Alexander Dolitsky: To understand Russia, take a moment to read some Russian poetry, the soul of its culture

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By ALEXANDER DOLITSKY

History teaches us that nations, in some ways, are like people. While having many things in common, each is unique. As with people, a nation’s behavior is often understood in terms of the psychological attitudes and style that characterize its personality.

A failure to understand cultural complexity of a nation’s psychological behavior in the historical context creates tensions between governments and often leads to political conflicts.

From the mid–1980s through the 1990s, I taught several academic courses at the University of Alaska Southeast, namely: “How Soviets View the World,” “Russian Character in Russian Literature,” “Russian History,” and “Russian Language.”

The central focus and objective of these courses, in addition to the subject matter, was to explain to my students that every culture, including Russian/Soviet culture, must be understood in the context of its history, literature, arts, music and peoples’ psychological behavior. In almost every class I recited Russian poetry in order to cultivate students’ interest in Russian literary creations. Indeed, Russian poetry is a soul of Russian culture and a key for understanding Russian psychological behavior.

Considering the significant decline of interest in poetry in the West, including the United States, the growing interest for books of verse in East European countries, including Russia, is still an unusual phenomenon. For the Russians, poetry means hope. In poetry, the reader may find support for his/her faith in such human values as dedication, dignity, honor, fortitude, heroism and loyalty.

Modern Russian poetry has absorbed the finest traditions of the 19th century (e.g., Pushkin, Lermontov, Nekrasov) and the early 20th century (e.g., Block, Fet, Mayakovsky, Yesenin) schools.

In modern Russian poetry, the accent on ideology and morality remains as strong as ever. The historical reason for the ideological poetry is the emergence of a new socialist society and, therefore, interest in psychological poetry had grown tremendously during the Soviet period of Russian history (1917-1991). In fact, Russian literature and art have always been well-known for probing the innermost recesses of the individual’s behavior.

The idea of the revolutionary transformation of life runs through the whole of Soviet poetry (1917-1991). Soviet poetry carries a message of friendship, loyalty and brotherhood. It stands up for the world’s essential values such as motherhood, creativity, honesty, love, the joy of communion with nature and peace between all peoples.

Three prominent Russian/Soviet poets have had a tremendous influence in Russian culture. They are Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and Yevgeniy Yevtushenko.

Anna Akhmatova, 1889–1966, is associated in the reader’s mind with the tragedy of a lonely soul seeking understanding and sympathy. Akhmatova’s WWII time and postwar poetry, however, speaks of patriotism and human dignity. Her writing is simple and her dreams are perfectly presented so they become tangible. Shortly before she died, Anna Akhmatova received an honorary degree of Oxford University.

The Russian Soil

In all the world no people are so tearless,

So proud, so simple as are we.

In lockets for a charm we do not wear it,

In verse about its arrows do not weep,

With Eden’s blissful vales do not compare it,

Untroubled does it leave our bitter sleep.

To traffic in it is a thought that never,

Not even in our hearts, remote, takes root.

Before our eyes its image does not hover,

Though we be beggared, sick, despairing, mute.

It’s the mud of our shoes, it is rubble,

It’s the sand on our teeth, it is slush,

It’s the pure, taintless dust that we crumble,

That we pound, that we mix, that we crush.

But we call it our own for ‘twill open one day

To receive and embrace us and turn us to clay.

Boris Pasternak, 1890–1960, was a son of a well-known painter in Russia. He was educated in Germany and later became a poet of world stature. His early poetry was quite complicated, but his later style was simple and clear. By using his own original syntax, he revealed the essence of phenomena and brought out their philosophical content with great skill. Pasternak is the author of the classic novel “Doctor Zhivago” and one of the best Russian translators of Shakespeare and Goethe. He lived a very modest and dedicated life and only in the 1970s did Soviet officials recognize his works.

It’s unbecoming to be famous

It’s unbecoming to be famous.

It isn’t that lifts aloft.

Maintaining archives tends to maim us.

Hoard manuscripts and you are lost.

The aim of art is self-discharge

And not the clap-trap of success.

It’s shameless to be looming large

For merits which are but a guess.

Live on through life without imposture,

Live so as in the final end

To hear the love-call of the future,

Expanse and distance to befriend.

Hiatus—leave them in your fortune

But not by any means in papers.

Although the process be a torture,

Let whole chapters of life escape us.

And ducking down into obscurity,

Conceal your steps beneath its cloak.

So landscapes sometimes hide their purity

Beneath a veil of fog or smoke.

Though others will retrace in hot

Pursuit the imprints of your feet,

Remember: you yourself must not

Distinguish triumph from defeat.

Not even by the slightest fraction

Must you your proper self transcend.

Just be alive, in thought and action,Alive and always to the end.

Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, 1933–2017, was a leader of the contemporary Soviet and Russian poets. He was especially popular among the students and young people. Yevtushenko poetry is patriotic, dramatic, and imbued with a sense of civic responsibility. Yevtushenko traveled a great deal around the world, representing the former Soviet Union in a highly patriotic and heroic fashion. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in the 1990s, he lived and taught poetry in the United States.

Say, do the Russians want a war?

