Speak for Yourself
In 1963, in response to public denunciations of work said to be both anti-Soviet and pornographic, the secretariat of the city’s Writers Union recommended that criminal charges be filed against the Leningrad poet Joseph Brodsky. Despite being self-taught, Brodsky had succeeded by the year of his denunciation in earning a modest income translating children’s poems and in performing his poems regularly at readings around the city. But neither his salary nor his art was enough to escape suspicion.
Brodsky’s writing wasn’t explicitly anti-Soviet or satirical, but a crackdown was in the air. A Leningrad thug named Yakov Lerner seized the opportunity to single out an enterprising, uneducated, Jewish poet for persecution and condemnation, and Brodsky was put on trial for parasitism in 1964.
Yevgenia Savelyeva, the judge in the case, excoriated Brodsky for his demeanor, behavior, sloth, and meanness. She tried to goad Brodsky into breaking down or blowing up, but Brodsky weathered the judge’s anger with equanimity.
In response to a suggestion by the defense that Brodsky might be mentally ill (and might thereby avoid further imprisonment), Brodsky was institutionalized in the “violent ward” of Leningrad’s Psychological Hospital Number Two, located on the banks of the Pryazhka River. There, Brodsky was tortured. Yanked from his bed in the middle of the night, as Brodsky biographer Lev Loseff describes, Brodsky was “plunged into a coldwater bath, wrapped in wet sheets, and set down next to the radiator. The sheets, contracting as they dried, bit into his flesh. It’s not clear why he was subjected to [this].”
After Brodsky was released from Pryazhka, his trial resumed. He was sentenced to the most severe possible penalty: five years of hard labor in exile from Leningrad. Brodsky had been institutionalized, declared an enemy of progress and of the state, and banished to the Arkhangelsk region thousands of miles away in the Arctic circle, all for the crime of being a self-taught poet. He was 23 years old.
In exile, Brodsky continued his education alone.
His home in Arkhangelsk was spare: a single-room structure, a straw mattress, a metal bucket. Using a desk made out of boards and a typewriter brought to him by friends, Brodsky wrote when he wasn’t splitting wood or hauling water or reading. Above the desk was a shelf filled with poetry, including some by Robert Frost and W. H. Auden. Brodsky wrote, revised, and improved, upending the terms of his punishment through a mode of resistance that Brodsky had practiced in court in Leningrad and would return to again and again throughout his life: the individual’s duty to resist evil through individuality, through individuation. From this tenet, Brodsky never wavered.
Meanwhile, a transcript of Brodsky’s trial had been smuggled out of the country, and the response was immediate and global. The American poet John Berryman wrote a poem about Brodsky, and the BBC broadcast a radio play of the trial highlighting the quiet dignity Brodsky showed in the face of bureaucratic cruelty. The story challenged elements of the pro-Soviet, Western left and gave powerful validation to anti-Communist forces with the tale of a woebegone poet—a poet!—treated so harshly for so few words.
Returned from exile early due to complaints from, among others, Jean-Paul Sartre, Brodsky continued to write in Leningrad. He published some poems in Russia and many more abroad. He resumed his on-again, off-again relationship with Marina Basmanova, and the couple had a son, Andrei, in 1967. But the world was watching Brodsky now, and that meant that the Soviet government was watching, too. In 1971, Brodsky was twice invited to emigrate to Israel. Then in 1972, he was warned by Soviet authorities to leave while he still could. He would never see Basmanova or his parents ever again.
On the day he left the U.S.S.R. and flew to Vienna—June 4—Brodsky wrote a letter to General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev. In it, Brodsky wrote: “From evil, anger, hate—even if justified—we none of us profit. We all face the same sentence. Death. I who write these lines will die; you who read them will, too. It’s hard enough to exist in this world—there’s no need to make it any harder.”
(TOP LEFT) Ellendea Proffer Teasley’s memoir Brodsky Among Us was published in April. Photo courtesy of Ellendea Proffer Teasley. (ABOVE RIGHT) A portrait of Brodsky’s friend and advocate Anna Akhmatova by N. I. Altman. Photo 12/Getty Images. (BOTTOM LEFT) A letter to writer Nadezhda Mandelstam opened the doors of Russia’s literati to the Profers. Photo Heritage Images/Getty Images.
The American scholars Carl and Ellendea Proffer were with Brodksy when he received word that it would be better if he left the U.S.S.R., and the professor immediately promised the poet a position at U-M. When he arrived in Ann Arbor, Brodsky became the University of Michigan’s second poet-in-residence. The first had been Robert Frost, whose books had companioned Brodsky in his exile.
