who had extraordinary charisma, tremendous talent, a strong personality, and most importantly, spoke the truth in his songs, gave Russians a cultural hero.

However, only by considering Vysotsky’s ability as a poet to penetrate to the depths of the human soul and “bring to the surface eternal themes” of humanity can we get an explanation for the great love that ordinary Russian people felt for him. Sometimes it was his immense humor provoking laughter or his reckless nature sounded  in the songs,  but it were always the words of truth. Vysotsky said in one of his songs: “I do not lie by any of my words” and considered himself as the servant of the pure Word. Yuri Andreev wrote that Vysotsky’s songs, in their fundamental essence, were” the assertion of the prevalence of the good in life and in every person“, and of the “overthrow of evil of any kind  even at the price of one’s own life”.

Everything around Vysotsky was extraordinary, especially his ability to connect to ordinary people and to evoke a sense of trust. As Shemiakin remembered: “Volodya [Vysotsky] wrote about everything. He had never been at war, never did time in the camps, and never hacked at coal in the mines. But he has sensed everything vividly, and this emotion combined with the great poetic genius deeply touched the soul of the former warriors, prisoners…His entire work is that of one of the greatest analysts of the Russian land.“(9)

This young man carrying a guitar could potentially be seen anywhere in the Soviet Union, including Siberia and the Far East. He sang his songs, talked to people, and somehow during his journey he understood very important things about his country and the human soul. Most importantly, his poetic genius permitted him to embody this knowledge into his songs. In doing this, he succeeded in bringing his understanding at a very high level of communication. Vysotsky’s struggle to bring the words of goodness to the world was one of epic proportions and as a tribute to the great bard we should say that he succeeded.

Political Vysotsky

As Vysotsky became older, the themes of his songs changed with him. From the end of 60’s, the “hooligan” Vysotsky gave place to the analyst Vysotsky, a citizen of his country and a warrior. He made the progress extraordinarily swift. His songs evolved into complex ballads creating a panorama of Russian life. Vysotsky’s poetic universe consisted of thousands of characters, put into different situations, struggling and loving, suffering and laughing. It included fairy tales and war stories, ballads and parables. With the analytical eye of a thinker he recognized the disconnected state of his country.  His poetic genius allowed him put the feelings of many into words.

Much was written about his travelings around Russia. It had stimulated his growth as an artist and as a public figure in Soviet society.  What he understood during his contacts with the people, he was determined to bring to his listeners. Vysotsky said once: “I believe that these songs became so well-known precisely because of the desire to tell  something very important, that’s why people listen to them, that’s why they are drawn to them”.  His songs were powerful because they could explain the true nature of the current state of the Soviet Union to anyone:

It’s my fate till the end, till the cross,
Shout till I’m coarse, after that only numb,
To pursue and argue, till the mouth has froth,
That it’s all wrong, that it’s not right!

That the hucksters are lying about Christ’s mistakes,
That until the flagstone would press into dirt,
Three hundred years under the Tartar yoke were all a waste,
That was just it – hundreds years of indigence and shame.

But there was Ivan Kalita who did what he could,
And not only one but many who stood up to all,
The sweat of goodwill and the revolts in vain.
Pugachov, blood, and misery again…

Let the people not get it at first,
I’ll repeat it again even in the image of a fool.
But sometimes even the theme isn’t worth it,
And the vanity is the same old vain…

I am breaking my nerve, guys, to do what I can,
And someday one of you may for me light a candle,
For the naked nerves’ sting as I sing and I choke,
For the jolly manner in which I am joking…

Was he Soviet or anti-Soviet? We did not discuss it with him. Most accurately, he was neither…. He simply could not tolerate unfairness and evil in any form “ (10).

Vysotsky often used metaphors in his songs: The Parable of the Truth and Lie, Wolf Hunt (1968), The Old House (1969), The Apples of Paradise (1973), but the listeners usually understood the true meaning within the songs. In 1975 he wrote Kupola (The Domes) – his  prayer for Russia, which he devoted to Mikhail Shemiakin.

