History of Literature

Aleksandr Blok


llustrations by Yuri Annenkov


Aleksandr Blok



Aleksandr Aleksandrovich Blok

Russian poet and dramatist

born Nov. 28 [Nov. 16, Old Style], 1880, St. Petersburg, Russia
died Aug. 7, 1921, Petrograd [now St. Petersburg]

poet and dramatist, the principal representative of Russian Symbolism, a modernist literary movement that was influenced by its European counterpart but was strongly imbued with indigenous Eastern Orthodox religious and mystical elements.

Lyubov Mendeleev and Aleksandr Blok

Blok was born into a sheltered, intellectual environment. After his father, a law professor, and his mother, the cultured daughter of the rector of St. Petersburg University, separated, Blok was reared from age three in an atmosphere of artistic refinement at the manor of his aristocratic maternal grandparents. In 1903 Blok married Lyubov Mendeleyeva, daughter of the famous chemist D.I. Mendeleyev. To Blok, who began to write at age five, poetic expression came naturally. In 1903 he published for the first time, and his early verse communicates the exaltation and spiritual fulfillment his marriage brought.

The early 19th-century Romantic poetry of Aleksandr Pushkin and the apocalyptic philosophy of the poet and mystic Vladimir Solovyov exerted a strong influence on Blok. Using innovative poetic rhythms, he drew on their concepts to develop an original style of expression. For Blok, sound was paramount, and musicality is the primary characteristic of his verse.

His first collection of poems, the cycle Stikhi o prekrasnoy dame (1904; “Verses About the Lady Beautiful”), focuses on personal, intimate themes that are presented on a mystical plane and lack any contemporaneity. The heroine of the poems is not only the beloved whom the poet treats with knightly chivalry but is also the epitome of eternal femininity. In a three-volume anthology of his poetry that he compiled shortly before his death, Blok placed Verses About the Lady Beautiful in the first volume, a decision that made clear his belief that it represented the first, mystical phase in his career.

Blok’s next poetry collections differed significantly from his first. Nechayannaya radost (1907; “Inadvertent Joy”), Snezhnaya maska (1907; “Mask of Snow”), and Zemlya v snegu (1908; “Earth in Snow”) treated themes of contemporary city life, including revolutionary events, deeply felt love, and complex psychology. Many critics, among them Blok’s close friend Andrey Bely, saw these poems as a betrayal of the ideal expressed in his first collection, where reality was subjected to mystic transformation. Blok’s thinking during these years was also reflected in plays—Neznakomka (written 1907; “The Stranger”) and Pesnya sudby (written 1909; “The Song of Fate”)—and a number of essays; in these he repeatedly returned to the ideals of the old Russian intelligentsia and the traditions of social radicalism.

Title page of Blok's book Theatre (1909).


Blok’s standing as lyric poet culminates in the third volume of his anthology, traditionally seen as the pinnacle of his poetic work. This volume contains the poems previously collected in the books Nochnye chasy (1911; “Night Hours”) and Stikhi o Rossii (1915; “Poems About Russia”) as well as uncollected poems. Together they draw on a historical and mystical perspective to depict Russia as Blok saw it during the 1910s. World War I (during which Blok was drafted into the army and served in an engineering and construction detail but did not participate in combat) and the Russian Revolution of 1917 forged his view; Blok understood the events affecting not only Russia but the whole world as a critical, tragic, and threatening catastrophe. But underlying this view was faith in the future of humankind.

In 1917 Blok worked for the commission that investigated the crimes of the imperial government, and after the last phase of the revolution he began working for the Bolsheviks, whom he felt represented the will of the people. His state of mind in late 1917 and in 1918 is best expressed in a line of his poetry: “Terrible, sweet, inescapable, imperative.” He could see in Russia and elsewhere “the downfall of humanism”—a phrase he used in an article he wrote in 1918—but he felt that it was an inescapable stage in history. Blok expressed this outlook in the novel in verse Dvenadtsat (1918; The Twelve) and the poem Skify (1918; “The Scythians”). Many early readers of The Twelve regarded its depiction of Christ in revolutionary Petrograd as blasphemous, but through it Blok expressed vividly the mood of the time. He quickly became disillusioned with the Bolshevik government, however, and all but stopped writing poetry thereafter.