Say, do the Russians want a war?

Go ask our land, then ask once more

That silence lingering in the air

Above the birch and poplar there.

Beneath those trees lie soldier lads

Whose sons will answer for their dads.

To add to what you learned before,

Say—Do the Russians want a war?

Those soldiers died on every hand

Not only for their own dear land,

But so the world at night could sleep

And never have to wake and weep.

New York and Paris spend their nights

Asleep beneath the leaves and lights.

The answer’s in their dreams, be sure.

Say—Do the Russians want a war?

Sure, we know how to fight a war,

But we don’t want to see once more

The soldiers falling all around,

Their countryside a battleground.

Ask those who give the soldiers life,

Go ask my mother, ask my wife,

Then you will have to ask no more,

Say—Do the Russians want a war?

Indeed, current U.S. administration in Washington D.C. must take cultural, historic, and psychological behavior factors into consideration in order to achieve an effective and peaceful outcome in dealing with today’s Russian-Ukrainian conflict.

Alexander B. Dolitsky was born and raised in Kiev in the former Soviet Union. He received an M.A. in history from Kiev Pedagogical Institute, Ukraine, in 1976; an M.A. in anthropology and archaeology from Brown University in 1983; and was enroled in the Ph.D. program in Anthropology at Bryn Mawr College from 1983 to 1985, where he was also a lecturer in the Russian Center. In the U.S.S.R., he was a social studies teacher for three years, and an archaeologist for five years for the Ukranian Academy of Sciences. In 1978, he settled in the United States. Dolitsky visited Alaska for the first time in 1981, while conducting field research for graduate school at Brown. He lived first in Sitka in 1985 and then settled in Juneau in 1986. From 1985 to 1987, he was a U.S. Forest Service archaeologist and social scientist. He was an Adjunct Assistant Professor of Russian Studies at the University of Alaska Southeast from 1985 to 1999; Social Studies Instructor at the Alyeska Central School, Alaska Department of Education from 1988 to 2006; and has been the Director of the Alaska-Siberia Research Center (see www.aksrc.homestead.com) from 1990 to present. He has conducted about 30 field studies in various areas of the former Soviet Union (including Siberia), Central Asia, South America, Eastern Europe and the United States (including Alaska). Dolitsky has been a lecturer on the World Discoverer, Spirit of Oceanus, andClipper Odyssey vessels in the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions. He was the Project Manager for the WWII Alaska-Siberia Lend Lease Memorial, which was erected in Fairbanks in 2006. He has published extensively in the fields of anthropology, history, archaeology, and ethnography. His more recent publications include Fairy Tales and Myths of the Bering Strait Chukchi, Ancient Tales of Kamchatka; Tales and Legends of the Yupik Eskimos of Siberia; Old Russia in Modern America: Russian Old Believers in Alaska; Allies in Wartime: The Alaska-Siberia Airway During WWII; Spirit of the Siberian Tiger: Folktales of the Russian Far East; Living Wisdom of the Far North: Tales and Legends from Chukotka and Alaska; Pipeline to Russia; The Alaska-Siberia Air Route in WWII; and Old Russia in Modern America: Living Traditions of the Russian Old Believers; Ancient Tales of Chukotka, and Ancient Tales of Kamchatka.

A few of Dolitsky’s past MRAK columns:

Read: Neo-Marxism and utopian Socialism in America

Read: Old believers preserving faith in the New World

Read: Duke Ellington and the effects of Cold War in Soviet Union on intellectual curiosity

Read: United we stand, divided we fall with race, ethnicity in America

Read: For American schools to succeed, they need this ingredient

Read: Nationalism in America, Alaska, around the world

Read: The case of the ‘delicious salad’

Read: White privilege is a troubling perspective

Read: Beware of activists who manipulate history for their own agenda

Read: Alaska Day remembrance of Russian transfer

Read: American leftism is true picture of true hypocrisy

Read: History does not repeat itself

Read: The only Ford Mustang in Kiev

Read: What is greed? Depends on the generation

Read: Worldwide migration of Old Believes in Alaska

Read: Traditions of Old Believers in Alaska

Read: U.S. and Russia relations, the role of Ukraine

14 COMMENTS

  1. Russia splits up Poland with Nazi Germany and then writes poems about how they are keeping Paris safe. With social media the propaganda is intensified. As soon as Putin and the oligarchs can’t give out free bread anymore they will fail internally. Does the West have the willpower to make Putin feel some pain? Have not seen that to date.

    • As “Commie Constant” and his Marxist 9 splits up the Valley with the Kenai, and the ADN writes about how they’re keeping Anchorage safe……. #yadayadayada #nowyouareagainstcommies #wellnotcommieconstant

      The IRONY here Frank, you cannot see it can you– or maybe you can now.

      #itsyourplaybook

  2. So you want to understand Russia? Anna Akhmatova pretty much said it all in her poem ‘When in suicidal anguish’

    A voice came to me. It called out comfortingly.
    It said, “Come here,
    Leave your deaf and sinful land,
    Leave Russia forever,
    I will wash the blood from your hands,
    Root out the black shame from your heart,
    […] calmly and indifferently,
    I covered my ears with my hands,
    So that my sorrowing spirit
    Would not be stained by those shameful words.