His songs were accepted by the Russian people as desperately needed words of truth about themselves, about the society in which they lived, about their hope and desperation, and about philosophical problems of the fate of individuals. It was never about abstract ideas, but always the personal choice between good and evil.

Marina Vlady

I would not compare anyone with you.
Even kill, shoot me for that!
Look how I am admiring you
Like the Madonna of Rafael!

It was like a gift from above to Vysotsky that, in the midst of his popularity as an actor and bard, among all turbulence of his life, in 1968 he met Marina Vlady, a beautiful French actress of Russian origin. Marina became his soul mate. They were married in 1970; it was the third marriage for both of them. Their life together was described in Marina’s memoir Vladimir or the Interrupted Flight; it was one of the poignant love stories of the 20th century. Marina was his guardian angel until his death. A lot was said about her by the Russian media, but her love had kept him alive for twelve years.

Interrupted Flight

With smiles they were breaking my wings,
My scream sometimes was like a wail.
And I was numb from pain and helplessness,
And could just whisper: thanks to be alive!

Who were “they” in this famous song? During his lifetime, the authorities’ oppression of Vysotsky was tremendous. As the actor Bortnik from Taganka remembered, it seemed as though the invisible evil of Soviet empire was trying to suffocate Vysotsky at every level (11). Marina wrote that his poems have never been published in Russia during his life; his songs were removed from soundtracks, his concerts canceled, his book and record deals revoked at the last moment.

His humor and ability to laugh through the most difficult times as well as the connection with the ordinary people from all corners of  the Soviet Union helped him to overcome the failures but the level of stress was enormous.

What Vysotsky did in these conditions would not have been possible for anybody else: over thirteen years he held more than 500 personal concerts in the Soviet Union. From 1973 he started traveling abroad, first to France and Europe, then to the USA in 1978 and 1979, Canada and other countries. In New York he met with Joseph Brodsky and two of them spent a lot of time together.  Ironically, the meeting of two last greatest Russian poets of the 20th century happened in America.

The repression only added to his charisma in the eyes of the Russian people, who saw the sole hero against the oppressive regime. During his last years he had all the moral and material support of the Russian people: it was not possible for the authorities to either expel him or silence him. But “it was his unusual, suffering, vulnerable soul” – according to Shemiakin’s words – “that made him suffer because of all the unjustness he saw in the world.”  In 1972 he wrote one of his most tragic songs, Capricious Horses, full of reflection on the fate of the individual.

The wave of popularity and the material success of the preceding years did not mean a lot to him. Excessive oppression, stress, and addiction led to his early death. Vysotsky died on July 25th  during the Moscow Olympic Games. The authorities did not write a word about his death, but people somehow found out and several hundred thousand people came to bid their farewell to him.

Vysotsky stated in his last poem to Marina in summer 1980 that his mission in life was fulfilled:

…I have a lot to sing to the Almighty.
I have my songs to justify my life”

By Elena Dimov.