Carl Proffer (A.B. 1960, M.A. ’61, Ph.D. ’63) started at Michigan as a basketball player. He arrived ready to play but found himself relegated to the bench during his freshman year. Casting about for purpose, Proffer took classes in Russian language and later in Russian literature, both of which he developed powerful and proselytizing passions for.
As a graduate student, Proffer made the first of many trips to the U.S.S.R. during some of the most intense years of the Cold War. (Proffer’s first trip took place the same year as the Cuban Missile Crisis.) He received the first Ph.D. in Slavic studies ever awarded by the College of LSA, and in 1972 Proffer became the youngest full professor in the University’s history at 34 years of age.
What Proffer and his wife, Ellendea, found on their many visits to the Soviet Union was a civilization fundamentally unlike their own and a creative class held hostage by government censors. In a 2014 speech, Ellendea Proffer Teasley described the U.S.S.R. as “an 11-time-zone prison,” a land where “a thin crust of culture [spread] over a volcano of peasant emotion.”
Members of the Soviet intelligentsia were naturally distrustful of foreign academics, and connections were slow in coming. But in the late 1960s, the Proffers received a letter of introduction to Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of poet Osip and an important writer in her own right. Mandelstam opened the doors of a wide range of poets, artists, scholars, and thinkers in Moscow and around the country to the Proffers. The couple quickly charted the connections between many of the U.S.S.R.’s most important published and unpublished writers. Then, they brought Brodsky to Ann Arbor.
With improving but still rusty English and no formal pedagogical training, Brodsky did what he knew—he read and discussed poems and literature. On the first day of class, he often handed out a voluminous list of suggested readings including, among many others, the Bhagavad Gita, the Gilgamesh Epic, the Old Testament, Saint Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Martin Luther, John Calvin, Dante, Petrarch, Arthur Schopenhauer, Søren Kierkegaard, Alexis de Tocqueville, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Italo Calvino, and 44 poets including Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and poet and translator Nikolay Zabolotsky.
Sven Birkerts, a student who later became a literary critic, described in his memoir the experience of studying with Joseph Brodsky:
Poetry was not something to be ‘gotten,’ mastered, and regurgitated in paraphrase. It was not something notched on the belt of attainments. It was, rather, a struggle waged in fear and trembling, an encounter with the very stuff of language that might put our core assumptions about existence into jeopardy. Brodsky would bring his students—us—into the arena, but he would not fight our battles for us.
In his poem “In the Lake District,” Brodsky describes his own experience with a smirk: “the function/to which I’d been appointed was to wear out/the patience of ingenuous youth.”
At the same time that Joseph Brodsky was forced to flee the U.S.S.R., the Proffers were starting a publishing house in Ann Arbor—in their own home, in fact—with the purpose of publishing English translations of Russian literature, scholarship on Russian literature, and books in Russian that were not available elsewhere—including volumes that had been explicitly banned in the U.S.S.R.
First at their townhouse on Watersedge Drive and later at their larger home on Heatherway, the Proffers edited, arranged, and printed Ardis books. Using an IBM Selectric Composer to print their first editions, Ardis’s volumes were published to acclaimed reviews, and copies soon became must-haves for Russian readers abroad and for those who could get access to copies that had been smuggled into the Soviet Union.
Ardis became the Russian-language publisher for all of Vladimir Nabokov’s Russian works, all of Brodsky’s poetry, and standout contemporary Russian literature of the period such as Sasha Sokolov’s School for Fools. Ardis became a haven for writers who insisted on individual expression in a country where there was tremendous pressure against speaking one’s mind openly.
Ardis also acted as a support network for Russian émigré writers in Ann Arbor, leading to strange juxtapositions in which Ardis employees might typeset Joseph Brodsky’s poetry one day and drive the poet to a driver’s exam the next. One employee chauffeured Sasha Sokolov to an emergency dental appointment and, another day, accompanied the novelist to hear his first bluegrass music at the Pretzel Bell.
Ardis employees also became messengers on trips of their own to the U.S.S.R. Using diplomatic pouches mailed to and picked up from the American Embassy, Ardis coordinated the delivery of books and medicine to friends in the Soviet Union. Visitors were often instructed to “accidentally” leave a camera or a tape recorder behind at someone’s house—items that could then be sold on the black market and used to pay for travel, medical care, or both.
