LITHUANIAN QUARTERLY JOURNAL OF ARTS AND SCIENCES
Volume 42, No.4 - Winter 1996
Editor of this issue: Dalia Kučėnas
Copyright © 1996 LITUANUS Foundation, Inc.
JURGIS BALTRUŠAITIS AS RESCUER OF RUSSIAN POETS AND ARTISTS FROM BOLSHEVIK PERSECUTION
KAZYS (CASIMIR) NORKELIŪNAS
Jurgis Baltrušaitis was a Russian-Lithuanian poet, one of the original founders of Russian Symbolism. His overall contributions to the Silver Age of Russian Culture were not insignificant. Yet to this date, he is insufficiently known or appreciated in English-speaking countries. From 1899 to 1911, Baltrušaitis was closely associated with the Symbolist Movement, its publishing house "Skorpion" and the literary journal Vesy. As a poet of Russian Symbolism, he occupies a unique place. Stylistically, Baltrušaitis is a refined bard of mystical-metaphysical verse, somewhat akin to William Blake. His philosophical, idealistic poetry has assured him a significant place in the annals of twentieth-century Russian literature.
Poetry as a witness to history occupies an important role in the professional career and artistic life of Jurgis Baltrušaitis, as it does in Boris Pasternak's and Anna Akhmatova's, for example. As a famous Russian symbolist, widely known in the pre-revolutionary culture ferment, i.e., in the Silver Age, Baltrušaitis is remembered not only as a poet, but also as a diplomat of the highest caliber. It is in his capacity as Lithuania's Ambassador to Moscow from 1920 to 1939, that he achieves importance in Russian, Lithuanian and European histories, both diplomatic and literary. To quote Joseph E. Davies, U.S. Ambassador to Soviet Russia (1935-1943) who met Baltrušaitis in Moscow, Davies has this to say about him: "...I found the Minister Baltrušaitis was a great admirer of Edgar Allan Poe and had translated his works into Russian". (Davies, p. 142) The occasion prompting this remark is recorded in Davies' famous diaries (Mission to Moscow) in the entry for June 29, 1937: "in the evening we had a dinner for 36 in honor of the Lithuanian Minister, a poet, quite famous and a great friend of the U.S.A."
Students and experts of Russian Symbolism are well aware of Baltrušaitis's contributions to the movement and his role in the founding of the "Skorpion" publishing house and the magazine Vesy. We will not attempt to elaborate on these contributions in this work. The occasion calls for a solid review of his impact on Russian literary history during the post-revolutionary period, at the period of the creation of the Bolshevik State. Briefly and to the point, Baltrušaitis saved many of his Russian fellow poets and intellectual friends form Lenin's deliberate campaign to exterminate the intelligentsia, as promulgated in the Secret Decree of June, 1922, ordering anti-Bolshevik artists" to be driven out of Russia.
The following is a roster of nineteen (and an incomplete number as such) famous Russian poets who were active at the time of the Revolution, regardless of their ideological orientations or political attitudes towards the Bolsheviks: 1. Alexander Blok, 2. Nicholai Gumilev, 3. Velimir Khlebnikov, 4. Konstantine Bal'mont, 5. Zinaida Gippius, 6. Vladislav Khodasevich, 7. Vyacheslav Ivanov, 8. Georgi Ivanov, 9. Valery Briusov, 10. Andrey Bely, 11. Sergey Esenin, 12. Vladimir Majakovsky, 13. Marina Tsvetaeva, 14. Fyodor Sologub, 15. Mikhail Kuzmin, 16. Anna Akhmatova, 17. Boris Pasternak, 18. Nikolai Kliuev, 19. Isaac Babel. This is just a meager segment of victims' of Lenin's and Stalin's terror perpetrated on Russia's most talented artists.
Baltrušaitis protected, saved or rescued many prominent Russians from destruction. He did this in his official capacity as Lithuania's Chief Ambassador to Moscow, (from 1920 to 1939). In the reminiscences and memoirs of artists that made it safely to the West, we find frequent reference to Baltrušaitis' heroism. Boris Zaitsev, a well-known novelist and short story writer, in his memoirs Dalekoe, (The Distant Past) related how Baltrušaitis saved the life of Konstantine Bal'mont, the famous "decadent" symbolist poet and a close personal friend. Bal'mont's life was endangered when he publicly denounced the idea of using art for political propaganda, as per the theory of "Social Realism". When the Cheka (the secret police) questioned him about his political loyalties, Bal'mont retorted that he belonged to only one political party and that was the "Party of the Poet". With that answer, Bal'mont's fate would have been sealed, if not for Baltrušaitis. (Zaitsev, pp. 45-46) To quote Zaitsev, "...in 1921 Bal'mont went abroad. His true friend, Baltrušaitis, who was then the Envoy to Moscow, obtained for him a permit to leave the country, thereby saving Bal'mont's life". (Berberova, pp. 268-69) A year or so later, Baltrušaitis drew up similar papers for Boris Zaitsev and his family, permitting them to flee Russia.
