Soviet children were taught that the revolution wasn’t just a historical event but a dream they were destined to bring to life. “We were born that fairy tale might become reality,” they recited, “To conquer the vastness of space, / Reason gave us steel wings for arms, / And in the place of a heart they gave us a fiery motor.” Brodsky recounted how his childhood rebellion against this messaging became a feature of his character: he despised with an almost atavistic hatred the political slogans and reproduced images of Lenin that adorned his school walls. From then on, he was suspicious of anything that struck him as redundant or shallowly popular. This was, he wrote in his memoiristic essay “Less Than One,” “my first lesson in switching off, my first attempt at estrangement”:
The planks, the governmental iron of railings, the inevitable khaki of the military uniform in every passing crowd on every street in every city, the eternal photographs of steel foundries in every morning paper and the continuous Tchaikovsky on the radio—these things would drive you crazy unless you learned to switch yourself off.
For Brodsky and his friends, “books became the first and only reality, whereas reality itself was regarded as either nonsense or nuisance.” They preferred to “read rather than to act.” Brodsky casts this as a natural tendency, as if acting were something like eating cilantro for those not predisposed to it, always leaving the sensation of having just had one’s mouth washed out with soap.
Still, inaction is a kind of action, as Brodsky was well aware. Why would a thinking person—or really anyone sensitive to injustice or falsehood—decide to switch off? The machine won’t stop; there is no sleep mode. Corruption is fed by deceit and disaffection. Don’t we have a responsibility to stay on, awake, woke?
The word “intelligentsia” came into English by way of Russian, where it had been loaned in turn from some unspecified European language—a trajectory that roughly maps onto the development of the class itself. The defining members of the Russian intelligentsia, as Isaiah Berlin outlined in “A Remarkable Decade,” were a group of writers who came on the scene in the 1840s, including Alexander Herzen, Ivan Turgenev, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Ivan Panaev and Vissarion Belinsky. These men loved philosophy and literature as much as they hated the autocratic system that kept the Russian populace miserable and enslaved. They consumed ideas from Europe like drugs—from Rousseau and Voltaire to Counter-Enlightenment figures like Joseph de Maistre to Hegel and the German Romantics—and then argued about them with furious intensity. But what distinguished these Russian intellectuals from the Europeans they modeled themselves after was less their zeal or originality than their earnestness. They believed they were “united by something more than mere interest in ideas; they conceived of themselves as being a dedicated order, almost a secular priesthood, devoted to the spreading of a specific attitude to life, something like a gospel.”
These so-called “superfluous men” became the prototype of the intellectual that we know today: well read, urbane, politically engaged. They insisted that there was no escape from society for the writer, and that being a writer came with certain obligations: what they said mattered, whether in fiction or prose, among friends or in public. If previously the intellectual was oppositional by bad luck or circumstance, they made it part of the job description.
But even as the figure of the modern intellectual was taking shape, there was a tension pulling at the seams. Turgenev identified two kinds of writer. One, who we might call the poet, is perceptive and incandescently creative but operates at a remove from politics and communal life. The other, the critic, dives right into the scene, seeking to reflect the feeling and consciousness of the people at that moment in time. Turgenev, despite himself, belonged to the first type. Belinsky, his friend and the consummate “committed intellectual,” was the latter.
More than half a century later, Belinsky’s moral vision and rhetorical fire would make him a hero of the radicals who led the revolution. From him they learned that literature was to be taken very seriously, for in books were messages that had the power not just to change minds, but to forge them from raw material. When Trotsky defined revolutionary art as works “colored by the new consciousness arising out of the Revolution,” he was speaking as a follower of Belinsky.
The first years of the Revolution witnessed an explosion of creative energy as radical intellectuals attempted to shake off custom and conjure this new consciousness. Writers sought to change the very structure of language—shortening words and fusing them as if the New Man would be in too much of a rush to pronounce all of the syllables. Architects dreamed up wild, larger-than-life designs meant to both reflect the potency of the moment and contribute to a functioning proletarian society; Tatlin’s famous (but never actualized) Monument to the Third International was to be a radio tower that corkscrewed up like a Hegelian spiral a thousand feet tall.
This period of ecstatic experimentation was short-lived. By the time Walter Benjamin visited Moscow in 1926, revolutionary art had been so tamed and subsumed by the Party that he noted, “the intellectual is above all a functionary, working in the departments of censorship, justice and finance, and, if he survives, participating in work—which, however, in Russia means power. He is a member of the ruling class.” The state’s autoimmune response to the avant-garde led to a rheumatic stiffening of artistic production, which shrank to an ever more limited and rudimentary collection of themes and styles. This brought about a paradoxical reversal: Belinsky’s heirs were now the staid enforcers of aesthetic tradition, while Turgenev’s became the rebels. And so a young poet who liked books and quiet walks at sunset became the unlikely face of intellectual defiance.
