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Ivan Bek (1808-1842) is not one of the first names that comes to mind when one thinks of Russian literature. He may not be among the first 100. Or 500. I’m not being facetious, or, at least, I’m not trying to be. It’s just a fact. In the Russian internet the first Ivan Bek I encounter is Yvan Bek, a Serbian footballer from the first half of the 20th century. Ivan Bek, the Russian poet and diplomat, comes up only second.
There are dozens of biographies of Bek online. And virtually every one copies the others word for word. Finding alternative information about Bek, at least in the popular media, is damn near impossible. Vladimir Putin these days, looking to cut Russia off from the rest of the world – even as he looks to cut the rest of the world off from itself – has announced that an autonomous new Russian internet will replace Wikipedia with a homegrown variant. I’ll bet my last pair of shoes that when the bio on Ivan Bek appears on the new Ru-net, it will copy Wikipedia – and all the other sources – verbatim. The only text that differs in any way is that of the Russian Biographical Dictionary (1896-1918), which is slightly shorter than the others, but which provides the basic descriptions that are later cribbed by everyone else.
(For the record, Bek was born December 25, 1807 according to the Old Style calendar. Since that date is now recognized as January 6, 1808, I give the latter as his year of birth.)
According to the story that goes around as if it were written in stone, Bek entered the chronicles of Russian literature thanks, in large part, to meeting Ivan Turgenev in Dresden in 1827. But let’s back that up. In 1827 Bek was 19 years old. Turgenev was 10. All sources follow that meeting immediately with Turgenev’s comment that Bek’s early poetry posses “true talent and a certain kind of taste that that very talent has divined.” That doesn’t sound like something Turgenev would have said or written at the time of their meeting. What Turgenev was doing in Dresden in 1827 and why he met Bek there, I don’t know. It is true that in that year Turgenev’s father enrolled him in the Weidengammer Pansion in Moscow, so maybe he was travelling in Germany to continue his education. Another Turgenev quote is tacked on to the first, stating that “He [Bek] is testing his powers in translating Virgil and gives shape to his taste by way of the ancient and new classics.” Now that could be something even a ten year-old Turgenev could have written to a mother or father – so maybe I’m wrong to discount the fact that the first comment could have been made at that time. In any case, I can’t dig any deeper for the earliest Turgenev letters available online are from 1831, and none of the biographies that quote Turgenev give references.
The Russian Biographical Dictionary (RBD) tells us that Bek did not publish much, and that he primarily contributed to the journals, Moscow Observer, Literary Supplement to Russian Invalid, Library for Reading, The Contemporary, and Morning Dawn, from 1836 to 1841. It is interesting to note that Vissarion Belinsky began editing the Literary Supplement to Russian Invalid in 1836, so he would have been the editor accepting and printing Bek’s contributions there. RBD writes, “Almost all of these poems sing the praise of love, which is occasionally illustrated by the poet as our guarantee of immortality.” Bek published “very good” (RBD) translations of excerpts from Goethe’s Faust in The Contemporary in 1837. All of the sources, parroting one another, express surprise that this translation was attributed not to Bek, but to a certain E. Guber, although, in fact, Bek occasionally published his poems under the pseudonym of “E. Gubert.” All of the sources, beginning with RBD, declare that, in addition to literature, Bek showed talent in “painting and music,” although what that means specifically, I cannot discern. He was an important enough figure that the great Russian painter Karl Bryullov painted his portrait.
Bek was primarily a diplomat, beginning his career in Moscow in 1828. He later served in Holland (years unknown to me) and Dresden, 1835-36. He served in the Russian Department of Foreign Affairs from 1837 to 1841. His service in Holland is important for there he served alongside Prince Pavel Vyazemsky, the son of Pyotr Vyazemsky the poet and bosom buddy of Alexander Pushkin. Pavel himself was something of a writer, with an interest in the history of Russian literature and paleography. He was also interested enough in Bek’s wife Maria Stolypina that he married her after Bek’s death. Stolypina, for those who enjoy these things, was Mikhail Lermontov’s aunt once removed.
Bek’s sarcophagus lies in the 18th-century Necropolis at the Alexander Nevsky Cemetery in St. Petersburg. It stands next to vessels holding the remains of his father Alexander and his mother Nadezhda, both of whom died after their son. An inscription on the north side of the sarcophagus reads: “Grieving parents, to their unforgettable son, who was their final comfort in life.” The coffin’s end facing West is decorated with a likeness of Christ (as can be seen above).
If Bek harbored beliefs that love was our ticket to immortality, his image of the world we inhabit in our lifetimes was not especially joyful. In a poem entitled “To A.B. and G.T,” published in The Contemporary in Vol. VI, 1837 (and signed as “E. Gubert”), he wrote:
Tormented by sultry passions,
I called my people to my breast;
But in the cold hoards of the relentless crowd
I encountered none who were my friends…
Deceitful thoughts flew by like arrows,
Sadness overcame me and I wept at length,
And bitterly anguished, lacking sense or goal,
I dragged the heavy shackles of this earthly coil…