A similar situation develops in the case of Andrey Bely in that he needed Baltrušaitis' assistance to emigrate. Bely became disillusioned with both the Bolsheviks and their restrictions on literature. In 1921, Bely got as far as Kaunas, Lithuania, a safe distance from the Bolshevik regime. His plans at the time were to go to Berlin and from there proceeded to Switzerland to continue his collaboration with Rudolf Steiner. It is with the direct assistance of Baltrušaitis that Bely was issued a visa to travel and live in Berlin. To quote Konstantin Mochulsky, pp. 222-3):
Finally with the help of the Lithuanian ambassador [to Moscow] the poet [symbolist] J.K. Baltrušaitis, a German visa was obtained, and Bely departed for Berlin.
Baltrušaitis' and Bely's close professional collaboration went back to the founding of Vesy in 1904; both were members of the journal's editorial staff.
Perhaps the most dramatic account is Baltrušaitis' attempt to save Osip Mandelstam. Of the poets that were hounded and persecuted by Stalin, Mandelstam's is the most harrowing case. Mandelstam bitterly opposed Bolshevism. At an informal gathering in 1934, at the Moscow apartment of Boris Pasternak, Mandelstam recited scathing verses insulting to Stalin. The poem which does not explicitly mention the dictator by name, runs like this:
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boots gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders
Fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broadchested Ossete.
After the arrest for this poem about Stalin, Mandelstam was in danger of being executed. To save him from this fate, a number of prominent people interceded on his behalf, including Baltrušaitis. In her classical memoir, Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda, Osip Mandelstam's widow, provided the drama of the events:
At a congress of journalists taking place in Moscow just at that time, Baltrušaitis frantically made the rounds of the delegates and, invoking the memory of Gumilev who was shot in 1921, begged them to save M. from a similar fate. I can imagine how this combination of names sounded to the ears of our hard-bitten journalists of those years, but Baltrušaitis was a citizen of a foreign country and they could scarcely expect him to be impressed by the suggestion that it was better not to "get involved". Baltrušaitis had long before had a presentiment of what M.'s end would be. At the very beginning of the twenties (in 1921, before the execution of Gumilev) he had urged M. to take out Lithuanian citizenship. This would have been quite feasible, since M.'s father had once lived in Lithuania and M. even went so far as to hunt out some papers and take them round to Baltrušaitis, but then he thought better of it: you can't escape your fate and better not try. (Mandelstam, p. 27)
Well, we know that these efforts were abortive, Stalin made sure of that. There are other cases of Baltrušaitis' diplomatic intercession on behalf of fellow artists. Marc Chagall, the expressionist, famous Russian-Jewish painter, also had lost favor with the Bolsheviks. The government withdrew financial support because his art was considered decadent. Chagall made many efforts to emigrate abroad and finally succeeded with the aid of Maxim Gorki and Demian Bedny. Both writers, politically close to the new regime, prevailed on A. V. Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar of Culture and Education, to issue Chagall an exit visa. Baltrušaitis' role, in Chagall's case, was different from his other involvement. He helped save over forty major Chagall paintings belonging to the artist's early period. Baltrušaitis did this by permitting the paintings to be shipped by diplomatic pouch via a courier to Lithuania. The account is given to us in Sidney Alexander's Marc Chagall, (p. 241) Baltrušaitis therefore, saved Chagall's early work by sending it to the free West.
