Vizma Belsevica

Poet who survived attacks and censorship


Vizma Belsevica, poet and translator: born Riga, Latvia 30 May 1931; married (one son, and one son deceased); died Riga 6 August 2005.

The poet Vizma Belsevica was considered the leading Latvian poet of the post-war generation. Her death was extensively covered in the Latvian press, and her funeral, attended by the President, featured prominently on the television news. But the Russian-language press, which caters for 30-40 per cent of Latvia's population, appeared to ignore the event - a striking illustration of the gap between the country's two linguistic cultures.

This evidence of the divide would have saddened Belsevica, who herself belonged intellectually to both spheres. In one poem written during the Soviet period, with a historical setting but clear modern analogies, she had distinguished between Latin as a rich cultural resource and its imposition by Imperial Rome.

Her educational background was bilingual. Born to a working-class family, she grew up in Riga and Ogale during the Second World War years and made her début as a poet in the late 1940s, under the post-war socialist regime. From 1955 to 1961, she studied in Moscow, at the Gorky Institute of World Literature, where her fellow students included Bella Akhmadulina and Andrei Voznesensky, leading poets of the Khrushchev "thaw". Voznesensky would later describe Belsevica as "a genius - the greatest of us all".

Unfortunately, the Communist authorities did not always concur. As early as 1959, the Moscow Literaturnaya Gazeta singled her out among Latvian writers whose work was "unsocialist"; she was accused, in particular, of dealing with "narrowly intimate themes". Other attacks followed from leading ideologists of the Latvian Communist Party, so that by the late Sixties she had the distinction of being the most regularly denounced writer still living in the country.

Attacks spoke of her "lack of social lucidity" and focused on the symbolism and "remote allusions" in her work that were liable to cause "ideological confusion" among her readers. She was also said to be propagating the same ideas of "Latvian solidarity" as the émigré community - a subject of particular sensitivity for the regime.

None the less, her work continued to be published and translated, as grist for the great Soviet publishing machine. Individual poems appeared in English, German, Swedish and many languages of the Soviet Union, including Belorussian, Moldavian and Ukrainian. Complete collections were translated into Russian: Teplo zemnoe ("Warmth of the Earth", 1960); Stikhi o solovinom infarkte ("Verses on a Nightingale's Heart Attack", 1969); and Aprelskii dozhd ("April Showers", 1978).

The first of these had been refused by the Latvian censors, who were obliged to backtrack after the Russian translation had been approved for publication. The note on her in "April Showers" proclaimed that "a feeling for her time and involvement in it" was the essence of Belsevica's poetry - something that not been the opinion of the Latvian authorities who prevented her from publishing at all for several years in the early 1970s.

In one of her best-known poems, she spoke of the virtues of silence:

The ephemeral must shout,

plead and prove.

The eternal can keep silent.

It has been suggested that only ill-health saved her from arrest during this period, but it did not protect her from harassment by the police, who more than once raided her apartment and confiscated her manuscripts. She threatened that if she was not allowed to publish she would live by selling ice-cream on the street outside the Central Committee building or the Riga Hotel, so the state publishing house kept her occupied as a translator (of Shakespeare, Pushkin, Eliot and many others). And she was never expelled from the Latvian Writers' Union.

The worst, however, was to come. In 1987, her 28-year-old son, the poet and translator Klavs Elsbergs, died in mysterious circumstances after falling from a window in a Writers' Union building in Dubulti; he had apparently been arguing with some Soviet visitors about the treatment of national minorities in the Soviet Union.

After that, Belsevica gave up writing poetry. She devoted the last years of her life to her three-part autobiographical novel Bille, which covers the period of her life up to 1948. Meanwhile, she received awards and honours from Latvia and Sweden, and was considered for the Nobel Prize. It would have been an appropriate gesture, not least as recognition of a figure of great symbolic significance in European culture.

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