Victor Serge’s warm, cultivated pen pays tribute to his fellow writer and revolutionary, the singular Alexander Blok, ‘the greatest of contemporary Russian poets,’ on his death in 1921. Splendid.
‘Alexander Blok’ by Victor Serge from Soviet Russia (New York). Vol. 5 No. 4. October, 1921.
Petrograd, August 8, 1921. THE greatest of contemporary Russian poets, one of the magicians of the word and of the thought, he who best knew how to set forth the deeper meaning of the revolution, has died. Alexander Blok died at Petrograd on Sunday morning, August 7, 1921. Russian literary men will long celebrate his memory, for he was incontestably one of the three or four great lyric poets conferred by nature each century on specially favored races. For many years, furthermore, and without having had any official laureateship conferred upon him, he was nevertheless the first, the most admired, the most beloved of the musicians of the Russian word.
He leaves behind him an extensive and permanent contribution, almost all of which is of a lyric nature. His best appreciated books are called: Verses to Evoke the Wonderous Lady, Joys Unfelt, The Mask of Snow, The Earth Under the Snow, titles untranslatable, it would seem, themselves involving much fantasy, very musical, both charming and mystical, whose essential symbols were also permanently embodied in The Rose and the Cross,—Full of joy, flowers sublimated by a noble suffering,—a martyrdom crowned by the most beautiful and fragrant of flowers.
His work is mystical, and its inspiration absolutely original, hostile to any religious or conventional symbolism, but always determined to disclose among its passing forms and images, in minor, faint, hesitant chords, or in vague, irridescent touches, the intangible, inexpressible soul, which is love—painfully—and dreams of the rapture of the “unknown” to the stars. Although his mastery of the Russian language was almost perfect, he was never a virtuoso in verse, nor, in the proper sense of the word, a poet by trade. We shall find in his books not a single patriotic song or cantata, nor a didactic or “thesis” poem—like those to which the academicians and poet laureates of occidental countries are unfortunately addicted. Alexander Blok was simply a lyric poet, a very great lyric poet, who lived like a poet, at the whim of the hours, of his personal emotions, or his dreams. And perhaps that is why it has been given to him to bestow upon the revolutionary Russia of Red November two poems which are masterpieces, because they sum up, set forth, and splendidly proclaim the revolution: The Twelve and The Scythians.
A French translation of The Twelve recently appeared in La Vie Ouvriere. But the poet, the musician of The Rose and the Cross, is in reality very untractable in translation. The Twelve are twelve red guards of November 1917, dressed in torn boots, armed with Austrian rifles, who are tramping in the black night, over die white snow.—Above their heads a banner flaps in the wind, with the inscription : “All Power to the Constituent Assembly,” partly visible in the dark.—They pass on. The reports of their rifles echoing in the night inexorably dispel the great shadows of the past. They are poor men, rough, impetuous, suffering. One of them slays with a bullet from his gun his sweetheart of former days, whom he sees moving by in the arms of an officer.—And behind them on the snow remains the bloodstain: “But as they walk with mighty stride” followed by a poor famished beast, the twelve do not know that “they are preceded, Under the bloody flag, by the form of Jesus Christ—invisible in the storm, invulnerable under the flying balls, moving softly over the snow, surrounded by fluffy flakes and glittering diamonds, crowned by white roses.” They do not know that they are the twelve obscure bearers of a new gospel, and that the ideal they are striving for is—unknown to them—invulnerable to their own assaults. In this poem, in which each word strikes home, because it is living, because it is a word of the street, there are verses which the revolution has practically taken as mottoes, in scribing them on the walls of its capitals: To the great grief of all bourgeois, we shall bring on the world conflagration.” The poem also contains a double vision, moving and powerful, of the ideal revolution and the real revolution.
In the rhythm of their march and in their enthusiasm, the vehement strophes of The Scythians recall certain passages of Victor Hugo’s Chatiments and Barbier’s Iambes. Millions and millions of barbarous and eager Scythians bursting with life and with a burning and devouring love (“Yes, for long, none of you has been able to love as our blood knows to love!”) appear on the threshold of the future and address to the old world a fraternal appeal, which sounds like a defiance:
For the last time, old world, brace up!
