John Ellison

John Ellison

John Ellison is a writer and a retired solicitor.

Witness to the Revolution
Saturday, 23 September 2017 08:17

Witness to the Revolution

Published in Fiction

John Ellison sketches out the life of Maxim Gorky, the righteous, relentless witness of the revolution who evoked the wretchedness and terror of living under Tsarist violence.

The life of Maxim Gorky, author of three unforgettable volumes of autobiography covering his first two decades (‘Childhood’, ‘My Apprenticeship’, and ‘My Universities’), of an unforgettable play (‘The Lower Depths’) and of much else, reached the age of 49 less than a fortnight after Tsarist rule crashed out of history in March 1917.

His life and work cannot be separated from the revolutionary movement in Russia, before, during and after the events of 1917. He grew up detesting the inhuman conditions of life for most people (gross poverty, mass illiteracy, ignorance and superstition, the crudest of criminal justice arrangements, all blessed by a near-medieval system of government) and the correspondingly inhuman social behaviour these conditions spawned. He hated war. He came to live and breathe socialist convictions which stayed with him.

Gorky’s writing had made him famous in Russia before the end of the 1890s, and just as his name cannot be divorced from his role in the cause of revolution, so his life is in his works, fact and fiction alike. His work reveals his gift for close observation, his large repertoire of rich language (derived at least as much from life as from libraries), his astonishing memory, his hatred of cruel and abusive behaviour, and his passion for truth and social justice.

‘The first thing that struck one about him,’ wrote French biographer Henri Troyat, ‘was an air of unsophisticated goodness.’

Gorky was initially hostile to Bolshevik rule. On November 20 1917 he wrote in his own newspaper ‘New Life’, with reference to the Lenin-Trotsky government now in power: ‘Sensible democratic elements must decide if they want to go on travelling along this road with plotters and anarchists.’ In the same article, and in others in the months to follow he fulminated against the suppression of freedom of speech, and (also associating these with the Bolshevik regime), terror and pogroms. Yet ‘New Life’ survived until its suppression in July 1918, and within months after that Gorky re-associated himself with the Bolsheviks for good.

He had been born with the surname of ‘Peshkov’, which in Russian means ‘pawn’ and only became ‘Gorky’ (which means ‘bitter’ – he aimed to tell ‘the bitter truth’) with his first published story in 1892. His birth on March 28 (new style) 1868 had been in Nizhny Novgorod. His first arrest was in 1889 and was on suspicion of participation in illegal printing. He was arrested again, two years later, as a result of attendance in the Crimea at a funeral service for hanged rebels. In 1898 he was detained for two weeks in Tiflis but, prosecution evidence being water-weak, the upshot was constant police surveillance. Arrested once more in 1901 (over his financial support for student radicals in Kiev), he was ordered into exile, finding a home in the Crimea. In early 1905 he was detained again (for his public appeal for struggle against the regime). By then he was closely associated with Lenin’s Bolshevik party.

Three years earlier, in 1902, Gorky’s great play, ‘The Lower Depths’, had been first staged in Moscow, and was accompanied by directions from the authorities that it must not be performed in working class theatres, and must anyway be performed only with the censor’s deletions. It was staged in London to critical admiration as recently as this year – uncensored.

Before the end of 1905 – the year of uprising and the defeat of revolutionary hopes – he was on his way to Europe, escaping arrest, having distributed weapons during the rising. He then made his home in Capri, returning to live in Russia in late 1913, with Tsarist censorship somewhat relaxed, and his first memoir volume ‘Childhood’ about to be published.

‘Childhood’ is unique for its recreation, in terrifying detail, of an upbringing in the author’s maternal grandparents’ household, following the death of his father, when the young Maxim was just four years old. The narrative steers away from dates and ages, but not from the horrors from which he carried scarring memories.

It opens, so it seems to the reader, with hammer-blows. He is in a room with his mother, while his mother combs the long hair of his father, who is lying dead on the floor with copper coins on his eyes and his kind face livid. The maternal grandmother is holding Maxim’s little hand. More swiftly happens – severe labour pains for his mother, followed by the birth, death and burial of his new brother.

Later days for the young Maxim were not especially joyful. In the home of his grandparents he received from his grandmother much love, many folk tales and religious precepts. But she – and Maxim’s mother – felt powerless to protect him from his grandfather’s ferocious revenge discipline.

