September 01, 2010

Sergei Yesenin

when i was a child you could buy a portrait of Sergei Yesenin not just in bookstores, but all over town. It was a famous photograph of the poet with a pipe in his mouth, a contemplative look in his eyes, and magnificent curls. The photograph had been reproduced on some soft, synthetic material and given a glossy finish. It came equipped with a table-top backing so that it could stand in a place of prominence in the home, perhaps in the china cabinet among porcelain elephants.

This portrait with its interesting design absolutely captivated me and I repeatedly begged my parents to buy one. Their refusals hid a poorly concealed disgust. It took a few years before I was able to appreciate how revolting the triumphant banality of this glossy little portrait was.

Beginning in the 1960s, a cult of Yesenin literally swept the country. It was the second edition of his work that was causing all the uproar. The first edition had come out during the 1920s, when the young heartthrob with the wavy, golden locks was on everyone’s lips. Some liked his early, semi-pagan verse, others reveled in the rumors about his wives and lovers, his endless drunken brawls, and his trips across Europe and America with his best-known wife – the American dancer Isadora Duncan. The Soviet authorities enthusiastically welcomed Yesenin’s later “pro-Soviet” verse and turned a blind eye to his earlier anti-Bolshevik pronouncements. They needed someone from the countryside in their camp.

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