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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

“The Scythian Odyssey:” A Polemic with Aleksandr Blok

29 March, 2005 - 00:00

Several years ago, the American translator and critic Michael Naydan published an intriguing article entitled “Inshi poety v tvorchosti Liny Kostenko” [Other Poets in the Works of Lina Kostenko] in the journal Suchasnist [Contemporaneity] (1994, No. 10). His article, which deals with inter-textual phenomena in Lina Kostenko’s poetry, mentions the name of Aleksandr Blok. “In one private conversation, Lina Kostenko mentioned her enduring regard for Blok: ‘Blok is my poet;’ ‘I have loved Blok since childhood.’ At the same time, she mentioned her profound dislike of Blok’s poem “The Scythians,” and complained that nobody had paid any attention to her polemic with Blok in her own poem entitled “The Scythian Odyssey.”

Lina Kostenko’s confession is the subject of these belated reflections on the polemic that the author of “The Scythian Odyssey” waged against the author of “The Scythians.”

Blok himself had mixed feelings about his poem: “I don’t like “The Scythians” all that much [compared to the poem “Twelve” — Author]: alongside poetic manifestos, it is boring!” Blok wrote “The Scythians” on January 30, 1918, one day after he completed his poem “Twelve.” The prominent Blok specialist Vladimir Orlov called “The Scythians” a “monumental revolutionary and patriotic ode.” By this time Blok had already made his definitive political and civic choice in favor of what he called “revolutionary music,” in which he discerned the sounds of historical catharsis.

Drained and exhausted by severe disappointments, Blok would die two and a half years later, but at the time he was caught up in the revolutionary storm, driven by a vision of a new world, a new individual, and a new culture.

The answer to the question about the mood and thoughts that spurred him to write “The Scythians” may be found in Blok’s diary entry of January 11, 1918: “The ‘result’ of the Brest negotiations: none. Very well. But the disgrace of three and a half years (‘war,’ ‘patriotism’) has to be washed away. Keep pointing at the map, you German scoundrel, dastardly bourgeois. Recoil in fear, England and France. We will fulfill our historical mission. If you fail to wash away the disgrace of military patriotism at least with ‘democratic peace,’ if you ruin our revolution, then you are no longer Aryans. And we will open wide the gates of the East. We watched you through the eyes of the Aryans until you had a face. And we will look into your mug with our sweeping, evil eye. We will muster barbarians and the East will spill out onto you. Your hides will be used for Chinese tambourines. The one who brought disgrace upon himself and became entangled in lies is no longer an Aryan. Are we barbarians? Well then. We will show you barbarians. And our brutal and savage response will be the only one worthy of a man.”

The angry and even aggressive mood of this entry, reflected in “The Scythians,” was addressed to Europe. Of course, it was not all about the specifics of this particular political juncture — in January 1918 the question of peace and war was decided in Brest — but also about the “revolutionary music” that was inflaming Blok’s imagination with visions of Russia’s ideal, socialist future. With his “Scythians” Blok joined the longstanding dispute between Russia and Europe. Without a doubt, at that moment Blok had Pushkin in his mind’s eye: “The Scythians” continued the tradition of Pushkin’s invectives entitled “To the Slanderers of Russia” and “The Anniversary of Borodino,” which are equally disdainful, angry, and aggressive. The empire spoke the words of Russia’s leading poet in 1830. Pushkin applauded the Russian army’s success in quashing the Polish uprising, and defied Europe, which sympathized with the Poles and condemned Russia’s military action as an act of imperialism. Pushkin recalled the snows of Borodino, Suvorov’s conquest of Warsaw, and the fact that there was enough free space in Russian fields beside the graves of Napoleon’s army.

Aleksandr Blok offers his opponents a “peaceful embrace,” but in an unconditional and categorical manner. “But if not — we have nothing to lose, // And we are not above treachery!” “Is it our fault if your skeleton cracks // In our heavy, tender paws?” The phrase, “You, German scoundrel, dastardly bourgeois,” that Blok wrote in his diary, referred to England and France. In a broader sense it is “the old world,” as Blok the revolutionary pictured the then bourgeois Europe.

The pathos of “The Scythians” lies in Blok’s assertion of Russia’s special, messianic mission, which is mysterious and incomprehensible to Europe: Russia the Sphinx and Russia — Scythia. In the epigraph to his poem, Blok quoted Vladimir Solovev, “Pan-Mongolism! A strange name // But pleasing to the ear,” but it is unlikely that he really considered his compatriots the direct descendants of Scythians, even though he wrote, “Yes, we are Scythians! Yes, we are Asians // With slanted and rapacious eyes!” Rather, in this case we are dealing with myth and metaphor. To us, Ukrainians, this is reminiscent of a metaphor coined by Mykola Khvylovy, who 7-8 years after Blok, dreamed of an “Asiatic renaissance,” believing that Ukraine’s mission was to serve as a gateway through which this renaissance would come to Spengler’s decadent Europe.

