“Locks of Sorrows”: On Mykola Bazhan’s Early Poetry

By Uilleam BlackerMarch 3, 2021

“Locks of Sorrows”: On Mykola Bazhan’s Early Poetry

“Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul” by Mykola Bazhan

IN LATE 1938, Mykola Bazhan was waiting to be arrested. Over the preceding years, he had watched his contemporaries fall victim to Stalin’s purges: the poets, novelists, filmmakers, theatеr directors, and artists who had constituted the rebirth of Ukrainian culture in the 1920s had disappeared one by one, to be either imprisoned or shot. Bazhan was one of the most prodigious poetic talents of this remarkable movement, which, much to Moscow’s frustration, stubbornly oriented itself toward Europe and resisted the overbearing influence of Russian culture: one of its most famous slogans was “Away from Moscow!” As early as 1926, Stalin personally wrote to Lazar Kaganovich, first secretary of the Communist Party in Ukraine, with his concerns about these anti-Soviet and anti-Russian tendencies — concerns that would, very soon, have dire consequences for a whole generation of Ukrainian writers.

Bazhan was not in a favorable position in the 1930s. He had never joined the Party, his work stubbornly failed to follow Soviet conventions, and his background — a father who’d fought against the Bolsheviks for the Ukrainian People’s Republic, a mother with aristocratic roots — was decidedly suspicious. In 1935, a secret police report had already linked Bazhan to an imaginary group of Ukrainian nationalist terrorists, a “crime” for which numerous other writers paid with their lives. All the signs were that his turn would come soon. He had heard that, before carrying out arrests, the NKVD would telephone their victims in the night and hang up without a word; the theory was that they wanted to make sure the suspect was at home so as not to waste a journey. One night, he received two such silent calls. He had taken to spending a lot of time in parks, so as not to be at home in case of a secret police visit.

One can imagine Bazhan’s bemusement, then, when, in the midst of all this, he received a visit from a breathless young newspaper reporter at his Kyiv home asking for his reaction to being awarded the Order of Lenin, the highest honor a Soviet writer could receive. Bazhan had no idea he would be honored in this way, and no idea why. The reason was simple enough: in 1937, he had published a Ukrainian translation of the medieval Georgian poet Shota Rustaveli’s poem The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, considered Georgia’s national epic, for the 750th anniversary of its composition. Translating the master works of Georgian literature into the languages of the USSR was a popular and competitive activity at this time and was seen by many writers as a way of currying favor with the Georgian-born Stalin and atoning for past “sins.” Bazhan’s translation had been a success and word had reached the leader, who was especially fond of Rustaveli’s poem. At the last moment, as the list of recipients of the Order of Lenin for 1939 was being finalized, Stalin personally penciled in Bazhan’s name. In doing so, Stalin gave the poet unexpected immunity against his own terror.

Thanks to this twist of fate, Mykola Bazhan became an almost unique case among Ukrainian Soviet writers who had made their names in the 1920s. Not only did he survive the 1930s, but he then joined the Party and embarked on a long and successful career in Soviet officialdom, holding a string of high offices in culture and politics. This, of course, has left a mark on his legacy for some. Bazhan served the Party faithfully through periods when Ukrainian writers continued to suffer. His awards were not enough to maintain his position; this required ideological work, and he dutifully wrote invectives against his contemporaries, among them former close friends like the novelist Yuri Yanovsky. However, as Eleonora Solovey warns in her afterword to Quiet Spiders of the Hidden Soul, a new anthology of Bazhan’s early work in English, “we should be careful in our evaluation of those times and those lives.” Bazhan had not been a committed supporter of Stalin or the Moscow-centered Soviet state as it was, that much is clear. Otherwise, he would never have found himself on the brink of arrest. It is difficult to imagine the psychological pressure of the years of watching his contemporaries disappear around him, waiting for his turn, and to imagine the relief that his reprieve brought. Can one really judge Bazhan for embracing his unexpected stay of execution and trying to extend it? It’s also worth noting that he used his position to help others, especially after Stalin’s death. He campaigned for the rehabilitation of Ukrainian and Jewish writers targeted during the 1930s and in the postwar “anti-cosmopolitan” (i.e., antisemitic) campaign. In the 1960s and ’70s, he advocated for a new generation of Ukrainian writers and their right to explore their historical and cultural heritage, and without his efforts some of the best work of that period may have remained unpublished.