The grandfather, having risen in the world from pulling barges in his youth, owned a thriving dye-shop which was to decline in the years to come. Lacking much respect for education or for adherence to humane standards of behaviour, he could be described as a self-made, rough-edged, middle class man. From him Maxim received many floggings for minor infractions. The first of these was savage enough to produce unconsciousness and several days’ convalescence. There was much quarrelling between Maxim’s grandfather and his two resident sons, Maxim’s uncles, and between these uncles themselves – one of whom had, the year before Maxim’s arrival in the household, beaten his wife to death.

The young Gorky witnessed his grandfather beating his grandmother, while his mother first withdrew from his own care and from the household, and then remarried. The remarriage introduced a new step-grandmother visitor to the home, a woman addicted to wearing green outfits. Gorky remarks: ‘Often the green woman would join us for dinner or tea or supper, sitting like a rotten post in an old fence.’

His mother died when Maxim was eleven, by which time the dye-shop – suffering from severe competition from rivals using more advanced technology – was on its knees. Put out into the working world, beginning in a shoe shop and taking one wretchedly paid job after another, Maxim witnessed endemic theft and violence, and, especially distressing, violence towards, and humiliation of, women. He never had toys, and was jealous of boys who did. Though he had formal schooling only until aged ten, interrupted by exclusions for mischief-making, he still managed to learn to read and write, and at the age of thirteen he read Balzac’s ‘Eugenie Grandet’, which was a revelation to him. Novels by Turgenev and Dickens were also to enchant him in his mid-teens.

‘Childhood’, as a memoir, is distinctive in the way the young Gorky’s savage experiences are offset by his irrepressible humanity and his desire to learn. Far into the narrative he muses:

I might liken myself as a child to a beehive to which various simple, ordinary people brought the honey of their knowledge and views of life, each of them making his own rich contribution to the development of my character. Often the honey was dirty and bitter, but it was knowledge, and so honey for all that.

The second volume, ‘My Apprenticeship’, in scene after scene puts on show ‘the hard, half-starved life that people had to lead and the crippling work they had to do’. Gorky wrote elsewhere in this volume of his childhood dream of how things could be changed:

…I thought how marvellous it would be to…steal from the greedy and the rich and to hand the money over to the poor; if only everyone were well-fed, cheerful and not envious of one another – perhaps they might stop howling at each other like wild dogs.

He was also drawn into sharing in the anger and violence around him. Yet, however grim his situation, Maxim had a child’s sensitivity to the world around him. ‘Black frying pans on the shelves reminded me of faces without eyes.’

His grandmother’s charitable disposition was a major influence. Hardly prosperous herself by this time, she took Maxim out at night, ‘creeping up to some small houses, very cautiously, cross herself three times, leave a five-kopeck piece and three biscuits on the window-sill and cross herself again…’ He also remembered ‘her squatting in front of the stove and muttering: “Kind house-goblin, please get rid of the cockroaches…” ’

During one summer Maxim became a freelance catcher and vendor of songbirds, trapping finches, tits and other birds, then caging and selling them profitably. Recalling this episode – in much circumstantial detail – he wrote of how as a boy he had loved the sun and its rays which ‘I tried to catch…when they jumped like a ball through a hole in the fence or among the branches.’

Through reading popular French novelists translated into Russian, Gorky was able to see, early in his teens, that things in France were different from things in Russia.

'It was clear to me that the Parisian cabdrivers, workmen and soldiers and all the ‘common rabble’ were not the same as in Nizhny, Kazan and Perm. They spoke more boldly to their masters and their relationships with them were much more easy-going…I particularly noticed that when they were describing wicked, greedy or loathsome people those authors did not portray the inexplicable cruelty which was so familiar to me and which I had seen so often.'

Later in the book he remarks on the shortness of many lives: ‘…nowhere else did people wear out so terribly quickly, for no reason at all, as in Russia.’

The third volume of memoirs, ‘My Universities’, begins with Gorky as a seventeen-year-old and with a new life begun, away from his grandparents, in and around university city Kazan. He realizes that in his situation entering the university is unrealistic, and finds he can earn a few kopecks humping things around on the wharves of the Volga river, and he gets acquainted with ‘stevedores, tramps and thieves’. The cellar of a house long ruined by fire, and the refuge of stray dogs and cats, becomes ‘one of my universities’. He is searching for a purpose in his life.

