Mikhail Kuzmin

Last updated
Mikhail Kuzmin in 1911. Mikhail Kuzmin circa 1911.jpg
Mikhail Kuzmin in 1911.

Mikhail Alekseevich Kuzmin (Russian : Михаи́л Алексе́евич Кузми́н) (October 18 [ O.S. October 6] 1872 – March 1, 1936) was a Russian poet, musician and novelist, a prominent contributor to the Silver Age of Russian Poetry.



Born into a noble family in Yaroslavl, Kuzmin grew up in St. Petersburg and studied music at the Saint Petersburg Conservatory under Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov. He did not graduate, however, later explaining his move towards poetry thus: "It's easier and simpler. Poetry falls ready-made from the sky, like manna into the mouths of the Israelites in the desert." [1] But he did not give up music; he composed the music for Meyerhold's famous 1906 production of Alexander Blok's play Balaganchik (The Fair Show Booth), and his songs were popular among the Petersburg elite: "He sang them, accompanying himself on the piano, first in various salons, including Ivanov's Tower, and then at The Stray Dog. Kuzmin liked to say of his work that 'it's only little music, but it has its poison.'" [2]

One of his closest friends and major influences as a young man was the polyglot Germanophile aristocrat Georgy Chicherin (who later entered the diplomatic service and after the October Revolution became People's Commissar of Foreign Affairs), a passionate supporter of Wagner and Nietzsche. Another strong influence was his travels, first to Egypt and Italy and then to northern Russia, where he was deeply impressed by the Old Believers. Settling down in St. Petersburg, he became close to the circle around Mir iskusstva (World of Art). His first published writings appeared in 1905 and attracted the attention of Valery Bryusov, who invited him to contribute to his influential literary magazine Vesy (The Balance), the center of the Symbolist movement, where in 1906 he published his verse cycle "Alexandrian Songs" (modeled on Les Chansons de Bilitis, by Pierre Louÿs [3] ) and the first Russian novel with a homosexual theme, Wings , which instantly achieved notoriety and made him a widely popular writer. In 1908 appeared his first collection of poetry, Seti (Nets), which was also widely acclaimed. In the words of Roberta Reeder, "His poetry is erudite and the themes range from Ancient Greece and Alexandria to modern-day Petersburg." [4]

In 1908 he was living with Sergei Sudeikin and his first wife Olga Glebova, whom he had married just the year before; when Olga discovered her husband was having an affair with Kuzmin, she insisted Kuzmin move out. "But in spite of this contretemps, Kuzmin, Sudeikin, and Glebova continued to maintain a productive, professional relationship, collaborating on many ventures—plays, musical evenings, poetry declamations—especially at the St. Petersburg cabarets." [5] Kuzmin was also one of the favorite poets of Sudeikin's second wife, Vera, and her published album contains several of his manuscript poems.

Portrait by Konstantin Somov (1909). Kuzmin.jpg
Portrait by Konstantin Somov (1909).

Kuzmin met Yuri Yurkun, a poet, in 1913. The two men lived together with Yurkun's mother, and Yurkun’s wife, Olga Arbenina, joined them, for a short while. Kuzmin and Yurkun's relationship lasted until Kuzmin's death. Kuzmin died in 1936 of pneumonia, two years before Yurkun and many other writers were arrested under the Stalinist regime and shot. [6]

Kuzmin's association with the Symbolists was never definitive, and in 1910 he helped give rise to the Acmeist movement with his essay "O prekrasnoi yasnosti" (On beautiful clarity), in which he attacked "incomprehensible, dark cosmic trappings" and urged writers to be "logical in the conception, the construction of the work, the syntax... love the word, like Flaubert, be economical in means and niggardly in words, precise and genuine -- and you will find the secret of an amazing thing — beautiful clarity — which I would call clarism." [7] He was no more a member of the group than he had been of the Symbolists, but he was personally associated with a number of them; in the years 1910-12 he lived in the famous apartment (called the Tower) of Vyacheslav Ivanov, who was another formative influence on the Acmeists, and he was a friend of Anna Akhmatova, for whose first book of poetry, Vecher [Evening], he wrote a flattering preface. (In later years Kuzmin incurred Akhmatova's enmity, probably because of a 1923 review she took as condescending, and she made him a prototype of one of the villains in her "Poem Without a Hero". [8] )

The last volume of poetry Kuzmin published during his lifetime was The Trout Breaks the Ice (1929), a cycle of narrative poetry. [9]

In the 1920s and 1930s Kuzmin made his living primarily as a literary translator, most notably of Shakespeare's plays. [10] He died in Leningrad.


