In free nations, we usually take our freedoms for granted. We don’t think about getting government approval to rent an apartment, buy a car or move to another city. We would likely be outraged if someone told us we had to do that.
What if writing a poem could get you arrested? Would you still write? Would you share your poems with friends? Would you take huge personal risks to keep writing your words?
Elena Shvarts (1948-2010) began writing at 13, during the so-called but short-lived “Khrushchev Thaw” in the Soviet Union, the same short period in the early 1960s when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich was published in the Russian literary magazine Novy Mir. It’s hard to imagine the impact on Russian literary imaginations when an account of the Stalinist prison camps was published in an approved Soviet publication. For a short period, it must have seemed something was breaking free.
It didn’t last.
And, so, celebrate the meager light,
Curse not the twilight.
If Christ is to visit us
It will be on such pitiful days as these.
--from “A Gray Day” by Elena Shvarts, translated by Stephanie Sandler
Shvarts continued writing poetry, but none of it was published for the next 27 years, until the Soviet Union itself collapsed. She was 40.
Yet her poetry had found an audience – the samizdat audience, the people who secretly shared writing of all kinds – poetry, fiction, non-fiction – that could not be published in the Soviet Union. Possession of samizdat documents meant arrest. Documents with your name on them meant arrest if they were discovered.
I love fire so
That I kiss it,
Reach out towards it
Wash my face in it,
Since the gentle spirits
Inhabit it, like a bud,
And a band of magic
Thinly rings it.
--from “Candle at a Wake” by Elena Shvarts, translated by Sasha Dugdale
Shvarts published 16 books of poetry and prose, plus a four-volume collected works during her lifetime. That 13-year-old girl became a major figure in the Leningrad underground and widely known and translated after the fall of the Soviet Union.
She wrote about many things in her poetry; her obituary in the Independent said she explored themes of “marginality, poverty and authenticity,” while the one in the Guardian said, “In Shvarts's poetry, the world about her is transformed into a unique and mystical landscape, half real, half Bruegelesque fantasy.” But so many of her readers – the ones who read her in samizdat and the ones who read her published works – knew her as a poet who also wrote about doubt, faith and God.
We are birds in migration from this world to that.
(That sounds coarse, like the German Tod.)
And when our hour is announced‚
When our season nears its end‚
A true compass awakens inside us
And shows the world’s fifth point.
Invisible wings flutter nervously
And the inner gaze slowly turns
In bitter longing‚ as if prophetic‚
Toward the garden it knows: it
Sees miracles‚ and longing
Lengthens‚ doubled‚ as
The caravans fly off.
--“We are birds in migration” by Elena Shvarts, translated by Stephanie Sandler
Born in what was then called Leningrad under Soviet rule, Shvarts died in her beloved St. Petersburg in March, 2010. She was a poet who had written poetry when it was a potential crime against the state, and written it in spite of the state. She lived long enough to see her poetry published freely in her own country and published openly in other countries.