Before very long a cousin’s letter tells him of his grandmother’s death. She had been begging alms in the church porch, had fallen and broken her leg which, untreated, had become gangrenous and led to her death.

He is mostly the observer, not the subject of observation. But his feelings are embedded in his descriptions. He observes of a river locality: ‘A plaintive song floated over the water – somebody’s soul, gently smouldering.’ He is invited to join a small study circle, where discussion of the work of John Stuart Mill does not especially engage him, and at another time he is introduced to a ‘library’ in a room at the back of a grocer’s shop, where handwritten copies of books such as Chernychevsky’s ‘What is to be done’ are stored. Here, furious arguments between students from the University and others from the Theological Academy can be witnessed.

Meanwhile, in the bakery where Gorky is working, the men regularly visit brothels on pay day, ‘spitting disgustedly’ when they speak of the prostitutes. This behaviour attracted hatred from Gorky, while he behaved with circumspection when questioned by a police officer, hovering around ‘like a hungry bird of prey’, and demanding to know if he had read the dangerous author Tolstoy.

Gorky’s search for a purpose in life abruptly became confused, for at the age of nineteen he attempted suicide, shooting himself in the chest. This caused lung damage which was to trouble him increasingly in later life, and Gorky felt ashamed, even to be alive. The need to have a purpose was confirmed.

He moved to a village some thirty miles from Kazan, invited there to help in a shop by a returned political exile, but before long the shop was burned down by agents of hostile better-off peasants. Both the exile, whom Gorky admired, and Gorky himself, had to move on.

His recollections as a whole were painted, as it were, in primary colours. Gorky was not a writer famous for the subtle, delicate touches characteristic of Chekhov’s work, or for the complex meditations or insights notable in both Chekhov and Dostoevsky. Chekhov told him ‘that in my opinion you have no restraint’, and some readers may consider some lengthy passages in, especially, ‘My Apprenticeship’, could have benefited from more succinct presentation.

The three volumes as a whole are ‘extreme’ biography in the sense that they go far beyond ordinary recall. They are imaginative reconstructions, carrying vast amounts of dialogue and often moment-by-moment descriptions. Still, the memoirs are formidable, both as a collection of revelations about Gorky’s early life and about pre-revolutionary Mother Russia. They end with the beginning of his adult life, when he travels south, reaching the shores of the Caspian.

His first arrest in 1889 was followed by his first entry into the professional world, as a lawyer’s clerk. He returned to this work after travel to the Crimea and his second arrest. But large demand for the stories he had begun to publish led to well-paid work for newspapers and then to his marriage in 1896 and to the birth of a son, another Maxim, the following year.

In 1898 two volumes of Gorky’s short stories appeared, and his first novel soon after, which was in essence an attack on the greed of capitalists. He was becoming wealthy and famous, and got to know Tolstoy well in the early years of the new century when living near to each other in the Crimea, to which Gorky was then exiled. He failed to convert Tolstoy to Marxism, just as Tolstoy failed to convert him to Christianity.

The 1902 play, ‘The Lower Depths’ features more than a dozen characters living cheek by jowl in a doss house run by a landlord and his wife who are also thieves, who have the protection of the wife’s uncle, who is a police officer. The wife has been having an affair with a jailbird lodger, who rejects her in favour of the wife’s sister. Meanwhile a female lodger is dying, but before she dies blames her illness on beatings from her unfeeling husband, who also lives in the house. Another lodger, a widow, says about marriage that ‘it’s like jumping through a hole in the ice for us poor women’. Yet another character is an educated man who has come down in the world, but was once privileged enough ‘to have drunk coffee in bed with cream in it’, while another is an alcoholic actor.

Dark and depressing as the plot is – including three deaths – the play has enormous vitality, and there is a low-key but crucial upside, mainly because of one character. A man of sixty, a Tolstoyan Christian humanist and teacher, declares: ‘Prison doesn’t teach a man to be good, no more than does Siberia. Only another poor soul can do that. It’s true. One soul can teach good to another soul.’ He also speaks of an ideal country, ‘a virtuous land’, believed in as real by somebody he had met, but which he himself seems to acknowledge did not actually exist. It seems to be a metaphor for a socialism of the future. Before the play ends this moral figure has travelled on, but a lodger with fewer ethical credentials says: ‘Man is born – for something better.’

