The Ally of Executioners: Pushkin, Brodsky, and the Deep Roots of Russian Chauvinism

There is no sympathy whatsoever for the historic plight of Ukrainians.

October 30, 1992. The dusk of evening has fallen over the San Francisco peninsula, and a modest crowd is filing into the Palo Alto Jewish Community Center, where a solo reading by the Russian émigré poet Joseph Brodsky is set to begin. These sorts of events are evanescent by their very nature. The poet arrives, declaims some of his lines, and enjoys the satisfaction of his words hanging in the air for a time, on temporary release from the prison of the printed page. The attendees, for their part, are entertained, perhaps even edified by the proceedings, and head out of the lecture hall into the night, a few choice phrases fluttering on their lips or lodged in their memories. It is truly rare for such fleeting occasions to attain historical significance, but this one will, albeit for the wrong reasons.

Midway through the performance, at precisely 9:35 pm, Brodsky pours himself a glass of water from a plastic bottle, takes a swig, and announces the title of his next poem, “Na nezavisimost Ukrainy,” or “On Ukrainian Independence,” a relatively recent composition which will be recited in its original Russian. Brodsky approaches the lectern, his poem clutched in his right hand, his left arm akimbo, his chin resolutely thrust forward. Over the course of the next two and a half minutes he relentlessly rattles off this new poem, his voice occasionally quivering, alveolar trills rolling off his tongue. The poet’s body language is self-assured, his expression altogether self-satisfied, and when the last line is delivered, he emphatically turns over the page. It has been quite the performance.

What the Russophone members of the JCC audience made of the poem’s actual content that mild autumn evening some 30 years ago is anyone’s guess. “On Ukrainian Independence” is a highly allusive, almost impenetrable poem, filled with historical references, jargon, and obscure aphorisms. Any attempt at a literal translation will invariably result in fathomless nonsense. Still, those attendees with ears to hear would, for better or worse, have received Brodsky’s basic message. Written in response to Ukraine’s August 24, 1991, Act of Declaration of Independence, the composition is essentially an insult poem, a diss track, and a particularly crude and chauvinistic one at that. Genuinely incensed at the very idea of Ukraine’s newfound sovereignty, Brodsky repeatedly resorts to the ethnic slur of khokhol in reference to Ukrainians, and further sets the tone with mocking allusions to the Chornobyl disaster, the disparagement of Ukraine’s fertile chernozem black earth as “podzolic soil,” and various hackneyed mentions of sunflower seeds and borscht. It takes only a few lines for “On Ukrainian Independence” to reveal itself as a work completely suffused with bile, and it only gets worse from there.

Brodsky’s vulgar imagery of scornfully “spitting, or something” into the Dnieper River is merely puerile, but the bizarre, sadistic fantasy of “bastard” Ukrainians returning to their “huts” to be “put on all fours” by “Huns” and Poles starts to test the outer limits of bad taste. At other times Brodsky sounds like a scorned lover, oscillating farcically between derogation and ominous threats. “Farewell, khokhly,” he grumbles, “we’ve lived together, but that’s enough now,” adding

Oh yes, the steppes, the chicks, sweet chestnuts, and dumplings,
We’ve had greater losses, losing more people than money.
We’ll get by somehow. And if you want teary eyes —
There’s really no point, just wait till next time.

There is no sympathy whatsoever for the historic plight of Ukrainians, who experienced centuries of political and cultural repression, dying by the millions in civil wars, world wars, terror famines, gulags, and secret police torture chambers operated by supposedly “brotherly” Russians. Utterly indifferent to “age-old resentments,” the Russian poet asks Ukrainians to “stop bleating about your rights, and blaming everything on us,” even while envisioning a Ukraine in “ruins,” and cryptically referring to “dead bones with a Ukrainian odor.” A work of unadulterated chauvinism, this must surely rank as once of the most off-putting poems ever produced by a Nobel Prize winner or a United States Poet Laureate.