In her poem “The Scythian Odyssey” Lina Kostenko avoids engaging in a direct polemic with Blok. She is disputing his assertions in a latent manner. Her arguments primarily target Blok’s vision of history. If one accepts the assumption that Blok created myth and metaphor, then “The Scythian Odyssey” demythologizes Blok’s version of history. Even though it was said in the heat of a dispute, his assertion “Yes, we are Scythians!” sounded like an attempt by Russian consciousness to co-opt the pre-Christian history of Kyivan Rus (this statement is reinforced in his diary by the unexpected postscript: “We are the last Aryans”). Meanwhile, Lina Kostenko proceeds from the accounts of Herodotus, but does not confine herself exclusively to them. The plot of her poem follows the Homeric formula: it is a real odyssey, as it describes the adventures of an Olvian Greek in the Scythian steppes. He is a merchant, but has a little of Herodotus in him. The inquisitive Olvian traveler marvels at what he sees en route, admiring the foreign customs and skills, and different, non-Greek beauty. The epic flow of the poem is consistent with the slow movement of a boat: there is time to think, look around, and recall his homeland. Aside from the omnipresent goddesses who accompany the Greek on his journey, the author is always next to the traveler, adding her explanations to the hero’s observations.

For Lina Kostenko, Scythia is not just the Scythians. “The Scythian Odyssey” was written shortly after the publication of the extremely popular book Scythian Steppe by the archeologist and poet Borys Mozolevsky (1983), which was preceded by Viktor Petrov’s fundamental study Scythians: Language and Ethnos (1968). The southern Ukrainian steppe with its Scythian gold artifacts was studied by Oleksandr Terenozhkin, Mozolevsky’s professor. These and many other works focus not only on Iranian or Ossetian theories of the Scythians’ ethnic genesis, but also on their neighbors, because, I repeat, Scythia was not just the Scythians. Herodotus himself described it as a multiethnic state.

Lina Kostenko used several encyclopedia entries for the epigraph to her poem. In the early 1960s archeologists digging in the flood plain of the River Supiy in the village of Pishchane, Cherkasy oblast, “unearthed the remains of a boat, a human skeleton, and 15 bronze utensils decorated with relief ornamentation. This unique complex dates back to the late 6th or early 5th century BC.” According to the encyclopedia, the discovery in Pishchane is proof of the “commercial and cultural links of an agricultural pre-Slavic population that inhabited this territory with its ancient towns maintained along the Dnipro water route.” Thus, Lina Kostenko’s Greek finds himself in a largely pre-Slavic world. The description of this world is poetically rich and filled with surprise and mild irony. The Greek chances upon the funeral of a Scythian king and the feast of Ivan Kupalo (Ivan the Bather), and learns a great deal about pre-Slavic medicine, the tribes that inhabited the territory of what is now Ukraine, and much more.

While Aleksandr Blok wrote his poem “in line with poetic manifestos” as a “monumental revolutionary and patriotic ode,” the poem by the Ukrainian poetess is a ballad combining epic, lyrical, and dramatic elements true to the laws of this genre. It is an artistic encyclopedia of a Scythia in which Lina Kostenko was able to discern many familiar and native things. Blok’s “Scythians” are filled with threatening invectives, while Kostenko’s “Scythian Odyssey” is dominated by the poetry of pre-Slavic paganism. Notably, her poetry is visible in its verbal plasticity (even the Floral Goddess, “young Chloride,” is pictured wearing a “yellow garland of dandelions;” the author uses gentle irony to bring the gods and mythic heroes down to earth, and that’s when they become demythologized; for example, “Calypso with a hoe” or the Nymph in a cave who laughs while the naked Greeks tow their boat across the Dnipro river rapids).

Behind the faНade of Blok’s invectives one can sense a somewhat nervous search for a point that would substantiate Russian messianism. The motive of the search for identity is also present in “The Scythian Odyssey,” but it is free of this messianic grandeur. In Lina Kostenko’s poem this motive is dramatic in nature, since she is speaking about “black holes” in the “historical memory of centuries,” about the lack of “written words” where they are supposed to be, about the past that, regrettably, has not become lodged in the memory of succeeding generations. This is a refrain that may be heard in many other works by Lina Kostenko, in particular her novels Marusia Churai and Berestechko.

Aleksandr Blok wrote “The Scythians” as an ultimatum to the old Europe.

Lina Kostenko’s ballad poem “The Scythian Odyssey” is completely free of publicistic elements. At the same time, it can be read as a kind of ultimatum to historical ignorance.

By Professor Volodymyr PANCHENKO, Kyiv Mohyla Academy National University