    • Yes, she had a tragic life. Her husband, Gumilyov, was executed by Stalin in the 1920s and her son, an accomplished archaeologist, had also suffered from the Soviet regime. Also Yesenin and Mayakovsky committed suicide. Sad.

  3. Russia had a brilliant tradition of literature and music deeply rooted in Russia’s Orthodox faith. The faith and that tradition was put to death during the 20th century by the Soviets. Akhmatova and Pasternak were born and reared before 1918 and it shows. Both were persecuted by the regime and remain out of official favor today. Yevtushenko did the bidding of the party. Missing here are the true heirs of the 19th century tradition Solzhenitsyn and Nabokov.

    I doubt that literature will be of much help to this administration even though a close reading of Solzhenitsyn would explain a lot about Putin. Literature is certainly of no help to the regime in Moscow. The desire to invade and dominate its smaller neighbors remains as strong as ever in the Kremlin. Anyone delusional enough to believe that countries like Estonia pose an existential threat to Russia is probably reading Yevtushenko or perhaps Demyan Bedny.

    • To John: Yes, your analysis has some merit and truth. However, I would not characterize Vladimir Nabokov as a typical Russian author. He wrote his first novels in Russian while living in Europe (1926-1938), then settled in the United States and became U.S. citizen in 1945. He wrote well-known novels, “Speak, Memory” in 1951 and “Lolita” in 1955 in English (in fact, translated from Russian to English by his son) and returned to Europe in 1961. Certainly, his novel “Lolita” does not reflect the Russian character.

      As for Demyan Bedny—a typical Communist and nationalist poet; today he is absolutely unpopular among Russians, Ukrainians, Poles and others.

      • Russians love their land and any threats will be met with obstinate resistance.
        The current oligarch system, with its corruption is indisputable. But as compared to what in Europe and the US? Corruption at a much higher level than in the Russian Federation or the cesspool of Ukraine.
        There has never been a pretense of democracy in Russia, all the younger people I have met were supportive of a tsar like, or strong leader. There was zero nostalgia for socialism and its’ misery. All they wanted was freedom to work and conduct business. The only communists were older people in street demonstrations with their red flags and were old state workers, something like old public school union workers here, perpetually unhappy and feeling slighted for useless careers and lives.
        The Biden administration has empowered Russia by ending our energy independence, and aiding Russia to have complete control of European energy, for which the socialist European governments willingly placed their own heads in the noose.
        Europe and America are so socially rotted out, that they are unreliable as allies to other countries, see Afghanistan for example. Our country’s elite oligarchy is beholden to the CCP and multinational corporations. Our military is fully compromised with incompetent and politicized officer corps, for whom fighting a dedicated and well armed enemy will result in a disaster.
        Once a national identity is destroyed there is no strength for life and death conflict. Our own president and congress have eviscerated this nation. Russians are accustomed to suffering, and suffering for their nation is in their souls.
        The idea that Ukrainians will fight to the death may be true in the western provinces, but the eastern provinces are overwhelmingly ethnic Russian. Comrade Stalin solved the Ukranian problem in his draconian but effective manner by resettling Russians into the eastern provinces.
        This crisis is a financial boon to Biden and our congress in money laundering the skimmed kickbacks of the massive foreign aid to Ukraine, which is the only incentive for the “support” for Ukraine our leaders have.
        We in America are ruled by the most corrupt and shallow elites in our history and we will all pay heavily for accepting the current arrangement that we call and pretend is “democracy”.

    • To John: One more pint, Russian/Soviet poets — Margarita Aligher, Bella Akhmadulina, Anna Akhmatova, Olga Bergholts, Andrei Voznesensky, Basul Gamzatov, Yevgeniy Yevtushenko, Samuel Marshak, Boris Pasternak, Robert Rozhdenstvensky, Alexander Tvardovsky, Ilya Yerenburg and many others were extremely popular in the 1960s and 1970s in the former Soviet Union, especially among my friends and classmates. I left Soviet Union in 1977. These poets were a foundation of our ideology, characters and behavioral psychology. Vladimir Putin and his imperial ambitions has nothing to do with it.

  4. Thank you, as always, for your thoughtful essays here, Alexander.
    .
    Indeed, I am always much impressed, and humbled, by my Russian friends’ profound and erudite knowledge, and appreciation, of both poetry and prose.

  5. Ironic timing as we were greeted this morning with news of Russian attack on Ukraine. Russia may be a nation known for its soulful poetry, but the poet has an evil twin – the one that recalls the old days of USSR “glory” and, apparently, has just put a toe in the water to see just how far they can go to get it back. On Biden’s watch, who knows how far that will be?

  6. Nekrasof is a name represented among the ancestry of the Aleuts remaining on the Alaskan peninsula. Thank you for generously adding depth to our understanding of Russian Alaskan family history.

  7. Americans immersed in the soul of Russian culture
    .
    while Russian warrior-poets overrun Ukraine
    .
    liberating souls of Ukrainian culture from Ukrainian bodies.

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