Brodsky must have sensed that the composition was a misstep, a literary abortion. He never published it, and read it aloud publicly on only two occasions, at the Palo Alto Jewish Community Center in 1992, and at New York’s Queens College two years later. Lev Loseff, a fellow Leningrad-born émigré and author of Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life, considered Brodsky’s reluctance to circulate “On Ukrainian Independence” to be “the lone act in his life of self-censorship,” while making sure to exclude the piece from anthologies in his capacity as Brodsky’s literary executor. It was only in samizdat form that the poem eventually made its way to Ukraine, where it was published in a 1996 issue of the literary journal Stolitsa, prompting an outcry and poetical ripostes from the politician and poet Pavlo Kyslyi and the novelist Oksana Zabuzhko among others. Brodsky’s vitriol had come as a surprise, given that, as the Wall Street Journal war reporter Yaroslav Trofimov observed in his April 28 essay “Russia’s Long Disdain for Ukrainian Statehood,” in “Soviet-era Kyiv, Ukrainian intellectuals used to trade coveted samizdat reprints of Brodsky’s poems, reciting them at clandestine gatherings,” only to discover that “the affection wasn’t mutual.”

Some of Brodsky’s supporters, meanwhile, were so discomposed by the lamentable style and content of the poem that they questioned Brodsky’s very authorship. In a 2005 article in Polit.ru, the Russian human rights activist Alexander Daniel argued that the poem was too “rough and simply inept” to have been one of Brodsky’s, though he admitted that it would be difficult to prove the negative that “some poetic text can never and under no circumstances belong to Brodsky.” This rather desperate line of defense crumbled when a videotaped recording of the Palo Alto event surfaced in 2015, almost two decades after the poet’s demise. It is thanks to the release of that grainy video, helpfully posted on Facebook by a certain Boris Vladimirsky, that we are able to witness Joseph Brodsky — Nobel Prize winner, United States poet laureate, MacArthur fellow, university professor, and literary icon — standing behind the lectern at the Palo Alto JCC auditorium, reciting in his characteristically strident fashion a work wholly unworthy of his legacy as a free-thinking, freedom-loving dissident who once declared bad literature to be a “form of treason.”

It is easy to see why Pavlo Kyslyi concluded that the author of such invective must be a “worthless imperial chauvinist,” or even a “fake dissident.” Yet in fairness Joseph Brodsky made for an unlikely imperialist. He did not believe in political movements, only “personal movement, that movement of the soul when a man who looks at himself is so ashamed that he tries to make some sort of change — within himself, not on the outside.” He was if anything an ardent individualist, maintaining that “the surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism.” He freely admitted to be being “a bad Jew, a bad Russian, a bad everything.” And as a political dissident he understood the nature of totalitarianism, which he knew from personal experience had turned the Soviet Union into “an empty — indeed, a terrifyingly wasted — place.” For “anyone whose mother tongue is Russian,” Brodsky proposed in his 1987 Nobel lecture, “to speak about political evil is as natural as digestion.” Yet his flatulently dyspeptic reaction to Ukraine’s declaration of independence was enough to beggar belief.

Bear in mind that Brodsky’s self-characterization as a “bad Russian” was somewhat misleading. In an October 1972 New York Times essay, the poet recalled his arrest for “social parasitism” and his 18 months in a hard labor camp near Arkhangelsk, after which

They invited me to leave, and I accepted the invitation. In Russia if such invitations are made, they mean only one thing. I doubt that anyone would be overjoyed to be thrown out of his home. Even those who leave of their own accord. No matter under what circumstances you leave it, home does not cease to be home. No matter how you lived there — well or poorly. And I simply cannot understand why some people expect, and others even demand, that I smear its gates with tar. Russia is my home; lived there all my life, and for everything that I have in my soul I am obliged to Russia and its people. And — this is the main thing — obliged to its language.

This sense of obligation to Russia, its people, and above all its language, was one that transcended the “empty” and “terrifyingly wasted” nature of the actual Soviet regime, and represented the fons et origo of Brodsky’s xenophobia. Ukraine’s derussification, its dramatic rejection of Russian sovereignty, of Russian language, of Russian culture, and of membership in the Russkiy Mir, the “Russian World,” had triggered in him a counteraction he could not control, which burst forth in the form of “On Ukrainian Independence.”

It is in the final stanza of Brodsky’s 1992 poem that we find the key to understanding this unseemly literary affair, and maybe even the key to understanding Russia’s ongoing transformation into a fascist loony bin:

You with your God, eagles, Cossacks, hetmans, and camp guards!
When it’s your turn to die, you big oafs,
You’ll be rasping, scratching at your mattress,
Reciting lines from Alexander, not bulls—t by Taras.

