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This article is taken from PN Review 222, Volume 41 Number 4, March - April 2015.

Mikhail Kuzmin (1872-1936) Robert Chandler
Mikhail Alexeyevich Kuzmin was born into a family of Old Believers in Yaroslavl. The family moved to St Petersburg when he was thirteen. He studied at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory, but did not graduate, perhaps because of his growing interest in poetry, perhaps due to a crisis concerning his homosexuality. In the late 1890s he stayed in Italy, where he was attracted to Catholicism. It seems likely that he then spent some time in the far north of Russia, living in Old Believer settlements and studying their music.

Back in St Petersburg Kuzmin went on composing; he sang his poems in literary salons, accompanying himself on the piano. In 1906 he published Wings, the first Russian novel with a homosexual theme; two large editions sold out at once. He also published the verse cycle Alexandrian Songs (for which he composed a piano accompaniment). Kuzmin had visited Alexandria ten years earlier; it is unlikely that he and Constantine Cavafy knew of each other, but Alexandrian Songs is similar to Cavafy’s poetry in both tone and subject matter.

In 1910 Kuzmin published the essay ‘On Beautiful Clarity’, putting forward ideas later taken up by Gumilyov and the Acmeist poets. Kuzmin and Akhmatova were regulars at the Stray Dog café, a legendary institution where almost every important poet of the time – regardless of political or artistic affiliations – gave readings between 1911 and 1915. Kuzmin wrote a preface for Akhmatova’s first book, Evening, but, perhaps unwilling to admit the extent of his influence on her, she later turned ...

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