Aleksandr Blok




Night, street, lamp, and pharmacy,
A meaningless and misty light.
Live on a quarter century—
The same. There is no hope of flight.

You will die, rise from where you fell,
All be repeated, cold and damp:
The night, the wavering canal,
The pharmacy, the street, the lamp.

10 October 1912

Translated from the Russian by Leo Yankevich






The Death of Grandfather

We waited commonly for sleep or even death.
The instances were wearisome as ages.
But suddenly the wind's refreshing breath
Touched through the window the Holy Bible's pages:

An old man goes there - who's now all white-haired -
With rapid steps and merry eyes, alone,
He smiles to us, and often calls with hand,
And leaves us with a gait, that is well-known.

And suddenly we all, who watched the old man's track,
Well recognized just him who now lay before us,
And turning in a sudden rapture back,
Beheld a corpse with eyes forever closed ...

And it was good for us the soul's way to trace,
And, in the leaving one, to find the glee it's forming.
The time had come. Recall and love in grace,
And celebrate another house-warming!

Translated from Russian by Yevgeny Bonver




Don't fear death in earthly travels.
Don't fear enemies or friends.
Just listen to the words of prayers,
To pass the facets of the dreads.

Your death will come to you, and never
You shall be, else, a slave of life,
Just waiting for a dawn's favor,
From nights of poverty and strife.

She'll build with you a common law,
One will of the Eternal Reign.
And you are not condemned to slow
And everlasting deadly pain.

Translated from Russian by Yevgeny Bonver




"The Faithless Shadows..."

To S. Soloviev

The faithless shadows of day are running
And high and clear is the call of bells,
Steps of the church are blazed as with the lightning,
Their stones are alive and wait for your light steps.

You'll here pass and touch the chilly stone,
That's dressed in awful sanity of span,
And let the flower of spring be thrown
Here, in this dark, before the eyes of saint.

The rose shadows in misty darkness grow,
And high and clear is the call of bells,
The darkness lays on steps, such old and low --
I'm set in light -- I wait for dear steps.

Translated by Yevgeny Bonver




The Stranger

The restaurants on hot spring evenings
Lie under a dense and savage air.
Foul drafts and hoots from dunken revelers
Contaminate the thoroughfare.
Above the dusty lanes of suburbia
Above the tedium of bungalows
A pretzel sign begilds a bakery
And children screech fortissimo.

And every evening beyond the barriers
Gentlemen of practiced wit and charm
Go strolling beside the drainage ditches --
A tilted derby and a lady at the arm.

The squeak of oarlocks comes over the lake water
A woman's shriek assaults the ear
While above, in the sky, inured to everything,
The moon looks on with a mindless leer.

And every evening my one companion
Sits here, reflected in my glass.
Like me, he has drunk of bitter mysteries.
Like me, he is broken, dulled, downcast.

The sleepy lackeys stand beside tables
Waiting for the night to pass
And tipplers with the eyes of rabbits
Cry out: "In vino veritas!"

And every evening (or am I imagining?)
Exactly at the appointed time
A girl's slim figure, silk raimented,
Glides past the window's mist and grime.

And slowly passing throught the revelers,
Unaccompanied, always alone,
Exuding mists and secret fragrances,
She sits at the table that is her own.

Something ancient, something legendary
Surrounds her presence in the room,
Her narrow hand, her silk, her bracelets,
Her hat, the rings, the ostrich plume.

Entranced by her presence, near and enigmatic,
I gaze through the dark of her lowered veil
And I behold an enchanted shoreline
And enchanted distances, far and pale.

I am made a guardian of the higher mysteries,
Someone's sun is entrusted to my control.
Tart wine has pierced the last convolution
of my labyrinthine soul.