Translations of the poems by Oleg Dimov

Resources and collection of Vysotsky’s songs

Britannica about Vysotsky

Capricious horses


Along the ledge, on a brink of a precipice.
I lash my horses, drive them on.
Somehow the air is not enough for me,
I drink the wind, I swallow the fog,
Feeling with a reckless delight, that I am vanishing, vanishing.
Slow down my horses, slow down!
Don’t listen the tight whip!
But somehow I got the capricious horses –
I didn’t finish living; I will not end my song.
I will let my horses drink water,
I will finish sing my verse.
For a moment, somehow I will stand
on the edge….
 I will go like a feather from a hand – the hurricane will sweep me,
And the galloping horses will pull my sleigh on the morning snow.
Pace yourselves, my horses, do not hurry,
Let my last way to the shelter will be longer, just a little!
Slow down, my horses slow down!
The whip and lash are not your overseers!
But somehow I got the capricious horses –
I didn’t finish living; I will not end my song.
I will let my horses drink water,
I will finish sing my verse.
For a moment, somehow I will stand
on the edge. We’ve come in time: no late comings to God, –
Why then angels sing with such vicious voices?
Or is it a ringing bell got numb from sobbing?
Or is it me, crying to the horses not to carry the sleigh so fast?!
Slow down my horses, slow down!
I beg you, do not ran at such fast pace!
But somehow I got the capricious horses –
I didn’t finish living; I will not end my song.
I will let my horses drink water,
I will finish sing my verse.
For a moment, somehow I will stand
on the edge.


1. Vladimir Vysotsky. On My Songwriting. In: Hamlet with a Guitar. Sergei Roy. Moscow, 1990, pp.201, 203.
2.Vladimir Vysotsky.  Pesni i stikhi. V.2. New York, 1983, p.140.
3.Vladimir Vysotsky: Poet,Chelovek.Aktior. M., 1990.

4.Cherniavsky, G. I. Politics in Poetry of the Great bards. “Russian Studies in Literature”, vol.41, no.1, Winter 2004-5. p.63-65.
6.Resources and collection of Vysotsky’s songs
7.Hamlet... pp. 10-11.
8. Vladimir Vysotsky. Vse ne tak. Memorialnii almanakh-antalogia. Moscow, 1991, p.42.
9. Hamlet... p. 315
10. Vladimir Vysotsky v zapisiah Michaila Shemikina. N.Y., 1987. p.67.
11.  Vse ne tak. Moscow, 1991, p.36


The Magnificent Garden of Brodsky


Joseph Brodsky in Norenskaya

“Listen, my boon brethren and my enemies!
What I’ve done, I’ve done not for fame or memories
In this era of radio-waves and cinemas,
But for the sake of my native tongue and letters !”

—  Joseph Brodsky
Translated by Alan Myers with the author

The name of the last great Russian romantic poet of the 20th century, Joseph  Brodsky, hardly requires an introduction. His life in exile after his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1972 became a story of success; in 1987 he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature, became the Poet Laureate of the United States in 1991, and published numerous books of poems and essays. Today, Brodsky is considered one of the greatest romantic poets of the 20th century and has gone into the annals of 20th century world literature.

His whole life, however, was divided in two – before and after his expulsion – and the success of the last years of his life seems to overshadow the beginning, the life and poetry of a rebellious youth in the Soviet Union, where the right to be a poet was denied to him.

One can now look at his early poems with bewilderment at how they had already demonstrated the strength and ability of his powerful talent. Notably, Brodsky himself explained the nature of poetry to a judge at his infamous trial in 1964. When asked whether he studied to be a poet, he answered very simply: “I did not think you could get this from school.” The judge replied “But how, then?” and Brodsky said “I think it … comes from God…”(The Trial of Iosif Brodsky, A Transcript. The New Leader, Aug.31, 1964).

At the origin of Joseph Brodsky’s destiny was not the famous trial or the expulsion from the Soviet Union, as described in numerous works, but rather the gift of poetry, which he accepted with great humility. Joseph Brodsky told his friend Losev: “Poetry is when you start to write, one word leads to another.” And this gift came to Brodsky quite unexpectedly in 1958 or 1959. During a conversation with Solomon Volkov, he recalled how someone showed him a book by Vladimir Btitanishsky: “Well, I thought, surely someone could write better on this subject. So I started to write something myself, and that’s how it all began” (Volkov, S. Conversations with Joseph Brodsky. N.Y., 1998, p.32.).

Brodsky was born in Leningrad in May 1940 to a Jewish family. Joseph was their only child and the family was not prosperous; his father worked as a photographer and his mother was an accountant. Brodsky recalled: “Sometimes my father had work and sometimes he didn’t. Those were the times, the troubled times.” They lived in the hideous creations of the Soviet regime – “communal” apartments – with several other families, which was typical of the time.

