Joseph Brodsky and the Fortunes of Misfortune

110523_r20902_p465 Keith Gessen in The New Yorker:

In the fall of 1963, in Leningrad, in what was then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, the young poet Dmitry Bobyshev stole the young poet Joseph Brodsky’s girlfriend. This was not cool. Bobyshev and Brodsky were close friends. They often appeared, in alphabetical order, at public readings around Leningrad. Bobyshev was twenty-seven and recently separated from his wife; Brodsky was twenty-three and intermittently employed. Along with two other promising young poets, they’d been dubbed “the magical chorus” by their friend and mentor Anna Akhmatova, who believed that they represented a rejuvenation of the Russian poetic tradition after the years of darkness under Stalin. When Akhmatova was asked which of the young poets she most admired, she named just two: Bobyshev and Brodsky.

The young Soviets felt the sixties even more deeply than their American and French counterparts, for, while the Depression and the Occupation were bad, Stalinism was worse. After Stalin died, the Soviet Union began inching toward the world again. The ban on jazz was lifted. Ernest Hemingway was published; the Pushkin Museum in Moscow hosted an exhibit of the works of Picasso. In 1959, Moscow gave space to an exhibition of American consumer goods, and my father, also a member of this generation, tasted Pepsi for the first time.

The libido had been liberated, but where was it supposed to go? People lived with their parents. Their parents, in turn, lived with other parents, in what were known as communal apartments. “We never had a room of our own to lure our girls into, nor did our girls have rooms,” Brodsky later wrote from his American exile. He had half a room, separated from his parents’ room by bookshelves and some curtains. “Our love affairs were mostly walking and talking affairs; it would make an astronomical sum if we were charged for mileage.” The woman with whom Brodsky had been walking and talking for two years, the woman who broke up the magical chorus, was Marina Basmanova, a young painter. Contemporaries describe her as enchantingly silent and beautiful. Brodsky dedicated some of the Russian language’s most powerful love poetry to her. “I was only that which / you touched with your palm,” he wrote, “over which, in the deaf, raven-black / night, you bent your head. . . . / I was practically blind. / You, appearing, then hiding, / taught me to see.”

Almost unanimously, people in their circle condemned Bobyshev. Not because of the affair—who didn’t have affairs?—but because, as soon as Bobyshev began to pursue Basmanova, Brodsky began to be pursued by the authorities.