Photographers Unknown, Night Was Done
После ночи целовались,
После ночи, полной ласк.
На сервизе лиловатом,
Будто с гостем, будто с братом,
Пили чай, не снявши маск.
Наши маски улыбались,
Наши взоры не встречались,
И уста наши немы.
Пели «Фауста», играли,
Будто ночи мы не знали,
Те, ночные, те — не мы.
Night was done. We rose and after
Washing, dressing, — kissed with laughter, —
After all the sweet night knows.
Lilac breakfast cups were clinking
While we sat like brothers drinking
Tea, — and kept our dominoes.
And our dominoes smiled greeting,
And our eyes avoided meeting
With our dumb lips’ secrecy.
“Faust” we sang, we played, denying
Night’s strange memories, strangely dying,
As though night’s twain were not we.
Mikhail Kuzmin, Night was Done. We Rose and After…, 1906
Translated by Babette Deutsch and Avrahm Yarmolinsky
Born in October of 1872 in Yaroslavi, Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin was a Russian poet, musician and novelist who was a prominent contributor to the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, an exceptionally creative period of poetry at the turn of the twentieth-century. Born into a noble family, he grew up in St. Petersburg where he studied music at its Conservatory under Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov, known for his mastery of orchestration.
Although the main focus of his career became poetry, Mikhail Kuzmin still retained his interest in music. He composed the music for theatrical producer Vsevolod Meyerhold’s 1906 production of Alexander Blok’s play “Balaganchik (The Fair Show Booth)”. Kuzmin’s personal compositions, sung while playing the piano, were popular in the city’s salons, such as The Stray Dog cafe and Ivanov’s Tower, the most famous of St.Petersburg’s literary salons and a major intelligentsia gathering place owned by the poet Vyacheslav Ivanov and his wife. Kuzmin was charismatic and well-liked, and the fact that he was open about his many relationships and trysts did not damage his social standing.
One of Kuzmin’s closest friends and a major influence as a young man was the aristocrat Georgy Chicherin, a distant relative of Aleksandr Pushkin and a passionate supporter of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche and composer Wilhelm Wagner. In his youth, Kuzmin made pilgrimages to Egypt, Italy, and northern Russia with the Old Believers, a Russian Orthodox Church sect which maintained its old liturgy and traditions. Settling in St. Petersburg, he began, at the age of thirty-two, to associate with the art circle centered around the art magazine Mir Iskusstva or World of Art, which introduced Russian artists to the European art movements.
Mikhail Kuzmin’s first work, “The Green Collection of Verse and Prose”, was published in 1905; this work was seen by writer and critic Valery Bryusov who invited Kuzmin to publish in the literary magazine Vesy. Kuzmin published two works in 1906: his most celebrated work, “Alexandrian Songs”, a collection of free verse love songs with homosexual undertones, and his first erotic novel, “Wings”, a story of a young man in St. Petersburg learning to accept his homosexuality. Told with Platonic subtexts, the novel caused a scandal but was immensely popular. Kuzmin’s writing style earned praise from the critics, which protected it from prosecution in the Tsar’s crumbling regime.
Kuzmin’s work, original and philosophical with a simple unpretentious style, set him apart from his Symbolist contemporaries’ writings. With the success of his publications, Kuzmin became a member of Russia’s cultural elite, his work sought by prestigious journals and publishers. In 1908, Kuzmin published “Seti (Nets)”, his first collection of one-hundred poems which was widely acclaimed. He was living in that year with set-design artist Serge Sudeikin and Sudeikin’s first wife, Olga Glebova; however, he was asked to move out after Olga discovered the affair between Kuzmin and her husband.
In February of 1913, Mikhail Kuzmin met in Kiev the seventeen-year old writer and painter Yuri Yurkun, who would remain his lover until Kuzmin’s death. They lived in St. Petersburg with Yurkun’s mother in a communal apartment. Yurkun was arrested in 1918 by the Bolsheviks and detained for a brief period. Two years later, Yurkun met the young actress Olga Arbenina, who moved into the couple’s apartment and later married Yurkun. Kuzmin distanced himself from all political events after the Russian Revolution and continued writing; but it was clear that his writing was becoming less appreciated.
For the rest of his career, Kuzmin made his living primarily as a literary translator most notably of Shakespeare’s plays. The last volume of poetry Kuzmin published was the 1929 cycle of narrative and lyric poetry entitled “The Trout Breaks the Ice”, which except for two contemptuous reviews, was ignored by the Soviet press. Mikhail Kuzmin died in poverty of pneumonia in St. Petersburg, then Leningrad, in March of 1936. Two years later in 1938, Yuri Yurkun was arrested by the secret police and executed in a massive political purge.
At Kuzmin’s birthday ceremony in 1920, poet Alexander Blok expressed in his speech a wish that conditions be created in the future where a literary artist such as Kuzmin would have the right “to remain himself”. Considered by literary figures of his time to be a pioneer for a future age of sexual tolerance, Kuzmin became after the revolution a nonperson. The Soviet government for decades attempted to dismiss Kuzmin’s contributions to literature and kept his diaries from Western scholars.
The personal diaries Kuzmin kept from 1905 to 1934, previously published only in part, occupy a special place in his legacy and has been prized by historians of Russian culture for its unique intimate view of the country’s cultural life during that period. Interest in Kuzmin’s works and life was revived in the 1970s with the 1977 publication of a three-volume edition of his poetry, and a twelve-volume collection of his prose which was published between 1984 and 2000. Several editions of Kuzmin’s works also have been published in Russia since 1990.
Top Insert Photo: Photographer Unknown, “Mikail Kuzmin”, circa 1911
Second Insert Image: Aleksander Golovin, “Mikhail Kuzmin”, 1910 Oil on Canvas
Third Insert Image: Original Book Jacket, Hand-Colored Linocut by Ekaterina Turova for Mikhail Kuzmin’s 1913 “Dvum (For Two)”
Bottom Insert Image: Photographer Unknown, “Yuri Yurkun”, Date Unknown