Despite his stature as a giant of Soviet Ukrainian literature, Bazhan remains all but unknown outside Ukraine. His work is formally sophisticated, his language rich, his subject matter multilayered. Translating him is, thus, no mean feat. But on top of that, for much of the 20th century, Bazhan’s pre-Party existence, and thus much of his best work, was unknown or inaccessible to potential translators. It is fitting, then, that the editors of this new volume of Bazhan’s work, Oksana Rosenblum, Lev Fridman, and Anzhelika Khyzhnia, have turned to the poet’s earlier poetry. The volume takes us through selections from Bazhan’s first three books, published in the giddy experimental atmosphere of the 1920s, before tackling some longer and more formally, thematically, and politically complex works from the early 1930s. Indeed, one of the most fascinating aspects of this book is the way it reveals the tension between Bazhan’s mercurial, untrammeled poetic genius and the creeping ideological strictures of Stalinism.

The poems included here were written across a relatively short period of time, but their sheer diversity is striking. The earliest works are clearly influenced by the muscular Futurism popular in Ukraine and Russia immediately after the Bolshevik Revolution, but Bazhan very quickly goes beyond this, embracing expressionism, hints of Symbolism and (neo-)Romanticism, neoclassicism (a particularly interesting phenomenon in Ukrainian poetry of the time), and Ukraine’s own baroque cultural traditions.

Even in Bazhan’s declamatory Futurist works there is characteristic depth and ambivalence. His hymns to violence hide a hesitancy. “Autumn Path” (1927), which describes the Revolution and its aftermath, offers a reflection on barely processed trauma that elicits something of the shudder of Yeats’s “Easter, 1916”:

To whom can I offer my little morning pain,
My miserable, useless exhaustion?
I want days, where morning rises
Like a horse with a broken spine
And the flag of the unconquered machine gun carts
Are again lit up against the hills,
For you can’t erase the eternal trace
Of those cruel, inspired years.

(Translated by Amelia M. Glaser)

As Amelia M. Glaser notes in one of several enlightening translators’ essays in the volume, Bazhan’s tonal ambivalence did not go unnoticed, and the poem was never republished in the Soviet Union.

Bazhan’s lyric voice is, then, more traumatized than bombastic, and rather than the heroic, muscular bodies of Soviet propaganda, we find the grotesque, leering corporeality of interwar Expressionism. “Elegy for Circus Attractions” (1927) ends with language itself swinging on a rope like a corpse:

Choking on gulps of convulsions,
spinning on bright shining spit,
and clutched in a shared pulse
of the heart
— everyone!
The throat will warp into a hump,
the scream will halt in place,
when it hangs, like a flag, from the trapeze —
the black tongue of human speech.

(Translated by Ostap Kin, Ainsley Morse, and Mykyta Tyshchenko)

The imagery evokes a scene from an Otto Dix picture, and one can almost hear a Kurt Weill score accompanying this nightmare circus.

The sensuousness of many of these works uncovers another surprising dimension to a poet whose enduring image is that of a bespectacled, buttoned-up Party functionary. Lonely prostitutes and anxious urban sensuality are recurring motifs, but the sexiest poems are those in which Bazhan leaves the modern city and turns to Ukrainian folk motifs. “Love Potion” (1927), rendered with impressive precision both in terms of form and content by Iryna Shuvalova (herself one of Ukraine’s leading contemporary poets) provides some eerie Cossack erotica:

The girls enticing voice came calling from the copse.
The writhing twisting words were interlaced like ropes,
Like the distorted limbs of monstrous night-time dancers.

The Cossack left his horse and stepped into the mist,
Where great lethargic shapes in silence co-exist,
And slowly walk the earth, and sigh, and yield no answers.