And now the drooping plumes of ostriches
Asway in my brain droop slowly lower
And two eyes, limpid, blue, and fathomless
Are blooming on a distant shore.

Inside my soul a treasure is buried.
The key is mine and only mine.
How right you are, you drunken monster!
I know: the truth is in the wine.




To the Muse

In your hidden memories
There are fatal tidings of doom...
A curse on sacred traditions,
A desecration of happiness;

And a power so alluring
That I am ready to repeat the rumour
That you have brought angels down from heaven,
Enticing them with your beauty...

And when you mock at faith,
That pale, greyish-purple halo
Which I once saw before
Suddenly begins to shine above you.

Are you evil or good? You are altogether from another world
They say strange things about you
For some you are the Muse and a miracle.
For me you are torment and hell.

I do not know why in the hour of dawn,
When no strength was left to me,
I did not perish, but caught sight of your face
And begged you to comfort me.

I wanted us to be enemies;
Why then did you make me a present
Of a flowery meadow and of the starry firmament --
The whole curse of your beauty?

Your fearful caresses were more treacherous
Than the northern night,
More intoxicating than the golden champagne of Aï,
Briefer than a gypsy woman's love...

And there was a fatal pleasure
In trampling on cherished and holy things;
And this passion, bitter as wormwood,
Was a frenzied delight for the heart!


Aleksandr Blok.
Portrait by Konstantin Somov, 1907




"The Twelve"

Alexandr Blok "Dvenadtzat"

Translated from the Russian by Alex Cigale

llustrations by Yuri Annenkov




Yuri Annenkov
Illustration for the Poem "Dvenadtzat" by Alexandr Blok






Black night.
Snow white.
The wind's fury!
No man can stand on his two feet.
The wind hurries
Across God's whole green earth!

The wind whirls
flurries of snow.
Under the piles of snow – black ice.
The going is slow,
Each measured pace
Your feet slide apart – wretched one!


Building to building
A cable is slung.
On the cable – a slogan:
”All power to the Ruling Soviets!”
An old woman struggles and cries;
She can't comprehend what this means.
What is it for, this ad?
This giant scrap of canvas?
No matter how many stockings they'd cut,
Our boys would still be naked, unshod.

The old woman, like a hen,
Barely climbs over the snowbank.
— Oh protectress, mother of God!
— Bolsheviks will spill my blood!

The wind is like a knout!
And the bitter cold won't stop!
And the bourgeois at the crossroads
Hides his nose in his fur collar.

And who is that? With long hair?
He says under his breath, half aloud:
— Traitors! Traitors!
— Russia is dead!
He must be a writer —

And there, wearing his cassock —
Along the wall, over a snowdrift...
Not so happy, are you, these days
Comrade priest?

Remember the old days,
You strolled stomach thrust
out as your belly with its cross
On all the people blustered?

There, a lady in a black sheep coat
Turned to address another broad:
– How we bawled and bawled...
Then she slips and does a split
And – splat – she's out cold!

Ouch, ouch!
Pull and tug to get her up!

The wind is joyful.
And happy and mad.

It winds the hems,
Twists the passersby.
Tears, crumples, and whips
The giant canvas rag,
”All power to the Ruling Soviets!”
And carries these words:

...We also held a meeting...
...In this very building...
... We had a discussion –
We made a decision:
For time being– ten, per night – twenty five…
...Do not accept from anyone less…
...Let's go and get some sleep.

Late night seethes.
The street is barren.
A lonely tramp,
Hunched over,
And the wind wheezes.

Oh you, poor dear!
Hey you, come near –
And give me a kiss.

You want bread!
So it's ahead?
OK, you can pass!

Deadly dark, black night.

Malice, sad sad malice
Boiling over in my heart...
Black malice, holy malice...

Comrade, friend! Look up
And keep your eyes peeled!


The wind saunters, the snow flits.
Walking toward us are twelve heads.

The black belts of their rifles,
All around in flames, flames, flames.

In teeth spliffs, peaked caps splayed flat,
Paint the ace of spades on their backs!

