Friday, March 6, 2015

Where the Black Sea Breaks Its Back

Column of White ships fleeing to Constantinople (1920) / Image courtesy of Сегодня.ua

Much has been made of the way that Vasily Aksyonov’s 1979 Sci-Fi novel “The Island of Crimea” predicted Russia’s takeover of Crimea last year (for instance, in this New Yorker piece), but a new essay in НГ Ex Libris claims that one can find similarly prophetic moments in poetry too. Mikhail Epstein, the author of the essay, focuses on two Crimea-themed poems—one by Osip Mandelstam and one by Andrei Voznesensky. Mandelstam’s untitled 1916 poem describes a visionary moment during a walk he took with Marina Tsvetaeva in the Alexandrov Kremlin, the fortress from which Ivan the Terrible ruled Russia and where he killed his own son:

Doubting the miracle of the resurrection,
we strolled in the cemetery.
– You know, the land all around us
reminds me of those hills.
Where Russia breaks away
above a black and silent sea.

(Не веря воскресенья чуду, / На кладбище гуляли мы. / – Ты знаешь, мне земля повсюду / Напоминает те холмы. / …………………………. / …………………………. / Где обрывается Россия / Над морем черным и глухим.)

The reference to Crimea in the last two lines is so clear that Mandelstam struck from his draft the two previous ones, whose outright naming of the peninsula he must have felt too obvious and unnecessary. Epstein even thinks that the long ellipses are better than the missing lines, since they “demonstrate more vividly than any words the blackness and silence into which the country breaks away.”

Epstein says that what unifies Crimea and the cemetery in the poem is “the presentiment of death.” After all, Russia was about to begin killing its own sons in a civil war, and the Crimean peninsula would play a key role: in 1920, just a few years after the poem was written, the last White forces left from Crimean ports, taking 100,000 refugees with them. Somehow, Mandelstam had foreseen his country’s violent end in that place. “There,” Epstein writes, “pre-Soviet history broke away. But where and when will post-Soviet history break away?”

The second poem that Epstein calls up is Voznesensky’s “Skrymtymnym” («Скрымтымным»), whose title is a nonsense word that contains the Russian name of Crimea (Крым/Krym). One of the poem’s lines even names the place directly: “Because of ‘skrymtymnym’, they’ve closed Crimea.” But besides that particular sound, the Russian ear catches many others bubbling up from the title as well: according to Epstein, one can hear within it hidden, darkness, ‘damp’, ‘rats’, ‘clamp’, ‘prowl’, and ‘roar’, just to name a few.

Whatever ‘skrymtymnym’ may be, we understand that is something ominous. It threatens, it kills. Tsvetaeva appears again: “Where is her grave? – / skrymtymnym…” The unseen thing bears responsibility for her death, and for others. It is “that / which is between us. / That which used to be, once exposed, / now darkened.”

If we take the word as what Epstein calls “a pseudonym for fate itself with its dark grin,” then the line about the closing of Crimea has meant that “fate grins twice.” When he wrote the poem, Voznesensky likely had in mind a cholera outbreak that gripped Crimea in the summer of 1970, but the line also anticipates the present situation: “Crimea has been ‘closed’,” says Epstein, “detached from the mainland, from the whole world.”

The final lines of Voznesensky’s poem seem especially applicable to the situation in Crimea today:

But do not forget: Rome fell
without understanding the greeting,

(Но не забывайте – рухнул Рим, / не поняв приветствия: / «Скрымтымным».)

The empire is in trouble when it cannot comprehend or properly respond to the growing anger directed at it. Its days are numbered. Epstein writes, For Voznesensky, skrymtymnym is the threat to Rome, which didn’t understand that barbarians were approaching from outside, and which therefore perished. But doesn’t this threat relate to the Third Rome as well? Only this time the barbarians are approaching not from outside, but from within, and again they portend its downfall.”

If Moscow is to survive, the poem tells us, it must learn from Rome’s example.

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Note: the title of this post puns on Corey Ford’s Where the Sea Breaks Its Back (1966), about Russia’s exploration of Alaska in the 1740s. Another peninsula, another edge of the old empire.


  1. Crimea at the time of the Civil War plays a large role in Dmitry Bykov's excellent novel Орфография.

  2. Thanks for the recommendation. I always associate this time and place with Nabokov, who left with his mother and siblings from Crimea. If I had my copy of "Speak, Memory" with me, I'd type up a few sentences from that remembered Crimean departure.