Is this Christian poet Russia’s next Nobel laureate?
Is Olga Sedakova Russia’s next Nobel laureate? The multitalented poet, essayist, translator and ethnographer is an astoundingly prolific writer: A four-volume edition of her collected works was published in 2010. She won the European Prize for Poetry in 1995 and the Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn Prize for “the striving to convey the mystery of life in a simple lyrical style” in 2003. She has published over two dozen books on everything from Old Church Slavonic to Dante. American readers may be interested to know that some of her work is available in English. An anthology of her essays entitled Freedom to Believe: Philosophical and Cultural Essays came out in 2010, and In Praise of Poetry, a volume of translations of selections from her poems, followed in 2014.
Like her fellow countryman Leo Tolstoy, Sedakova exhibits a fascinating combination of specifically Russian attitudes and cosmopolitan interests. She may attract the attention of readers in the United States not just because of the quality of her poetry, but because she has such striking affinities with American writers (much like Vladimir Nabokov and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). It is not surprising, then, that Sedakova’s deepest affinities lie with T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson, poets whom she admires and has translated.
Is Olga Sedakova Russia’s next Nobel laureate?
More than any other poet of the last century, Sedakova exemplifies what Eliot had in mind when he wrote that “poetry is not the expression of emotion, but the release from emotion.” Sedakova relentlessly eschews any confessional or autobiographical elements in her poetry and in her interviews. Although she is a major cultural celebrity in Russia, she has revealed very little about herself, aside from what one might find on a résumé—a list of her degrees, publications and awards. She seems to have devoted her life exclusively to reading and writing, and as a result has published a great deal of scholarship as well as poetry.
Born in 1949 in Moscow, Sedakova still lives in Moscow and has a summer house in Azarovka, a suburb outside the city. Now 71, she is a devout Orthodox Christian. Though she remains a profoundly Russian poet, steeped in Russian tradition, she is also fluent in Greek, Latin, French, English and Italian. Her major works (both originals and translations) include the poetry collections Gates. Windows. Arches; A Chinese Journey; and The Beginning of a Book. Two of her major prose works are In Praise of Poetry and Translating Dante.
Sedakova’s deepest affinities lie with T. S. Eliot and Emily Dickinson, poets whom she admires and has translated.
In “The Word and Faith,” the excellent documentary film about her that aired in Russia in 2019, she shows photographs of her parents, but otherwise says nothing about them. Nor are her parents even named on her website or social media (which is available in four languages). She has one sister, Irina. Readers may find parallels to the American spiritual teacher Caroline Myss or the British biblical scholar Karen Alexander in her lack of mention of personal detail. In “A Few Lines About Myself,” a brief essay published in The Hudson Review in 2014, she says, “I don’t much like to remember all that is known as biography.”
Like Emily Dickinson, Sedakova has written great prose and poetry in response to an experience of enclosure. Dickinson spent almost all her adult life in her house in Amherst, Mass., so she often thought about things that moved. She described a book as a frigate in her poems and said, “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Sedakova also spent her formative years shut off from the outside world, although for very different reasons.
The environment in which Sedakova matured as a poet was the pressure-cooker era of the Leonid Brezhnev regime in the Soviet Union, which lasted from 1964 to 1982. In an influential essay, “The Generation That Found Itself,” the Russian scholar Mikhail Epstein has pointed out that since day followed day with little prospect of change during that era, the pace of daily life slowed down so much that people turned inward, both literally and figuratively, as Dickinson had done in 19th-century New England. Painters could not put on public exhibits, and poets could not give public readings, so they held those events privately in apartments.
Poetry was not the only element of Russian culture that privately flourished during the public stagnation of the Brezhnev years. Painters, practicing another art that was able to be performed and experienced in private, also experienced a renaissance. Art lovers in the West may be familiar with the names of Ilya Kabakov and Erik Bulatov, the two major figures of the Soviet painting underground, but there were other major artists as well. One major, if less known, figure was Vladimir Weisberg. Among Weisberg’s major works are his “white on white paintings”; these, along with his “Still Life With Geometric Figures” from 1978, give visual representation to the desire for spiritual purity that has animated Sedakova’s written work.
The environment in which Sedakova matured as a poet was the pressure-cooker era of the Leonid Brezhnev regime in the Soviet Union.
Influences and inspirations
What were the formative influences in her life? If it is true that it takes a village to raise a child, then it is also true that it takes a village to raise a poet—especially such a subtle, complex, erudite poet as Sedakova. Where did she find her village?
Here we must begin by acknowledging the inadequacy of the standard narrative that informs so much discussion in the West about Russian artists, one that reflexively assumes that all Russian intellectuals were dissidents in revolt against the Soviet state. This narrative works for Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn as well as other brave souls who opposed the government in various ways, but it does not apply to Sedakova; she belonged to a movement now called “the Second Culture,” which is little understood today even by Russians. Members of the Second Culture did something arguably more radical than the dissidents: They did not oppose the Soviet Union; they simply ignored it. They proposed to live their lives as though the Soviet Union did not exist.