Contemporary poet and critic Alexei Purin thinks the openly "tragic," socially oriented tradition of Russian literature has been exhausted and it needed to reorient itself along the more personal and artistic tradition exemplified by Kuzmin and Vladimir Nabokov. He quotes Innokenty Annensky as saying it was important to avoid "the persistent embrace of the 'like everyone'" and writes: "It is precisely the poetry of Annensky and Kuzmin that at the beginning of the twentieth century took the first and decisive step away from this 'like everyone' — in the direction of psychologically interpreted details and the everyday word, in the direction of living intonation — a step to be compared, perhaps, only with the Pushkin revolution. All succeeding Russian lyric poetry is unimaginable without it." [11]

Mandelstam, in his 1916 review "On Contemporary Poetry," wrote:

Kuzmin's classicism is captivating. How sweet it is to read a classical poet living in our midst, to experience a Goethean blend of "form" and "content," to be persuaded that the soul is not a substance made of metaphysical cotton, but rather the carefree, gentle Psyche. Kuzmin's poems not only lend themselves easily to memorization, but also to recall, as it were (the impression of recollection after the very first reading), and they float up to the surface as if out of oblivion (Classicism)... [12]

And in his essay "A Letter about Russian Poetry" (1922), he said "Kuzmin brought dissident songs from the Volga shores, an Italian comedy from his own native Rome, and the entire history of European culture insofar as it had become music—from Giorgione's "Concert" at the Pitti Palace to the most recent tone poems of Debussy." [13]

Related Research Articles

Marina Tsvetaeva Russian poet and writer

Marina Ivanovna Tsvetaeva was a Russian poet. Her work is considered among some of the greatest in twentieth century Russian literature. She lived through and wrote of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the Moscow famine that followed it. In an attempt to save her daughter Irina from starvation, she placed her in a state orphanage in 1919, where she died of hunger. Tsvetaeva left Russia in 1922 and lived with her family in increasing poverty in Paris, Berlin and Prague before returning to Moscow in 1939. Her husband Sergei Efron and her daughter Ariadna Èfron (Alya) were arrested on espionage charges in 1941; her husband was executed. Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941. As a lyrical poet, her passion and daring linguistic experimentation mark her as a striking chronicler of her times and the depths of the human condition.

Osip Mandelstam Russian poet and essayist

Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam was a Russian and Soviet poet. He was the husband of Nadezhda Mandelstam and one of the foremost members of the Acmeist school of poets. He was arrested by Joseph Stalin's government during the repression of the 1930s and sent into internal exile with his wife.

Acmeism, or the Guild of Poets, was a transient poetic school, which emerged in 1912 in Russia under the leadership of Nikolay Gumilev and Sergei Gorodetsky. Their ideals were compactness of form and clarity of expression. The term was coined after the Greek word άκμη (ákmē), i.e., "the best age of man".

Anna Akhmatova Russian poet (1889-1966)

Anna Andreyevna Gorenko, better known by the pen name Anna Akhmatova, was one of the most significant Russian poets of the 20th century. She was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize in 1965 and received second-most (three) nominations for the award the following year.

Joseph Brodsky Russian-American poet

Iosif Aleksandrovich Brodsky was a Russian-American poet and essayist.

Andrei Bely Russian poet, writer and critic (1880-1934)

Boris Nikolaevich Bugaev, better known by the pen name Andrei Bely or Biely, was a Russian novelist, poet, theorist, communist, and literary critic. His novel Petersburg was regarded by Vladimir Nabokov as the third-greatest masterpiece of the 20th century.

Russian symbolism activities and events of the Symbolist movement in 19th-century Russia

Russian symbolism was an intellectual and artistic movement predominant at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th century. It represented the Russian branch of the symbolist movement in European art, and was mostly known for its contributions to Russian poetry.

Nikolay Gumilyov Russian writer

Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov was an influential Russian poet, literary critic, traveler, and military officer. He was a cofounder of the Acmeist movement. He was husband of Anna Akhmatova and father of Lev Gumilev. Nikolay Gumilev was arrested and executed by the Cheka, the secret Soviet police force, in 1921.

