“Every Day I Wake Up in a Strange Land”: Remembering the Russian Poet Naum Korzhavin

From The New Yorker:

A Russian poet died in North Carolina, on Friday. His name was Naum Korzhavin. He wrote three poems that all Russian readers of poetry can quote, and many can recite by heart. Of his ninety-two years, he spent forty-five living in the United States (forty-three of them in Boston, until the death of his wife, Lubov, two years ago; he then moved to Chapel Hill to be near his daughter). Still, he was one of the most significant Russian poets in a century that tragically called forth a lot of poetry.

Korzhavin was born Naum Mandel in a secular Jewish family in Kiev, in 1925. As he pointed out in a memoir, this was eight years after the Russian Revolution, but still a few years before collectivization destroyed life as it had been known in Ukraine, at the cost of millions of lives. Korzhavin’s earliest poems were filled with nostalgia for a revolution whose spirit had already vanished. In 1944, while Soviet newspapers and most Soviet people extolled the heroism of the anti-German offensive, Korzhavin wrote a poem called “Envy,” in which he lamented the unheroic nature of his generation. Written when Korzhavin was nineteen, “Envy” would remain one of his best-known poems.

Three years later, Korzhavin, a student at the Literary Institute in Moscow, was arrested, in the middle of the night, in his dormitory. Some said that Korzhavin was arrested for a poem critical of Stalin. Others said that he fell victim to Stalin’s anti-Semitic campaign against what Soviet papers called “cosmopolitanism.” When Korzhavin wrote about the arrest, forty years later, he described it primarily as absurd. When the secret police woke him up and demanded to see his poems, he recalled, he had nothing to show them: he kept his manuscripts with friends, not because he felt that he had anything to hide but simply because he was incapable of maintaining his own papers. Once he faced his interrogator, he wrote, he subverted the script by earnestly asking what he had done wrong. “I really wanted to know what happened—and what if I had made a mistake and this man knew what it was,” Korzhavin recalled. “Thus I won this idiocy contest. My cultivated sincere idiocy prevailed over his professional idiocy.”

Korzhavin was deemed “socially dangerous,” and sentenced to internal exile. He didn’t return to Moscow until the mid nineteen-fifties. He was thirty-four when he finally graduated from college. He had grown disillusioned with the revolutionary myth and the entire Soviet project. It was only a matter of time before his poems and public statements got him forced out of the Soviet Union. Korzhavin landed in Boston in 1973.

. . . .

Could it be that I’ve fallen out of love with my country?
I would die without it, but this is no life.
Should I run? Nonsense. Running won’t help
Someone who has fallen out of love with his country.

. . . .

Now it’s light, now it’s a shadow,
Now it’s night in my window.
Every day
I wake up in a strange land.

Into a strange near,
Into a strange distance I look,
Into a strange life
I descend the stairs.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker

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