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Sel’vinskii, Il’ia L’vovich

(1899–1968), Russian poet, playwright, and novelist. Il’ia Selvinskii’s achievements include the epic poem Ulialaevshchina (The Lay of Ulyalaev; 1924, pub. 1927) and the novel in verse Pushtorg (Fur Trade; 1928). He was one of the first Soviet poets to write about the Holocaust.

Grandson of a Crimean Jew (Krymchak), Il’ia Sel’vinskii was born in Simferopol’ and grew up in Evpatoriia, publishing his first poem in 1915. In the 1920s, he experimented with Yiddishisms and thieves’ lingo and is credited with bringing innovations to Russian verse forms, including taktovik, a nonclassical (tonic) meter. Extensive travel and turbulent adventures fueled Sel’vinskii’s longer narrative works and cycles, which are noted for their details of local color.

Sel’vinskii joined anarchist troops during the Russian Civil War, and later fought on the side of the Red Army. He moved to Moscow in 1921, where from 1924 to 1930 he led the Literary Center of Constructivists and achieved acclaim for his collection Rekordy (Records; 1926), Ulialiaevshchina: Epopeia (The Lay of Ulyalaev; 1927), and the narrative poem Zapiski poeta (Notes of a Poet; 1927), the cover of which was designed by El Lissitsky. In 1929, the director Vsevolod Meierkhol’d (Meyerhold) staged Sel’vinskii’s tragedy Kommandarm-2 (Second Army Commander). Seeking to restore his official reputation after independent literary groups were dismantled, Sel’vinskii composed the propagandistic, pedestrian poem “Iz Palestiny v Birobidzhan” (From Palestine to Birobidzhan; 1930, pub. 1933).

During World War II, Sel’vinskii served as a battalion commissar and joined the Communist party in 1941; he also wrote for army newspapers and was decorated for valor. His poem “Ia eto videl!” (I Saw It!; 1942) depicts the aftermath of the mass execution of Jews outside the Crimean village of Bagerovo and is one of the earliest Soviet poems about the Shoah, a topic he explored in “Kerch” and “Otvet Gebbel’su” (A Reply to Goebbels), both 1942.

Sel’vinskii weathered Stalinism and remained a major literary figure during the post-Stalin years. His historical dramas of the 1940s and 1950s were marked by his stern defense of the poet’s right to individual expression. He also identified as a proud Jew during the most antisemitic of the Soviet years, despite official ostracism. Sel’vinskii’s major early Jewish works include the wreath of sonnets “Bar Kokhba” (1920, pub. 1924), “Anekdoty o karaimskom filosofe Babakai-Sudduke” (Anecdotes about the Karaite Philosopher Babakai-Sudduk; 1931), “Motke Malech-hamovess” (Motke the Angel of Death; 1926) and Ulialiaevshchina: Epopeia. His “Portret moei materi” (Portrait of My Mother; 1933) contains precious lines about Jewish assimilation into Soviet society: “Henceforth her son’s face will remain defiled / Like the Judaic Jerusalem, / Having suddenly become a Christian holy site.” Sel’vinskii’s long poem “Kandava” (1945) unfolds about a nightmare in which he imagines himself and his wife “somewhere in Auschwitz / or Maidanek.” Shortly before his death, Sel’vinskii published the autobiographical novel O iunost’ moia (O My Youth; 1966).

Suggested Reading

Z. S. Kedrina, “Poeziia Il’i Sel’vinskogo,” in Izbrannye proizvedeniia, by Il’ia Sel’vinskii, ed. I. L. Mikhailova and N. G. Zakharenko, pp. 5–47 (Leningrad, 1972); Yitshak Oren (Nadel) and Naftali Prat, eds., Kratkaia evreiskaia entsiklopediia, vol. 7, pp. 742–743 (Jerusalem, 1994); Victor Terras, “Selvinsky, Ilya,” in Handbook of Russian Literature, pp. 394–395 (New Haven, 1985).