Brodsky’s earlier life was as normal as it could be in the Soviet Union, but as a teen he dropped out of school and started to do odd jobs as a worker in Leningrad as well as in geological expeditions all around the Soviet Union. It was an unusual and rebellious act at that time. The young Brodsky was never a conformist; even his appearance was extraordinary. According to his acquaintances he was a strong youth with red hair which appeared to burst as a flame on his head.

At that time Brodsky started to write poetry, often during the expeditions. Later, he never included his early poems in his selections in English. They were published by Pushkin Fund in Sochinenia Iosifa  Brodskogo ( St.Petersburg, 1992), and then in Tallinn and in  Russian selection Pisma Rimskomu drugu (2010). Among them are Pilgrims, The Garden, Goodbye and others.

Already in his first and not quite as polished poems one see the qualities that later became the marks of his lyric poetry: the strength and beauty of his feelings and emotions, intellect, and the fascinating ability to incorporate them into images of certain places; and the interrelations with his emotional and metaphysical inner universe. One of his early poems, The Garden, had poignant strophes that could be considered the leitmotif of his life:

O, how empty and silent you are
In the autumn’s twilight
how spectrally the garden’s transparence reigns,
where the leaves approach the earth
through the great attraction of the collapse.

O, how silent you are!
Doesn’t your destiny
foresee challenge in my fate,
and the rumble of the fruits, which have left you,
like the sound of the bells, is it not close to you?

Great garden!
Grant my words
the whirling of tree trunks, the whirling of the truth,
where I am shuffling through the winding branches
into the fall of the leaves, into the twilight of the resurrection.

O, how can I live
until the future spring
to your branches, to my soul in sorrow,
when all your fruits are gone
and only your emptiness is real.

No, I’ll leave!
Let the colossal carriages,
take me somewhere.
My low path and your high path –
now they are similarly vast.

Goodbye, my garden!
For how long? ..Forever.
Keep in yourself the silence of the daybreak,
Great garden, shredding the years
on the bitter idylls of the poet.

Translated by Elena Dimov and edited by Margarita Dimova

Brodsky was only twenty years old when he wrote The Garden, but it is a masterpiece full of metaphysical and philosophical reflections on the fate of a poet. His poetic language was already refined, and his inner universe correlated with the magnificent garden full of the moving sense of the distant future as a time of a separation from everything he loved. Later this theme would be developed into the poetic universe of Brodsky, as well described by modern critics, but in this early poem it is just a magic garden of life and poetry.

How could a poet of such extraordinary ability survive in the brutal world of Soviet reality? It is the mystery of the poetry in the face of the prose of the real life. Brodsky could transfer the outside world into philosophical and even metaphysical messages through his poetry and did it with the easiness and grace of the true romantic talent.

After The Garden it happened that Brodsky became a poet noticed by many, especially by Anna Akhmatova, who proclaimed him to be the greatest poet among their generation. Anna Akhmatova became his mentor and friend until the end of her life. The Garden was  followed by  several outstanding poems  Christmas Romance, The Black Horse and  Procession. Another of Brodsky’s poems, Pilgrims, (1960) became famous and popular with the intellectual public in Leningrad.

Marina Basmanova ЦГЛА фото
Marina Basmanova
ЦГЛА фото

At this time, another fateful event in his life occurred: his meeting with Marina Basmanova, a young painter, the “enchantly silent and beautiful girl” (see:Gessen, Keith.The Gift. Joseph Brodsky and the Fortunes of Misfortune. The New Yorker, 2011, May 23). Their meeting and extravagant love affair inspired the most beautiful and poignant lyrical poems such as On Love (1971). Eighty of these were published by Brodsky in the collection New Stances to Augusta. Poems to M.B., 1962-1982, in 1983.

