Russian Apocalypse in Walter Havighurst Special Collections

The most accurate observation about Russia that I came across recently was by Eliot Borenstein of New York University: “Russia after the dismantling of the Soviet Union has the dubious honor of being perhaps the only country in the world that is both pre- and post-apocalyptic at the same time. It’s not that the world doesn’t end, but it never stops ending.” Russians’ tendency to live every day like it is their last is probably developed by a constant string of near-apocalyptic events throughout Russian history. The event best represented in the Walter Havighurst Special Collections is the Great October Revolution, 1917-1921. There are materials in the collection reflecting both sides, for and against the revolution and smaller groups with more complex agendas, as well as general apocalyptic behavior, literature, and art of the Russians.  I chose two book examples with interesting histories that represent two of the facets of that end of the world.

I have always been intrigued by the number of rare editions we have of “Twelve” by Aleksandr Blok. Some are cataloged and others are still waiting, editions in different languages and illustrated by different people. It is not surprising that the poem was published so many times. It was Blok’s most controversial work, a harsh, cold poem about twelve unsympathetic Bolsheviks marching through Petrograd, their only emotion being violent hatred of the old world and people who were comfortable in it. In the context of the text this quality is a positive one.

This poem alienated Blok from both his admirers, who accused him of betraying his ideals and siding with the Bolsheviks and Bolsheviks themselves, who were uncomfortable with the mention of Christ at the end of the poem. There is, however, a theory that Blok’s work is a sarcastic view of the unwavering dedication of the revolution to violence and callousness as the means of killing everything old and starting anew. Here I chose the edition illustrated by IUrii Annenkov, whose style and composition depict the apocalyptic nature of the times and the poem perfectly.

“Tam!..” (roughly translated as There! Pictures of the Soviet Heaven) is a very rare, émigré edition of a book of anti-Soviet satire from the early 1920s, vividly illustrated by an anonymous artist. The authors, Lolo (L. Munstein) and Leri (V. Klopotovsky), are relatively well-known satirical poets of the post-revolution Russian diaspora. Their subject is less about the cruelty of the Soviet regime and more about the decadent nature of the “apocalyptic” Russia. The bright, simplistic illustrations go perfectly with the angry wit of the text, mocking the lower class now ruling the country.

Both works to me are apocalyptic in nature. At the time of Revolution the decadence movement was in full swing, contrasted by the violence of the thorough effort to kill the old world. There is a wealth of materials on these facets along with many other aspects of the Revolution in Special Collections.

Masha Stepanova
Slavic Librarian