Here’s how my story begins: At the end of August 1966, the young Russian poet Joseph Brodsky was in low spirits. He was having trouble readjusting to Leningrad life on his return from 18 months of exile doing hard labor near the Arctic Circle. Brodsky’s crime was “having a worldview damaging to the state” and “social parasitism . . . except for the writing of awful poems.” There were romantic troubles besides. A colleague was worried, and kept in touch with him while traveling. One night he telephoned Brodsky from Lithuania, where he was staying with friends in Vilnius. “Let him come over here. We are all in a good mood here,” urged the Lithuanian host, Ramūnas Katilius. Brodsky arrived before noon the next day, and even held two readings at the apartment during his stay. Thus began a lifelong friendship with the Katilius family and a long romance with Lithuania, a comparative refuge during the dying years of the Soviet empire. Eventually, Brodsky gained recognition as Russia’s greatest postwar poet and, in exile, a controversial titan on the New York literary scene who taught at several U.S. universities.
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