When I first discovered Brodsky I was stumbling my way into a Russian major, starting with a freshman language class where we memorized lines of Pushkin before we knew how to count to ten. I signed up for more classes in the department, one after another, even though I had no idea what I could do with a B.A. in Russian besides maybe going into academia or the CIA. I was drawn, as if by the gravity of a foreign object, to the lives and works of Russian writers—Gogol, Tolstoy, Akhmatova, Mandelstam, Platonov, Brodsky. Each of them, in their own way, helps you to feel the depth of the ground you stand on, and then question its solidity.
The fall of my senior year I took a small seminar taught by an Eastern European poet with a priestly air accentuated by the long, thoughtful pauses that preceded his pronouncements. One of the poems we were assigned was Brodsky’s “Autumn in Norenskaia.” After his trial, Brodsky was sentenced to five years of labor in the remote northern town of Norenskaia. He came to sort of enjoy his punishment; after all, it gave him plenty of time to write. Composed in 1965, “Autumn in Norenskaia” captures a brief moment at the end of the workday. “We return from the field,” the poem begins, set against a backdrop of exhaustion and decay. Horses in the street look like “inflated casks / of ribs trapped between shafts,” while peasant women “scissor their way home, / like cutting along a dull hem.” The first half of the poem is filled with straight lines. The image of the women trudging in rows intersects with the plow marks fanning out over the field behind them. Then, all of a sudden, the grid-like composition Brodsky has so carefully constructed cracks and shatters: “The wind breaks / a chain of crows into shrieking links.” He takes stock of the pieces:
These visions are the final sign
of an inner life that seizes
any specter to which it feels kin
till the specter scares off for good
at the church bell of a creaking axle,
at the metal rattle of the world as it
lies reversed in a rut of water,
at a starling soaring into cloud.
It’s a high moment in a poem that is otherwise bitter and mundane. Even in a world that “lies reversed in a rut of water,” the inner life finds itself reflected in passing visions: the flight of birds, the light sparking in strangers’ eyes. What struck me most, living in my own reversed world, is that for Brodsky these visions did not offer hope the world would change, only that, whether or not it changed, something of that life would endure.
I had been raised in the multicultural, bubblegum Nineties. Like many other children of the upper-middle class, I watched Captain Planet, went to cross-cultural friendship camps and joined social-justice youth groups. Our generation was told that difference was only skin deep, that in America you could accomplish anything with enough hard work, that we could be the change we wanted to see. Like good campers, we marched to protest the invasion of Iraq, wrote letters against NAFTA and for human rights, voted for Obama, went vegetarian. At a certain point it occurred to us there was no evidence any of this was working. The market crashed; the gap between rich and poor yawned into an abyss. Congress was paralyzed, and racism, far from diminishing in Obama’s presidency, seemed to become more visible and virulent. What is to be done? we wondered. All the progressive values we had been taught, when knocked, sounded hollow. So our protests got smaller, cheekier and more digital. We made nihilistic jokes, followed meme accounts, started therapy. We talked about TV.
All of this is to say that Brodsky’s strategy of switching off made a perverse kind of sense to me, even as it brushed up against my inculcated optimism. And yet, I thought: Shouldn’t I fight that impulse?
“If a poet has any obligation to society,” Brodsky said, “it is to write well. Being in the minority, he has no other choice.” The Soviet trial judge is not the only one who has taken this attitude to indicate a lack of social conscience. The novelist and critic Keith Gessen, in a 2008 article for the New York Times Book Review, faulted Brodsky’s generation of intellectuals and those who followed for being “powerless to stop Putin from terrorizing the country, not because they feared him, but because after the destruction of the Soviet Union they retreated into ‘private life,’ which is what they wanted all along.” Gessen is a great fan of Brodsky the poet, but wishes he would be more of a critic. In a New Yorker essay from 2011, he condemned Brodsky for allowing himself to become a “propagandist for poetry.” Gessen searched Brodsky’s oeuvre in vain for an example that might undercut the unapologetic aestheticism that had “hardened into dogma.” Not unlike the judge, Gessen seemed to demand of Brodsky, How were you useful to the motherland? How could someone of Brodsky’s intelligence actually believe that aesthetics governs ethics and not the other way around?
As if cautious not to repeat the mistakes of Brodsky’s generation, Gessen has embraced his public role in his own career as an intellectual. He co-founded n+1 in 2004 with some fellow Harvard grads in New York City, and, in 2011, when a thousand protesters set up camp in Zuccotti Park, they eagerly joined the movement. Being academic types, they were less experienced than some of the other Occupiers when it came to practical matters of governance or logistics, so they contributed the way they knew how: they wrote and theorized. They published blog posts and put together a broadsheet called the Occupy! Gazette. In Occupy!, the anthology of reflections from these heady months that he co-edited with Astra Taylor and the other editors of n+1, Gessen acknowledged the split within the park between those “highly educated” organizers and intellectuals like himself, who were “mostly in their late twenties and thirties, and mostly not living in the park,” and the “kids who actually do live in the park.” This division, he suggested, is not as bad as it might seem. Some dismissed the twenty-year-olds in the camp as crust punks or anarchists, but he admired their youthful idealism. At least they were doing something. “They actually think that coming to a faraway city and living in a concrete park could lead to political change,” he marveled. “And they may be right!”