Due to Carl and Ellendea’s tireless efforts and a rotating cast of faculty, graduate students, Russian émigrés, and friends, the publishing house became a beacon for Russian literature in the 1970s and after, preserving many essential Russian-language books that might have otherwise vanished from history.
(TOP LEFT) Brodsky ties his shoe on the morning of his departure from Leningrad in 1972. Photo by Lev Poliakov. (BOTTOM LEFT) The famous Kresty (lit. Crosses) Prison where Joseph Brodsky was held during his trial for “parasitism.” Photo Kirill Kudrjavtsev/ AFP/Getty Images. (RIGHT) Brodsky in New York. More than a decade after leaving Russia, Brodsky did briefly reunite with his son, Andrei, who visited him in the city. Photo Olga Maltseva/AFP/ Getty Images.
“We were in service to the culture,” says Proffer Teasley. “We knew our life’s work, and we were lucky to know it.”
Following the publication of a controversial anthology titled Metropole in 1979, the Proffers were banned from returning to the U.S.S.R. Then, in 1982, Carl Proffer learned he had cancer. The diagnosis was terminal. He died in 1984, leaving behind his wife, four children, innumerable bereaved colleagues, and writers and readers all over the world whose most cherished books might have been ignored or lost without the work Carl and Ellendea did together at Ardis.
In his eulogy for Proffer, Brodsky said: “In terms of Russian literature, Carl Proffer might be compared to Gutenberg. That is, he invented a printing press. By publishing Russian originals and English translations that might have otherwise never seen the light of day, he saved many Russian writers and poets from obscurity and distortion, from neurosis and despair. Moreover, he changed the very climate of Russian literature. Writers whose works had been rejected or banned now felt themselves freer because they knew that for better or for worse, they could send a piece to Ardis.”
In 1977, Brodsky moved to Greenwich Village, teaching in New York and, later, in Massachusetts. He became one of the most famous Russian émigrés in the country, and his reputation as a major figure in world literature only increased as subsequent volumes of his writing emerged. In his own words, Brodsky described himself as “a Russian poet, an American citizen, and a Jew.”
Brodsky petitioned again and again to have his parents visit him in America, seeking influence from academics and diplomats, to no avail. Twelve times his mother and father applied for permission from the Soviet government to visit their son, and 12 times they were denied. The language of the denials stated that such trips were not “purposeful.” Brodsky’s mother, Maria Moiseevna, died on March 17, 1983, and his father, Aleksandr Ivanovich, passed a little over a year later. Neither saw Brodsky again, and neither lived to see him win the Nobel.
Due to its secret nature, the shortlist for the 1987 Nobel Prize in Literature is not definitively known, but rumored to be on it were Camilo José Cela, V. S. Naipaul, Octavio Paz, Seamus Heaney, and Brodsky. All of the members of this rumored list would eventually go on to win the Nobel, but Brodsky would be first.
The poet was eating lunch with the literary thriller writer John le Carré when he learned that he had won the prize. Brodsky broke off the meal and took a moment outside. Then, according to le Carré, Brodsky wrapped the Brit up in “a big Russian hug,” and told him, “Now for a year of being glib.”
Brodsky’s essays and speeches from his years in America are a vital part of his literary legacy, drawing on influences from Auden and George Orwell, mixing personal recollection and political reflection. A recurring theme in Brodksy’s nonfiction is that of a personal resistance to evil, including the importance of forging one’s own path in troubled times. A telling example comes in a commencement address Brodsky gave at Williams College:
[T]he surest defense against Evil is extreme individualism, originality of thinking, whimsicality, even—if you will—eccentricity. That is, something that can’t be feigned, faked, imitated; something even a seasoned impostor couldn’t be happy with. Something, in other words, that can’t be shared, like your own skin[.]
Brodsky lived his final years teaching, writing, traveling, giving speeches, meeting with friends. He married an Italian-Russian, Maria Sozzani, in 1990, and three years later the couple had a daughter, Anna.
On January 27, 1996, Brodsky told his wife that he was going to stay up and work a bit more. His wife found him the following morning in his study where he had died of natural causes, a blank piece of paper on his desk alongside a single cigarette and a volume of the Loeb Classical Library’s Greek Anthology. Brodsky was buried in the Protestant section of a cemetery in San Michele, Venice, Italy, within earshot of the Adriatic. His grave is carved with a line from the Augustan poet Propertius: Letum non omnia finit. Death is not the end.