The inspiring poetry of Peter Vostokov.
The triumph of the human spirit
ALMOST THERE | ISSUE EIGHT
The anthology Russian Poetry for Intermediates¹ includes the following poem:
Гляжу из круга заточенья
На весь безмерный звёздный мир.
Судьбы вершитель - средостенья
Меж ним и мной не положил.
И звёздный круг, в движеньи мерном,
Проходит снова предо мной.
Но не смущён и не потерян
Средь бездн и звёзд мой дух земной:
Ведь глубже Дух, чем глубь и бездна,
И Духом дышит глубина,
И вся безмерность глуби звездной
В Его глубинах рождена.
The following is a loose translation:
I gaze beyond these prison walls,
Upon the boundless star-filled night.
The Lord of Fate has not yet raised
A wall that hides that world from mine.
The slowly moving stars en masse
Once more pass by before my eyes,
And yet my soul does not feel lost
Amongst this boundless swirl of stars.
The soul, of course, is boundless too,
And deeper than this endlessness:
The endless night and all the stars
Were born within the soul’s own depths.
The biographical note the anthology gives on the poet, P. Vostokov, is tantalisingly brief and can be summarised in a couple of lines. Vostokov (a pseudonym)² was born in 1895. This ‘scholar and philosopher of eminence, geographer and economist’ was arrested by the Soviet authorities and sent to the gulag in 1945. He was to spend eleven years in the camps and we are not told what became of him after he was released. He was still alive in 1965 when Russian Poetry for Intermediates was published, so his date of death is not known.
Recently I’ve done a bit of digging on the internet and have managed to fill in a few of the blanks. Vostokov’s real name was Pyotr Nikolaevich Savitsky. As a young man Savitsky left Russia in the wake of the Bolshevik revolution and settled
in Prague. There he became a key figure in the geo-political/philosophical movement known as ‘Eurasianism,’ which
gained momentum amongst the Russian émigré community the early 1920’s.
The Eurasianists drew much of their inspiration from the Russian Slavophile movement of the nineteenth century. Basically speaking they believed that Russian civilisation was unique, with a place in the world and a destiny very different to that of Western Europe.³ They considered the October Revolution to be an inevitable, if unfortunate consequence of the rapid modernization of Russian society. They also believed, rather fancifully, that the Bolshevik regime was capable of shedding its communist ideology and evolving into a new national, non-European Orthodox Christian state. Not surprisingly the Bolsheviks took a very dim view of Eurasianism and took steps to infiltrate the movement and undermine it from within.
It is likely that Savitsky was arrested by the NKVD when Soviet troops occupied Czechoslovakia in 1945. He would then have been forcibly repatriated and imprisoned along with tens of thousands of other Russian émigrés and Soviet citizens displaced by the war. After his release in 1956 (many ‘political’ prisoners were amnestied in the years following Stalin’s death) he was probably required to spend a number of years in exile in Siberia. Savitsky was eventually allowed to resettle in Czechoslovakia, which was by then behind the Iron Curtain. He died in 1968.
During his imprisonment Savitsky wrote poetry, which he scribbled down on scraps of paper or simply memorised. He never expected his work to see the light of day; indeed he probably never thought he would survive the camps himself. But he did manage to survive and his poetry did get published. A collection of his poems, Stikhi, came out in France in 1960.*
Russian Poetry for Intermediates includes a dozen of of Savitsky’s poems. Though the harsh conditions he was forced to endure are sometimes mentioned, it is always in passing, and the overriding feeling I get from reading the poetry is one of hope. Time and again we find instances of Savitsky taking delight in the little things in life and using them to illustrate something more profound: the inherent goodness of his fellow man, the beauty of nature, the importance of love and compassion. I find Savitsky’s willingness to accept his fate with humility and good humour and his ability to maintain a level of dignity in such appalling circumstances to be truly remarkable. It is a rare example of how the human spirit can, at times, triumph against all odds. I can’t help thinking the world could do with more men like Pyotr Nikolaevich Savitsky.
¹ It was through the same anthology that I first became aware of the work of Vladimir Soloviev.
² The name is derived from the Russian word for ‘east’. An ironic reference, perhaps, to his enforced stay in Siberia. The editor of the anthology does not give Vostokov’s real name, which probably means either she did not know it or was trying to protect his true identity.
³ This idea of Russia’s ‘unique’ place in the world was also an important facet of Soloviev’s worldview.
* I assume this publication is an example of tamizdat, whereby certain Soviet writers would arrange for their work to be smuggled out of the USSR and published in the West. Such an act could have landed Savitsky in more trouble with the authorities and would explain his use of a pseudonym.