They never married, however, as another person became involved in their relationship: the poet Dmitry Bobishev, a friend of Brodsky’s, who appeared in the life of Marina Basmanova when Brodsky was especially vulnerable in 1963.

It was in November 1963 when an article was published in which Brodsky was ridiculed for almost everything: his poems, his appearance, and even his corduroy trousers. It was the beginning of the famous process which was ended by his expulsion from the Soviet Union in 1972.

It was then that Brodsky knew about the affair. Brodsky was in a mental hospital in Moscow during New Year’s Eve and then, almost insane from jealousy and grief, went by train to Leningrad to confront Marina and Bobishev (The Gift). The escalation of the tension in his relationship with Basmanova continued until his arrest and exile to northern Russia in 1964.

Brodsky was arrested on February 11, 1964 on a street near his house. His parents did not know about the fate of their son for 24 hours. On February 18th, the process – which, according his friend and bibliographer Losev,  was“ a reminisce of the Kafka’s process of presumed guilt in something that could not be defined “(Losev, Joseph Brodsky. Moscow, 1989, pp. 88-95) – started in the Dzerzhinsky district court in Leningrad.

TuneiadezThe case was founded on the basis of the “social parasitism” of Brodsky (tuneadstvo) – a ridiculous article in Soviet law that allowed the arrest of almost anyone in the creative professions who was not a member of the official Union of Writers.

It was surprising for such a young man – Brodsky was only 24 – to be so calm during the trial. The witnesses observed that nothing could distress Brodsky or overturn the absolute tranquility of his spirit in the face of the hostile trial. The level at which these two individuals, Brodsky and the judge, spoke revealed an absolute split between the spirit of the poet and the vulgar prose of the district court authority looking for petty criminals. The judge asked him “What are you doing for a living?” and the poet answered:  “I write poems. I translate.” This was not accepted by the judge, and she repeated: “Do you have a permanent job?” – “I thought it is permanent job – to write poetry” – “Why you did not work?” And the poet answered: “I worked. I wrote poetry.” The judge: “What is your profession?” – Brodsky: “I am a poet” . “  Who recognized you as a poet? Who enrolled you in the ranks of poets?   Brodsky:  “No one. And who enrolled me in the ranks of humanity?  Judge:” Did you study this?” –  “This?”  Judge:  “To become a poet. You did not try to finish high school where they prepare, where they teach?” Brodsky: “I didn’t think you could get this from school”.  Judge: “How then?”  Brodsky: “I think that it . . . comes from God. (The New Leader, pp. 6-8). This dialogue is quintessential of the overall relationship between Brodsky and the state in the Soviet Union.

Between sessions of the trial, Brodsky was confined to a mental hospital again, where it was determined that he was psychologically fit to work. The sentence was short:

“The report of the Committee for Work with Young Writers demonstrates that Brodsky is not a poet. He was condemned by the readers of ” Evening Leningrad.” Therefore, in accordance with the decree of February 4, 1961, the court will send Brodsky to a distant location for a period of five years of forced labor”.

What could be more different than the mystical garden conceptualized by Brodsky and the pettiness of the authorities? In March 1964, he was sentenced to exile to northern Russia and spent 18 months in a labor camp near Archangelsk. He was released in 1966 after protests from the literary world.

Paradoxically, Brodsky remembered his exile as the happiest time of his life. At the same time, according to his friend Eugenii Rein, in Noreskaya Brodsky’s poetry took on a higher spiritual and metaphysical form.

His relationship with Marina continued sporadically; she came to visit him several times in his exile, and words from her meant much more for him than the activities of his release from the northern exile. In 1964 Brodsky wrote the poignant poem to M.B.: “In the darkness of night/baring hope’s powerlessness/mile by mile/love is backing away/from the mindlessness“.

He was released in 1966. In 1967 his son Andrei was born. However, his spiritual and intellectual conflict with the existing authorities escalated until the exile of 1972, leading to world infamy and the Nobel Prize in literature.