This shared sense of “us versus them” created deep bonds among the Moscow intelligentsia who were part of the movement. This was, in effect, Sedakova’s village, which produced significant results for other artists as well. So far, the infamous Brezhnev era has produced two Nobel laureates—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Joseph Brodsky. There is good reason to believe that Sedakova will follow in their footsteps to Stockholm.
In the dark days of the 1960s and 1970s, Sedakova must have often thought of Heb 11:1, which tells us that faith is “the evidence of things not seen.” She had no reason to believe that the Soviet Union would not last forever and that its aggressive atheism would not prevail against religion. Her opposition to the closed Soviet society can be found in her references to openings in the title of her important collection Gates. Windows. Arches. All these words connote openings, in opposition to enclosure.In a telling line from that collection, she affirmed that “there is always a step, there is always a move, there is always a path.” (All quotations here from Sedakova’s poetry are my own translations from the original Russian texts.)
Early on, Sedakova realized that the study of foreign languages offered one way out of the closed circle of Soviet life.
When exactly Sedakova became a believer remains a mystery. Among what were probably many factors in this momentous decision was surely her association with Sergey Averintsev (1937-2004), a professor of classical studies at Moscow State University.
Averintsev was one of the major intellectuals of the late 20th century, a scholar of such erudition that his colleagues were in awe of him. In the 1960s, his lectures on spirituality in the ancient world became a social phenomenon in the Soviet Union that responded to the spiritual hunger of his society. He spoke before packed auditoriums; loudspeakers were installed in additional rooms to accommodate the overflow crowds who wanted to hear him. He was ordained a Russian Orthodox priest in 1973 and began to deliver sermons in addition to lectures. By both example and precept, Averintsev showed Sedakova how one might combine scholarship with faith.
Averintsev’s work is almost completely unknown in the West, as is that of the two other professors who served as mentors and father figures to Sedakova, Vladimir Bibikhin and Yuri Lotman. These exceptionally prolific and influential thinkers created such a substantial body of work that they and their contemporaries are considered the leaders of a Second Renaissance of Russian thought.
Without the demands of personal relationships, and under the influence of Averintsev, Bibikhin and Lotman, Sedakova added scholarship to poetry and devoted her talents to these two mutually supportive poles of her life. She earned a doctorate in anthropology, with a dissertation on ancient burial practices.
Early on, Sedakova realized that the study of foreign languages offered one way out of the closed circle of Soviet life, and so made herself a polyglot. In addition to the multiple languages mentioned above, she is also fluent in Old Church Slavonic, the liturgical language of the Russian Orthodox Church, which she has taught and for which she has published a concordance.
Sedakova is one of few major poets in the world today who might claim to have mastered the entire Western canon.
Prose and poetry
Sedakova is one of few major poets in the world today who might claim to have mastered the entire Western canon. She has exactly the kind of historical sense that T. S. Eliot described in his influential 1922 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” where he says:
[T]he historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.
Bringing Eliot’s modernist sensibility into the postmodern world makes Sedakova an outlier in the 21st century. Although we may hope that she is not the last great Russian poet, she is probably the last great one with such a richly informed historical sense.
Sedakova began writing as a teenager. But her early work contains no confessions, no teenage angst. It shows that she was already striving for what the Victorians called “high seriousness.” To judge from her second collection, The Wild Rose (1976-78), her conversion to Christianity likely occurred when she was in her late 20s. In “The Second Legend,” a key poem from that collection, she asserts a turning away from human love to spiritual love: “Among the paths given to the heart/ There is a path laid out in those days….” By “those days,” she means in illo tempore, to use the Latin phrase for transcendent time as opposed to historical time. What is implied is that this path leads away from human relationships and toward God.
Sedakova’s 24-line poem “A Strange Journey” is another exceptional work of the imagination. As in Bob Dylan’s great song “Visions of Johanna,” which it closely resembles, the poet’s sensibility moves from an acknowledgment of the physical world to a visionary experience of its disintegration, with the result that nothing but spirit is left. Thus, the journey in the title is not a physical journey, but a journey of the soul—a metaphysical and simultaneously autobiographical statement. It shows how she benefitted from reading Eliot, and yet its concentrated power rivals anything he ever wrote.
For Sedakova, as for Dylan (an artist with whom she has deep affinities), the theme of transcendence is so rich with meaning that it takes many guises. As her personal and poetic drive toward transcendence matured, it seems to have deepened into a belief in God, the belief that unites her poetry and her scholarship. Three lines near the beginning of “A Strange Journey” sum up the work:
So, as your soul aches and your vision wants to break
The evil, crooked mirror that teaches us to not-love
So I found out who I am destined to be with.
The soul wants to break “the evil, crooked mirror”—the Soviet system—because external appearances do not matter to the soul. “The soul groans from appearances,” as she puts it. The fixation on externals separates people and teaches them to “not-love,” an apt neologism for Soviet aggressive attitudes. Her inner vision, the only kind that matters, shows her true destiny.