Later, after his participation in the 1905 rising, and having settled in Capri, came Gorky’s ‘class struggle novel’. This was ‘Mother’, completed in 1906, and banned in Russia after heavily censored publication of the first part. But it was published in Russian and in translation abroad. Lenin called it ‘an instrument of revolution’, which it was. Its worker heroes are sentenced to exile for what would in democratic conditions be regarded as legal anti-government activity, such as distributing leaflets and marching. The mother of one of them is then herself caught in a railway station waiting room with a cache of leaflets, and speaks out loudly at the point of arrest:

‘Poverty, hunger and disease – that’s what people get for their work! Everything is against us – all of our lives, day after day, we give our last ounce of strength to our work, always dirty, always fooled, while others reap all the joy and benefits, holding us in ignorance like dogs on a chain – we don’t know anything, holding us in fear – we’re afraid of everything! Our lives are just one long, dark night!’

The book ends with the mother being savagely beaten and choked by a policeman. Propaganda? Yes, but it is propaganda accompanied by passion and a powerful connection with the real world in which Russian factory workers lived and laboured.

From 1906 Gorky lived in Capri, until his return to Russia in late 1913. When the 1914 war arrived, he quickly decided to oppose it. In 1915 he wrote in his newly founded magazine ‘The Chronicle’:

The press must keep repeating to people that any war – except the war against stupidity is a disaster comparable to cholera.

In 1919, after his rapprochement with the Bolsheviks the previous autumn, he made a strong impression on the much younger fellow-writer and socialist Victor Serge:

His whole being expressed hunger for knowledge and human understanding, determination to probe all human beings to their depths, never stopping at mere appearances, never tolerating any lies told to him, and never lying to himself. I saw him immediately as the supreme, the righteous, the relentless witness of the Revolution…

Gorky was to return to live in Europe in 1921. He became concerned at the increasing censorship of literature in the Soviet Union, though in 1925 declared he could see no other possible regime for the Russian people. He returned to his homeland in 1928, identifying himself closely with the Stalin-led government, becoming, his biographer Henri Troyat wrote: ‘a kind of literary functionary’. Increasingly ill and lonely (his son died in 1934), his creative days were in the past. He had summarized his own limitations as a writer in a letter to anti-war French author Romain Rolland of November 1923. He wrote:

I am overloaded with real impressions. I am afflicted with an overdeveloped need to become acquainted with things, I am easily fascinated by their external characteristics. That makes me more of a story-teller than an investigator of the human soul and the enigmas of life.

Gorky’s great achievement lay in evoking in depth, with astonishing realist particularity, the wretchedness and violence inherent in the conditions of living in Tsarist times, and in doing so never to overlook the capacity of humankind for showing compassion and support for others, or the belief that another world was possible.


Storming the Winter Palace
Sunday, 26 March 2017 19:16

Black night, white snow: Alexander Blok's The Twelve

Published in Poetry

John Ellison discusses Alexander Blok's great poem The Twelve, and its links to the Russian Revolution.

I came fresh, utterly fresh, to the most famous poem by Alexander Blok - The Twelve - written in January 1918, and the freshest of poetic responses to the November Bolshevik revolution. Before reading it, I knew Blok’s name, but nothing of his work. The Twelve is so striking as to be impossible to drive out of memory.

In Russian, it runs to a little over a thousand words and is not ‘revolutionary’ in message in the wildest sense of that word. It carries no imprint of a sudden or superficial craze for radical change, but reflects Blok’s open-eyed rapport with the seizure of power by the Bolsheviks and their commitment to a socialist future.

He was born in 1880 in St. Petersburg and died, aged only 40, in the same city in 1921, after a lengthy illness. The Twelve, and a shorter poem in a conventional form - The Scythians - which was written immediately afterwards, are regarded as the last of his significant creative work. He grew up mainly in the households of his mother and of her parents. He was a child of the upper class academic intelligentsia, which did not exclude the ownership of country estates, or involvement with the Orthodox Christian Church. He inherited, besides privileged conditions of living, his mother’s tendency to imbue events with mystical significance and developed early on a heightened sensitivity to the world about him. Though he is often described as of the Russian ‘symbolist’ school, he should not, to judge by The Twelve, be regarded as confined to a particular poetic movement.