Brodsky in America, 1972His relationship with Marina also deteriorated. Marina refused to give their son his last name choosing her own: Basmanov.  In the spring of 1972, the authorities gave Brodsky three weeks to pack his bags and leave Russia. In 1972 he lost everything: his family, his friends, and his love, all at the same time. The Russian language in which he wrote his poetry became as distant as the fatherland, which expelled one of its greatest sons. Before leaving the USSR, Brodsky wrote in open letter to Brezhnev about his full assurance that he would come back to his motherland “in the flesh or on paper”: ‘even though my people don’t need my body, they still need my soul.

Brodsky never returned to Russia, nor did he see Marina Basmanova or his parents ever again. According to Losev, his son Andrei, came to visit him in New York once and this meeting did not bring a reconciliation. The poet Brodsky gradually gave way to his role as an essayist. The metaphorical verses of “The Garden” became true. He began to lose his great gift. In 1996, at the age of 55, Brodsky left this world.

Paradoxically, his poetry initially became more popular among the Western literary public then it was in the Soviet Union,0 where it was initially considered too cold and too intellectual. During his lifetime, he never became as loved by the Russian people as the other great poet, the bard Vladimir Vysotsky. Their relationship is yet to be analyzed: it is a different story. Brodsky touched on this indirectly in his Nobel lecture when he said that “there exists a rather widely held view, postulating that in his work a writer; in particular a poet should make use of the language of the crowd. For all its democratic appearance, and palpable advantages for a writer, this assertion is quite absurd.” (Nobel lectures from the Literature Laureates, 1986 to 2006. N.Y.-London, 2007, p.259

Joseph Brodsky never considered himself outside of his predecessors, the poets of the Silver Age. Among them were his mentor Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Marina Tsvetaeva. There are many epithets to describe the poet Brodsky: Intellectual, Exile, and Traveler. The magnificent garden of Brodsky’s poetry continues to attract the attention of readers.

From Outskirts to the Center

And then: no partitions.
Only a massive meeting,
as if someone from the darkness
is suddenly embracing us
and, full of darkness,
full of darkness and peace,
we all stand at the cold, gleaming river.

-Joseph Brodsky.  Translated by Oleg Dimov and edited by Austin Smith

By Elena Dimov
Charlottesville, Virginia, 2011


Pictures used: photo by Yakov Gordin, RIAF; Martha Pearson; film stills:”Иосиф Бродский – Возвращение,” Документальный фильм, Россия, 2010. Авторы Алексей Шишов; “Joseph Brodsky: In the Prison of Latitudes.” Documentary by Jan Andrews, Anny Carraro, Italy, USA, 2010.


The University of Virginia library has a rich collection of Brodsky’s poetry in English and Russian.

Other Resources:   Library of Congress Online Resources


Remembering Joseph Brodsky

After Two Years  by Joseph Brodsky

Translated by Margarita Dimova

No, we did not grow mute or older.
We speak our own words, as before,
And our coats are the same dark color,
And the same women do not love us.

And again we are playing with time
In great amphitheaters of solitude,
And all the same lamps burn above us,
As exclamations of the night.

We live the past, as if it is the present,
As though it does not resemble the future.
Again not sleeping, we forget the sleeping ones
And engage in business as usual.

Keep, o humor, the youths merry
In continuous whirlpools of dark and light.
Keep them great for honor and for shame,
And keep them kind – for the vanity of the ages.


Selected books  of Joseph Brodsky at  UVA Library


Collected Poems in English  (2000)





Elegy to John Donne and Other Poems (1966)

So Forth:poems (1996)

To Urania. (1988)


Бродский читает Письма римскому другу



Selected Bibliography

Brodsky, Joseph. Ann Kjellberg ed. Collected poems in English. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.2000.