For Brodsky, it all comes down to this, an epic pissing contest between national poets — on one side Russia’s Alexander Pushkin, and Ukraine’s Taras Shevchenko on the other. Most every central and eastern European country has a venerated Romantic-era literary hero — Slovenia’s France Prešeren, Poland’s Adam Mickiewicz, Hungary’s Sándor Petőfi, Latvia’s Rainis, and so on — but this kind of adoration reaches fever pitch in Russia and Ukraine. For literate Russians, Pushkin is “nashe vso,” “our everything,” while Shevchenko has played an even more central role in the formation of Ukrainian nationhood, representing a combination of Shakespeare and the prophet Jeremiah. And the difference between the two is indeed instructive, though not at all in the way Brodsky intended.

Consider the two poets’ radically different attitudes towards Russia’s campaigns of conquest and repression in the Caucasus and Poland. Pushkin, in his 1822 “The Prisoner of the Caucasus,” celebrated that “glorious time” when

Our two-headed eagle, scenting bloody combat
Rose up high against the disaffected Caucasus.

Striking the pompous tone of a Roman tribune berating a refractory tribe, Pushkin addressed the proud Circassian people:

Submit, Cherkes! Both West and East,
May soon share your fate,
When the time comes, you’ll say arrogantly:
“Yes, I’m a slave but a slave of the Czar of the World!”

At times, Pushkin’s rhetoric bordered on the genocidal, presaging the “Z” brain-worm that has burrowed its way into Putin’s increasingly necrophiliac regime (and, disturbingly enough, knowing accomplices and unthinking dupes throughout the rest of the world). For Pushkin the czarist forces fighting in the Caucasus were “like a black plague” that “destroyed, annihilated the tribes,” and this was meant to be a compliment. Pyotr Vyazemsky, himself a Russian Golden Age poet as well as a prince of Rurikid stock, reacted with undisguised disgust to the bellicose tone of Pushkin’s “The Prisoner of the Caucasus.” “It is a pity,” Vyazemsky wrote to Ivan Turgenev, “that Pushkin should have bloodied the final lines of his story.” After all,

What kind of heroes are Kotlyarevsky and Ermolov? What is good in the fact that they “like a black plague,/Destroyed, annihilated the tribes?” Such fame causes one’s blood to freeze in one’s veins, and one’s hair to stand on end. If we had educated the tribes, then there would be something to sing. Poetry is not the ally of executioners; they may be necessary in politics, and then it is for the judgement of history to decide whether it was justified or not; but the hymns of a poet should never be eulogies of butchery. I am annoyed with Pushkin, such enthusiasm is a real anachronism.

But the bloodthirstiness of “The Prisoner of the Caucasus” was no anachronism. It was wholly indicative of Russia’s past, its present, and its future.

When non-Russians think of Alexander Pushkin, they tend to think of the precocious poet who penned a stirring “Ode to Liberty” at the tender age of 18, who sympathized with the reform-minded Decembrists, and who produced virtuoso novels in verse like Eugene Onegin and thought-provoking closet plays like Boris Godunov. The Pushkin worshipped by Russians is darker and more complex, a poet who was chastened by the czar and his censors, a poet capable of producing jingoistic propaganda like “To the Slanderers of Russia,” written in 1831 as a response to Poland’s heroic revolutionary bid for independence. It was a poem that horrified members of the Russian pro-western intelligentsia, as well as Pushkin’s Polish counterpart Adam Mickiewicz, who could hardly believe that his former friend could write lines like

Then send your numbers without number,
Your madden’d sons, your goaded slaves,
In Russia’s plains there’s room to slumber,
And well they’ll know their brethren’s graves!

Pushkin, sounding very much like a modern-day contributor to RIA Novosti or some other odious state-run news organ, elsewhere complained that the “Poles should be strangled, but our slowness is painful,” while concluding that “we can only pity the Poles,” for “we are too strong to hate them, and this war will be the war of annihilation, or at least it should be.” Mickiewicz, in his rejoinder “To My Muscovite Friends,” aptly compared Pushkin’s stance to

the barking of a dog, so accustomed
To wearing his collar long and patiently,
That he is ready to bite the hand which tears at it.