We've got freedom, free at last,
Life's good without the cross!

Gunfire rounds erupt!

As cold as the nose of a blood hound!

— Van'ka and Kat'ka are out for drinks.
— She's got some new bucks in her socks!

— Vanyushka himself is now in luck...
— Van'ka, one of us, a Bolshevik.

— Van'ka, you son of a bitch, bourgeois,
Try this on for size and kiss my ass!

We've got freedom, free at last,
Life's good without the cross!
Kat'ka and Van'ka are busy at?
Busy how and doing what?

Gunfire sounds crackle!

All around in flames, flames, flames.
On shoulders black belts of the rifles.

Maintain your revolutionary stride!
The dreaded enemy never rests or sleeps!
Comrade, thrust rifle out and don't fear!
Let's fire with a bullet into Sacred Rus'–

Into the shackled,
Into the servile,
Into the fat-bottomed!
Oh, yes, without the cross!


How all our youth joined
To serve in the Red Army –
To serve in the Red Army –
To cut off the rebellion's head!

Hey you, bitter-bitterness,
Hey you, sweet-sweet living!
The worn, thorn overcoat,
And the old Austrian gun!

For the sorrow of all bourgeois
We will set the world on fire,
the world on fire drench in blood –
Please bless us dear God!


The wind whirls, a wild man cries,
Van'ka with Kat'ka come flying –
The electric light falls
On the horse-yoked cart...
Oh, may you drop!

Wearing a soldier's overcoat,
Grinning a stupid grin
He twists his black mustaches
And he twiddles them,
And he kids...

Hey, our Van'ka – shoulders broad!
Hey, our Van'ka – he sure can talk!
That dumb broad Kat'ka embraces
And puts her through her paces...

His face thrown back,
Teeth shining like pearls...
Hey there Kat'ya, my Kat'ya,
My pudgy-cheeked one...


On your lovely neck, Dear Katya,
Unhealed, scarred by a knife flesh.
Just below your breast, Dear Katya,
A long scratch that is still fresh!

Hey, dance for us a jig!
Achingly beautiful legs!

In your crocheted underwear you went –
Go on your way, making the rounds!
Doing the town with the officers –
Go on you wench, oh, you're a flirt !

Oh, you damned lost soul!
Heart stammered in breast!

Katya, remember your officer –
He hasn't dropped his blade.
Nor does he recall, the beast.
No, his memory’s not well.

Hey, let me refresh my memory
By sleeping on your mammaries.

You wore gray legwarmers, stuffed yourself
With fancy chocolates called Minions,
Went carousing with a tsarist officer –
Now you're out with a common private?

Hey, hey, let's all sin!
Let our souls rest a spin!


Again full speed on horseback toward us
a madman, howling, screaming, flies,

Stand, still! Andryukha help me out!
Petrukha, grab him from behind!

The sound of gunfire: pop, pop, pop!
Snow-like ashes swirling towards heaven!

The wild man, along with Van'ka, skedaddles.
And one more time! Raise up your muzzle!

Crack! Crack! Crack! That will teach you not
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . ….................................
To go out with the woman of another!

He's made off, that putz! Just you wait
and see, I'll take care of you later!

And Kat'ka? where is she? – She’s dead! Dead!
She's been shot, a bullet through her head!

Well, Kat'ka, are you happy now? Do not pa-pa…
You’ll lie there now having fallen in the snow!

Maintain your revolutionary stride!
The dreaded enemy never rests; he bides!



Once again the twelve march,
Behind their shoulders rifles.
Only the pathetic killer's face
is hidden, entirely invisible...

All the time faster and faster
Their marching pace speeding up.
Neck wrapped with handkerchief
But just can't get himself settled.

– Hey, comrade, you're not happy?
– Hey, little friend, feeling off?
– Hey, Petrukha, hanging your nose
or are you just sorry for Kat'ka?

– Oh, my buddies, my dear pals,
I really loved that girl of mine...
All those dark nights I got drunk
And spent together with that gal...