Brodsky, Joseph. Elegy to John Donne, and other poems. Translated by Nicholas Bethell. London: Longmans.1967

Brodsky, Joseph. Izbrannye stikhotvoreniia. 1957-1992. Moskva: Panorama.1993

Brodsky, Joseph. Izbrannoe. Moskva: Izd-vo  Tretia volna.1993.

Brodsky, Joseph. Kholmy: bolshie stikhotvoreniia i poėmy. Sankt-Petersburg: LP VTPO Kinozentr.1991.

Brodsky, Joseph. Konez prekranoi ėpokhi: stikhotvoreniia. 1964-1971. Ann Arbor, Ardis.1977.

Brodsky, Joseph.Marbles: a play in three acts. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux.1989.

Brodsky,Joseph. Mramor. Ann Arbor: Ardis Publishers.1984.

Brodsky, Joseph. Nativity poems. Translated by Petr Vail, Melissa Green, and Joseph Brodsky. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.2001.

Brodsky, Joseph. Novye stansy k Avguste: stikhi k M.B., 1962-1982. Ann Arbor, Ardis.1983.

Brodsky, Joseph, Vladimir Ufliand, and Olga Abramovich.Osenniĭ krik yastreba. 1990.

Brodsky, Joseph. Ostanovka v pustyne: stikhotvoreniia i poėmy. New York: Izd-vo im. Chekhova.1970.

Brodsky, Joseph.Peĭzazh s navodnenieṁ. Dana Point: Ardis.1995.

Brodsky, Joseph, Peresechennaia mestnost: puteshestviia s kommentariiami. Moskva: Nezavisimaia gazeta.1995.

Brodsky, Joseph. Pisma rimskomy drugu.St.Petersburg: Izd. Gr.Azbuka-Klasika. 2010.

Brodsky, Joseph. Rimskie ėlegii. New York: Russica.1982.

Brodsky, Joseph. Petr Vail ed.Rozhdestvenskie stikh; Rozhdestvo, tochka otscheta : beseda Iosifa Brodskogo s Petrom Vaĭlem. Moskva: Nezavisimaia gazeta.1992.

Brodsky, Joseph. Selected poems. Baltimore: Penguin books. 1974.

Brodsky, Joseph. So forth: poems. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.1996.

Brodsky, Joseph. Sochinenia.Vol.1-4. Sankt.Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond. 1998.

Brodsky, Joseph. V okrestnostikh Atlantidy: novye stikhotvoreniia. Sankt-Petersburg: Pushkinskiĭ fond.1995.

Brodsky, Joseph. Verses on the winter campaign .Translated by Nicholas Bethell. London: Anvil Press.1980.


Welcome to Contemporary Russian Literature at the University of Virginia. Contemporary Russian Literature started in the summer of 2011. The goal of this ongoing project is to introduce the works of modern Russian writers to readers, students and scholars alike, interested in finding out about the happenings in the exciting world of modern Russian literature.

The changing publishing landscape in Russia and the entrance of Russia into the modern literary world has created an unprecedented challenge to readers of Russian literature – the emergence of many talented young writers in Russia, previously unknown. Their names have only begun to be recognized by Western readers, but the magnitude and the quality of the new literary wave from Russia exceeds all expectations.  It is difficult to speculate whether the appearance of these new talents will match the literary genius of the past, but it is obvious that the fresh, new voices of the younger generation of Russian poets and writers have become much more visible today.

The University of Virginia Library continues to develop its collection of contemporary Russian literature.  Our goal is to make this collection available to the university community and to evoke interest among all generations of readers as well as to provide reviews and textual examples of new Russian literature. Our hope is to become a place where readers can find  translations and reviews of modern Russian writers.

The partnership with UVA’s Sciences, Humanities & Arts Network Technological Initiatives (SHANTI) has provided valuable assistance and guidance.

For more information about our contemporary Russian literature collection, or to present translations and reviews please contact Elena Dimov or Bud Woodward at UVA Library.