Alexander Alexandrovich Blok was born on November 28, 1880, in Petersburg. His grandfather, Beketov, was the rector of the Petersburg University. His father was a lawyer and subsequently a professor of the Warsaw University, mother was a translator and a children’s writer. His first poems and prose appeared in 1887-1888. In 1898 he enrolled in the law school of the Petersburg University but three years later realized that the law was not for him and transferred to the section of philology (Slavic-Russian) of the University. In 1903 he married Lubov Mendeleeva, who was also from a highly intelligent family.
Beginning from 1904 Blok’s poems received great publicity and popularity. In 1906 he graduated from the University with the Highest Honors. He wrote and published ardently. His style was unique in that he represented symbolism and modern mysticism, while at the same time preserving the traditional rhythm handed down by Pushkin to the generations of Russian poets. So, while Blok is not similar to any Russian poet and he definitely was an original genius, he was not a loner and found his place in Russian literature very quickly. Marina Tsvetaeva (see on this blog), on the other hand, was less lucky, because her style was more rebellious and novel and it took her longer to establish herself, posthumously.
In contrast with Tsvetaeva, Blok accepted the October Revolution early and along with Vladimyr Mayakovsky he was to become the ‘Revolutionary poet.’ He wrote his famous poem “Twelve” dedicated to the Revolution and was greatly inspired by the political change that toppled the Tsar and instituted the government for the working people and peasants. However, immediately upon witnessing the ‘big lie’ of Leninism, Blok suffered enormously, realizing that he played a part of this.
On April 9, 1919 he made a speech at the World Literature conference entitled ‘The Collapse of Humanism.’ There he said:
Humanism to us is first of all associated with the powerful movement at the end of the Middle Ages which engulfed first Italy and then all of Europe and slogan of which was the human being—the free individual person. Therefore, the fundamental and central sign of humanism is individualism…. Naturally, when a new moving force appeared on the arena of European history—not the individual but the masses—it caused the crisis of humanism….
We have lost the balance… that was energizing and giving life to humanism… Today we have a choice, a critical choice that we need to make like bread for our very existence… In our catastrophic time every cultural beginning must be thought of in the same way as the first Christians were saving the spiritual treasures in the catacombs. The difference is that we can no longer hide anything under the ground; the path towards saving the spiritual treasures is not hiding them, but showing them to the world and showing them in a way that the world will perceive their sanctity and will enable their protection….
We can no longer deny the fact that a certain new and hostile to the civilized world movement is developing and sweeping the world; that the civilization is no longer a continent but a group of islands that can soon sink in an overwhelming flood, that the most valuable from the viewpoint of humanitarianism the ethical, aesthetic, legal products of civilization… —are either already flooded, or are under a grave threat. If we are truly civilized humanists we will never find peace with this; but if we do not accept it, and if we remain with the values that humanism has proclaimed as sacred, then won’t we be cut off from the rest of the world and culture, which is carrying on its spine this destructive flood?
Blok was afraid of the self-destructive force sweeping over Russia in the face of Communism and anti-humanism in the European continent as the precursor of Nazism. But he was also afraid that whether he and other humanists joined it or not, it was a force that had to be reckoned with. That struggle drove him crazy.
While he was respected and was even elected as the chairman of the Russian Writers’ Union, his mental condition was affected and was increasingly deteriorating. His wife was to get the worst of it. He would often get into an uncontrollable panic attack and deep depression and would break everything at home. Coming out of it, he would not even remember what he did. Maxim Gorky, the writer, his mentor and friend, was writing to others, begging for help for Blok. Before his death, Blok even deleted much of his work. So, what we have now is perhaps only 1/3 of his poems. On August 7, 1921 he died in his cabinet tragically and mysteriously.
Blok will remain as one of the geniuses of Russian literature. He foretold the tragedy of the 20th century. And he was to become a victim of the times he lived in, like Tsvetaeva and many of the Russian intelligentsia in the 20th century. While he embraced the ideals of the Russian Revolution, recognizing the oppression of Tsarism and the need for reform of the living conditions of workers and peasants, he realized that Leninism-Stalinism was not to do what it promised. He was an activist in his heart and thought that a true artist must partake of the reality surrounding him to be able to create. That is why, he could not help but be a part of the Revolution. But since by its nature Communism destroyed the individual and liberties, he could not accept it. He realized that Communism was inevitably going to destroy the intelligentsia. He predicted that even in 1908 when he wrote:
Tempest and culture… Feeling of catastrophe, illness, anxiety, explosion (the humanity is like people in front of a bomb.) History set up the bomb and cracked everything into pieces… The earth is burning. What type of fire will burst out of the earth’s crust—-will it save or destroy us? And will we even have the right to say that this fire, generally destructive, will destroy only us (the intelligentsia).
Destiny itself prepared me
In sacred awe
To bring light with my murky torch
At the doors of Idealism.
And only in the twilight of the eve,
Hastening with my earthly mind,
And possessed with heavenly fear,
I am burning in the fire of the Muse.
Oh, I madly want to live,
To immortalize the fleeting,
To humanize the impersonal
To realize what was a dream.
Let the life’s heavy dream suffocate me
Let me die in this dream
Perhaps, a happy youth
Will say in the future about me
“Let us forgive his melancholy
Was it his inner essence?
He was all a child of kindness and light
He was all the triumph of freedom.”
(All translations here are by Zoya)