Russia’s classical alter ego, 1963-2016: classical reception in the poetry of Elena Shvarts, Il’ia Kutik, and Polina Barskova
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Barker, Georgina Frances
Classical reception, suppressed under Stalin, returned to Soviet poetry during the Thaw (c. 1953-63), and through the many political upheavals of the late twentieth century it has remained a prominent trend in contemporary Russian poetry. This thesis explores classical reception in the oeuvres of Elena Shvarts, Il’ia Kutik, and Polina Barskova, whose poetry spans from 1963 to the present. They form part of – and serve as case studies for – the wider trend of late- and post-Soviet poetic engagement with classical antiquity. This phenomenon has been studied in the cases of Thaw poets Iosif Brodskii and, to a lesser extent, Aleksandr Kushner, but investigations have not extended beyond these figures to the succeeding Stagnation and post-Soviet poets. Shvarts, Kutik, and Barskova come from different generations and different poetic schools, and have very different poetic styles. They share a sustained and playful engagement with the literature and history of Ancient Greece and Rome, which is often in dialogue with earlier Russian receptions of classical antiquity. Their classical reception is frequently intended to ‘estrange’ Soviet/Russian contexts, thus making antiquity an ‘alter ego’ of Russia. This objective is facilitated – and inspired – by the Russian literary tradition. Since its inception Russian literature has set classical antiquity before itself as a model, imitating its literary forms and emulating its characters. This long-standing analogy between Russia and the classical world underpins Shvarts, Kutik, and Barskova’s evocations of classical antiquity as Russia’s alter ego. The utility of the classical alter ego lies precisely in its alterity: as well as a vehicle for veiled dissidence, as with Aesopian speech, it can be a more extreme, or fun, or ideal reality. Inherent in Shvarts, Kutik, and Barskova’s recourse to classical reception as alter ego is a desire to connect with Europe, from which Russians were palpably divided for much of the twentieth century – the Mandel’shtamian ‘yearning for world culture’. It stems also from their desire to connect with pre-Soviet (classically receptive) Russian literature. The thesis begins with a history of classical reception in Russian literature from Russia’s first contact with the classical world up to the present. Such a history is crucial to understanding contemporary poets’ classical reception, as so many of their references to classical antiquity are refracted through Russian intertexts. The chapters on Shvarts, Kutik, and Barskova examine the entire oeuvre (to date) of each poet, selecting key poems and themes for close analysis. This is conducted alongside the intertexts (quotations from classical texts are given in English only, except where the original language has demonstrably informed reception). As well as literary contexts, historical and personal contexts are considered. Interviews conducted by the author with both living poets (Kutik and Barskova) inform the analysis. This thesis contends that the pervasive classical reception evident in Russian poetry from 1953 to the present responds to the series of ontological crises Russia was precipitated into by the upheavals of the twentieth century. With the loosening of Socialist Realism’s control over literature after Stalin, Russian poets resume Russia’s poetic tradition of using classical antiquity as an alter ego, both to heighten portrayals of Russia, and to imagine another, alternate, Russia.