Tag Archives: Vissarion Belinsky

Ivan Bek gravesite, St. Petersburg

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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 hordes 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…

 

Alexei Koltsov monument, Voronezh

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I think this monument to Alexei Koltsov (1809-1842) is absolutely fabulous. I love it. I’m not always won over entirely by the Soviet monumental style, although I’m rarely able to reject it entirely. There is something about it, when it’s done with talent, that just comes right after you. That sure happens with this monument by sculptor Pavel Bondarenko and architect Igor Savichev (I’m not 100% sure on that first name – Russian sources are stubborn in listing him only with his initials, I.A.). In fact, it is so bold that many in Voronezh did not like it when it was erected in 1976. Twenty-one years later, in 1997, it was moved away from a nearby church (Pokrovsky cathedral) and re-positioned more deeply among the trees in Soviet Square where it wouldn’t be quite as dominant. I don’t know, I think it’s wonderful. I love everything about it – the granite-wave coif; the huge, single-fold “dress” he’s wearing; the pockmarks in the granite; the severe gaze out from under the monstrous eyebrows; the graceful, left hand with the elongated fingers; the clunky, brute fist of his right hand;the angle of the “dress” coming up at the bottom that reveals he has no feet or legs; the clearly visible horizontal lines marking where the separate chunks of granite were attached to make a single piece big enough to handle this monster. I like the pedestal with the old-fashioned lettering. I like the fact that the bottom support platform is low enough and deep enough for young people of flesh and blood to gather and sit leisurely beneath this mighty chunk of rock. I even love the deep blue Voronezh sky, dotted with pure-cotton clouds behind his head. Okay, I realize that’s not the doing of the sculptor, but he knew what kind of skies Voronezh has, and he knew people would be looking up at them, when he designed this thing. I give him credit for that. A good artist thinks of everything, including what he can’t entirely control.
Oh, wow, I was just digging around for some more information and I ran across one tidbit that is quite intriguing. There apparently exists a legend that this was originally to be a monument to Joseph Stalin. Bondarenko (1917-1992) was, in fact, awarded the Stalin Prize in 1950 for bas reliefs that he made of Lenin and Stalin. That could very easily have engendered a subsequent commission to do full honor to the so-called, self-proclaimed People’s Leader. That would certainly explain the huge size of it all. I find it hard to believe that that lovely left hand could ever have belonged to Stalin, even in an artist’s wildest dreams. But that clunky right fist might well have.
Does this make me rethink anything I have said up to now? No, it doesn’t. I look at this thing from left to right and top to bottom, over and over again, and I only see an admittedly exaggerated, heroic monument to the so-called “people’s” or “folk” poet Alexei Koltsov. It all looks very organic and germane to me.

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Koltsov was born Oct. 3, 1809, into a well-to-do “bourgeois” family (as the Soviet and Russian tradition often puts it) in Voronezh. A website called Litra.ru declares, with similar cliched phrasing, I fear, that Koltsov’s father was the proverbial crude, cruel tyrant and his mother was the proverbial “kind, illiterate woman” who had such an influence on her son. He was not particularly educated. He started in at a local Voronezh school, but didn’t last long. Vissarion Belinsky, the critic, and a champion of Koltsov’s work, had this to say about the poet: “We have no idea how he was advanced to the second grade, or what he studied at that school, because, although we knew him only a short time, we never saw any signs in him of even the most basic education.” I am quoting this from a biographical website, which also adds: “Koltsov’s first mentor in poetry was the Voronezh bookseller Dmitry Kashkin, who gave the young man the opportunity to use books from his library for free. Kashkin was direct, smart and honest, for which the city’s youth loved him. Kashkin’s bookstore was something of a club for them. Kashkin loved Russian literature, read it often and wrote verses himself. Presumably Koltsov showed his first experiments to him.” Another major influence on Koltsov was a tragedy visited upon him by his father, who would not allow him to marry a peasant girl that he loved. Koltsov wrote his first poetry at the age of 16 (“Three Visions,” which he subsequently destroyed); he published his first verses at the age of 22 in Literary gazette. He was championed in Moscow by Belinsky and, when he traveled to St. Petersburg in 1836, he met Alexander Pushkin, who apparently took a liking to him. Pushkin published his poem “Harvest” in the literary journal Sovremennik (The Contemporary). None of this impressed Koltsov’s family, his father particularly. As much as the young man wished to devote himself to a life of literature, his father would not have it. And when the young man contracted tuberculosis, no one in his family seemed to care much. He was, essentially, left to die in isolation at the age of 33.
This makes Koltsov a contemporary of Pushkin, Lermontov, Gogol and other writers who basically brought Russian literature out of the past into the present. Over time, his poetry tended to last because it was suited greatly to music. Many of Koltsov’s best writings became popular songs.

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