My picture of Blok as a boy, a man and a poet is extracted in large part from James Forsyth’s Listening to the Wind (1977). This is an engaging study which wears its scholarship lightly and reveals much.

One English translation of The Twelve with its own definite character is that by prolific socialist author Jack Lindsay. Introduced by Lindsay, it was published in a slim 1982 Journeyman Press edition. A special feature was its accompaniment, reproduced from the original Russian publication, by the remarkable illustrative line drawings of Yuri Annenkov, which accompany this article. Another popular translation, by English poet Jon Stallworthy and collaborator Peter France, can be found in 20th Century Russian Poetry, edited by a later generation Soviet poet, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and published in 1993. These translators had previously, in 1970, published their version in The Twelve and other Poems. A third important translation is by Alex Miller. I located this in Soviet Russian Literature 1917-1977, compiled by Yuri Andreyev (1980), but Miller’s translation can also be found in a separate Selected Poems by Blok. One more distinguished English version (more recent – 2010) is that by American academic Maria Carlson.


The Twelve sensationalises the revolutionary moment as much as celebrates it. A street patrol of twelve Red Guards marches in darkness, snow and wind in Petrograd. Their number is also the number, and not by coincidence (as is confirmed in the poem’s final lines), of the disciples of the founder of Christianity. These soldiers on street duty are no role models for rank and file revolutionaries. They are doing their duty according to their own standards, and their standards are not high. They look like jailbirds. During the patrol, one of them, helped by at least one accomplice amongst the others, carries out a murder. His former girl-friend, Katya, a prostitute, passing by at speed in a horse-drawn cab with her current lover Vanka, takes a bullet apparently aimed at Vanka. The patrol carries on marching.

At another moment during the patrol, rifle fire is directed at a building on the basis of suspicion only that enemies might be present there.

The Twelve, in my view, could be thought of as a scene in a play or film as much as a poem. It is in twelve parts or ‘cantos’, each distinguishable in style and flavour from the next. Its opening – borrowing Lindsay’s translation here - is incontestably atmospheric, dramatic, intense.

Black night,
White snow.
Wind O wind!
It knocks you down as you go.
Wind O wind –
Through God’s world blowing.

‘God’, and indeed ‘Christ’, and ‘holy Russia’, it should be said, are very much part of the poem, highlighting the obvious fact that the revolution just carried out has not detached the minds of Russian people (including Blok) from the world in which they had been previously living. At the end of the poem Christ – or a vision of Christ – leads the patrol. But this is Christ the founder of Christianity, not the Christ of ‘holy Russia’; it is Christ of the new world, not Christ of the old. Or is he better described as Christ of the old world, but resurrected as a torch-bearer of revolution? Is there here an implied unity of Christianity and communism? And is it so certain that the murderer, who is in a rage against both Katya and her lover, actually intended to kill him but not her? An intriguing feature of Blok’s work is its ability to make room for different interpretations, for mystery.

Another feature is his view of the natural world as a producer of an eternal music of its own. There is nothing cut-and-dried about Blok’s verse or about Blok himself.

Early on in The Twelve, only the title suggests that twelve people might be somewhere about. But the historical moment in which the action takes place is quickly captured through the sighting of a banner strung between buildings. This declares: ‘All Power to the Constituent Assembly’. Viewed, as the patrol moves forward, are an old woman believing the political banner would be better used for children’s clothing and shoes, a bourgeois with nose in his collar (standing, symbolically, at a cross-roads, his cross-roads, Russia’s cross-roads), a mutinous intellectual and an unhappy priest. Then a second mention of the Constituent Assembly is immediately succeeded by interchanges between an ‘Assembly’ of female prostitutes debating and fixing customer prices.

Slowly the Bolshevik militia identity of The Twelve emerges from the darkness and the snowstorm. It is announced: ‘Twelve men are walking’. And they have rifles. And one of them is playing over in his head an angry argument with his rival, Vanka, for the transferred affections of Katya. Then soon after, an order is barked out: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ (Stallworthy), ‘Keep in step with the revolution’ (Miller), or ‘Hold to the revolutionary pace’ (Carlson). Before long ‘the twelve’ are identified as Red Guards.

