The "Silver Age" of Russian culture--sometimes this is more restricted to the "silver age of Russian poetry"--was supposedly not quite as brilliant as the Golden Age which preceded it. In my view we could say that the Golden Age featured the novel and the symphony, while the Silver Age centered on the poem and the stage. I have always found the Silver age to be far more dynamic and interesting, as the new artistic forms of the age were really very avant garde and cutting edge in poetry, ballet, drama, music, dance and modernist art. There were also some very bizarre views of the world advanced by the artists.
Ballet Russes Illustration
For my sake, I'm going to restrict my comments on the Silver Age to the period between 1898, when the journal Mir iskusstva (World of Art) first appeared, until 1914 and the outbreak of World War I. This was a very dynamic, creative intellectual period, a time of experimentation with different art forms and with breaking the rules of traditional art in the visual, literary and performing arts.
You probably have already heard of some of these Russian artists.
I've mentioned the World of Art (Mir iskusstva) journal (published between 1898 and 1904) several times now in these courses, and I use its appearance as dating the start of the Silver Age, and coinciding with the height of Russian symbolism. The journal was co-founded in St. Petersburg by Alexandre Benois (1870-1960), Lev Bakst (1866-1924) and Sergei Diagilev (1872-1929). They intended to promote artistic individualism and the idea of art of art's sake--instead of art for Russian national purposes--and push back the boundaries of acceptable art. This was the onset of a new artistic attitude that found its most pronounced expression in performance (ballet and drama) and poetry (also a form of performance)--that remains a bit striking to me.
Ok, these are the big three:
Vladimir Maiakovskii, (1893-1930), early on he became a political radical and then Marxist. His first poems appeared in 1912 in a Russian Futurist journal. One of his most important poems, A Cloud in Trousers (1915) was very long and unbelievably difficult to read--I have tried repeatedly--largely because it was filled with street slang, weird metrics and subtle plays on the grammar of the Russian language, which largely escaped my abilities to figure it out. During the 1920s, Maiakovskii was one of the most prominent intellectuals working for the Soviet regime and trying to define a new "communist futurism"--he was even able to travel abroad because the Soviet leadership "trusted" him, but he became increasingly disillusioned with Bolshevism (see his satirical play The Bedbug (клоп, 1929), also largely unreadable in English). On 14 April 1930, Maiakovskii shot himself. An unfinished poem in his suicide note, written with his own blood, read, "The love boat has crashed against the daily routine. You and I, we are quits, and there is no point in listing mutual pains, sorrows, and hurts."
Andrei Belyi (Boris Bugaev, 1880-1934), novelist, poet, theorist, and literary critic. Belyi drew from several different creative sources for his work, especially the mysticism of Vladimir Solovev (see below) and the work of the symbolists, and his works tended to be both mystical and musical at the same time. In his most important, and disturbing, novel, Petersburg (1913), sounds often evoke colors--you can't translate that--and the entire novel reads like a musical creation. Note: Belyi wrote four symphonies, but not musical symphonies, novels. Another one of his novels, The Silver Dove (1910), is filled with images of Russian mysticism.
Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) emerged as the leading poet of the Silver Age, respected by virtually everyone. His 1904 collection of poems, dedicated to his wife, Stikhi o prekrasnoi Dame (Verses on the Fair Lady)--some critics have considered as the pinnacle of the symbolist era. The poems are filled with the imagery of color--again hard to translate. By 1917 Blok was traveling in radical political circles, but he had premonitions that something terrible was about to happen to Russia. In 1918, he published his lengthy poem, The Twelve (1918), one of the most controversial Russian poems ever created. Blok described the march of twelve Bolshevik rapists and murderers--the Twelve Apostles--through the streets of Petrograd in the midst of a blizzard--Blok was ambivalent to the city of Peter the Great, much as Pushkin had been in his poem the Bronze Horseman. Blok's poem always reminded me of the mood of final retribution depicted by Michelangelo in his painting of The Last Judgment. Blok's poem was also not a good way to get along with the new Bolshevik regime.
So you might ask how you can better sample and appreciate some of these Russian works from the Silver Age. I don't think that you have any trouble listening to some of the musical compositions, and you can easily have a look at some of the art. That is accessible, as are the ballets--maybe no longer in the original choreographies. Chekhov's drama is a bit more problematic, but his short stories and the works of Gorkii are readily approachable. (Have a look at the movie Detstvo Gorkogo, The Childhood of Maksim Gorkii, 1938.)
Although some of this poetry might not translate well, especially the poems that rely on their lyrical nature or that are dependent on their colors and sounds--In other words, almost all of the poems--the ideas in these works often do translate. Take for example, Vladimir Solovev (1853-1900), often called a kind of secular monk, who was one of the most important inspirational forces for the Silver Age. He devoted his life to his intellectual pursuits and the attempt to come up with a new Christian world view. He had the idea that the world was the "absolute in the process of becoming," and he also propounded his very popular idea of a divine Saint Sophia, the world soul, the eternal feminine principle, the female world soul. His ideas were just as obscure and radical in Russian as they are when you read them in English, but definitely worth reading.
Finally, what has always appealed to me in studying the Russian Silver Age is the lives of these artists, and especially the poets, who grappled to find meaning in their world and searched for the appropriate artistic expression to provide insight and have fun while living through their tangled (and sometimes shattered) personal lives and in the midst of the events taking place in Russia.
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