Poetry as Political Resistance: in 20th century Eastern Europe and beyond

  • Date:
  • Location: IRES Library, Gamla torget 3, 3rd Floor
  • Organiser: Institute for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Department of Modern Languages, and Uppsala Forum
  • Contact person: Zakhar Ishov
  • Workshop

Poetry is the most democratic of art forms. Poetry uses words - which are everyone's common property - as its material. Poetry is based on limitless imagination, which cannot be restrained or controlled. Poetry thus is synonymic with freedom. Therein lies its wide appeal. Yet this comes at a price. Poets often get caught in political wars and become persecuted by undemocratic governments, as evidences by the fate of many East European poets in the 20th century.

During the Cold War an abyss separated institutional and cultural experience in the East and the West. The situation of Eastern European poets vis-a-vis politics was often diametrically opposed to what was happening in the West. Western politicians did not pay much heed to poetry, while Western poets eagerly embraced political causes. Conversely, in Eastern Europe authorities saw every word of a poet as dynamite - a potent tool of political subversion. Huge totalitarian resources were used to impose an ideological imprint on the language, style, and even themes treated in poetry. Patterns observed in Russia were replicated in Poland and Lithuania following WWII with the imposition of Soviet rule over large parts of Eastern Europe. Some Eastern European poets adapted themselves to this situation by writing political propaganda and singing praises of the totalitarian ruler. (Milosz 1951) But the overall effect on literature and culture was devastating: the decline in creativity and imagination compared with the preceding periods was notable. (Smith 2001, Venclova 2017) And yet there were also other poets, who even at the risk of being silenced, ostracized, or imprisoned, preserved their artistic integrity even under very tough conditions. Staying a-political was extremely hard in a totalitarian context, where poets were co-opted and used to lend prestige to oppression; or else censored, exiled, or even killed. In order to stay creative East European poets had to develop strategies of artistic resistance. Thus, at the times of the most radical denial of freedom during Stalin's rule, memory itself became the most daring act of resistance, as in case of Anna Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandelstam (Grudzinska-Gross 1987, Paperno 2009, Cavanagh 2009).

In the post-War Poland defending the tradition became another such strategy, as in case of Zbigniew Herbert (Alvarez 1968) or, in a similar manner, in Russia with the work of Joseph Brodsky (Schallcross 2002; lshov 2008; 2018). Because the communist ideology insisted on breaking with tradition, the Eastern poets' resistance was diametrically opposed to that of the Western counterparts, who broke with tradition as a part of their artistic rebellion against conventions. Given that during totalitarianism all aspects of private experience were politicized (Arendt 1964; Grudzinska-Gross 1987), often the most political act of the Eastern poets was to write non­political poetry (Wat 1988).

The aim of the symposium is to show that while East European poets faced impossible dilemmas, they also developed unique strategies of resistance. The fight for freedom of artistic expression often overlapped with the goals of human rights activism. The workshop will explore both the strategies of "non-political" poetic resistance as well as the meeting ground between such resistance and other forms a more active political dissent. 
In the wake of the global rise of authoritarian leaders, the East European experience of artistic dissent and political resistance, has again become relevant today.