JE Jury Annenkov illustration to aleksander blok s poem the twelve 1918 1

The poem – or verse-play – is alive with contrasts. At one moment the group is, metaphorically, firing a bullet at holy Russia. At another there is a call from the marchers to God to bless them as Red Guard revolutionaries. Suddenly the cab appears, carrying Vanka and Katya, canoodling, and from the rejected and jealous Red Guard – now given the name of Petrukha – come memories of Katya and of knifing another envied rival in the past. Soon after, when the same cab with the same passengers comes past again, Petrukha apparently fires at his army officer rival Vanka but kills Katya instead. The other eleven, whether directly complicit in, or untroubled by, the crime, keep marching with Petrukha. And the shout to the Twelve is renewed: ‘Keep a revolutionary step!’ This garish sequence of events comes across as strange, startling, surreal, yet powerfully credible.

During the exposition a hungry and flea-bitten dog is picked out, tail between legs, as a symbol for the old world. The image is repeated in a later verse, after the presence of the bourgeois at a cross-roads has again been registered. Alex Miller’s rich translation of this verse reads:

The bourgeois stands there. As if hungry,
Just stands there like a question mark;
The old world, like a starving mongrel,
Cowers at his feet, too cold to bark.

I should come clean about my limited knowledge of the Russian language, having only a smallish stock of vocabulary in my head, but a lot more in a large Russian-English dictionary to extend it. Furthermore, James B. Woodward’s 1968 edition of Blok’s Selected Poems - in Russian - contains detailed notes in English as to the meaning of some colloquial, dialect and archaic Russian expressions employed. My understanding of Russian grammar is undeveloped. Nevertheless, some knowledge of the language has encouraged me to comment, reliably or not, on the English translations I have studied.

Jack Lindsay’s translation of The Twelve seems to me attractive and ingenious, but, while I marvel at the production of so many neat rhymes, at moments there is for my taste too much jingle and bounce. Meaning can be sacrificed or something invented to obtain a rhyme. This subtracts from the darkly volatile spirit of the original. An example is Lindsay’s translation of six words towards the close of the second section, which in the original occupy three lines, each ending with the same vowel sound, summarizing the essence of ‘Holy Russia’:

Rough-and-tumble dump,
Wood huts in a clump,
And a big fat rump.

Here Lindsay doubles the number of words in the Russian original (which, in an end-note, is translated literally by Woodward as ‘sturdy Russia with its peasant huts and broad bottom’) and produces a sing-song effect. Stallworthy’s version, on the other hand, has more thrust and economy:

With her big, fat arse!

Miller, too, certainly cuts to the chase:

Solid old
Solid old
Fat-arsed Russia!

My personal preference is for Carlson’s version:

…ancient, sturdy,
Fat-assed Russia!

Blok’s original, here and elsewhere, comes over as on fire with creative energy. It relies more on echo and assonance – on a succession of sounds in a musical relationship with each other - than on smart rhymes. Forsyth describes The Twelve as ‘a patchwork cantata of…popular poetry and song’, sources which Blok had long been practised in mining and deploying.

Miller’s translation appears to me to follow Blok’s own style with imagination and varied vocabulary which includes English slang. That of Stallworthy and France stands equally free, independent and impressive. (Both, incidentally, anglicize the names of the actors, while Lindsay and Carlson do not.) Carlson’s version may be, overall, more literal than the others, but in my view has depth too.

Take another example of translation variations from the fifth section. When Katya is first seen with her lover, Miller translates a four-line verse as follows:

Katie, have you clean forgotten
Him that hadn’t time to bolt
From my knife? Or does your rotten
Memory need a little jolt?

Stallworthy’s translation is comparable, but the message is more savagely dispatched:

Do you remember that officer –
The knife put to an end to him…
Do you remember that, you whore,
Or does your memory dim?

Thus Stallworthy, keeping the utterance crisp, does not trouble to address Katya by name, as the original does, and translates robustly as ‘you whore’ a word for ‘cholera’, which according to Woodward signifies ‘you curse’.

