Поэма 1 Черный вечер. Белый снег. Ветер, ветер! На ногах не стоит человек. Ветер, ветер
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- TWELVE 1
© Maria Carlson. Do not cite English translation without attribution.
1 Typically, English translations refer to Blok’s poem as “The Twelve.” I have chosen to remove the article in order to preserve the original ambiguity of the title. “Twelve” is not only the number of Red Guards, but also the time of day -- here, the powerful, liminal time of midnight, the approximate time action occurs. Midnight has important symbolic implications as the temporal threshold when one day ends and the next begins, a “change of guard” and of times, as well. The reader may wish to associate to other symbolic twelves as well, of which there are more than a few.
2 Blok depicts the realia of Petrograd in January 1918 with considerable precision in Canto 1 of Twelve. The passersby the reader meets are those one might typically run across late at night in the center of Petrograd: an old woman whose life has been turned upside down by war and revolution; writers or intellectuals returning from a salon; young ladies coming home together from an evening with friends, etc. Placards greeting the representatives of the Constituent Assembly were hung around the center of town, including on Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare.
3 The image of the crossroads is important. Metaphorically, the bourgeois gentleman stands at the crossroads of Russia’s fate, unsure of his own future direction or Russia’s. In keeping with the poem’s juxtaposition of popular and religious imagery, the image of the crossroads visually suggests the “cross” (+), an image negatively evoked and rejected (“Yeah, without the cross”) in the poem on a number of occasions. But it also suggests the liminal crossroads of folklore, where suicides are buried and unclean forces hold sway.
4 The Constituent Assembly was the democratically elected representative body that had formed under the Provisional Government for the purpose of drafting a constitution for Russia. It met only once, from 4:00 pm on 18 January 1918 to 5:00 am on 19 January (according to the Western calendar) in the Tauride Palace on Shpalernaia Street. After only thirteen hours it was dissolved by the Bolsheviks, since they could not control the vote. The action of Twelve occurs very soon after the Assembly’s forcible disbandment: note the line, “And we, too, held an assembly,” implying that the subsequent conversation takes place after the Constituent Assembly’s doomed meeting.
5 Such phrases should be interpreted both literally (in realia) and metaphorically (in realiora). What, indeed, lies ahead? That is the question.
6 The number twelve, as observed in Note 1, is culturally marked: twelve Red Guards, twelve apostles, twelve signs of the zodiac, twelve months, twelve gates of Jerusalem, twelve knights of the Round Table, Arcanum XII of the Tarot (The Hanged Man; followed by XIII Death), as well as twelve stars in the crown of the Woman Clothed with the Sun (from the Biblical Book of Revelation, 12:1). In occultism, twelve is the number of the manifestation of the universe in time and space.
In the margin of Canto 10 in the original manuscript of Twelve, Blok adds another association: “And he was with the robber/thief. Once there lived twelve robbers” (“И был с разбойником. Жило двенадцать разбойников”) [See, “Примечания,” Алек. Блок, Собр. соч. 3 (М-Л: ХудЛит, 1960, с. 628]. “Once There Lived Twelve Robbers” was a popular song often sung by the famous Russian operatic bass singer Fedor Chaliapin (1873-1938). The song consists of several verses from Nikolai Nekrasov’s 1876 song “Of Two Great Sinners.” (“О двух великих грешниках” из поэмы Кому на Руси жить хорошо).
Было двенадцать разбойников,
Был Кудеяр атаман.
Много разбойники пролили
Крови честных христиан!
Господу Богу помолимся, древнюю быль возвестим!
Так в Соловках нам рассказывал инок честной Питирим.
Once there lived robbers, in number twelve,
Led by Kudeiar-ataman.
In their own time these twelve robbers shed
Many a good Christian’s blood.
Let us now pray to the Lord our God, let us the ancient lay sing!
As then in Solovki we heard it first from the worthy monk Pitirim.
The song and verse tell the story of twelve robbers and their leader, Kudeiar. Kudeiar accepts the error of his ways and turns to God. In the full Nekrasov version, “Of Two Great Sinners,” Kudeiar redeems his sins (which include theft, murder, and the abduction of women) in two ways: 1) by his new-found piety and his repentance for his evil deeds, and 2) by murdering a sinner as great or greater than himself. Kudeiar’s service to God may not be “Christian” in the traditional sense, but it was apparently effective, as his redemption is achieved only when he murders the evil debaucher, Pan Glukhovskii. Perhaps the Red Guards are performing a similar service for God, removing evil viler than themselves?