Yet Pushkin positively reveled in the station of “slave of the Czar of the World,” and worried that the status quo would one day be upset, wondering aloud: “Shall the Slavonic streams flow into the Russian sea? Or shall it dry up? That is the question.” Russian domination of captive Slavic nations was thus an existential matter. Either the nations of central and eastern Europe continue to flow (geopolitically, culturally, and psychologically) eastward, or Russia will dry up like the shrunken, contaminated, putrid, dying Aral Sea.

Taras Shevchenko, as a member of one of those captive nations, saw the world entirely differently. For him, the Murid Wars in the Caucasus were a terrible waste of humanity, and in his 1845 poem “The Caucasus,” which earned him a lengthy stint in exile, he poignantly observed how

The ground
Is strewn with conscripts’ scattered bones.
And tears? And blood? Enough to drown
All emperors with all their sons
And grandsons eager for the throne
In widows’ tears.

Like Pushkin, Shevchenko was a poet of immense abilities and profound sensibilities, but unlike Pushkin he was capable of expansive sympathy, making him a true poet of freedom. Pushkin could never have written those commiserative lines about the Caucasus, and thus has very little to teach us in our era of state-sponsored violence, tyranny, and total war. Shevchenko, on the other hand, is more relevant than ever. In arguably his greatest poem, “My Testament,” also written in 1845, Shevchenko famously asked to be buried on a “grave mound high amid the spreading plain,” a request that was granted in 1861 when he was laid to rest on Taras Hill, by the banks of the Dnieper. He then added another, more pressing appeal:

Oh bury me, then rise ye up
And break your heavy chains
And water with the tyrants’ blood
The freedom you have gained.
And in the great new family,
The family of the free,
With softly spoken, kindly word
Remember also me.

Lines like these are why Shevchenko retains his central place in the hearts and minds of the Ukrainian people. Lines like these are why the defenders of Kharkiv pile sandbags around the black cast-iron statue of the poet that stands on a sandstone plinth in the city’s main square, protecting it from Russian shells, even as statues of Pushkin and Gorky are dismantled. Lines like these are why the damaged statue of Shevchenko in Borodyanka, bullet-scarred, bowed, but unbroken, has become a defining image of the war with Russia. And lines like these, one must conclude, are why Brodsky felt the need to deride brekhnyu Tarasa, “Taras’ bulls—t.”

Joseph Brodsky began his 1987 Nobel lecture with the characteristically self-effacing admission that he would rather be “a total failure in democracy than a martyr or the crème de la crème in tyranny.” This was false modesty, of course. Brodsky was no failure, as his Nobel Prize medal from the Swedish Academy must have made abundantly clear, but given Brodsky’s time performing forced hard labor on a Soviet state farm, and his innate reluctance to smear Russia’s gates with tar, as he put it, we can appreciate why he might have felt this way. There were plenty of czarist and Soviet-era poets who did accept martyrdom, however, those like Taras Shevchenko, Yevhen Pluzhnyk, Volodymyr Svidzinskyi, and Vasyl Symonenko, and innumerable other writers, bards, and intellectuals, all of whom paid the ultimate price for resisting despotism. Aleksander Pushkin, given the same choice, opted to be the crème de la crème in Russian tyranny. Joseph Brodsky, despite his own experiences, was willing to throw his lot in with the latter, genuinely believing that Ukrainians would one day forget about Shevchenko, and the very idea of Ukrainian independence, and return to the Russian fold best exemplified by Pushkin’s poetry.

