A Soviet-Era Poem Resonates With Russians Under The Lockdown

May 4, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 7:29 pm
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MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

In these pandemic days of fear and tedium, literature can be a comforting distraction. In Russia, young readers have rediscovered a Soviet-era poem and are finding a message from the past that resonates. NPR's Charles Maynes in Moscow explains.

CHARLES MAYNES, BYLINE: In 1970, a Russian poet named Joseph Brodsky sat in a small room in an apartment in the Soviet city of Leningrad and composed a short poem, heard here read by the poet in his signature arcing delivery.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JOSEPH BRODSKY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Don't leave your room. Don't commit that fateful mistake, goes the opening couplet and title as Brodsky beckons us into a claustrophobic world that may just sound familiar.

LEV OBORIN: He tries to tell himself that it's not so bad staying inside, that there's nothing to do outside. There is no freedom there.

MAYNES: Lev Oborin is a literary critic and poet in Moscow.

OBORIN: Well, Brodsky was not a very optimistic guy.

MAYNES: In part because, like us, he dreaded what lay beyond the door.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRODSKY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Why leave this place, writes Brodsky in another couplet. Tonight you will come home from town exactly as you were, only more beaten down.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRODSKY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Brodsky was an underground poet in the Soviet Union, denounced as a social parasite by the authorities and later exiled to labor camps. But key to understanding Brodsky's headspace was how he lived upon his return, says Oleg Lekmanov, a leading Russian literary historian.

OLEG LEKMANOV: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: The poem was composed in a kommunalka, a Soviet communal flat, notes Lekmanov, Brodsky's tiny room his sole sanctuary from families down the hall who might be reporting on him and a lone refuge from endless squabbles in a shared kitchen that smelt of boiled cabbage. Again, literary critic Lev Oborin.

OBORIN: They have to live together not having much personal space. So maybe that's why the poem is very strikingly familiar with new generations of readers.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NE VIHODI IZ KOMNATI")

43AI: (Rapping in Russian).

MAYNES: Amid Russia's current self-isolation requirements to stay at home, younger Russians have seized on Brodsky's anthem to Soviet-style social distancing through music remixes...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NE VIHODI IZ KOMNATI")

43AI: (Rapping in Russian).

MAYNES: ...And poetry readings on social media.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: A design studio in Brodsky's hometown has even issued a poster of Brodsky, now in a medical mask, which brings us to the poem's prophetic closing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRODSKY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: In it, Brodsky vows to use his bedroom dresser as a barricade against, among other things, a virus - an eerie reference that has helped this 50-year-old poem go, well, viral.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRODSKY: (Speaking Russian).

MAYNES: Of course, Brodsky did eventually leave his room and, famously, the country. Soviet authorities kicked him out in 1972. Brodsky resettled in the U.S., where he went on to win the Nobel Prize for Literature and later became the U.S. poet laureate. But Brodsky never lost his gloom. Before his death in 1996, the great now-Russian American poet warned of more scary things outside.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BRODSKY: What we used to regard as civilization can easily go down the drain very soon very fast for all sorts of reasons.

MAYNES: Which is why, Brodsky argued, poetry mattered. It was something to recite and comfort at the end of things...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NE VIHODI IZ KOMNATI")

43AI: (Rapping in Russian).

MAYNES: ...Or at least a way to kill time while looking out the window and contemplating the view.

Charles Maynes, NPR News, Moscow.

[POST-BROADCAST CLARIFICATION: This story says that Joseph Brodsky was denounced as a social parasite and exiled to labor camps. He was actually convicted of the crime of social parasitism and sentenced to exile with compulsory labor in northern Russia.]

(SOUNDBITE OF NOISIA'S "TOMMY'S THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.