Friday, 8 May 2009

Friedebert Tuglas - poetry and the threat of Siberia



Given the amount of mockery that the British prime minister is undergoing right now, it may be hard to understand that in Stalinist times a Soviet author could be literally sent to Siberia for the slightest hint of ridicule directed at the Great Leader. Not until 1973, did Estonian author Friedebert Tuglas dare to publish his anti-Stalin poem, and even then he could only hint at whom he was mocking. Tuglas had always been oppositional. As a young man he had gone into exile for a decade, fleeing the Czarist police. Now, in the early 1950s, he was in the doghouse again, thrown out of the Writers' Union of the Estonian Soviet Socialist Republic for formalism and cosmopolitanism. He eked out a living by translations, signed by friends.

The poem, which I will translate soon in slightly abridged form, was written in 1951, i.e. before Stalin's death, so it was risky for Tuglas to write. Tuglas provides a short introduction, which is as telling as the poem itself:


The year 1951. A coil of poverty and pain had tightened around me, so tight that it hardly allowed me to breathe. I had to somehow fill the empty days and the dangerous sick nights, to prevent me from falling into the ultimate depression. And when nothing else helped raise my spirits, I had to indulge in a kind of improvised correspondence...

The addressee was not entirely improvised. He had real qualities: he wore sideburns and was hoping to build a private house for himself. He even replied on occasion - also in verse.

Everything else about the circumstances needs no commentary. May the Creative Spirit of the reader fill in any gaps - that is an important factor in poetic correspondence!

Such was the feel of Stalinism. Even in the 1970s, you had to be careful. It took a further decade for satirical poetry in Estonia to become entirely threat-free.

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