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.’

In Mirsky—born in 1890—all the dilemmas and destinies of this tragic generation were gathered into a single lifetime: after fighting for the Whites in the Civil War, he went into exile, and was principally based in London; then in the late 1920s he reconciled himself to the Soviet state and became a Marxist, moving back to Russia in 1932. After a series of shrill denunciations from his critics, he was arrested in 1937 and sent to the camps of Kolyma, where he died in 1939. Best known for his commanding History of Russian Literature (1927), Mirsky was first and foremost a literary critic, but was able to turn his formidable intellect to almost any subject with equal agility—writing two separate histories of Russia in the late 1920s, as well as a brilliant, acerbic portrait of the British intelligentsia in the mid-1930s; aside from this there was a constant stream of articles on a range of subjects and periods, nearly all illuminated by his extraordinary insight and erudition. Yet unlike many other Russian writers, Mirsky left no widow to tend his legacy, nor a substantial archive of personal papers from which scholars could fashion a faithful portrait. D. S. Mirsky: A Russian–English Life, the result of decades of work, is the first full account of Mirsky’s eventful and complicated trajectory. Drawing on everything from scrawled childhood letters to nkvd files, G. S. Smith has made an impressive and highly valuable contribution to the study of a fascinating, long-neglected figure.

Dmitrii Sviatopolk-Mirsky came from one of Russia’s most ancient princely families—descended from Sviatopolk the Accursed, briefly Grand Prince of Kiev in the eleventh century—and divided his extremely comfortable childhood between Petersburg, the family estate near Kharkov and resorts in England, then the fashionable destination for the Imperial aristocracy. His father was a high functionary of the Tsarist regime, and served briefly as Minister of the Interior after the assassination of Plehve in 1904. Forced to resign after Bloody Sunday, he was warmly remembered by the liberal intelligentsia for amnestying a number of prominent figures, including Maxim Gorky. The diaries of Mirsky’s mother reveal her, too, to have had considerable political acumen—during the disturbances of 1905, she affirmed that the only means of staving off revolution was agrarian reform, along precisely the lines Stolypin was to adopt in 1907. Mirsky’s privileged background ensured he received a good education: home tuition in English, French, German, Latin and Greek, followed by attendance at the Imperial Lycée in Moscow and the Tenishev School in Petersburg, of which Nabokov and Mandelshtam were later alumni. In 1908 he began studying Oriental languages at St Petersburg University, but left to join the Imperial Army in 1911; in which he was to serve—apart from an interval during which he studied for a degree in Ancient history—until March 1918. Pictures of Mirsky as an officer show a bearded figure with already thinning hair, giving the camera a sly, challenging look.

The climate of late Imperial Russia was intellectually cosmopolitan—Bergson and Nietzsche were, it seems, required reading—but also pervaded by an expectant mysticism. An excitable piece of prose that formed part of Mirsky’s literary debut in 1906—‘But we have lost our faith, we are seeking the new, the insane and the false perhaps, we love our future with our passionate natures, with our hopeless and disenchanted Love’—conveys something of the flavour of the epoch. At this time Mirsky and his friends associated with Viacheslav Ivanov and Mikhail Kuzmin, leading literary celebrities of the day, and notorious for their drunken revels. In the years leading up to the Revolution, Mirsky also moved in the same circles as Akhmatova, Nikolai Punin and Gumilev. Legend has it that in 1911 the latter bumped into Mirsky in Tsarskoe Selo, having read his first book of poems, and commented, ‘Not bad for a Guards officer’—whereupon Mirsky apparently had a footman purchase and destroy all remaining copies. At any rate, Mirsky never counted the book among his publications, and thereafter devoted himself to criticism alone.

Mirsky rejoined his regiment as soon as war broke out in 1914, serving on the German front until the summer of 1916. Around August of that year he seems to have been disgraced for refusing to drink the Tsar’s health, and was transferred to the Caucasian front until the demobilization of spring 1918, when he made his way back to Kharkov. The city was soon caught up in the Civil War, changing hands between Reds and Whites several times in 1918–20. Having left for the Crimea in late 1918, along with many other White emigrants—Nabokov among them—who subsequently departed on British, French or Greek ships, Mirsky then re-entered the fray, joining Denikin’s army in March 1919 and taking part in actions across Southern Russia. He was later to voice admiration for literary evocations of the Civil War by Babel and Sholokhov, noting that ‘on all sides—White, Red and Green—it was accompanied by nameless cruelty.’