Self-Orientalizing Poetry

Information and Questions for Reading

Russian women have been writing about topics concerning Islam or contact with Muslim populations for a long time, but often in genres that are less likely to be read than the long or short prose of the men we have been reading recently. Today's readings are a selection of poems by various writers; let me know if you would like more information about any of them.

Evdokiia Rostopchina (1811/12-1858; the 1811/12 date means that her birthday is in a different year if calculated in the Julian calendar versus the Gregorian calendar): she was tremendously popular in her day, the author of musical "feminine" verse. One scholar describes her process of composition as sitting in the corner of her carriage as she returned from a ball, then sweeping into her boudoir to write down the resulting lines. Her poems were often set to music, and they work very well as songs.

Mirra (originally Maria) Lokhvitskaia (1869-1905): Lokhvitskaia too was tremendously popular in her time. Her poetry is closely related to the Symbolist school (and she had an affair with one of the leading Symbolists, Konstantin Balmont), often mystical in tone and with a strong musical energy. Lokhvitskaia won the prestigious Pushkin medal for poetry not once but twice - though the second time it was awarded posthumously. She suffered and eventually died from tuberculosis, and her knowledge of oncoming death surely darkened much of her verse. Because of her death in 1905, she is often counted out in people's descriptions of the Russian Silver Age of poetry. (Fun trivia fact: her younger sister Nadezhda became famous as a humorist; she wrote as "Tèffi" because the name Lokhvitskaia was already famous.

Mariètta Shaginian (1888-1982): Shaginian had a long and quite varied literary career; she began as a poet and literary critic. The poem "Full Moon" comes from her super successful volume Orientalia (first ed. 1913, 7th ed. 1922 - with each edition somewhat enriched with new poems) - which in its day outsold the early volumes by Akhmatova. After the revolution of 1917, Shaginian wised up (?) and began to write fiction and eventually socialist realism - and she lived a very long, prolific life. As a Soviet writer, she dismissed her poetry as youthful dabbling.

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966): pseudonym of Anna Gorenko (of whom Joseph Brodsky once said that her first poetic line was the new name, Anna Andréevna Akhmatova); Gorenko is a Ukrainian-sounding name, and her father told her not to use it to publish poetry, so she chose the last name of her actual Tatar great-grandmother. This poem refers to the grandmother, though most of her poems do not. Akhmatova's later poetry becomes quite a bit more "classical" than this, but even in this case you can see the difference from the three earlier poems. (Akhmatova and Tsvetaeva are the two poets from this group who are still widely read and respected.)

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1948): This is a fun early poem based on a young adult novel by Lidiia Charskaia, who was considered a pretty trashy writer in the day but was very popular. Tsvetaeva grew up to become a highly serious and original poet. This poem does not so much self-orientalize as get emotionally involved in the story of a little Georgian princess who is deposited in a Russian boarding school and pines away there. Tsvetaeva uses the words "dzhigitka" and "sazandar," which are not Georgian words - suggesting that Charskaia's novel mixes up Georgian and Caucasian vocabulary and ideas. Too bad (?) Charskaia's book hasn't been translated into English!


1. About Rostopchina: What do you know about Albania? Have you by any chance read Byron's Childe Harold?

2. Albania was part of the Ottoman Empire at the time when this poem was written, and the majority of its population was Muslim. I don't know whether Rostopchina knew this - or knew that Albania is located right across the Adriatic Sea from Italy, making it an odd candidate for Orientalism. (Though Byron managed.) What interesting local details do you find? How is this like or unlike the Romantic poems we read before?

3. Lokhvitskaia's poem presents what we might think of as a universal woman's dilemma - whether to stay with the child and do her duty or run off with the gorgeous horseman. What picture of the desert does she offer? Can you specify where the poem takes place?

4. Shaginian is clearly using her Armenian "Southern" identity here as a pose - and to be fair there are a couple of poems in the same collection that present Armenia with more accurate detail and historical reference. What does her poem suggest about Southern and perhaps also Muslim women?

5. I included Akhmatova's poem because of her name - it's not actually too relevant to the question of the Muslim in Russia. Or is it?

6. Tsvetaeva's poem is the work of a girl - she was 17! - and actually when she got older she wouldn't let her own daughter read Charskaia. What elements do you find in the poem that remind you of earlier works we have read?