Aleksandr Blok’s Twelve

Download Maria Carlson’s complete English translation in parallel text with annotations.

The Background

When the Russian Symbolist poet Aleksandr Blok (1880-1921) completed his poem Twelve on 29 January 1918, he wrote in his diary notebook: “I hear a terrible noise, growing within me and all around me.” That noise was the sound of Revolution. The noise grew into his poem Twelve. After completing his masterpiece, Blok added to his notebook: “Today I am a genius.” And indeed he was, for in two days and twelve cantos he had captured the essence of the universal upheaval into which he and his country had been cast. Yet Twelve is not a revolutionary poem, although it is about revolution; neither is it a religious poem, although it is about revelation.

Twelve reflects the ambivalence and the uneasiness that educated Russians felt during the first months of the Revolution -- a period that fell between Russia’s failures in World War I and the horrors of Civil War that would soon follow. Twelve, which caused great poetic controversy, has no poetic unity. It consists only of flying fragments: bits and pieces from the Orthodox liturgy and revolutionary songs, from vulgar rhymes and popular ditties, from lamentations, the calls of looters, and even prostitutes’ solicitations. Many of these fragments shock the ear in their juxtapositions. The language of Twelve is alternately elevated and vulgar, archaic and modern, serious and mocking. It describes a whirling, topsy-turvy world caught in a cataclysm that is linguistic and historical and philosophical and meteorological. Man and nature and art are bound together in one crucial historical moment, in the storm of Revolution.

The Story

Twelve captures images from a late Petrograd night in January 1918, a bare two-three months after the Bolsheviks’ October 1917 coup. Blok, an early lover of the cinema, describes the harsh winter night in the fragmentary language of cinematic montage, a technique that uses a series of alternating frames or scenes to create a “message” that is greater than the sum of its individual parts. Think, for example, of Twelve’s Canto I as a sequence of black-and-white (“black night, white snow”) images flickering on a silent movie screen, with occasional text-dialogue appearing below the image. Blok’s juxtaposition of sequences gives the reader a cross-section of Petrograd types and activities and suggests value judgments about the individuals portrayed.

Although fragmented, the pieces of the narrator’s description are realistic: the utilities are out in Petrograd following the strikes and uprisings, so the streets are dark, except where warming fires light them. The city is in the grip of a wintry blizzard. Passers-by (young ladies, grannies, intellectuals, priests) hurry along, prostitutes ply their trade, a banner advertising the recently-dissolved Constituent Assembly hangs over Petrograd’s main street, Nevsky Prospekt: this is revolutionary Petrograd at night. Twelve armed Red Guards patrol the city. They have been deployed by Bolshevik authorities to keep order and prevent looting and violence. Recently recruited from among peasants and urban rabble, they are not Petrograd’s finest.

While on patrol, the Red Guards encounter Van’ka, a Tsarist army soldier, and the prostitute Kat’ka. The couple is out joy-riding, having a night on the town. Kat’ka was once the girl friend of Petrukha, a member of the Red Guard twelve. The Red Guards fire at the sled in which the couple is riding. Petrukha aims to kill Van’ka, but his target gets away; instead, the bullet strikes Kat’ka. Her dead body is left lying in the street. Petrukha feels remorse; after all, he had loved her. But his remorse passes quickly. His comrades cheer him up, and the Red Guard continues their patrol.

As the men march on through the raging storm, followed by a mangy dog, they think there is someone hiding in the snowbanks ahead. They exhort the unseen one to show himself. Ahead of them, in the storm, they see a “bloody banner.” They follow, trying to catch sight of the person carrying it. But they cannot. “Unseen within the blizzard’s swirl,” he continues to elude them. His identity is revealed only in the very last line of Twelve: he is Jesus Christ. Wearing a wreath of white roses and carrying a bloody banner, Christ mysteriously leads the Red Guards through the storm. But where is he leading them?

