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This review is taken from PN Review 195, Volume 37 Number 1, September - October 2010.

LIGHTING THE DARK TIMES Russian Poets, edited by Peter Washington (Knopf/Everyman) £9.99

During the German army’s rapid advance on Moscow in the Second World War, Ilya Ehrenburg recounted in his memoirs how, ‘When Turgenev’s museum was being evacuated from Orel, the curator had to appeal at every station for the van carrying the museum material not to be uncoupled.’ Though people were at first angry, when the curator explained that the threadbare sofa was Turgenev’s they relented.

The Russians’ love of their literature, and especially of poetry, is proverbial (though with more freedom of expression today, things may be changing). In Tsarist Russia, as in Soviet, literature was a way of addressing social issues, directly or indirectly. It was also a means of maintaining a sense of the existence of individuality. Poetry at least has the resource of ambiguity, as a thin protective cover. Even so, it is a wonder that so much fine poetry was able to emerge from the repressive conformism of two centuries.

If poets lit the dark times they witnessed, it was with a talent and a sense of mission that often consumed them. When the Romantics defied authority, they faced censorship and exile. For the greats of the Soviet period, poverty and the gulag beckoned. According to their biographer, Ronald Hingley, they encountered ‘an officially imposed ideology so militant that the mere failure to simulate enthusiasm for it became a form of heresy’. Indeed, simply writing well could be a subversive political act in Soviet Russia, as Joseph Brodsky and Andrei Voznesensky ...


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