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When it comes to pre-WWII Russian literary critics and poets, Vladislav Khodasevich is not well known, particularly in the West. Compared to someone like, say, Bunin or Tsvetaeva, he’s been largely ignored. But Khodasevich deserves attention, both as a skilled memoirist and poet, and as one of the few who chronicled the whole journey of his generation through the realities of WWI and the White exile, grappling with issues of right, honor, and Russian identity, especially for those who carried non-Russian blood in the vast multiethnic empire.
Born in Moscow in May of 1886, Khodasevich was the son of a Polish nobleman and a Jewish woman. Unlike the union of Vera and Vladimir Nabokov, though, theirs was not an unusual act of mutual tolerance. Jacob Brafman, Khodasevich’s maternal grandfather, was a famous convert from Judaism to Orthodoxy, who wrote The Book of Kahal, a forerunner to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. He entered the law faculty of Moscow University in 1904, then switched to history and philology the next year, staying on until 1910. It was during his time at the university that Vladislav met Samuil Kissin, a law student and aspiring poet from Orsha who was a year older than he. Twenty years later, he said Kissin, whom he affectionately nicknamed Muni, was “как бы вторым «я»” (like my second self) and reflected on how “we lived in such a faithful brotherhood, in such close love, which now seems wonderful to me.”
Despite his training, Khodasevich did not want to be a historian or a philologist, but, like Kissin, a poet, and dropped out in the final year of his course. He frequented Moscow’s literary salons and cafes, and published articles and poems for famous literary magazines, like Golden Fleece and Libra. Although he was the descendant of a noble family, his father had come to Russia impoverished, and Kissin, who hailed from an observant Jewish merchant family (he was trained in Hebrew and the Talmud at home during his childhood) actually had a much more secure financial position, though he was always willing and happy to support his friend along with himself.
By 1910, Khodasevich had begun to experience debilitating problems with his lungs, and set off for Italy to recover with a group of friends. In 1914 he published his first book, The Happy House, a poetry collection. His work of this era was fairly typical of a certain type of more conservative, neo-classical Russian literary tradition, opposed to forces like Mayakovsky and his Futurism. Take the opening lines of “The Waning”, from 1910:
So what a seeming subtle anguish —
The limpid air and vernal crave,
Its stirring blossom-scented wave,
Its deadly breath that can but languish!
Because of his frequent, and apparently only semi-treatable, health issues, he was given a “white ticket” and excused from war service when Russia entered WWI in July of the year. Muni was not so lucky, and he was drafted into active service right at the beginning of the war. Khodasevich still wanted to do his part, though, and eagerly signed onto a project that had him compile a book called War in Russian Lyric Poetry for the Universal Library publishing house. Indeed, he went so far to see renunciation of his Polish-Jewish identity as essential to full support of the war effort, and wrote in one poem of the era that he was “Not by my mother, but by a Tula peasant woman” born. This scorn spilled over at times into his correspondence with Kissin, at the front, as he condemned those who did not offer unwavering support for Russia’s actions and waxed lyrical on the possibility of executing “internal enemies.”
As Russia’s situation in the war grew worse, its tendency to persecute these perceived enemies, especially Jews, did the same. Kissin tried not to worry his friend by largely omitting references to the issues with superiors, and nightmares, that he was having in his frequent letters, but Khodasevich was an intelligent and well connected enough man to realize that the treatment of Jews he heard and read about in general would have applied to Kissin just the same. As he was so alienated from the officers he served with, and desperate to feel safe and loved, Kissin wrote letters to his beloved “Vladja” as often as he could, and sometimes openly begged for more frequent answers. Swept up in war fervor, Khodasevich simply didn’t care. He answered rarely, many times with letters mostly made up of propagandistic rhetoric, and spent little time with his best friend during the rare leaves he was granted to Moscow. Kissin had become a reminder of his less than Russian identity, at a time when he wanted nothing more than to be the perfect patriot.
In a 1936 article, Khodasevich recounted their last encounter, in early spring of 1916:
Close to the end of his last stay in Moscow, just on the eve of his departure, I was supposed to read my poems at some evening at the Polytechnic Museum. Muni said that he would come to listen to me, but an hour before it started, he phoned me:
– No, sorry, I won’t come.
– Well, I don’t sympathize with it. It’s all unnecessary. Be well. And he hung up. That was our last conversation.
On the night of March 22, 1916, after returning to the front, Kissin borrowed the revolver of one the few sympathetic officers in his unit, returned to his small camp bedroom, and shot himself in the head.
Khodasevich, the first to be given the news, was instantly plunged into despair. He was racked with guilt and self-loathing that would last the rest of his life, feeling that not only had he failed to save Kissin from his fate, only a few months before Russia pulled out of the war, but that he had pushed him into killing himself. The guilt was all the greater because Kissin had saved him from a suicide attempt in 1911.
“Rachel’s Tears” was the first of many poetic, and literary, responses by Khodasevich to his grief and guilt. The poem explores, through the grief of the symbolic mother of the Jewish people, the horror of acts which were being committed against whole populations of Jews, and of one (unnamed) man:
A salute to our vile evening planet!