We can now see just how wrong Brodsky was, but there are very real consequences for being this wrong. Poets are, after all, the “unacknowledged legislators of the world,” as Percy Bysshe Shelley put it in his 1821 “A Defense of Poetry.” Brodsky’s unwillingness to tar Russia can be connected to the general unwillingness of Russians to grapple with their sordid history, which in turn can lead to such absurdities as Lenin statues being re-erected and Soviet flags being flown in temporarily occupied Ukrainian towns. Brodsky’s utter contempt for the Ukrainian people can be connected to the Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin’s far more recent description of Ukrainians as a “race of bastards that emerged from the sewer manholes” whose “genocide” is “due and inevitable.” And Brodsky is not the only offender. We can likewise connect the Soviet-era novelist Mikhail Bulgakov’s insistence that Ukrainian was “a vile language that does not exist in the world” with Russian political scientist Sergey Mikheyev truly bizarre contention, voiced in late April 2022 on the state-owned Rossiya 1 television station, that the Ukrainian language “does not exist” and that literally no one speaks it. And we can connect the Soviet-era dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s obsession with a Russian-Belarusan-Ukrainian-Kazakh pan-Slavic superstate, and his assertions that the Ukrainian view of the Stalinist terror famines were informed by “musty, chauvinistic minds” looking to produce “ready-made fables” for Western audiences, with present-day Russia’s imperialistic and ahistorical views of its neighbor.

If the poison of Russian chauvinism can eat its way so deeply into the brains of such sensitive writers as Pushkin, Bulgakov, Solzhenitsyn, and Brodsky, if it can cause them to write “eulogies of butchery” and make poetry an “ally of executioners,” as Vyazemsky warned, then imagine what it can do to the brains of less sophisticated, or more cynical, members of the Russian nation. Actually, we do not have to imagine, we can simply survey the crime scenes left behind by invading Russian soldiers and mercenaries at Borodyanka, Chernihiv, Volnovakha, Mariupol, and elsewhere. Witness the mass graves of Bucha, the ghost district of Saltivka, the pulverized museum dedicated to the 18-century philosopher and poet Hryhoriy Skovoroda at Skovorodynivka. Consider the unhinged pomposity displayed on Rossiya 1, where you can find the filmmaker Karen Shakhnazaro frothing at the mouth, warning that the “opponents of letter Z” will face “concentration camps, re-education, sterilization,” and where host Vladimir Solovyov relishes the idea of nuclear war given that “we will go to heaven, while they will simply croak.” This moral cretinism would almost be amusing were it not for the myriad war crimes and crimes against humanity, the imperilment of international peace and security, and the global food shortages that have followed in the wake of Russia’s unconscionable invasion of Ukrainian soil.

One wonders what Joseph Brodsky would have made of all this, had he not died at the age of 55, and had he survived to see the sorry state of Putin’s Russia. Would he have still refused to tar the gates of the Russian world? Would he have reneged on his “obligation” to Russia and its people? Would he have said the right things in public, and then muttered darkly to himself in private about khokhols and Cossacks and spitting in the Dnieper? We can never know, and at this point it doesn’t really matter. Despite Brodsky’s attempts to conceal it, “On Ukrainian Independence” went on to become one of his better-known works, much to the detriment of his posthumous reputation. What we do know for certain is that the legacy of Taras Shevchenko, upon whom Brodsky notoriously heaped so much opprobrium, remains unassailable.

In his 1857 poem “The Half-Wit,” Shevchenko again wrote as Pushkin and Brodsky never could, lamenting the “godless acts of wickedness” perpetrated against his people, and how “throngs of saints in chains” were driven into “Siberia’s frozen wastes.” Ukraine’s persecutors, he fervently hoped, would be “haunted by those chains,” while he would

fly to Siberia, far
Beyond the Lake Baikal; and there
Into the mountain dungeon lairs
And pits abysmal I will probe,
And I’ll lead out, encased in chains,
The saints, who freedom’s cause maintain,
Into the light of day, to show
To tsar and people — a parade
Of endless columns, clanking chains.

As I write these words on May 9, with the grotesque spectacle of Russia’s Victory Day parade in full swing, I prefer to think of Shevchenko’s very different idea of a parade, a parade that celebrates neither warmongers nor genocidal monsters, but the real heroes who, inspired in no small part by Shevchenko and his fellow martyrs, are maintaining freedom’s cause against absurd odds.

In memoriam

Oleksandr Kysliuk (1962–2022)

Historian, classicist, polyglot, language teacher at the Kyiv Theological Academy and Seminary, and law professor at the Drahomanov National Pedagogical University, who translated Tacitus, Xenophon, Thomas Aquinas, Karl Jaspers, Norbert Elias, and Joachim Ritter into Ukrainian

Slain at Bucha on March 5, 2022

Vita enim mortuorum in memoria vivorum est posita

by Matthew Omolesky

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