Blok’s marginalia implies a connection among Christ, who spent time with thieves and prostitutes and was crucified between two thieves, Kudeiar, who led twelve thieves, abducted women, but later turned to God, and Petrukha the Red Guard, who, having consorted with prostitute Kat’ka, tries to kills the vile Van’ka. Thus we have several important binaries (and the poem is full of binaries) -- Jesus Christ/Kudeiar/Petrukha, twelve apostles/twelve robbers/twelve Red Guards, -- and key themes of Twelve: sin and repentance, crime and forgiveness, earthly love and divine love, and the power of grace to save. In the poem’s storm of cosmic upheaval of traditional values, why would these images not be mixed up together?
7 The Petrograd night was “black” because the utilities were out and the street lamps dark. To compensate, people lit fires in the street or in metal barrels, both to cast some light and to provide a place for passersby to warm themselves (“fires, fires, fires”).
8 Convicts sent to hard labor in imperial Russia were marked by a red or yellow diamond on the back of their clothing to make them easily identifiable in case of escape. (Cf. nineteenth-century American convicts at hard labor who wore black and white striped outfits for the same reason.) The narrator’s point is that the twelve Red Army men are convict-types.
9 This simple line has complex repercussions. Note that “Свобода” may be translated as either “freedom” or “liberty.” “Without the cross” has several readings: visually, it invites the reader to compare the marching twelve to a church procession, but without the traditional cross in front of it (replaced by the red flag); individually, it would mean that the Red Guards have taken off their personal crosses, which Orthodox Christians rarely remove; ideologically, it signals a rejection of Christianity -- freedom “without the cross” implies both the suspension of traditional morality and Christian values and an end to the political and social influence of the Church: “all is permitted,” the world now lies “beyond good and evil.”
10 “Сложить буийную голову” (“to lay down one’s reckless head”) is a constant epithet from East Slavic magic tales and historical epics. It is a folkloric kenning (or, figurative phrase) for “to die in battle.” Its appearance here injects a folksy note into the genre of the chastushka, the popular four-line rhyme of the three verses in Canto 3.
11 Here a proletarian chastushka (popular ditty) echoes Bolshevik revolutionary rhetoric and apocalyptic imagery, but ends with a phrase commonly found in prayers. The “universal conflagration” appears in socialist writings from the mid-nineteenth century on. Pavel Miliukov (1859-1943), the prominent leader of Russia’s Constitutional Democratic Party (or, “Kadets”) used the phrase contemptuously in his speech of 18/31 October 1917, referring to “some apostles of the Universal Conflagration” who were returned to Russia by the European socialists. The image of conflagration also evokes the apocalypticism of the Symbolists and the God-seekers. Throughout the poem, ecclesiastical, literary, vulgar, folk, and other lexical levels swirl through the universal chaos of Revolution, fragmented and separated from their natural environments, which now no longer exist.
12 There are several points worth noting in regard to this stanza. Kat’ka probably wore “gaiter boots,” a style of fitted footwear with leather toe and heel and cloth body (either decorative or utilitarian) that extended up over the ankle. The gaiter boot made the foot look smaller and more delicate. A very popular form of women’s footwear, versions of the gaiter boot were worn from the early nineteenth century into the 1930s. Gray felt gaiter boots would have been sexy winter wear.
“Mignon” might refer to the Khar'kov chocolatier Hovsep Ter-Poghossian, who established the Mignon sweets firm in Khar’kov in 1910, or to the Finnish Fazer firm’s “Mignon Chocolate Egg,” a famous Easter confection. The Swiss chocolatier Karl Fazer moved to Finland in 1891 and covered the Scandinavian and northern Russian markets; his firm provided chocolates to the household of the Russian Tsar. But since “mignon” simply means “sweet” and “dainty,” it could also have been a local Russian brand; the French name would give it a touch of je ne sais quoi.
“Cadets” were young officers in training, the teen-aged sons of the nobility. Soldiers were men of the ranks, usually of peasant or lower class background. Note the use of the collective nouns “юнкерьë” and “солдатьë,” a word-choice that is both vulgar and insolent. The comment has implications for Kat’ka’s “narrative”: once the girlfriend of a peasant lad, she became a prostitute, first working the wealthy young men of the cadet academy (a “soft” job), then moved to working the ranks of common soldiers -- a clear professional demotion. [NB: There is no relation between the “cadets” referred to here and the “Kadets” mentioned above in the preceding note.]
13 The shooting of the prostitute Kat’ka by her former lover and now Red Guard, Petrukha, the escape of Katya’s new lover, the Tsarist army soldier Van’ka, and Petrukha’s remorse for Kat’ka’s murder, lie at the center of the work’s “plot.” The names are suggestive: Peter tries to murder Ivan, but ends by unintentionally killing Ekaterina, whom he loved. If we succumb to allegory and turn this into a comment on Russian history, then Peter the Great, in his attempt to eradicate the Old Holy Russia of Ivan IV, ends by inadvertently “killing” Catherine II and her legacy (which was really his legacy continued), thereby sending Russia backward into medieval chaos.
