I have been reading Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea by Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya (1872-1952), better known by her pen name, “Teffi.” It is the story of her last months in Russia and the Ukraine, desperately trying to escape the Red Terror of Lenin’s security forces. The following tale of a Russian poet by the name of Voloshin is a living testimony to the place of poetry in Russian culture.
Around the beginning of spring, the poet Maximilian Voloshin appeared in the city. He was in the grip of a poetic frenzy. Wherever I went, I would glimpse his picturesque silhouette: dense, square beard, tight curls crowned with a round beret, a light cloak, knickerbockers, and gaiters. He was doing the rounds of government institutions and people with the right connections, constantly reciting his poems. There was more to this than was at first apparent. The poems served as keys. To help those who were in trouble Voloshin needed to pass through certain doors—and his poems opened these doors. He’d walk into some office and, while people were still wondering whether to announce his presence to their superiors, he would begin to recite. His meditations on the False Dmitry [a monk who falsely claimed to be the son of Ivan the Terrible] and other Russian tragedies were dense and powerful; lines evoking the fearful burden of history alternated with soaring flights of prophecy. An ecstatic crowd of young typists would gather around him, ooh-ing and aah-ing, letting out little nasal squeals of horrified delight. Next you would hear the clatter of typewriter keys—Voloshin had begun to dictate some of his longer poems. Someone in a position of authority would poke his head around the door, his curiosity piqued, and then lead the poet into his office. Soon the dense, even hum of bardic declamation would start up again, audible even through the closed door.
On one occasion I too received a visit of this nature.
Voloshin recited two long poems and then said that we must do something at once on behalf of the poetess Kuzmina-Karavayeva, who had been arrested (in Feodosya, I think), because of some denunciation and was in danger of being shot.
“You’re friends with Grishin-Almazov [a local politico], you must speak to him straightaway.”
I knew Kuzmina-Karavayeva well enough to understand at once that any such denunciation must be a lie.
“And in the meantime,” said Voloshin, “I’ll go speak to the Metropolitan [a high Orthodox church prelate]. Karavayeva’s a graduate of the theological academy. The Metropolitan will do all he can for her.”
I called Grishin-Almazov.
“Are you sure?” he responded. “Word of honor?”
“Then I’ll give the order tomorrow. All right?”
“No, not tomorrow,” I said. “Today. And it’s got to be a telegram. I’m very concerned—we might be too late already!”
“Very well, I will send a telegram. I emphasize the words: I will.”
Kuzmina-Karavayeva was released.