— For the remote sadness
In her fiery, glowing eyes,
For the ruddy birthmark
Just below her right shoulder.
I destroyed her, senselessly,
Destroyed her out of passion, Ah!

— You bastard, grinding your barrel organ,
What the heck, Petya, are you a pussy?
— Did you decide to bare your soul,
Turn it inside out? Give me a break!
— Hold your back up straight!
— Show a little self-control.

— This is not exactly the time
For you to have to be babysat.
We have our work cut out for us
And not just your personal stuff.

And Petrukha starts to calm down
His excited pace…

Once again he throws back his head
And grins happily…

Hey, hey!
Having a little fun ain't no sin!

Shutter your doors and windows,
There's gonna be looting 'n' shooting!

Business open for funerals —
The riffraff is running wild!



Oh, you, woe is woe,
Boredom boring,

Might as well just pass
The time, pass the time...

Might as well be the dark,
Why oh why oh why...

Might as well chuck the shells,
The shells of sunflower seeds...

Might as well with a knife
Flash 'n' slash, flash 'n' slash!

You bourgeois, like a crow take flight!
I will drink your drop of blood
From your fever racked
Creased black brow...

Appease, dear lord, this slave's soul...

I'm bored!



The city's noise has died down,
Above the Nevsky needle silence,
And there are no longer any cops
My boys, you can party, it's no crime!

Stands the bourgeois at the crossroads
And in his fur collar hides his nose.
And nearby pressing his coarse hide
A rabid cur, his tail between his legs.

The bourgeois stands like the starving cur,
Stands mute like an answerless question.
And the old world, like the silent mutt,
Stands behind him with its tail flattened.


The flurry is playing it rough,
Flurry, oh, flurry!
Impossible to see each other,
From four steps away!

The snow flies up like a crow,
Snow stands solid as a column...

— The flurry's so bad, save our souls!
— Pet'ka, don't tie yourself up in knots!
From what evil may God protect you
With his gilded row of icons?
You're not even aware, right?
Think for yourself, reason it out –
Aren't your hands dripping blood
From Kat'ka's damned love?
— Maintain your revolutionary stride!
The dreaded enemy is near!

Forward, forward, forward,
The working folk!


...They walk on without the Lord's name
All twelve of them – into the distance.
Prepared for the worst,
Willing to spare none...

Their steely-bored rifles
Aimed at the invisible enemy...
Into the deserted alleyways
Where only the flurry dashes...
And, yes, at the furrowed snowdrifts –
You won't manage to sneak away...

Your eyes are tagged
With the red flag.

Everywhere sounds
The measured march.

Any time he'll awake,
The fierce enemy...

And the flurry flies into their eyes
All day and all night
Without cease!

Forward, forward,
The working class!




...Into distance with a powerful step...
— Who is still there? Come on out!
It's the wind whipping a red flag
Playing with it like a predator...

Out ahead a frozen snowdrift,
— Who's hiding in it – Come out!
Only the wretched starving mutt
Is trailing in our path...

— Leave us alone you crazy mutt
Or I'll stick your mug with my bayonet.
The old world like the rabid mongrel:
Drop dead – I will run you through!

...The hungry wolf bares his teeth,
Tail tucked in and he won't stop.
The freezing cur – that furry mutt.
— Hey there, reply, who goes there?

— Who is there waving a red flag?
— Look real close, into the dark!
— Who goes there striding fast,
Hiding behind every entryway!

— I will get you no matter what,
Better surrender to me alive!
— Hey my friend, you will be sorry,
Come out now or we'll start to fire!


Crack! crack! crack! – Only the echo
Replies from the empty houses...
Only the flurry's lingering laughter
Pouring over itself in the snows...



...Striding at a superpower clip –
Behind us – the starving mutt,
Ahead of us – with a bloody flag,
Invisible in the flurry,
Invincible to the bullet,
With a gentle supernal step,
Draped in the snow's pearly spray,
In a wreath of white roses –
Ahead of us – Christ Risen.


January 1918




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