For the last time the lyre of the barbarians
Summons you to the bright repast, the
Of labor and of peace!
For if old Europe cannot understand the immense hopes and the immense love that blossoms in the breasts of the Scythians of the Ural and the Volga, these Scythians will turn to Asia—and then woe to old Europe!
In Alexander Blok’s tragic admonition there is a profound meaning. Europe has not responded to the brusque and magnificent appeal of the “barbarians” — proletarians and muzhiks — who have made the revolution. And now these “barbarians” are calling upon the people of the Orient. If old bourgeois Europe were able to grasp even in the slightest degree the immensity of the consequences of the awakening of the Orient, what frightful disturbances must she feel at the faintest murmurs in India and Iran?
The author of The Twelve and The Scythians was attached by his sympathies to the Socialist-Revolutionary Party of the Left, which adhered to the Soviets after the November Revolution, and whose legal organization, surviving many aberrations, is today making efforts to constitute itself as a “loyal opposition.” As a matter of fact, Alexander Blok, little versed in political affairs, understood the revolution as a poet—and understood it admirably.
He did not cease his work at Petrograd. I believe he had been engaged for some time in an office in the Theatrical Section of the Commissariat of Public Instruction. He was a member of the Bureau of the Authors’ Union and one of the founders of the Poets’ Union, which has taken upon itself the defence of the interests of poets, who are considered as having a function in the Republic, a trade comparable in every respect with other trades. He was much interested in the House of Arts, one of the centres of intellectual life in Petrograd. There you might often meet him. A dashing figure, well jointed, he had the elegant correctness and bearing of an Anglo-Saxon gentleman. His elongated face, smooth shaven, with its firm features, flushing faintly at the slightest emotion, his eyes of the blue of the ocean, further strengthened this first impression, somewhat unexpected in the most lyrical and most Russian of our contemporary poets. None of those that have met him, however little, will forget his calm and warm voice, always appearing to restrain an emotion, and his blue, timid, distant, sweet glance.
At the age of forty-one he succumbed to heart trouble, complicated, they tell me, by an incipient scurvy and by a breakdown of a constitution that had been slowly undermined by years of privation. If the conditions of existence of the circle to which he belonged were somewhat better than those of the rest of the population, in these days of civil war, of blockade and of permanent famine, they are none the less hard conditions indeed, and the noblest natures are not always those that adapt themselves best to the new conditions of the struggle for life. It has very often been the case in Red Russia during the civil war and the famine, that the best of revolutionaries went off to be killed at the front or on the barricades, while others were lying low—and that the best of artists and scholars stoically suffered the severest privations, while dubious “intellectuals”, skilled at sabotage in all the Soviet institutions, were “muddling through” rather well.
In this unfortunate and inverse selection, the war that has been waged and is still being waged more insidiously, against Red Russia, has been more responsible than any other cause for the repeated murders of the elect. The artists, the learned, the children—the elements that humanity necessarily considers to be the promise of its future—have suffered most in this process. Poets die young in the country of the revolution, and hundreds of thousands of Russian children are a prey to famine at the very moment when the eyes of Alexander Blok have closed in death.
The peoples who initiate the great social transformations are called upon to pay this cruel ransom for the future of all races.
Soviet Russia began in the summer of 1919, published by the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia and replaced The Weekly Bulletin of the Bureau of Information of Soviet Russia. In lieu of an Embassy the Russian Soviet Government Bureau was the official voice of the Soviets in the US. Soviet Russia was published as the official organ of the RSGB until February 1922 when Soviet Russia became to the official organ of The Friends of Soviet Russia, becoming Soviet Russia Pictorial in 1923. There is no better US-published source for information on the Soviet state at this time, and includes official statements, articles by prominent Bolsheviks, data on the Soviet economy, weekly reports on the wars for survival the Soviets were engaged in, as well as efforts to in the US to lift the blockade and begin trade with the emerging Soviet Union.
PDF of full issue (large file): https://www.marxists.org/history/usa/pubs/srp/v4-5-soviet-russia%20Jan-Dec%201921.pdf