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Red poets' society: Why did powerful Russian Communists fear the work of impoverished poets?


People who call themselves Guido are invariably trouble. One tried to blow up Parliament, another writes a right wing libertarian blog and a third, little known to the British public, led a rampaging gang of anarchists in Moscow 90 years ago.

It is sometimes thought that the civil war in Russia in 1918-20 was a straight fight between the Red Army and the monarchist White Army. Actually, there was a variety of armed bands fighting to overthrow communism without bringing back the Tsar. Guido's band was an example.

There were also bohemian artists for whom the revolution was principally a chance for wild self-expression, who congregated at the Poets' Café in Moscow, where Sergei Prokofiev occasionally took to the piano. Though most of its patrons identified with the left, in July 1921, a poet named Nikolai Gumilev, an out and out monarchist, was a guest performer.

Gumilev is a popular poet in Russia once again. His work is now on sale in Russian bookshops, which it never was in the Soviet era. Translations of his better know poems, such as The Giraffe are on the web. Meanwhile, Guido's band included a man who considered that his talent as a cabaret singer had not received due recognition. One evening, the gang turned up at the Poets Café, armed to the teeth and led by Guido, a handsome, dark-haired character in a black velvet tunic, bedecked with jewels around his neck and rings on his fingers, probably obtained by looting. The anarchists insisted that their singer comrade be heard.

He staggered on stage, drunk, and gave off a cacophony so offensively tuneless that the poet Mayakovsky leapt on stage to push him out of the way. Guido then jumped on stage waving a loaded pistol.

Fortunately for all concerned, there was a group of Red Guards in the audience, who cocked their rifles and chased the anarchists out of the café. There, disappointingly, Guido then vanished from the historical record.

It was a curious place for Nikolai Gumilev to be giving a poetry recital. He was comfortable enough, because he enjoyed the company of anyone who was artistically gifted or who appreciated poetry. On a visit to France, he had struck up an instant friendship with the writer Victor Serge, one of whose relatives was hanged for his part in the assassination of the Tsar Alexander II and who had just spent five years in French prisons for his alleged involvement in anarchist outrages. Gumilev told him: "Mine is the true Russian nature, as formed by Orthodox Christianity. You also have the true Russian nature, but at its extreme opposite, that of spontaneous anarchy, primitive violence and unruly beliefs. I love all Russia."

But not all Russia loved him. There was an obvious risk in allowing someone who had been an officer in the Tsar's cavalry to make any kind of appearance in post-revolutionary Moscow. Yet he was heard with respect by people who loved his verses, regardless of his politics. As he finished, another voice in the audience struck up, reciting Gumilev's verses from memory. But the speaker was not the typical poetry lover. He was a fierce looking young man with a striking black beard. It was Jacob Blyumkin, an officer of the feared communist police, the Cheka, and a former terrorist, who in 1918 shot dead Count von Mirbach, the German Ambassador to Russia. Later, he would achieve the unwanted distinction of being the first person executed on Stalin's orders for being a Trotsky sympathiser. He also loved poetry and these two men from opposite political extremes shook hands and bonded. A few days late, in the city we now call St Petersburg, other Cheka officers paid Gumilev a visit, to take him away and charge him with conspiracy to overthrow the state, an offence routinely dealt with by a firing squad.

Gumilev had taken a risk by making public appearances so soon after the end of the civil war, but he evidently thought that if he confined himself to writing and reciting poetry, the vast prestige that poetry had among educated Russians would protect him.

This was not as mad an idea as it seems. Those early Russian poets, like everyone else in the country, weren't free from the political disruption and the absence of free speech, but they were extraordinarily lucky to have the audiences they had. The best of them were revered like rock stars. They became famous without the aid of publicity, because poetry lovers listened to their recitals, learned their stanzas and passed them on.

Gumilev had been part of a mini cultural renaissance that swept St Petersburg and Moscow in 1912. He was pivotal in a group called the Acmeists, two of whom, Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, are reckoned to be among the greatest Russian poets of the century. Gumilev and Akhmatova were briefly married. He was serially unfaithful to her, but unstinting in acknowledging her talent. He was also almost right in assuming that a poet was bulletproof, even under Bolshevik rule. Many of the early Bolshevik leaders had an almost superstitious reverence for the power of poetry. In Trotsky's autobiography, he paid tribute to a brave Bolshevik agent named Larisa Reisner, who operated for the Red Army behind enemy lines. Trotsky will have known that Reisner was also a poetry addict. He probably did not know she was one of the women with whom Gumilev had cheated on his wife.

Even Stalin, who once cynically asked "how many divisions has the Pope", showed more respect for great poetry than for the Pontiff. There is a famous story that in the 1930s Mandelstam was arrested because he had been reciting to his friends a short poem denouncing Stalin as a mass murderer with fat greasy fingers. This was at a time when people were shot for writing critically about the leader in their diary.

Mandelstam's poetry had not been published for years, but when he was picked up, the chief of police knew they had a major case on their hands and took the trouble of committing the entire poem to memory before reporting upwards for a decision. Stalin put in a telephone call to Boris Pasternak, as one of the few people from whom he could expect a truthful answer, to check if Mandelstam was a great poet. The outcome? Temporarily, Mandelstam was saved and he got away with being exiled from Moscow for three years.

In the 1940s, the authorities became so alarmed by the influence of Anna Akhmatova, a widow living in poverty in a third storey flat – whose works had been effectively banned since 1925 – that the Central Committee passed a resolution which had to be studied as part of the school syllabus, denouncing her as "half whore, half nun". But she was not arrested. Instead, they arrested her son, Lev Gumilev, to intimidate her.

After Nikolai Gumilev's arrest on 3 August 1921, there seems to have been an absence of urgency in the reaction it provoked. Akhmatova first learned that he was arrested on 10 August. Various people made appeals, apparently unaware of how dangerous the situation was. Maxim Gorky is reputed to have extracted a promise from Lenin that Gumilev would not be harmed, but too late.

In St Petersburg, some very officious Cheka officers were determined to show that their work was an important as ever, although the civil war was over.

They claimed to have uncovered a very large conspiracy involving academics and former Tsarist officers, including Gumilev. The Cheka then had the power to pass death sentences, with the defendants having no right of appeal. On 24 August – 90 years ago today – Gumilev was sentenced to be shot, as part of a mass execution. The sentence was carried out without delay.

It was a shocking end to the adventures of a gifted young man and yet there is a school of thought which says that, for all the dangers and hardships these people faced, they were luckier than the poets whose work has no real meaning, because it lacks an audience that appreciates great art.

Once, when Mandelstam's wife Nadezha was complaining about their poverty stricken, itinerant life, he told her: "Why complain? Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it. There's no place where more people are killed for it."