Serge Sudeikin Russian artist (1882-1946)

Sergey Yurievich Sudeikin, also known as Serge Soudeikine, was a Russian artist and set-designer associated with the Ballets Russes and the Metropolitan Opera.

Innokenty Annensky Russian poet, critic and translator

Innokentiy Fyodorovich Annensky was a poet, critic and translator, representative of the first wave of Russian Symbolism. Sometimes cited as a Slavic counterpart to the poètes maudits, Annensky managed to render into Russian the essential intonations of Baudelaire and Verlaine, while the subtle music, ominous allusions, arcane vocabulary, the spell of minutely changing colours and odours were all his own. His influence on the first post-Symbolist generation of poets was paramount.

Sergey Gorodetsky Russian poet

Sergey Mitrofanovich Gorodetsky was a Russian poet, one of the founders of Guild of Poets. He was born in Saint Petersburg, and died in Obninsk.

Georgy Ivanov Russian poet

Georgy Vladimirovich Ivanov was a leading poet and essayist of the Russian emigration between the 1930s and 1950s.

Ryurik Ivnev Poet, novelist, translator

Rurik Ivnev, born Mikhail Alexandrovich Kovalyov, was a Russian poet, novelist and translator.

Konstantin Vaginov Russian and soviet poet and writer, member of [[OBERIU]]

Konstantin Konstantinovich Vaginov was a Russian poet and novelist.

Fyodor Sologub Russian symbolist writer

Fyodor Sologub was a Russian Symbolist poet, novelist, playwright and essayist. He was the first writer to introduce the morbid, pessimistic elements characteristic of European fin de siècle literature and philosophy into Russian prose.

Stray Dog Café

The Stray Dog was located at Mikhailovckaya Ploshchad, 5, Square of the Arts up to Summer Gardens, St. Petersburg, Russia.

Stalin Epigram poem by Osip Mandelstam

The Stalin Epigram, also known as The Kremlin Highlander is a satirical poem by the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, written in November 1933. The poem describes the climate of fear in the Soviet Union.

Alexei Purin Russian poet

Alexei Purin is a Russian poet and critic.

Georgy Adamovich Poet, translator, literary critic

Georgy Viktorovich Adamovich was a Russian poet of the acmeist school, and a literary critic, translator and memoirist. He also lectured on Russian literature at universities in the United States and the United Kingdom.

Polyxena Solovyova Russian childrens writer (1867-1924), editor

Polyxena Solovyova was a Russian poet and illustrator. A Symbolist poet, from the Silver Age of Russian Poetry, she won the Medal of Pushkin in 1908. She was the first person to translate Alice in Wonderland into the Russian language and was known for founding and illustrating the magazine and publishing house Тропинка (Path) with her partner, Natalia Manaseina.


  1. Solomon Volkov, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (Simon & Schuster/Free Press, 1997), pp. 189-90.
  2. Solomon Volkov, St. Petersburg: A Cultural History (Simon & Schuster/Free Press, 1997), p. 190.
  3. Osip Mandelstam, Complete Critical Prose (Ardis, rev. ed. 1997), pp. 306-07, n. 15.
  4. Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova (St. Martin's Press, 1994), p. 67.
  5. John E. Bowlt, The Salon Album of Vera Sudeikin-Stravinsky (Princeton University Press, 1995), p. 13.
  6. Dennis Denisoff (2002), Mikhail Alekseyevich Kuzmin, glbtq.com
  7. "On Beautiful Clarity", tr. John Albert Barnstead.
  8. Roberta Reeder, Anna Akhmatova (St. Martin's Press, 1994), p. 170.
  9. Karlinsky, S.; Kuzmin, Mikhail; Malmstad, John E.; Markov, Vladimir (1979). "Review: Death and Resurrection of Mikhail Kuzmin". Slavic Review. 38 (1): 72–76. doi:10.2307/2497230. JSTOR   2497230.
  10. Tcherkassova, Farida A., and I. G. Vishnevetsky. "Mikhail Kuzmin." Russian Writers of the Silver Age, 1890-1925, edited by Judith E. Kalb, et al., Gale, 2004. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 295. via Literature Resource Center.
  11. "Двойная тень" (Double shadow), by Alexei Purin.
  12. Osip Mandelstam, Complete Critical Prose (Ardis, rev. ed. 1997), p. 66.
  13. Osip Mandelstam, Complete Critical Prose (Ardis, rev. ed. 1997), p. 99.