“Hops of Green Legs” (1924), meanwhile, is a distillation of the barely concealed erotic charge of so many folk songs through punchy Futurist verse — the collision of the two worlds, brilliantly captured in Seán Monagle and Anzhelika Khyzhnia, is unexpected and exhilarating:

Magus of the gamuts and languor,
Bow your branches.
Lie on the kilim,
lad of longing
groves of the lagoons.

O, circle, locks of sorrows,
There you are on bare legs,
on bare mosses.
It’s not the goblet that summer tilts
but the skirt.
It’s not the moans in the hemps —
there’s horror of yearnings —
shade of yearnings.

There are few Ukrainian poets who don’t, as Bazhan does here, draw on folk traditions in one way or another. Indeed, modern Ukrainian poetry was founded by a Romantic poet, Taras Shevchenko, who combined the ethnographic concerns of his age with a fiery anti-imperial message, and in the shadow of whose work Ukrainian poets have since operated. These concerns emerge in Bazhan, but they are dramatically altered by the Soviet context: whether through personal conviction or lip service to ideology, national myths are treated with skepticism and scoured for proto-Marxist subtexts. Yet alongside this restricting factor runs Bazhan’s liberatory avant-garde chutzpah, which is never entirely extinguished. He does not, like his one-time mentor and fiery “panfuturist” Mykhail’ Semenko (shot by the NKVD in 1937), publicly burn his copy of Shevchenko’s works in a demonstrative break from tradition. Instead, he inhabits, complicates, and re-presents national traditions for the world in which he is writing.

The poem “Edifices” (1929) is a fine example of critical engagement with native traditions and skillful negotiation of ideological demands. Each of the poem’s three parts describes a different building: a Gothic cathedral, a baroque archway, and a modern Soviet building. The poem shifts in form to reflect the different architectural styles, but its thrust is not only aesthetic: the Gothic cathedral bears the memory of those who were exploited in its construction (a wholesome Soviet sentiment, but one that also resonates in today’s world, where architectural legacies of slavery are increasingly scrutinized). The section on the ornate gateway ostensibly consigns the early 18th-century Cossack leader Ivan Mazepa, patron of much of that city’s impressive baroque architecture, to history. Again, everything is as it should be — Mazepa betrayed Moscow, after all. Yet the sheer sensuousness of the description of the baroque (and distinctively Ukrainian) aesthetic tells a different story. The final section glorifies the new Soviet world and its buildings, yet it is marked by ambiguity. As this muscular edifice is raised by muscular socialist bodies, the steppe groans as the black teeth of excavators bite into it, while the musical perfection of the earlier buildings is replaced by clunking, provisional scaffolding.

Interference with official discourse can be found also in the “Ghetto in Uman” (1929), which describes the plight of the ancient Jewish community of Bazhan’s hometown. The poem, written in a characteristic Expressionist key and impressively reproduced here in Myroslav Shkandrij’s ominous translation, presents this community as backward and superstitious (“Hump-backed, old Zion” with its “thin, furious synagogues”), and in doing so reflects a general Soviet disapproval of traditional religious communities (we find similarly ambivalent depictions of the shtetl in the work of Soviet Jewish writers like Isaac Babel, and as Bazhan was writing this poem, Dziga Vertov was filming ecstatic scenes of the destruction of Orthodox churches for his Enthusiasm: Symphony of the Donbas [1931]). Yet Bazhan’s depiction of the dark ghetto is anything but a propaganda diatribe. The Uman Jewish community appears beleaguered and precarious, shaped by centuries of isolation and persecution (“exhausted, defamed people!”), yet dignified in its suffering. The Cossacks, who more than once were the instrument of that persecution, appear as a “desperate gang.”

