Ian Young Books


 No Time For Poets

Mikhail Kuzmin: A Life in Art

by John E. Malmstad and Nikolay Bogomolov
(Harvard University Press)

Reviewed by Ian Young


During the turmoil and carnage that followed the Russian Revolution, a young gay poet called Leonid Kannegiser had a lover who was an army officer. With the bolsheviks controlling Petrograd (formerly St. Petersburg, the center of Russia's lively literary scene), many perceived "enemies of the revolution" were being targeted for elimination, and one night, Kannegiser's soldier lover was taken out and shot.

 Mikhail Kuzmin

Mikhail Kuzmin, by K. Ssomow

Kannegiser avenged his lover's death by assassinating Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd secret police and a leading bolshevik. The poet was tracked down, tortured and killed, and everyone listed in his address book was seized and imprisoned. Among those herded into the cells was the Lithuanian-born Yuri Yurkun, a goodlooking young bisexual poet sometimes known as Dorian. For several months, while Yurkun in his cell wondered whether he would meet the same fate as his friend Kannegiser, his mother and his lover agonized together over his fate. Eventually, literary friends with some influence in high places were able to get him released (a power they would not have for long).

Yurkun's lover was Mikhail Kuzmin, a small, dark man with large, expressive eyes and long lashes, well known in the salons and cabarets for performing his poems and songs on the piano, a Russian version of Noel Coward, John Betjeman or Eric Bentley. Kuzmin's account of his enormous relief the night Yurkun was finally released into his arms is one of many riveting passages in this engrossing new study of one of Russia's greatest poets.

For Kuzmin the campy cabaret performer was also Kuzmin the poet, novelist, dramatist and composer, one of the greatest talents of Russia's "Silver Age," that protracted flowering of the arts that was brutally crushed by the regime of Lenin and Stalin.

During this extraordinary time, from the end of the 19th Century into the 1920's, all sorts of new ideas and attitudes were "in the air" - including a new acceptance of homosexuality among many of the Russian intelligentsia. The authors of this first full biography of Kuzmin show that it was he who did most to bring the subject into the open and "give it a modernist cachet."

A pupil of Rimsky-Korsakov, Kuzmin had begun as a pianist and composer (one would like to hear his "March of the Monkeys"!). But his talents could not be contained in one medium; he wrote plays, several books of poems, a novel about Cagliostro, translations of many foreign writers including Shakespeare and Apuleius, a study of the great Russian painter Nicholas Roerich, and the controversial novel Wings, the story of a young gay man who tries to steer a course between hedonism and asceticism, and to soar into a free, fulfilling life.

Kuzmin's lighter verses came as welcome relief from the plodding seriousness of much of the Russian literature of the previous era; he included chronicles of life's minutiae in his poems, rather like Frank O'Hara half a century later; Mayakovsky found his conflation of the miraculous and the everyday "revolutionary." He wrote the preface to Anna Akhmatova's first book, Evening, and was an early champion of Pasternak, who dedicated one of his best stories to him.

As a young man, Kuzmin was part of Diaghilev's glittering "World of Art" group. Later, in Soviet times, he worked with the famed director Meyerhold. His verse is "among the most formally perfect in Russian literature" and his poems frequently have gay themes which fuse the erotic and the spiritual. He was open about his sexuality and seems to have had few qualms about it: "Has not the Lord created all this - the water and the trees and the body?" he wrote. "The sin lies in resisting the Lord's will...When someone is marked out for something and longs for it with all his might and it isn't permitted, now there's sin for you!"

As a poet, Kuzmin was fascinated by the figure of Antinoüs, favorite of the Emperor Hadrian, whose profile in wax he used to seal his letters. His wide interests included Rosicrucianism and other esoteric writings, and he had close family ties to the Christian religious group known as the Old Believers. He was never well off and often poor. For a few years he was able to maintain a collection of fancy waistcoats and "reeked like a scented icon"; later he often had to pawn belongings and books, unable at one point even to answer a lover's letters because he couldn't afford stamps. During the Soviet regime, he, Yuri Yurkun and Yurkun's mother lived in part of a communal flat: Kuzmin's crowded room was used as a corridor by the other tenants.