Lindsay’s translation here is liberal too, but perhaps less incisive than the others:

That captain of yours, have you forgotten?
When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon.
I knifed him, yes, he’s dead and rotten.
Don’t tell me you forgot so soon.

Lindsay’s second line – ‘When he grabbed you, you’d almost swoon’, has no foundation in the original. It was incorporated, presumably, to add scenery and to ensure a rhyme with ‘soon’. More seriously, his translation in some places in my view departs too much from the raw yet concentrated quality of the original by rendering some utterances too tidily simplistic. But tastes differ.

In the sixth section comes Katya’s brutal death, a death for which, a moment later, she is blamed by killer Petrukha. His ethical standards plunge low indeed before he softens:

Miller: Well, Katie, happy? Not a word…
Then lie there on the snow, you turd!...

Stallworthy: Katie, are you satisfied? Lost your tongue?
Lie in the snowdrift then, like dung!

Lindsay: Happy now, Katya? I’d like to know.
Sprawl there, carrion, in the snow.

Carlson: Glad now, Kat’ka? ‘What not a peep…
Then lie there, carrion, on the snow!...

All four versions seem strong to me, and even reach beyond Blok’s actual words, as the original contains no word denoting ‘turd’, ‘dung’ or ‘carrion’, reminding us that mood, as well as actual words, must be reflected when rendering a poem from one language into another.

A feature of the Russian language is its inherent greater succinctness than is English. Because it has no ‘a’ or ‘the’, it relies, in putting nouns into singular or plural form, on adjusting their end letters. In relation to the numbers of words used in translating The Twelve, Miller’s is the shortest, though is more than half again as long as the Russian original. Lindsay’s is a fraction longer than that, and Stallworthy’s is longer still.

Self-identification with the Bolshevik revolution by Blok had its preamble, a dozen years earlier. In late 1905, during the failed attempt at revolution that year, he carried a red flag at the head of a procession, and in the same year his poem The Well-Fed Ones carried a denunciatory message arrowed at the privileged. The appearance of Halley’s Comet in 1910 encouraged him in expectations of renewed revolution, and by the summer of 1917, after the Provisional government installed itself in the wake of the abdication of Tsar Nicholas, he was keenly in step with the idea of socialist revolution.

Blok was ‘a son of the nobility’. Did he, however much sympathising with the Revolution, and however much seeing the world through the eyes of the Red Guards, also look down on them from above as social riff-raff? I have my doubts. If we consider Blok’s own personality and history, we should note, echoing the murderously jealous Petrukha, that he was capable of expressing violent feelings in poetry, and obsessive infatuations in life, the latter to the extent, when he proposed marriage to his future wife in late1902, of threatening suicide as the one alternative to her acceptance. If rough Red Guards had wildness and passion, so did Blok.

JE Jury Annenkov storming the winter palace 1920

It would be absurd, I suggest, to stress-test the poem for socialist purity of outlook. Its special blend of romanticism and realism expresses a personal vision, which has retained its potency for a whole century, and is likely to continue to do so. And the fact that Blok’s profound attachment to the revolution suffered later knocks in his last years, amid civil war, external military interventions, shortages, privations and censorship, cannot detract from his poetic response to it in January 1918. The Twelve evidences the truth of words that had once come from his pen: ‘The greatest thing that lyrical poetry can achieve is to enrich the soul and complicate experience…’ On 8 January, when he began the poem, he wrote this in his diary: 'All day – The Twelve – An inward trembling.' On 29 January, when the poem was finished, its final stanza having delivered the peaceful image of Jesus Christ ahead of the marching men, he recorded: ‘I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.’

The poem first appeared in early March 1918 in a Bolshevik newspaper. Jack Lindsay wrote in his introduction to his own translation that it had ‘an immediate and vast effect. Phrases from it were endlessly repeated; hoardings and banners all over Russia bore extracts’. It became ‘the folklore of the revolutionary street’.

In November 1918 The Twelve was published in its own right in Petrograd, adorned with Yuri Annenkov’s drawings. Forsyth states simply that it ‘became accepted as the essential expression of the Revolution, not only in Russia, where readers were either excited or disgusted by it, but also abroad’. The Twelve, extraordinary as it is, and inseparably connected with the Revolution, will continue to capture and enthuse readers before releasing them, charged with a memory which is not so easily released.