Rediscovering Boris Poplavsky: poet, exile and enfant terrible of Russia’s Silver Age

Rediscovering Boris Poplavsky: poet, exile and enfant terrible of Russia’s Silver Age

One hundred years ago, poet Boris Poplavsky arrived in Paris having fled the Russian Revolution. While in the French capital, he captured the bohemian existence of a young generation struggling to cope with an exhilarating yet uncertain future in the aftermath of the First World War. Yet as Isabel Jacobs discovers, Poplavsky's early death meant that much of his work was never truly celebrated — and is only now just coming to light.

21 October 2021
Text: Isabel Jacobs

It was the stifling summer of 1921 when young Russian refugee Boris Iulianovich Poplavsky arrived in Paris. On 6 July, he noted in his journal:

“In the morning, I got my carte d’identité with my father. Home. Wrote a monologue about a woman and another hundred lines before the evening. Outside. The sunset was burning. Creation – what a prayer. I stayed in Montparnasse for a long time, watching the sunset.”

These romantic lines are typical of Poplavsky, who would go on to become a novelist and poet. The Parisian quarter of Montparnasse, filled at the time with Russian émigrés, would become the stage for his eccentric life, tragically cut short at the age of 32.

In the 1920s, Poplavsky was the uncontested enfant terrible of Russian Montparnasse. Russian writer Vladimir Nabokov once dubbed his contemporary “the first hippy, the original flower child.” Like no other poet of his generation, with great intensity and authentic vision, Poplavsky captured the bohemian existence of young Russian exiles in Paris of the Roaring Twenties.

Yet a century later, Poplavsky is largely forgotten — not least because of his premature death. During Soviet times, his unconventional poems and novels were at odds with socialist censorship. A bourgeois émigré, drug addict and religious mystic, Poplavsky was hardly the best fit to lead Soviet society towards a bright future. Only after the fall of the Iron Curtain were Poplavsky’s books published in Russia. Today, with the help of some excellent English translations, Poplavsky is slowly being rediscovered by a younger generation in search of a lost avant-garde.

Poplavsky boxing in Paris in the 1920s

Written between 1923-1930, Poplavsky’s masterpiece Flags (1931) was the only collection of poems published during his lifetime. Two more collections, Snow Hour (1936) and In a Wax Crown (1938), appeared posthumously in Paris. The title poem, Flags, is a dreamlike investigation of death and nostalgic longing:

Like the soul, which leaves the body,
Like my love for You. Answer me!
How many times did you wish on a summer’s day

To wrap yourself up in a flag and die.

Like many other of his poems, Flags is the product of Poplavsky’s original fusion of religious mysticism with Surrealism. Oscillating between motion and stillness, inside and outside, body and soul, Poplavsky’s flag symbolises the condition of exile: a precarious state of nostalgia and the desire for an unknown future.

Nostalgia was a key motif in Russian émigré writing of the 1920s, traversing works by Gaito Gazdanov, Nina Berberova, and Ivan Bunin. Suffering difficult material conditions, trauma and cultural uprooting, these émigré writers always turned their heads backward — longing for a homeland that had ceased to exist. Nabokov wonderfully described this specifically Russian sensation of nostalgia, called toska, that is central to Poplavsky’s poems:

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody or something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

Unlike other Russian émigré poets who never escaped the narrow circles of Russian Montparnasse, Poplavsky associated himself with the Surrealist movement. Emerging in the aftermath of the First World War, the Surrealists were influenced by the irreverent, satirical art of the Dada movement that came before them. They began juxtaposing contrasting realities in a bid to unlock the unconscious mind.

Searching for another reality, Poplavsky was fascinated by dreams, the absurd and chance encounters. Under the influence of Surrealism, the young émigré writes automatic poems that read today like lyrics of a new wave band:

Who knows? No one here knows.
Who hears? No one here hears.
Nothing happens
Everybody forgets
Sweetly fucked
Slowly breathing
Quiet as a cancer backward into the darkness.

Poplavsky’s biography was no less surreal than his poetry. Born in Moscow in 1903 into a family of musicians, at the age of twelve he was introduced to drugs and symbolist poetry by his older sister; she was to die from an opium overdose in Shanghai. Narcotics and poetry remained Poplavsky’s lifelong obsessions.

After the October Revolution, like so many other well-to-do Russians, Poplavsky escaped the horrors of the Civil War with his father, heading first to Yalta and then Constantinople. Experimenting with opium, Poplavsky becomes a devout follower of the Indian guru Jiddu Krishnamurti, later an icon of 1960s counterculture.