Puddles, banisters, windows glisten.
Through the downpour I wanly straggle,
Shoulders sodden, and hat brim dripping.
Now we all have been rendered homeless,
Made to wander through all the ages,
And the desolate rain sings hopeless
Songs of Rachel’s tears so ancient.
I esteem neither honor nor glory,
If last week she was sent a package
That held shreds of a uniform, gory
Bits of fabric, congealing tatters.
Ah, in light of our ponderous burden
Though we pound out the very freshest
Tunes — one single refrain is worthy:
Strains of Rachel’s tears so wretched!
Written the next year, as Russia was plunged into revolution and civil war, Khodasevich published “Look for Me.” In contrast to “Rachel’s Tears”, this poem is told from the perspective of the departed half of a friendship:
Look for me in spring’s transparent air.
I flit like vanishing wings, no heavier than
a sound, a breath, a sunray on the floor;
I’m lighter than that ray — it’s there: I’m gone.
But we are friends for ever, undivided!
Listen: I’m here. Your hands can feel the way
to reach me with their living touch, extended
trembling into the restless flame of day.
Happen to close your eyelids, while you linger…
Make me one final effort, and you might
find at the nerve-ends of each quivering finger
brushes of secret fire as I ignite.
Initially sympathetic to the February Revolution, and the Bolshevik government, Khodasevich grew disillusioned by the hardship and violence he saw, and the suppression of free speech. Still, he worked tirelessly to get his new book, The Jewish Anthology, a collection of works by young Jewish poets, completed and published. It finally was in 1918. As with “Rachel’s Tears”, it reflected his growing appreciation of his Jewish heritage, and a rejection of the unthinking embrace of Russian ethnicity as the ultimate expression of patriotism, and the supposed inherent superiority of that identity. His poetry, and the poems that he chose for the volume, also show how he had moved from his neo-classical roots into an embrace of modernism, which he felt was the only movement that could fully express the reality of modern life. He and Kissin argued much about the later’s embrace of modernism during the final months of their correspondence, and Khodasevich found himself convinced of his friend’s position when he was forced to confront the randomness and tragedy of this new, post-1914 everyday life for the first time.
In 1922, Khodasevich fled Russia, first settling at Gorky’s villa in Sorrento, Italy, and then moving on to Berlin. He spared no criticism of the new USSR, and hoped for it to end, and a liberal, democratic regime, with greater tolerance than either the Tsars or the Soviets had ever shown, to emerge in its place.
Amidst a smoking desolation,
The worker, fist raised threateningly,
In fear and angry desperation
Confronts his cunning enemy.
While, trusting to a crowd of feckless
Hands to guard the wealth he makes,
As stubborn as a stone, but reckless,
The bourgeois rages, too, and shakes.
During his time in exile, his poetic output declined, but he still wrote some works of great quality, and began publishing more in the way of criticism, biography, and memoir. At the Berlin periodical Days, he made penetrating analyses of Soviet literary output, and, when he moved to Paris, threw himself with great joy into debates about various points of literary theory. Influential in the best Russian emigre, and even native European, literary circles, he worked to grow the career of a little-known poet and novelist, Vladimir Nabokov. (Nabokov’s happy marriage to Vera Slonim, a Jewish woman from a trading family, undoubtedly reminded him of his own joyful years of friendship with Kissin, and, combined with the Nabokov family’s long history of defending Jews in Russia, endeared the young man to him from the first). His biography of Gavrila Romanovich Derzhavin, written in the style of Pushkin’s epoch, is still hailed today.
Like many of the White emigres who had fled the Soviet Union, Khodasevich expressed a certain longing for his homeland in his later works, and did much to explain the traumas of exile, especially for those that had already gone through the upheaval of 1914-17. But his nostalgia for Russia was severely, and honestly, tempered by his recognition of how flawed the society had been even before the Soviets came to power, especially for those in minority populations, and served as a powerful counterpoint to some who indulged in unmitigated hagiography for Imperial Russia.
Health issues that plagued him since youth only grew worse as Khodasevich aged, and he recognized, by the beginning of the 1930s, that he was living on borrowed time. His acclaimed memoir, Necropolis, would be published only a few weeks before his death from a botched lung operation, on June 14th, 1939, at the age of 53.
The second to last poem which he ever wrote, “В последний раз зову Тебя: явись…”, though, in 1934, reveals that the memory of Kissin and their love for each other followed him on his treacherous journey through Europe and towards a new life in exile, just as the other man’s anxious inquiries about his health had followed him through Italy decades before, remaining a reminder of his guilt and past mistakes, but also, as his time drew to an end, becoming a comfort:
It is my last appeal to You — appear.
Let’s share a feast of nightly inspiration!
Magnificent, o raise me up so near
To pinnacle where doom befell creation.
Yield one last time! In life there is no course
Like farewells so holy, yet rough-watered.
As if my heart is a Lamb to be brought forth
A sacrifice led to the slaughter.
In partings we rekindle our past
And love it with theurgic disposition,
Like sons hug mothers at a firing squad
A open grave to be their last transition.