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Ivan Nikitin (1824-1861) seems to be everywhere in Voronezh. There are plaques honoring him, a museum dedicated to his memory, and there is this imposing monument to him on Nikitin Square in the center of the city. Nikitin was born here, lived his whole life here, and died here much too early, at the age of 37, suffering from tuberculosis. I ran across one of those English-language travelogues that informs foreign visitors to Voronezh that Nikitin was a “second-rate poet.” (I really hate that stuff. Sorry, but there is no such thing. You are either a poet or you’re not a poet. Your poetry may resonate more or less with more or fewer people, you may not be Pushkin or Pasternak but that doesn’t knock you down imaginary rungs on some imaginary ladder to poetic perfection. Don’t get me wrong – you can argue the value or the quality of a writer’s poetry. I’m not saying everyone’s great who ever wrote a poem. But that is another topic, in my mind. The use of the phrase “second-rate poet” seems aimed to maim, if not to kill. I not only resent it, I reject it. In any case, there are numerous Russian sources that call Nikitin “a great Russian poet.” So who are you going to believe?)
Nikitin had a tough life and he wrote about it. You can also see it in the few drawings of him that have come down to us. He appears to have been a handsome man, with strong features that are wracked by pain and suffering. The most famous or popular portrait was clearly used for the monument pictured here today. The monument adds something the drawings don’t have – it puts the poet in a bent, almost defensive, position, one of resignation and isolation.
Created by Ivan Shuklin (1879-1958) after he took second place in a contest conducted, for some reason, in St. Petersburg, the statue was unveiled in Voronezh in 1911. At that time the square was called Theater Square, for the main city playhouse is located just across the main street from it. It was renamed Nikitin Square in 1918. Quite surprisingly, I would say, YouTube offers a fine-quality, nearly minute-long, video showing the unveiling of the monument in 1911.
Nikitin’s father was a hard-drinking merchant who ran his candle business into the ground and, essentially, hounded his wife to death. The young man studied in the local seminary, but was compelled to leave it at the age of 19 to support his failing family. The candle factory was sold to pay off bills and the family – which actually means Nikitin himself – took over a way station as a way to keep afloat. Here the future poet saw his fill of human tragedy. The Chronos literary website quotes from one of Nikitin’s letters, in which he recalls this period in his life: “My love for our native literature, our native Russian word did not die in me… My heart bled to see such filthy scenes. But with the aid of good will I did not spoil my soul. Finding a free moment, I would disappear into some far corner of my home. There I would acquaint myself with what comprises the pride of mankind; there I would compose modest poems that begged to emerge from my heart.”
Nikitin became associated with the movement or genre of peasant poetry, although he was not a peasant and never lived among them. He was, however, a highly sensitive and observant person, and his position in the way station gave him an understanding for, and a feeling of, a way of life that differed from his, but was no easier.
In November of 1853 Nikitin submitted three poems to a local newspaper, the Voronezh Gubernia News. One of them, “Rus,” brought him almost immediate popularity throughout the city. The following year, other of his poems began appearing in Moskvityanin, Notes of the Fatherland, and Library for Reading. His narrative poem Kulak (1854-57) was arguably the most popular and most-praised of all his works.
Below I offer a somewhat hastily translated poem from 1849 (someday I’ll find a way to fix the sloppy rhythm of the last phrase). It provides a good example, I think, of the way sadness and even depression formed Nikitin’s poetic sensibility.
Still another day extinguished
To which I listlessly say “farewell,”
And now I greet the silent wraith of night
Like a dreary visitor from hell.
Alas! Its soundless silence
Shall never, ever bring me sleep!
All day my soul did ache in secret
For others and for me…
By now you’d think my soul were free
Of vulgar tongues and evil deeds,
Of life so filthy and so melancholy…
But how? It cannot be!
As soon as morn peeks at the world,
No sooner does night’s shade be gone,
Another sad and heavy day,
Another tiresome day does come.
Again the soul begins to ache
As evil torments do exult.
Again you shed your tears in silence,
Beaten back by injury, and by insult.