For Russian students, learning poetry is the first introduction to literature – anyone schooled in Russia will remember having to learn challenging verses by heart. Poets have not just reflected on the history of the country, but at times created it themselves. Here’s our list of the top ten.
Vasily Zhukovsky (1783-1852)
An illegitimate child of his father, Zhukovsky was adopted and raised by a family friend. His literary talent became evident during his studies, when he published translations of poetic works. Zhukovsky was one of the founders of the romantic movement in Russian literature, especially with the publication of the ballad Ludmila. Alongside writing poetry, Zhukovksy also worked as an editor of the magazine ‘Herald of Europe’ and was a talented painter.
Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)
Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)
Lermontov showed a literary talent in the very early stages of his life. His works became recognised when he wrote the poem Death of a Poet, commemorating the death of Pushkin. The poem wasn’t accepted by censors and he was punished with exile to the Caucasus. During his time in exile, his writing only flourished. Eventually he returned to Saint Petersburg only to be sent away again for participating in a duel. Many of his works are set in the Caucasus and tell stories leaning towards the romantic genres of literature. Lermontov’s life also abruptly ended in a duel.
Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1878)
Nikolai Nekrasov grew up in a family with many children and his father had a firm hand with them all. When he disobeyed his father’s will to pursue a military career, he was cut off from any material support. As a stranded university student, Nekrasov started writing as a means of survival. In time, he experimented with different writing styles, turning from poetry to prose. His famous work Who is Happy in Russia? explores in depth the social issues that affect all parts of society. At the height of his career he also worked as an editor of the revolutionary magazines ‘Sovremennik’ and ‘Otechestvennye Zapiski’.
Alexander Blok (1880-1921)
Alexander Blok was born into a literati family, receiving the best of education in his hometown Saint Petersburg. As a young man he decided to pursue acting and later started composing poetry. Throughout his career the poet explored different styles: he began writing in the genre of symbolism, exploring topics of love and romance. During the 1917 revolution he chose to stay in Russia and work in a publishing house of the then renamed Petrograd. The focus of his work shifted to social issues. Among his notable work of the time is the poem The Twelve. Towards the end of his life, he became very sick and wasn’t granted permission to leave the country for treatment. Blok died from heart failure in near-poverty and solitude.
Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)
The life of Anna Akhmatova was a tragic one and her misfortunes found reflection in her poetry. Both her marriages were unsuccessful and ended in divorce. Her first husband and son fell victim to political repressions and were arrested. Despite her best efforts to bring them home, her ex-husband was executed and son sentenced to work in colonies. Akhmatova’s poetry touches on tragic tones, filled with thoughts on her own suffering and of the people undergoing a historic transition through revolution and war.
Sergey Esenin (1895-1925)
Esenin was born into a simple serf family. He received his education at a church-run school and later continued to study at university in Moscow. Despite the move to a big city, the rural upbringing he received influenced his works. He was close to the group of ‘new peasant’ poets, writing about the life of simple people in Russia, depicting scenes from the countryside. He became a very famous poet in his time, but nonetheless his life was not a happy one. Depression, alcohol abuse and treatment in a psychiatric ward forced the poet to end his life in the Angleterre hotel in Saint Petersburg.
Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)
Tsvetaeva had a happy upbringing, she received a solid education and studied overseas. She wrote her first poetry very early – at the age of six. In the years to come her work was soon recognised by other noteworthy poets and she had a successful career. Following the revolution she and her family moved overseas, but her work was not well received abroad. They returned to the Soviet Union in 1939, forced by poverty. Her husband and daughter were both arrested and her husband was later shot. Tsvetaeva ended her life in the midst of World War II leaving behind a legacy of poetic works.
Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930)
Mayakovsky was born and raised in Georgia. After he completed part of his schooling, he moved to Moscow with his mother. Amidst the revolutionary events, they became unable to pay for school, and he was expelled. As he began writing, Mayakovsky became involved in the futurist movement. His early works also supported the revolutionary movement, for example writing slogans for propaganda posters. His work was well-received in the country and Mayakovsky’s career flourished. Towards the end of his life his career went downhill. His exhibition wasn’t well received and his plays were not successful. As a result Vladimir Mayakovsky shot himself.
Joseph Brodsky (1940-1996)
Joseph Brodsky was born and grew up in Leningrad, and the early part of his life was closely connected to the city. In search of his calling he tried various professions, but ended up with his true passion – writing. Throughout his career, Brodsky was arrested a number of times for dissident writing. Eventually, in 1972 he was forced to emigrate and moved to the United States. He continued working in the University of Michigan and in 1991 was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature.
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