The names of the characters are also telling. The name “Kat’ka” is the diminutive form of “Ekaterina,” which, in this literal case, ironically means “eternally pure.” The Imperial Empresses Catherine I and Catherine II, like Kat’ka, enjoyed masculine company very much. But there is more at work here. “Eternally pure” Ekaterina reflects Blok’s obsession with the Eternal Feminine, which he portrayed in his most famous poetry as a symbol, as both the mystical Soul of the World, or Sophia, the Wisdom of God, and as a fallen prostitute, the Stranger in black plumes and silk. The apostle “Peter” is the “Rock” on which Christ builds his new “Church”; this fits the Bolshevik vision, but now “without the cross.” “Ivan” is the “grace of God” -- certainly ironically used.
Were this commedia dell’arte, we would readily recognize the love triangle of Harlequin (the amoral lover, Van’ka), Columbine (the contested love interest, Kat’ka), and the naive clown Pierrot (Petrukha, who pines for Columbine/Kat’ka after she goes off with the dashing Harlequin/Van’ka). This echoes the Slavic balagan (puppet- booth) tradition, which derives from the commedia dell’arte. Blok alluded to this tradition in his 1906 play Balaganchik (Балаганчик). Interestingly enough, the puppet “Petrushka” is sometimes named “Van’ka” (in northern Ukraine; this implies a certain “kinship” between Kat’ka’s two lovers). In neither the Italian nor the Slavic pantomime or puppet show, however, is the woman killed, as Kat’ka is in Twelve.
In 1911 Igor Stravinsky transformed this popular standard into the ballet “Petrouchka,” which actually takes place in St. Petersburg on Admiralty Square during Maslenitsa (the period of pre-Lenten carnival). The ballet introduces new themes that are relevant to Blok’s Twelve: Petrouchka (Petrukha) is a “puppet” brought to life by the Charlatan [puppetmaster], but the puppet has human feelings; Petrouchka tries to break up the Blackamoor’s seduction of the Ballerina. In the ballet, however, Petrouchka is killed and returns as a ghost to take vengeance. The commedia dell’arte, puppet-booth, and carnival theme were popular among the Symbolists in both Europe and Russia. The love triangle of Twelve actually holds up well to a large number of interpretive possibilities, of which these are a sample.
14 Looting, pogroms, violence, public drunkenness, and other crimes were a serious problem during the period of the Bolsheviks’ consolidation of power. Tsarist institutions were in a state of dissolution, while new Bolshevik institutions had yet to be put into place. The new regime was not yet in control. Note the comments of Petrukha’s friends juxtaposed with the looters’ calls.
15 “Погреб” is a multi-faceted word, meaning a basement, a root cellar for storage, a powder magazine, or a wine cellar; all definitions pertain. The immediate post-revolutionary period was notorious for its looting of wine cellars, leading the Bolsheviks to destroy the alcohol stores of the city, an act culminating in the destruction of over $5 million-worth of wine in the cellars of the Winter Palace alone.
16 The doubling of lexical units (горе горькое, скука скучная) is characteristic of folk speech and oral tradition.
17 This is a line from the Orthodox prayer for the dead. We may speculate that it refers to Kat’ka, but it might also refer to Russia (which is a feminine noun in Russian). The preceding material in Canto 8 is a threat by the uneducated, folk-connected Petrukha against Van’ka.
18 This stanza ironically references an 1826 poem by Fedor Glinka, which became a popular romance. “Песнь узника” (“The Prisoner’s Song”) begins with the stanza:
Не слышно шуму городского, One cannot hear the city’s din,
В заневских башнях тишина! Silence reigns o’er Nevsky’s tower!
И на штыке у часового The radiant midnight moon is caught
Горит полночная луна! On the tip of the sentry’s bayonet.
Glinka’s poem tells the story of a young prisoner who takes leave of his family, his home, his bride; he hopes for mercy from the tsar. We are not told why he is imprisoned, but the date of the poem is telling: The young Decembrists who led an abortive uprising in December 1825 against the newly crowned Tsar Nicholas I (r. 1825-1855) were tried and sentenced to death or exile in 1826 for their role in the failed revolt. The failed Decembrist coup was widely portrayed as a dress rehearsal for the Revolutions of 1905 and 1917, establishing the continuity of Russian attempts at revolt.
19 In December 1917 the Soviets renewed the ban on the sale of alcohol in Petrograd. Soldiers high on alcohol and narcotics were making control of the city difficult; alcohol also led to looting and pogroms among the residents, a feature also reflected in the last four lines of Canto 7.
20 A column of swirling dust (“dust devil”) or snow is a well-known attribute of the devil in Russian folklore--the devil hides and travels around in such columns.
