Free Russian Poetry

The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Free Russian Poetry


the uncensored verse of Russian poets distributed by the illegal press in manuscript form beginning at the end of the 18th century. The growth of free Russian poetry was determined, on the one hand, by the development of Russian revolutionary thought and, on the other, by strict censorship and persecution.

Free Russian poetry began with the distribution in manuscript form of A. N. Radishchev’s forbidden ode “Liberty,” A. S. Pushkin’s freedom-loving lyrics, and the verses of the Decembrists K. F. Ryleev, A. I. Odoevskii, and V. F. Raevskii. A. I. Herzen and N. P. Ogarev noted the great significance of “underground poetry” for their generation. The revolutionary verses were printed in the journal Polar Star and the newspaper The Bell. Russian Secret Literature of the 19th Century, which was published in London in 1861, was the first anthology to sum up and interpret (in Ogarev’s introductory essay) the development of free Russian poetry in the first half of the 19th century. This anthology became the basic source from which other anthologies with similar intentions drew their material (Lute, among others). Free Russian poetry, corresponding to the ideals of revolutionary populism, was distributed in underground hectograph editions; later it was printed—for example, Collected Verse (1879). At the turn of the 20th century, mass proletarian poetry in the tradition of N. A. Nekrasov and his school was also largely “free”; it was represented by the verses of L. P. Radin, A. Ia. Kots, S. A. Basov-Verkhoiantsev, D. Bednyi, F. S. Shkulev, and M. Gorky.

The idiosyncratic development of free Russian poetry was manifested in the fact that sometimes verses that had been legally published later acquired revolutionary significance and were distributed widely in manuscript form. Such was the fate of la. P. Polonskii’s verse “The Woman Prisoner” (1878), a political comment on the trial of Vera Zasulich. Often the original content of a poem acquired a new meaning. Thus, a poem by Nekrasov that had been forbidden by the censor, “The honest have fallen silent, heroically fallen …,” which was based on events of the Franco-Prussian War and the Paris Commune of 1871, was taken as a reference to the Russian revolutionaries who were defendants at the “50th trial.”

There are also examples of free Russian poetry that include verses far removed from revolutionary ideology—for example, A. A. Navrotskii’s “There is a cliff on the Volga … ,” first printed in the moderately liberal journal Messenger of Europe. Free Russian poetry also included works by foreign poets (P. Béranger, A. Barbier, H. Heine, and others) in translation and sometimes in adapted versions.

One of the basic means of distributing free Russian poetry was transmission by memory, hence the characteristic folkloric multiplicity of variants and textual distortions. Song lyrics were the most common genre of free Russian poetry.


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Vol’naia russkaia poeziia vtoroi poloviny XIX v, 2nd ed. Text prepared and comments by S. A. Reiser and A. A. Shilov; introductory article by S. A. Reiser. Leningrad, 1959.
Poeziia v bol’shevistskikh isdaniiakh 1901-1917. Introductory article, textual preparation, and notes by I. S. Eventov. Leningrad, 1967.
Vol’naia russkaia poeziia vtoroi poloviny XVIII-pervoi poloviny XIX v. Introductory articles by S. B. Okun’ and S. A. Reiser. Leningrad, 1970.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.