On this date in 1937, Elena Aleksandrovna Vasilieva arrived to Moscow’s Lefortovo Prison to visit her husband, “peasant poet” Pavel Vasiliev.
“He’s been transferred to another place,” she was told.
He had been: six feet under, that very day.
Vasiliev hailed from a Cossack family in Kazakhstan, and he would fight his short life’s literary battles with a pugnacity reflecting his youthful work as a sailor and gold miner in Siberia. He was renowned for his boozing and carousing.
The early 20th century “peasant” literary movement was just the place for him.
While the Futurists waxed eloquent over the wonders of the new machine age, the peasant writers and poets were moved by a strong revulsion for industrialization … [and glorified the village and longed to return to the simple life of rural Russia. At the same time the futility of their dream was evident even to them, and their writings are often of a tragic bent.
And bents tended towards tragedy in the 1930s.
A little too outspoken for his own good, Vasiliev openly defended Nikolay Bukharin (arrested in February 1937) as “the conscience of peasant Russia,” and characterized the politically expedient denunciations made by fellow scribblers as “pornographic scrawls on the margins of Russian literature.”
It’s a remark that would age a lot better than the man who uttered it.
The admiration of many contemporaries — Pasternak considered Vasiliev brilliant (see this Russian biography; most of the information about Vasiliev online is in Russian) — could hardly aid a man coming under official fire for “kulak bohemian ideology.” Vasiliev did prison stints (Russian again) in the early 1930s for counter-revolutionary writing, and then for “malicious hooliganism” after whaling on a former friend who had denounced him in print.
I accept the title of a rumbler,
If the brattle of gusli is thunder.**
Pavel scorned the warning, leaving his widowed Elena to husband his many unpublished verses until they could finally be published (and the poet rehabilitated) in the 1950s, after Stalin died.
* The most famous poet of this school was Sergei Yesenin, whose death at the end of a hangman’s rope at age 30 is unfortunately not eligible for this site … since Yesenin put up the rope himself. Live fast, die young, and leave a beautiful corpse.
** Thanks to Sonechka for the translation assist.