By the time Poplavsky finally arrived in Paris in 1921, the young artists had trouble making ends meet. After briefly studying painting in Berlin, he started picking up odd jobs and publishing articles for the Russian émigré press.

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This lack of direction gave Poplavsky time to frequent the vibrant art scene of the Paris avant-garde. In the legendary Dada cafés of the Left Bank, Poplavsky sat cheek to cheek with Surrealist artists and writers such as André Breton, Antonin Artaud, Louis Aragon and Tristan Tzara, as well as French philosopher Georges Bataille.

Poplavsky soon cultivated his image as a dandy and poète maudit, fusing hedonism, spirituality and experimentation into his unique poetic vision. While fellow Surrealist poets Breton and Aragon are world-famous today, Poplavsky’s poems are largely unexplored — to a great extent because he never switched to writing in French instead of his native Russian. And he wrote obsessively: poetry, extensive diaries, novels, and experimental philosophy.

In a moving portrait of his friend, fellow Russian émigré writer Gaito Gazdanov describes how Poplavsky would spend all his money on extravagances: gramophones, vinyl records and brightly-coloured ties. He was never seen without his eccentric suits, sunglasses or a bunch of spiritual devotees. He also had a passion for boxing and weightlifting, usually introducing himself as “poet and boxer.”

“[Poplavsky] always seemed like a foreigner – in whatever environment he found himself in,” Gazdanov wrote. “He always seemed as if he were returning from a fantastic voyage, as if he were entering a room or a café from an unwritten Edgar Allan Poe novel. Just as strange was his constant manner of wearing a suit that was a mixture of sailor’s suit and tracksuit.”

Paris' Place Vendôme in the 1920s

Poplavsky’s bohemian lifestyle is best captured in his novels. Between 1926 and 1932, he published his first novel Apollon Bezobrazov as a serial in an émigré magazine. A complete book version was only published in Russian in 1993, and translated into English by John Kopper in 2015.

In a letter to his mentor Ilia “Iliazd” Zdanevich on 16 March 1928, Poplavsky described his existentialist novel as “an attempt to justify our secret, luxuriant life, unusually touching and full of meaning – yet no life at all.”

Apollon Bezobrazov follows a group of Russian hippies over the course of two years. Living hand-to-mouth, the group squats in an abandoned house in Montparnasse. Their extraordinary existence is captured by Poplavsky’s style, abundant with symbols, religious parables, and enigmatic imagery.

“[Poplavsky] always seemed as if he were returning from a fantastic voyage, as if he were entering a room or a café from an unwritten Edgar Allan Poe novel. Just as strange was his constant manner of wearing a suit that was a mixture of sailor’s suit and tracksuit.”

The novel’s narrator, Vasya, is mesmerised by the story’s hero, Apollon Bezobrazov (“the Ugly”) whose spiritual ideal is motionlessness: “not a complete motionlessness and non-existence, but another life, similar to the life of flags on towers, where a remote golden process slowly matures and repeats.”

Again, the motif of the flag reappears to evoke the meditative state between restlessness and stasis. Interweaving Surrealism with absurd humour and Buddhist philosophy, Poplavsky’s novel poetically explores what it means to live in exile:

“It seemed to us then that we had invented everything anew: a new way of speaking and a way of being silent, a special way of walking and an absolutely unique regimen for living in a state of motionlessness.”

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Poplavsky’s prose offers a unique opportunity to time travel into Russian underground culture in 1920s Paris with all its excesses, hedonism, love affairs and existential despair. Readers are lucky to expect Bryan Karetnyk’s translation of Poplavsky’s second novel, Homeward from Heaven, upcoming next year. A sequel written shortly before Poplavsky’s death, Homeward from Heaven documents an autofictional journey to the French Riviera.

Ultimately, Poplavsky remained a nonconformist and an outsider throughout his life. His romantic life broke apart when his fiancée returned from Paris to the Soviet Union. The poet was found dead at the age of 32 in October 1935, as a result of a heroin overdose.

Poplavsky would become the forgotten voice of a lost generation — today, his work offers the contemporary reader an astonishing account of life as a refugee in 1920s Western Europe. Or, as his friend, Gaito Gazdanov, wrote: “Together with him went silent that last wave of music which, out of all his contemporaries, he alone would hear.”

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