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Bagritskii, Eduard Georgievich

(1885–1934), Russian poet and translator. Bagritskii, whose nom-de-plume was derived from the Russian for crimson, was born Eduard Godelevich Dziubin, to an Odessan family in which Judaic traditions were respected, but the lifestyle was that of secularized petit-bourgeoisie. He began publishing in 1913, contributing to literary publications in Odessa between 1915 and 1917. After the February 1917 Revolution, Bagritskii served briefly in law enforcement within the Provisional Government and joined the Red Army in 1919. In 1920 he married Lidiia Suok and had one son, the poet Vsevolod Bagritskii (1922–1942). In 1925 he moved to Moscow, and by the time of his death in 1934 was widely admired. The publication of his collection Iugo-Zapad (South-West; 1928) was followed by, among other books, Duma pro Opanasa (The Lay of Opanas), Izbrannye stikhi (Selected Poems), Pobediteli (Victors), Posledniaia noch’ (The Last Night), all published in 1932, and other works. In his daily life, Bagritskii never shed the skin of an Odessan Jew from Market Street. He retained a strong bond with Jewish culture, splendidly translating the Yiddish poetry of Itsik Fefer and Perets Markish. At the time of his death, he was hailed second only to Vladimir Mayakovsky and given an official funeral.

Bagritskii was an extremely controversial Jewish Russian poet of the Soviet period. The Soviet ideological machine quickly turned his legacy into a reductive literary legend. Forbidden as subjects even during the height of Khrushchev’s thaw, Bagritskii’s Jewish themes were engaged head-on only when he became the object of violent attacks by official critics such as Stanislav Tregub and Anatolii Tarasenkov. For Judeophobic Russian ultranationalists, including Stanislav Kuniaev and Igor’ Shafarevich, who gained a voice in the 1970s, Bagritskii was an archenemy, a symbol of the alleged Jewish “destruction” of Russian culture.

Jewish topics and characters figure prominently in less than a dozen of Bagritskii’s works. Those include “Na bitvu s bogom” (Join the Battle with God; 1923), the epic poem Duma pro Opanasa (The Lay of Opanas; 1926), “Proiskhozhdenie” (Origin; 1930), “Razgovor s synom” (Conversation with My Son; 1931), and three long poems: Chelovek iz predmest’ia (Man from the Suburb), Posledniaia noch’ (The Last Night), both 1932, and Fevral’ (February; 1934, published in 1936). In “Origin” and February, Bagritskii explored Jewish Russian identity and the boundaries of Jewish assimilation in the Soviet Union. “Origin” is a militant (and self-hating) monologue of a Russian Jew at odds with his familial past and upbringing. February, Bagritskii’s last and greatest poem, appeared posthumously and was banned for long periods of time. Set in Odessa in the first two decades of the twentieth century, it depicts the traumatic formation of Jewish Russian identity at a time of historical cataclysm. In the poem’s closing monologue, after a scene of passionate cruelty, the protagonist expresses tortured hope for harmony between Jews and Slavs, employing imagery borrowed from Isaiah 35:1–2 and 51:3).

A profusely talented transgressor of boundaries—Jewish, Russian, and Soviet—Bagritskii has influenced several generations of Russian poets. Despite the efforts of various critics to label him Zionist, bourgeois nationalist, Bolshevik, or revolutionary romantic, Bagritskii’s beliefs and loyalties have proved difficult to comprehend. Until the early 1930s, he—like Isaac Babel, Ilya Ehrenburg, and other Soviet Jewish writers of his generation—felt that Bolshevism was still a better alternative than tsarism for the Soviet Union’s 3 million Jews. Bagritskii wrote, in “Conversation with My Son,” about the vicious pogrom leaders of his childhood and about the marching units of “blackshirts” and “black fascist signs” marking the wings of fighter planes. In 1936, Babel said of his deceased friend: “The fame of the François Villon from Odessa earned [Bagritskii] love, but did not earn trust . . . he was a wise man, conjoining a member of the Komsomol with Ben Akiva” (I. Babel’, Sochineniia, ed. A. N. Pirozhkova [Moscow, 1991–1992], vol. 2, p. 362).

Suggested Reading

Danilo Cavaion, “Ebraicità come memoria oscura (Eduard Bagrickij),” in Memoria e poesia: Storia e letteratura degli ebrei russi nell’età moderna, pp. 159–194 (Rome, 1988); Arkadii L’vov, “Vernost’ i otstupnichestvo Eduarda Bagritskogo,” in Utolenie pechal’iu: Opyt issledovaniia evreiskoi mental’nosti, pp. 73–129 (New York, 1983); Maxim D. Shrayer, Russian Poet/Soviet Jew: The Legacy of Eduard Bagritskii (Lanham, Md., 2000).