The treatment of Ukraine’s Jewish community and its fate represents a recurring theme in Bazhan’s work. In 1930, he wrote a film script (one of several that he wrote during his active participation in early Ukrainian cinema) about a romance between a Jewish girl and a Ukrainian boy set in Uman. As the researcher of the Ukrainian avant-garde Yaryna Tsymbal has noted, this was one of few Soviet films to show contemporary Jewish life and feature a woman as its main protagonist. Bazhan was also one of the first European poets to write about the Holocaust. His poem “Ravine,” about the 1941 massacre of Kyiv’s Jews at Babyn Yar (more widely known in English by the Russian version of its name, Babi Yar), was published in 1943, before the world had understood what the Holocaust was, and before the Soviet Union could move to suppress knowledge of it.

The longest work included in Quiet Spiders is the unfinished epic “The Blind Men” (1930). Like “Ghetto in Uman,” it casts a critical eye on obstinate Ukrainian cultural traditions, this time that of the blind minstrels, the kobzari. These itinerant musicians, who existed until the early Soviet period when the state all but eradicated them, absorbing their art into kitsch Soviet folk-ensemble culture, were the bearers of Ukrainian culture and national memory. Shevchenko styled himself on the kobzari, and they appear in his work as forlorn figures whose tales of heroic Cossack uprisings against the Poles are intended to shame mid-19th-century Ukrainians, slumbering under serfdom in the Russian Empire, into action. This anti-imperial message was complex for Soviet ideology: communism was anti-imperialist, for sure, but to the Ukrainian peasants suffering under collectivization, it looked to all intents and purposes like a new iteration of age-old persecution. Bazhan presents the minstrels as remnants of that old, slumbering world, interested only in clawing in the meager proceeds of their trade; their songs are rejected by a young bard who wishes to use his art for the emancipation of the downtrodden. Some saw in the poem complicity in the Soviet destruction of the kobzar tradition. Yet, as George Grabowicz, the poem’s translator, notes, the poem transcends its immediate context: the safety of the historical genre and the surface critique of national backwardness conceal a reflection on what it means to be an artist in a stifling environment, as part of a “less-than-edifying guild,” and on the ways in which culture can be blinded, stumble, and fall. Can it be a coincidence that the poem ends, as the young musician and his rejected mentor part ways, with the image of “strange specters […] roaming around the bazaar”? There is a polemic with Shevchenko’s Romanticized folk culture here, but Bazhan is ultimately using poetry in the same way as his predecessor — to shake his readers into political and cultural vigilance.

“Blind Men” is unfinished. Although it tried to conform with official expectations, perhaps, in the end, the project was too risky. Bazhan clearly could not bring himself to write a black-and-white denunciation of the old and endorsement of the new. He saw the grotesquerie in both. As Grabowicz suggests, the poem’s unfinishedness is perhaps appropriate: completing this poem in the 1930s would only have meant giving it a false resolution, a dead ideological full stop.

Bazhan’s story in English translation also remains unfinished. Quiet Spiders covers only his early work, but the book will nevertheless be of great value both to those who know something of Ukraine and Bazhan already and to the uninitiated. The translations vary in approach, often privileging content over form but frequently masterfully rendering both, and they are all of high quality. The translator’s essays fill in all the necessary gaps, providing insights not only into Bazhan’s work but to the process of translation itself. The essays that open and close the volume strike the right balance between accessibility and detailed analysis. Ultimately, the volume serves as a compelling argument for more Bazhan: his work on the Holocaust deserves to be revisited and reappraised, as do his later, more philosophical and spiritual poems and prose works. The process of rendering the work of a poet as versatile and restless as Mykola Bazhan into English will probably never be finished, but Rosenblum, Fridman, and Khyzhnia have performed a great service by giving that process such an excellent new beginning.


Uilleam Blacker is a lecturer in Comparative Russian and East European Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London.

LARB Contributor

Uilleam Blacker is a lecturer in Comparative Russian and East European Culture at the School of Slavonic and East European Studies, University College London. He is co-author of Remembering Katyn (2012) and co-editor of Memory and Theory in Eastern Europe (2013)He has written for the Times Literary Supplement, Open Democracy Russia, and Words Without Borders. He has published fiction in The Edinburgh Review and Stand, and has translated the work of several contemporary Ukrainian authors.


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