The Symbolist

Blok was a Symbolist poet, and the Symbolists searched this, the real, phenomenal world, for omens, reflections, symbols of transcendent, cosmic events taking place in the spiritual, noumenal world beyond. But could Blok, or can the reader, decipher these symbols? Symbols are by nature ambiguous. They can mean contradictory things at the same time. Blok’s use of symbols creates a poem of depth and ambiguity. It also raises unanswered questions.

The real world of Twelve is revolutionary Russia in microcosm and its imagery is ordinary: blizzard, darkness, crossroads, a pathetic love triangle, twelve marching men, murder, a vision of Christ. The color scheme in the work is limited to three powerful, symbolic colors: black (a symbol of night, violence, death), white (representing snow, purity, spirit), and red (the quintessential color of revolution, but also life’s blood, fire, and destruction). The blizzard is the elemental, irrational storm that blinds everyone -- both revolutionaries and the last remnants of the old order -- to what is happening around them. The crossroads become a metaphor for choice -- which way do we go now? The Old World, which has been destroyed by revolution, is reduced to the image of a mangy dog following behind the Red Guards “with its tail between its legs.” Are the twelve men just Red Guards? Or are they “apostles of the revolution”? Missionaries of a new socialist “faith” without God (“yeah, yeah, without the cross”)? The Revolution is a bloody carnival, an extraordinary event that stands outside normal time and space, when things can become the opposite of what they usually are, when traditional laws do not apply.

The Ending

The ending of Blok's poem created enormous controversy. Radicals and revolutionaries accused him of betraying the Revolution by putting Christ into the poem. Bolsheviks were atheists. They saw Christ as a symbol of the past and of repression of the masses by that Marxist opiate, organized religion. In their view, Christ had no business being in a “revolutionary” poem. Liberals and conservatives accused Blok of blasphemy. Why had he put Christ into the service of the Revolution, leading Red Guards? And where was he leading them? Was this really Christ? Or was this a false prophet, an Antichrist? Middle-of-the-roaders accused Blok of muddling. Was he for, or was he against? Which side was he on? And what was he talking about, anyway? The God-seeking intelligentsia, Russian thinkers who were leading a religious renaissance, suggested that Christ had come to lead Holy Russia to her own crucifixion. In the poem, Christ appears in white, the powerful color of revelation, salvation, transfiguration, and resurrection. The God-seekers expected the Revolution to crucify the body of Russia, cleansing it of material dross and sin, so that Russia could be resurrected in spirit. Then, after the “barbarians” realized the Revolution, they themselves would be swept away by the storm, and Russia, having been the Third Rome for several centuries, would become the New Jerusalem. Everyone had an opinion. Twelve attracted a lot of attention. It was declaimed publicly many times, printed in the newspapers, and discussed in heated public debates.

The central question at the heart of Twelve is a relevant and abiding one: why does Jesus Christ appear at all in this poem, and why is he leading the Bolshevik Red Guard, who are atheists and murderers and ruffians? Blok, who was not a religious man, was often asked that question. He answered that he was himself unhappy with Christ’s appearance in the poem. He found Christ effeminate and unsatisfying, but his creative will told him it had to be Christ. Blok added that it was frightening that it was still Christ, when there should be “an Other” to lead them. Scholars are still writing articles today about the meaning of Christ’s appearance at the end of Twelve. The symbolism of this powerful poem remains alive and well in the Russian psyche as Russia, once again, is hard at work reinventing itself.

Readers ask the question: Is Twelve pessimistic or optimistic about Russia’s future? The answer is: “yes.” Blok’s Twelve, a quintessentially Symbolist work, portrays the unleashing of elemental dark forces and the disintegration of old Russia into chaos. This is pessimistic. But Chaos is the raw material from which Cosmos is created. The Old must be destroyed so that the New can be created. That is optimistic. And will the New be a step forward, or a step backward? That is a question Twelve does not answer.

Maria Carlson, University of Kansas (USA)

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