The late Yevgeny Yevtushenko once wrote that “in Russia a poet is more than a poet”. A Western reader would struggle to understand what he meant, but to a Russian that sounded like a truism.
With other media stifled to various degrees throughout the country’s history, it often fell upon poets to expand their remit, venturing into areas of political criticism. By itself that isn’t unique to Russia, but only there has poetry served as the main, at times only, medium for such self-expression.
When Bolshevism arrived 100 years ago, the state began killing poets, including such great ones as Gumilev and Mandelstam. But in tsarist Russia, poets could just about get away with writing things that would get, say, a philosopher in deep trouble.
If the first great Russian poet, Pushkin (d. 1837), would only get a slap on the wrists for writing savage criticism, his friend, the first Russian philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev, was declared mad and consigned to house arrest for his essay Lettres philosophiques.
Many Soviet poets, such as Yevtushenko himself, tried to play both ends against the middle. They’d first write mildly critical verse – only to redeem themselves later by producing nauseating rhymed propaganda.
Yet such duality didn’t start with the Soviets. Even under the tsars, weak-kneed liberals by comparison, poets often displayed almost schizophrenic dichotomies. Thus Pushkin and Lermontov (d. 1841) combined Russian chauvinism with what today would be called Russophobia.
Pushkin, for example, was capable of writing Stances, a fawning panegyric to the tsar, yet also verses saying: “Autocratic villain, you and your throne I loathe; with cruel joy, your demise, the death of your children I foresee.” And in Lermontov’s work the flag-waving patriotism of the poem Borodino happily coexisted with describing his country as an “unwashed Russia, a land of masters, land of slaves.”
Hence Russian poets have always been Russia herself, as refracted through the prism of poetic sensibility. Most have been conformists, few dissidents, many a bit of both. But whatever they were, an attentive reader could use them as a reliable guide to their contemporaneous Russia.
Some poets indeed become more than just poets; some become much less; and some start out as the former and end up as the latter. This brings us to perhaps the most prominent poetic shill for Putin’s kleptofascism, Yunna Moritz.
Back in the old days, she was mostly known for writing good children’s poetry, which was a relatively safe haven. Moritz was also an equally talented translator of verse, which traditionally was a good money spinner even for great poets like Pasternak, who were unable to publish much of their original work.
That way Moritz was spared both penury and the ignominy of being known as a KGB hack. Come Putin’s Russia, however, and the nice Yunna performed an about-face.
To stay attuned to the times, she began pandering to the xenophobic nationalism peddled by the government. And xenophobia inevitably gravitates towards anti-Semitism, even if it wasn’t that way originally.
This state of affairs is at its most virulent in Russia, but it isn’t unique to her. My own, admittedly cursory, familiarity with extreme nationalists in Britain and France suggests an interesting paradox: they hate Muslims but, because most of them also hate Jews, they tend to side with organisations like Hamas in their conflict with Israel.
Having contracted the syphilis of xenophobia, Moritz, with her unerring poetic sense, detected its inner logic of veering towards anti-Semitism. Acting on that understanding must have been difficult because she herself is Jewish.
Yet her concept of civic virtue proved stronger than any personal considerations and, to quote one of her critics, Moritz became blacker than the Black Hundreds. In one of her poems she even enriched the Russian language by coining a useful portmanteau word zlovreistvo, combining the words zlo (evil) and yevreistvo (Jewery).
This is the kind of lexical innovation that was favoured in the past by Julius Streicher, the editor of Der Stürmer who went to his death at Nuremberg screaming Heil Hitler! I don’t know what Moritz’s last words will be, but for the time being she blames zlovreistvo for whipping up global Russophobia, the term Putin’s propaganda uses to describe any objections to Russia’s behaviour.
This is commendably more precise than the usual thrust of such propaganda, where the bogeymen are identified more generally as the US or the West. This poetic preference for the specific rather than general has helped Moritz to pinpoint the latest manifestation of malignant Russophobia: banning Russia from the 2018 Olympics.
The reason for the ban is the state-sponsored doping programme, turning Russian athletes into walking advertisements for various pharmaceutical companies. (The programme was supervised by former Deputy PM and Sports Minister Vitaly Mutko, one of the functionaries personally sanctioned in the West. He’ll be presiding over this summer’s World Cup held in Russia, proving that, in terms of corruption, FIFA can compete with the Russians on equal terms.)
But to the Russian propaganda media, which is to say the Russian media, doping was only a pretext. The real reason was that same congenital Western Russophobia.
Russian propaganda tends to seek poetic mouthpieces, and Moritz is happy to oblige. Though I can’t translate her response to the Olympic debacle in verse, you’ll get the idea from the word-for-word translation.
“The concentration camp of world sport// They’re making soap of the Russians// This is a sort of Auschwitz// The camp guard is drunk on happiness…//
“Time to stop playing lickspittle// Time to kill the guards// This is a figure of speech for the choice: to be? not to be?”
“How to kill the guards?// With lawsuits in courts?// By pouring money from different taps to camp guards?
“Can’t you punch them in the snout?// Instead of shilly-shallying?// They’re making soap of Russians// Making lampshades.
“This is a figure of speech?// These are bare facts!// Time to stop playing lickspittle// To this Russophobic ghetto!…
“With a poet’s eyes// I see the Auschwitz of sport,// This is a figure of speech// For a different sort of fascism!”
You may think this is just a deranged rant of a crazed old woman, but it isn’t. This is, in both substance and tone, an accurate representation of Putin’s propaganda. That’s why Moritz’s harangues are published in mainstream newspapers and magazines – she’s an idol of Putin’s fans in Russia.
This ought to give Putin’s fans in Britain some food for thought. Always assuming against all evidence that they’re capable of such exertions.