A taste of freedom (Bykov on Nekrasov)
“Nekrasov is the only Russian poet that, to this day, it is considered good form to say bad things about” (1:06). From there Dmitry Bykov quickly moves to a comparison of the big nineteenth-century poets’ lyric heroes. The poet and his persona coincide most often, he says, in Pushkin, whose poetry is sincere and confessional and always in the first person (6:24). Lermontov plainly wears a mask, with at least three important ones: the demonic-Byronic mask, the mask of the unhappy child lost in a terrifying world, and that of a poet of pure music and servant of harmony (6:36). Nekrasov’s persona is usually an idiosyncratic expulsion of what he hates most in himself; he isolates his personal Mr. Hyde (7:07). Of Nekrasov’s embittered, prose-of-love love poems, Bykov says “there have never been love lyrics like that in Russian poetry, and God grant there never will be again” (10:03).
One thing I like about commentary on Nekrasov is that it’s almost hard for it not to sound like Aesopian commentary on the present. Soviet scholars wrote about Nekrasov’s battles with tsarist censors, and without any explicit parallel, you could take it as commentary on Soviet censorship or a how-to guide on evading it.
Something similar happens with Bykov’s reading of “The Last One” (Последыш), my favorite part of Who Can Be Happy in Russia? (Кому на Руси жить хорошо?, about 1863-77). It’s the part where an old landowner refuses to accept the fact of emancipation and has a stroke, and his heirs and ex-serfs conspire to trick him into thinking the decree has been rescinded. This old man sees a peasant, Agap Petrov, stealing wood and orders him beaten, not for the theft but for being insolent afterward. The peasants arrange a mock beating, giving Agap vodka and pretending to flog him as he simulates cries of pain. But he dies “almost that same day,” even though they hadn’t “laid a finger on him, let alone the cane.”
I take this as Nekrasov’s pet theme that people — even peasants, enserfed or otherwise — need dignity as much as food and shelter. In Nekrasov’s world, an Ivan who’s been in a humiliating position for his whole life, and for a thousand hopeless years of family history, can cry out “Хоть бы раз Иван Мосеич Кто меня назвал!” (“If only someone would call me Ivan Moseich just once” [instead of shouting ‘Hey, Ivan!’ without the patronymic]) before the emancipation.*
But Nekrasov also describes peasants being elevated above their station and then forced back down to it, with the special suffering this causes. A serf is trained to be a chef, starts “to read, to reason, to discuss,” and is flogged to remind him of his place, so he drowns himself. A peasant woman “В барском доме была учена Вместе с барышней разным наукам” (“She was taught different arts in the manor ‘longside the young mistress”) but then she’s sent back to the village and can’t stand wearing a sarafan or doing menial work: her coachman husband laments, “Погубили ее господа, А была бы бабенка лихая!” (“The gentlefolk ruined her, or she’d’ve made quite a girl!”).
Bykov puts Agap in “The Last One” in the subcategory of people who’ve been offered a taste of dignity and freedom, then had it taken away. And that’s reasonable. But perhaps it’s an especially natural way to take things in post-perestroika Russia. Bykov makes no comparisons, but it seems non-accidental that he dwells on the idea that the Great Reforms of the 1860s were disappointing, that freedom of speech and of the press were rolled back soon after they were incompletely granted.
Like Bykov I’m fascinated with the way Nekrasov helped make ternary meters popular in Russian poetry. I’m not sure about his argument that using ternary meter corresponds to adding a third term to a prior unsatisfactory left-right binary of ideas. (Does it do the same thing in Fet?) And his favorite long works, like Contemporaries (Современники, 1875) and Russian Women (Русские женщины, 1871-72), are among those I find least satisfying (though of course they have their strong points).
Several times Bykov quotes Nekrasov in an attempt to expand the audience’s idea of what he wrote about and how. I wonder if he quoted У русского особый взгляд, Преданьям рабства страшно верен: Всегда побитый виноват, А битым — счет потерян! (“A Russian has a particular view. He is terribly faithful to the traditions of slavery: whoever has been beaten must be guilty, and those beaten are too many to count!”) and it was cut. That’s my favorite example of the Nekrasov that Russians aren’t asked to memorize in school.
Thanks to Dasha S. for sending me the link to Bykov’s lecture!
* Ivan is reported as saying this before the emancipation, but the poem was written after, and was part of broader polemics about how high a priority this kind of symbolic social equality was for ex-slaves, or whether they wanted it at all.