© | Victoria Smolkin

A Black Page in Russian Poetry

The summer of 1921 in Petrograd was marked by death—the slow decline and death of poet Alexander Blok on August 7, 1921; the arrest (on August third) and execution (on August twenty–fourth) of the poet Nikolai Gumilev by the secret police; and the suicide of Anastasia Chebotarevskaya, the writer Fyodor Sologub’s wife, who drowned herself in the Neva on September twenty-third in despair over the vacillation of the authorities in issuing them emigration visas. Together, these deaths—characterized both by slow degeneration and sudden violence—formed the central trope in the myth of the dying Petersburg. Several decades later, the writer Nina Berberova, a then relatively unknown figure, described the period as “a black page in Russian poetry”—an end of an era, through whose peripeties one lived with an “extraordinary intensity” as if “at the edge of an abyss.” For many, Blok’s funeral was the last time they would be together. Later, many emigrated; some perished, victims of political persecution; and others were transformed into the new Soviet intelligentsia. As Petrograd experienced the transition from Revolution and Civil War towards the social reconstruction and political consolidation of the New Economic Policy in the spring of 1921, the literary intelligentsia tried to make sense of this cultural and historical threshold. Blok’s funeral provided an opportunity to express the anxiety of the time through the communal rituals and narratives of death. In the public imagination, the Petersburg of 1921—“that Petersburg, where we buried Blok and where we could not bury Gumilev”—became the threshold between the death of old Petersburg and the birth of the new Soviet Petrograd.

Alexander Blok and Lyubov Mendeleeva Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova Anastasia Chebotarevskaya and Fyodor Sologub
Lyubov Mendeleeva and Alexander Blok
 
  Nikolai Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova
 
  Anastasia Chebotarevskaya and
Fyodor Sologub

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