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A Cult in the Making: Joseph Brodsky in Petersburg (Part II)

New permanent exhibit dedicated to Joseph Brodsky at the Akhmatova Museum (Saint-Petersburg)

In a previous blog I shared my impressions of the “Room and a Half” museum organized in Joseph Brodsky’s former living quarters in Saint Petersburg. For lack of material exhibits, the museum capitalizes on emptiness, inviting visitors to take in the energy of the place. In contrast, the other Brodsky exhibition that opened in late December of 2021 on the premises of the Anna Akhmatova Museum, a short walk from the “Room and a Half,” is literally full of clutter. A small space is filled with hundreds if not thousands of objects that used to belong to Brodsky at some point of his eventful Russian-American life.

There are two enormous desks—one a gift from his friend, the legendary ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, a desk at which the poet was working on the night of his death. A Soviet-made radio-set, a couch, ashtrays, a letter from the Nobel committee, toy soldiers, envelopes addressed by Brodsky to his parents, Italian postcards, clocks, a coat, the suitcase that he took with him into exile, his mother’s Singer sewing machine, and even the steering wheel of his American car! All of this is crammed together like a yard sale. The items were donated to the Akhmatova Museum by Brodsky’s widow and his friends.

The title of this exhibition is “Joseph Brodsky. Still Life.” The recording of Brodsky reading his poems, including one entitled “Still Life,” serves as a soundtrack to the exhibition:

Things and people arise
Amongst us. And both are stark,
and both are hard on the eyes.
It’s best to live in the dark.

There are no explanatory notes on the walls and the items are not even labeled. As the curator explained to me, somewhat defiantly, they did not want to use conventional approaches – let everyone look at any exhibit and make up their own story…

But you need to know a bit about Brodsky’s life to be able to hear the voices of these things. While Brodsky is certainly an esteemed Russian-American poet and almost a cult figure in the place of his birth, my personal experience suggests that intellectuals in both countries haven’t necessarily read much – or any – of his poems or prose. Last winter, while lecturing to MA students in the humanities at the Moscow Higher School of Economics – arguably one of Russia’s most elite universities – I put some of Brodsky’s texts on the reading list. From the subsequent discussion I felt that most students in my audience had read these works with intense interest … but for the first time. Given that, how much can you expect of random visitors to the exhibit?

Brodsky went into exile with this suitcase in 1972

But if you know your Brodsky well it is certainly a unique pleasure to immerse yourself in this bizarre “still life,” to contemplate various objects and to let them share their stories. If in the “Room and a Half” you feel the energy of emptiness, here it is the energy of things that affects you. Almost any object can be the starting point for a narrative adventure. For instance, what can we hear from a little metal icon, possibly given to Brodsky by the grande dame of 20th-century Russian poetry, Anna Akhmatova?

This religious item may have been for him just a cherished souvenir of his literary mentor. But it prompts thoughts about Brodsky’s religious sentiments, his Jewishness, his affinity for Christianity and his alleged conversion. This last point is one of the hot topics among Brodsky’s biographers, and the jury is still out on that, perhaps until all the personal archives finally become available. Christian motifs figure prominently in his writing. Is it just evidence of his love for European culture, Italian churches, and Renaissance art? Did Christianity ever become a formal affiliation?

While Brodsky was quite elusive about the place of Christian religion in his life, he was quite blunt about his Jewishness. Asked by a journalist in the wake of his Nobel award: “You are an American citizen who is receiving the Prize for Russian-language poetry. Who are you, an American or a Russian?” Brodsky answered: “I’m Jewish, a Russian poet, and English essayist – and, of course, an American citizen.” In a film documentary, when pressed by the interviewer about his Jewishness, he gives the following reply: “I am a pure Jew on both sides. But it is more important to define a human being in other terms, less abstract than nationality, religion, philosophical conceptions etc. For example, ‘Am I a coward or not?’ Everything else is more abstract.” This answer suggests a deracinated Jew who internalized the Soviet discourse of Jewishness as a “nationality” (nationality in Soviet bureaucratic jargon simply meant “ethnicity”). Jewishness was certainly a fact of his birth and biography, his “ethnicity,” but hardly an integral part of his cultural, spiritual or social profile. His family belonged to a sizable class of assimilated Soviet-Jewish intellectuals, generally ignorant of any specifically Jewish beliefs or rituals.  Anti-Semitism (both State-sponsored and grass-roots) simply would not allow them forget their background. In the sixties and seventies, many were fascinated with medieval Orthodox churches and icons. Christian religion was also a near-taboo in the USSR (although not to the same degree as Judaism). Perhaps a connection to Christianity seemed to provide a link to the European culture that many Soviet Jews worshiped. Besides, this mildly dissident interest demarcated them from the atheist Soviet mainstream without entailing a possible prison sentence, unlike “criminal” Zionist activities such as learning Hebrew or owning a Torah. This peculiar Christian cultural affinity of Soviet Jewish intellectuals is a very complex topic, and I can’t give it justice in this short piece. But it is important as a background for Brodsky’s views and personality.

Having left the USSR on an Israeli visa, Brodsky was diverted in Vienna towards the United States through the intervention of his influential Western friends. And he never showed any curiosity about Israel. Only once he contemplated Israel as a destination – as a simple matter of convenience: Brodsky was hoping that his father would be allowed to travel there to meet with him, but his father, sadly, passed away just a few weeks before his anticipated departure. … An accidental Jew, like many of his fellow compatriots. This is probably the only thing about Brodsky that is frustratingly typical.

I leave the “Still-Life” show casting a last glance at the heap of exhibits crowned by a tall trash can shaped like a Coca-Cola bottle. On the floor just beneath this symbol of American global expansion sits a small bust of Brodsky made by a renowned Swedish sculptor. “We wanted to reverse habitual hierarchies,” explains the curator enthusiastically.

Brodsky’s memorial wall in the courtyard of the Akhmatova museum

But to feel that Brodsky has become a truly popular cultural figure one needs to come out into the courtyard of the Akhmatova museum. One wall represents a peculiar open-air memorial to Brodsky and the Soviet era. Graffiti with quotations from Brodsky are interspersed with objects from Soviet everyday life, embedded in the plaster – a dish rack with some chipped plates, a phone booth, a coat rack. Young people like to visit this corner. Sipping a beer or smoking a joint, they leisurely read Brodsky’s lines and contemplate the low-tech items, reconnecting to the world we all once inhabited…

exhibit on the “Joseph Brodsky wall” in the courtyard of the Akhmatova museum
historic photographs in the courtyard of the Akhmatova museum
About the Author
Maria Rubins is a Professor of Russian and Comparative Literature at University College London. Born and raised in Russia, she studied at Saint Petersburg State University. Later she moved to the USA, where she received her Ph.D. from Brown University. Her books include Crossroad of Arts, Crossroad of Cultures; Russian Montparnasse; and Redefining Russian Literary Diaspora, 1920-2020. She has translated into Russian novels of Elizabeth Gaskell, Judith Gauthier, Irène Némirovsky and Arnaud Delalande and contributed to various media outlets, including BBC, Radio Liberty, NTV, Voice of Russia, Los Angeles Review of Books, Mosaic, The New Review, and Zvezda.
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