Standing in a narrow place

I have just finished compiling an anthology of the Russian epistolary prose, spanning the time from the XVI century to 1917. One of the most poignant letters in the compilation was penned by a great Russian poet, Alexander Blok, who embraced the February and then the October revolution and then died in 1921, being only forty-one years old.

In 1917, he writes to his wife Lubov Mendeleeva, “There is nothing new personal, and if it were, it would be impossible to feel, because the content of all life becomes the world revolution, led by Russia.”

The seduction of power is immense and it is particularly well felt by a creative person. Balaam is approached by Balak with a request to curse the children of Israel. Of course, many poets, who have praised the revolutions had made it on their own accord, like Alexander Blok, who wrote the early hymn to the Bolshevik power, “The Twelve”. In the case of Balaam, he is reluctant to do so but finally agrees to proceed to the task.

The same reluctance is described by the widow of Osip Mandelstam, Nadezhda, telling about her husband’s futile attempts to create an ode, glorifying Stalin. “First of all, he sat at the table with pencils and paper. That was highly unusual for him as he always wrote vocally, speaking its lines first. Every morning he encamped there with a pencil just like a real writer would do. After just half an hour he was cursing for the lack of mastery and inability to create such an ode.”

Mandelstam was unable to glorify a dictator but in the end, had managed to do so. Balaam is reluctant to perform the requested curse but in the end, sets forth only to find himself in the narrow place where an angel with a sword is waiting for him. Balaam, a prophet, cannot see the angel. The presence of the messenger is only revealed through the sudden humanization of Balaam’s donkey which is now able to speak.

We know that the story ends with Balaam blessing and not cursing the children of Israel, explaining to Balak that the prophets do not say anything God does not want them to say.

If poets are the prophets and they surely are, does it mean that God wants them to glorify tyrants? No, since whatever they write being forced to do so cannot be considered true poetry or prophecy. Both of them could only be uttered by people who are genuinly free.

About the Author
Nelly Shulman is a journalist and writer currently based in Berlin. She is an author of four popular historical novels in the Russian language. She is working on the fifth novel in this series and on her first English-language novel, a historical thriller set during the Siege of Leningrad. She a Hawthornden Fellow and an alumna of the Nachum Goldmann Fellowship.
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