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New Left Review 23, September-October 2003


Tony Wood on G. S. Smith, D. S. Mirsky. A Russian–English Life. White Guard officer, Eurasian exile, and repatriated Marxist—the prince who rewrote Russian literary history.

TONY WOOD

METAMORPHOSES OF PRINCE M

In 1931 Roman Jakobson published an essay entitled ‘On a Generation That Squandered Its Poets’. It was both a tribute to Vladimir Mayakovsky, who had committed suicide the previous year, and a wider diagnosis of the talented levy of writers born in Russia between 1880 and 1895, several of whom—Nikolai Gumilev, Aleksandr Blok, Velimir Khlebnikov, Sergei Esenin—had also met untimely ends. Common to all of them, Jakobson argued, was an agonizing contradiction between transcendental hopes for the future and the stubborn resistance of material life. Mayakovsky’s exit was not, of course, the only option available: many writers of the same generation, including Jakobson himself, chose exile; others, such as Anna Akhmatova, opted for stoical silence or, like Boris Pasternak, found some form of accommodation with the increasingly bleak realities of Stalin’s Russia. Others still—Isaak Babel, Osip Mandelshtam—were later consumed by the Gulag. But they were united by an inescapable, comfortless condition: ‘the paroxysm of an irreplaceable generation turned out to be no private fate,’ wrote Jakobson, ‘but in fact the face of our time, the very breath of history.’

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