She concludes “A Strange Journey” with the image of a train, an image that has been packed with meaning in Russia ever since Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina committed suicide by throwing herself under one: “The train hurtles along,” Sedakova writes. Because of the exceptional power of Tolstoy’s novel, when a woman in a Russian poem rides a train, it makes readers think of death. But in Sedakova’s mystical consciousness, death is in life, and life is in death: “I will ride and think in my pre-heart emptiness,/ Ride and ride and cry about my endless death….” The striking phrase “pre-heart emptiness” surely refers to the newfound awareness of her mortality that her vision has given her. It is a quasi-Buddhist image that suggests that she has been emptied out of all that is superficial—all that is a matter of surfaces—and precedes and impedes the openness of the heart.
For Olga Sedakova, the theme of transcendence is so rich with meaning that it takes many guises.
Encounters with John Paul II
Though she once modestly described herself in an interview as “an ordinary parishioner,” Sedakova has had a profound influence on many Russian Orthodox Christians in both Russia and the United States. Nevertheless, she is drawn to Catholicism, as the fact that she wrote a book on Dante suggests. The predominance of dogmatic attitudes among the Russian Orthodox Church hierarchy and its obsequious stance toward President Vladimir Putin of Russia might also help to explain why she is drawn to Catholicism, and why in particular she has a connection with St. John Paul II, the first Slavic pope. During the late 1990s, she met with him several times, and these meetings left her filled with fervent admiration.
In a post on her Facebook page, she wrote: “I had the good fortune to meet with John Paul II several times and at length. These were the ‘Solovyov Sessions’ in his chambers in 1996-9. After every meeting with him the feeling that I had been in the center of the world, perhaps, in the heart of the world, and that that heart was Christian. Everything else seemed like the provinces,” she wrote in 2020. “He probably saw in each person whom he met that this was a precious illumination for him. It was as though he seriously expected something from those whom he met and parted with them with gratitude. Such, I supposed, is the view of sainthood. You feel yourself seen in depth—and that is not frightening, as one might expect.”
“Next to a saint we feel ourselves in the center of the world,” she continued. “This feeling that everything is saved and nothing will perish. That everybody and everything is together. Unity is one of the most important of John Paul II’s words: Christian unity and the unity of the human race. He loves Russia, Russian culture, Orthodoxy, and hopes that we will be together. ‘I pray for Russia every day,’ he said to me at our first meeting.”
Poetry and belief
Not surprisingly, this bond between the two came out in Sedakova’s poetry. Her anthology The Beginning of a Book contains “Three Poems to John Paul II.” As with all poems by Sedakova, one should not expect to find sentimental piety in them. What we do expect, and what we find, is a cycle of poems filled with powerful, subtle images that express a complex poet’s deep faith.
The individual works in Sedakova’s triptych of poems dedicated to John Paul II are written in unrhymed free verse. They are entitled “Rain,” “Nothing” and “Sant Alessio. Roma.” The first poem shows that Sedakova can use the kind of startling beginning that Dickinson was so fond of: “It’s raining,/ And people say there is no God!” This is not so much an affirmation of pantheism as it is the beginning of a theme of life-giving touch, which expands into a biblical reference in “Nothing”: “A stalk rises from the black plowed land,/ The four-day Lazarus rises.” The images of “Rain” and “Nothing” adumbrate the theme of death in life, and life in death that Sedakova had used previously. It appears in the final lines of the final poem “Sant Alessio. Roma”:
How good finally
How good that everything
That people want so much and ask for
For which they give up
The most precious thing
That, it turns out, is quite unnecessary.
Did you not recognize that? What remained?
Sores and bones
Dry bones, as in the valley of Jehosaphat.
These provocative images and allusions require some commentary. First of all it must be said that Sedakova owes a certain debt to Eliot’s “The Waste Land” here. Eliot’s lines “I think we are in rats’ alley/ Where the dead men lost their bones” may have suggested that final line.
But Sedakova’s dead men have lost their bones in a particular place, “in the valley of Jehosaphat.” Sedakova, as a poet concerned with transcending the physical, rarely uses geographical references, so this one contains deeper meaning. We read in Joel 3:1: “For, behold, in those days, and in that time, when I shall bring again the captivity of Judah and Jerusalem, I will also gather all nations, and will bring them down into the valley Jehosaphat.” Thus, what is on one level the spiritual theme of death in life is also and simultaneously the theme of the life of culture that results from unity.
The life of St. John Paul II, Sedakova’s fellow Slav and fellow polyglot, suggests this theme and the implications that follow. For Sedakova, the theme suggests a rapprochement between Russia and the West. For a Russian religious poet, this means the rapprochement between Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism. As Sedakova indicates in a footnote to the poem “Sant Alessio. Roma,” the church of the title contains the remains of Aleksey the Man of God, an ascetic saint who died in 411 C.E. and who is recognized by both the Orthodox and Catholic churches.
In those images we might find Olga Sedakova’s greatest contribution to the worlds of poetry, spirituality and belief. She deserves widespread interest and attention for her verse, her scholarship and her insights into Christian living, but she still offers something more than that. A rare example of a writer who can bring poetry lovers together with believers, she is the most important Christian poet in the world today.