21 The icon screen, or ikonostasis, is a wall of icons that separates the sanctuary from the nave in Orthodox churches. Petrukha had just made a reference to the Savior, and his comrades want to disabuse him of religion’s value. Their question about being saved by the icon screen raises doubt about the efficacy of religion; the Red Guards are atheists.
22 This is a variant of a line from the popular revolutionary song, the “Varshavianka.” The opening verses strongly echo the context of Blok’s poem (whirlwind, dark forces, fateful struggle, [red] banner, bloody, holy, righteous struggle, freedom):
Вихри враждебные веют над нами, Belligerent storm clouds have gathered above us,
Темные силы нас злобно гнетут. Forces of darkness oppress us with spite,
В бой роковой мы вступили с врагами, We have engaged in a dark, fateful struggle
Нас еще судьбы безвестные ждут. With enemy forces; unknown fates are ours.
Но мы подымем гордо и смело But we will lift up proudly and boldly
Знамя борьбы за рабочее дело, The banner of struggle for all workers’ rights,
Знамя великой борьбы всех народов The banner of struggle, the goal of all nations,
За лучший мир, за святую свободу. For a better world and for our sacred freedom.
На бой кровавый, To bloody battle,
Святой и правый Sacred and righteous,
Марш, марш вперед, March, march ahead,
Рабочий народ. All working people.
23 This is a particularly rich image and a striking way to end the visual sequences of the poem. A wreath for the head is called венец, a wreath for other purposes is called венок. The use of the term венчик is thus marked. The венчик is a cloth or paper strip used in the Orthodox funeral service. Laid on the forehead of the deceased, it most commonly has images of Christ, the Mother of God, and John the Baptist, and may also have the words “Святый Боже, Святый Крепкий, Святый Безсмертный, помилуй нас” ["Holy God, Holy Mighty, Holy Immortal One, have mercy on us"]. Here the венчик is of white roses, which carry their own symbolism, depending on context. While white roses traditionally mean innocence and serve as symbols of pure love and innocence (as in the bridal bouquet, or in association with Mary, the mystical Rose of Heaven), they may also symbolize honor and reverence: white roses serve as a sign of farewell at funerals. The white rose is not associated with Christ in Orthodox symbology. One might speculate here that the Christ at the head of the Red Guards has “died” to Russian reality: the Revolution is His funeral and the Red Guards are unwittingly His mourning cortège. Christ is insubstantial, invisible, and for all intents, symbolically “deceased.” But such is the beauty and the living power of this work: the reader is still able to speculate and wonder as to its meaning, and to absorb several meanings, even contradictory ones, simultaneously.
24 Some critics have made much of Blok’s use of “Исус Христос” instead of the correct form, “Иисус Христос;” “Исус” happens to be the sectarian spelling and so, these critics claim, this is a sectarian [хлыст] Christ. That is why he is in white (the color these sectarians wore for their “радения;” this was mind-altering, mystical dancing, like Dervish whirling.) The metaphorical implications are clear: the revolution is a mad, heretical, sectarian ecstasy. This is a plausible interpretation, given that many of Blok’s friends belonged to the Godseeking intelligentsia and were taken with the sectarians. It is true that Blok had spent time with some sectarians to whom he had been introduced back in 1904 or 1905; and yes, the image may have remained with him, buried in the sub-conscious.
But Blok was first and foremost a poet. Note that the entire last stanza consists of perfect trochaic tetrameter, with judiciously-placed pyrrhic feet to vary the rhythm. There is no room anywhere in this meter for an extra syllable. The semantic content is “martial pace,” and the poem’s meter may not break out of it. The poet in Blok could not force “Иисус” when the meter demanded it be “Исус.” This is an excellent example of how poetics give us important information. There is only one perfect line in that stanza (i.e., where stress of each foot is completely realized), and that is the first line, “Так идут державным шагом” (/- /- /- /-) -- the line that references the pace. All other lines contain pyrrhic feet, either in the first or third foot, or both. The rhythm of the final line is ( -- /- /- /), and only one other line has it. These two lines are: “Позади - голодный пес” and “Впереди - Исус Христос.” Both lines are masculine (end with stressed syllable); both are directional (backward and forward, past and future). It is just beautiful. Blok was a genius. But it is unlikely that he meant Christ to be a sectarian [хлыст]. The reader may choose to interpret Christ that way, and that interpretation has some justification, but I do not think Blok purposefully encoded that reading. There was simply no metrical way to make “Jesus Christ” the last word of the poem. Blok did try to find another way: in the manuscript he wrote and rejected the final line, “Иисус идëт Христос.” But that is too clumsy and not compelling. Since he first tried to make “Иисус” work, the issue was the meter, not the spelling; the “sound” of the revolution forced this change.