The recent biography of Victoria Schweitzer on Marina Tsvetaeva gives us another factual entry on Baltrušaitis' efforts to get Tsvetaeva out of Russia. In 1921, Tsvetaeva wanted to get a travel visa to Riga, Latvia and from there make the attempt to join her husband, Sergey Efron, at that time living in Berlin. The prospect of departing Russia was undertaken by Baltrušaitis to procure a visa sometime in October of 1921. With much personal indecision and delay, Tsvetaeva did not depart Moscow until May 11, 1922 and successfully traveled via Riga to Berlin where she joined Sergey. All indications of the success of this enterprise point to the diplomatic service rendered by Baltrušaitis to one of the most important women poets of this century. (Schweitzer, pp. 216-18)
In an article by Leonid' Sabaneev entitled "My Meetings: the Decadence", appearing in Memoirs From the Silver Age, we find the mention of Baltrušaitis' close working association with Vyacheslav Ivanov during the early period of the Bolshevik regime. The two men worked for Lunacharsky's Peoples' Commissariat of Culture and Education. It is that section of Sabaneev's article that seems to be indicating Baltrušaitis' efforts to get Ivanov to leave Russia as well (i.e. to emigrate abroad). (Kreid, pp. 348-52) By the way, in 1918, Baltrušaitis was elected President of the Soviet Russian Writers' Union and Chaired its Section of Theater Performance, known as T.E.O. (Terras, p. 38) (Khodasevich, p. 347).
In 1922, he also helped two more friends escape Soviet Russia, the accomplished poet-critic Vladislav Khodasevich and his wife Nina Berberova. She writes about Baltrušaitis in her memoir The Italics Are Mine. (Berberova, p. 146).
The story was personally related to me by Nina Berberova herself, when she taught Russian at Yale University in 1961. At that time, I was taking a course in advanced conversation-composition Russian in which we did a great deal of reading and writing. The corrected homework was religiously handed back at the next class meeting. It was a relatively small group of students, about 12, meeting every day for two hours for six weeks. I remember Professor Berberova being impatient with students whose papers where sprinkled with corrections in scarlet. My performance in the class was average, but she never lost her patience or got angry with me. At that time, I wondered to myself why I was being spared!
We were all in awe of Professor Berberova. Her high level of cultural sophistication came through in the manner she conducted herself and her class. If we were reading Chekhov or Turgenev, or stories by other Russian writers, she would embellish the topics with the erudition and interesting anecdotes. There was a Russian table that summer at the university dining hall where those pursuing Russian language, met during lunch for practice with their professors.
Nina Berberova frequented these conversation sessions. At times she would reminisce on the pre-revolutionary Russian world of art and literature, of which she was a participant. It was on one occasion, towards the end of the semester, that Professor Berberova asked me to see her after class. I felt intimidated and anxious regarding this request to meet. It immediately occurred to me that my work might not be on par with the rest of the class and that I would be taken to task for my shortcomings. Berberova could be rather sharp in her correction of mistakes in the language. I hoped that I would not be reprimanded. As it turned out, she asked me if I would have lunch with her.
Nina Berberova said that she wanted to share some private thoughts with me and asked whether or not I had ever heard of Yury Kazimirovich Baltrušaitis or read any of his poetry. My answer was affirmative to knowing of and having read some of his poetry, but in Lithuanian, not Russian. And I followed up with the comment that when I am fluent in Russian I will read his Russian verse. During lunch, Berberova related part of the story about Yury Kazimirovich, as she called him. Nina said I would appreciate hearing it, because I was majoring in Russian language and literature and also because I was Lithuanian. In detail, she narrated how Baltrušaitis had helped draw up legal papers for Vladislav Khodasevich, her husband, and her permitting them to leave Moscow. This resulted in their safe passage abroad to Prague. Later the two established themselves in Paris, safe from Lenin's persecution of Russian intelligentsia.
In conclusion, Baltrušaitis may not be on the same scale as Schindler, but in a modest way he did save a number of Russian artists from Bolshevik repression and persecution in his diplomatic capacity as Lithuania's Ambassador to Moscow. As for Nina Berberova's influence on my career as a scholar of Russian literature, specialist in Russian symbolism, Baltrušaitis was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and has become a life long pursuit.
Alexander, Sidney. Marc Chagall: A Bibliography. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.
Berberova, Nina. The Italics are Mine. New York: Harcourt, Brace World, Inc., 1966.
Davies, Joseph, E. Mission to Moscow. New York: Pocket Books, Inc., 1941.
Khodasevich, Vladislav. Literaturnye stati i vospominanya. New York: Chekhov Publishing House, 1954.
Kreid, V. Vospominaniia o Serebrianom Veke (Memoirs form the Silver Age). Moskva: "Respublika", 1993.
Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope. New York: Athenaeum, 1976.
Mochulsky, Konstantin. Andrėj Belyj. Paris: YMCA Press, 1955.
Schweitzer, Viktoria. Tsvetaeva. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992.
Terras, Victor. Handbook of Russian Literature. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Zaitsev, Boris. Dalekoe. Washington D.C.: Inter-language Literary Associates, 1965.