In 1913, the 41-year old author met the teenaged Yurkun, who would become his lifelong partner; the book includes two photos of the couple taken at different periods. Before meeting the young poet he seems to have had a varied love life - affairs, crushes on young straight men, visits to the bathhouses (unfortunately, neither the visits nor the bathhouses are described), and "sexual encounters with the typical male pin-ups" of the day including guardsmen and coachmen.

Love and companionship were central to Kuzmin's worldview. His ideal was to travel through Italy with a lover who shared his artistic interests, "laughing like children, bathing in beauty," going to concerts and driving around the countryside. In an era when the most popular actor in Petersburg kept "a veritable male harem at his apartment," Kuzmin was initially among those who hoped the bolshevik coup of 1917 would further liberalize society. His hopes were soon dashed, and he quickly came to despise the bolsheviks, prophesying that their "vile" example would "serve others as a kind of emetic."

Under communism, Kuzmin was able to publish less and less. He was restricted to minor operetta reviews - and then condemned for the decline of his talent: a ploy by no means restricted to communists, or to the past! This state of affairs lasted for about ten years. Contacts with the outside world diminished, though he was able to meet the great German sexologist and advocate of homosexual rights Magnus Hirschfeld, whom he found pompous and politically naive.

Kuzmin's last public reading and the "last public demonstration" of the homosexuals of Petrograd (now renamed Leningrad) came in 1928, and the authors provide an all too brief description of this surprising event. After that came the excommunication of Bukharin, the exile of Trotsky, and the intensifying repression leading to the Great Purges of the late Thirties when millions were executed or sent to Siberian concentration camps. As Stalin tightened the screws further, surveillance and harassment by the secret police increased, manuscripts were confiscated and Yurkun was detained again, bullied, threatened and intimidated. In 1934, homosexuality was recriminalized; a wave of arrests and suicides followed. Maxim Gorky, leading the charge in an article published simultaneously in Pravda and Izvestia, barked, "Destroy homosexuality and fascism will disappear!" At the same time, the Nazis were attacking gays as "sexual bolsheviks".

Two years later, Kuzmin, ill with heart disease and pneumonia, was hospitalized and placed in a draughty corridor to die. Had he survived, he would certainly have been arrested soon afterwards when Yuri Yurkun and many literary acquaintances were rounded up, accused of planning to assassinate Stalin, tortured and shot. By the end of the Thirties, Mayakovsky, Esenin, Mandelstam, Klyuev, Pilnyak and a host of other writers had committed suicide or been killed in the Gulag. It is estimated that over 1,500 important writers lost their lives. Many others were silenced or forbidden to publish.

The cross over Kuzmin's grave was used for firewood during the grim wartime siege of Leningrad. It was replaced with a simple headstone which remains there today. "The writer's existence," he had once written, "is wretched, carefree, and sacred... Whom Love has once welcomed will not die an orphan."

Fortunately, most of Kuzmin's diaries have survived, and their account forms the backbone of Malmstad and Bogomolov's fascinating book. The authors employ a considerable amount of newly available material, and offer tantalizing glimpses into Russian artistic and gay-bisexual life in the early 20th Century. Since the Glasnost era, official Russian archives have begun to open (though much remains inaccessible). Details of the lives, works and deaths of numerous writers are now being unearthed, including some enormously important finds like the text, long thought irretrievably lost, of the 4,000-line masterwork The Song of the Great Mother by another major poet (also gay) Nikolay Klyuev.

Some readers will regret that Kuzmin's works, so little known in the West, are not more fully described here. Nor are any of his book covers depicted. Such colorful characters as the novelist Andrey Bely are introduced depicted. Such colorful characters as the novelist Andrey Bely are introduced on the assumption that the reader already knows about them. The book could have used a little more color commentary, or a glossary of dramatis personae like the one in Nadezhda Mandelstam's classic memoir of the nightmare years Hope Against Hope. A selective list of Kuzmin's writings, especially those available in English, would also have been useful. (A translation of Wings was published by Ardis in 1972, and Kevin Moss' 1997 Gay Sunshine anthology Out of the Blue includes 58 pages by and about Kuzmin.)

Doggedly, meticulously researched and thoroughly readable, Kuzmin: A Life in Art is an impressive achievement. It deserves to stand beside Roberta Reeder's Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet as an essential English biography of a major Russian writer.

This review first appeared in
The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide
(March-April, 2001).

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