The Best Remedy When You’re Feeling Down: Russian Literature

Jack Slater, Staff Writer

Do you ever think that life is but a cruel, psychological joke? Or feel that we are just running, stumbling on painful paths from the birth ward to the funeral home?

Have we got an idea for you!     

Poetry gives solace in the midst of great tumult. Romantic-era poetry, known for escaping the rat-race of life and returning to the peace of the natural world, is a great starting point to examine Russian literature. That’s right, Russian literature will turn that frown upside-down. First up, poet Konstantin Nikolayevich Batyushkov livens things up with a fun, biblical allusion. 

Know’st thou what gray Methuselah

Pronounced when parting with this life?

Man’s born a slave,

He dies a slave,

And death will never tell him why

He walked this lovely vale of tears,

Suffered, wept, endured, and disappeared.

Now isn’t that just an excellent pick-me-up? It’s just so inspiring to hear about the wonders of life. Personally, I feel absolutely rejuvenated. The imagery of death and tears just really solves a bad case of the Mondays. Rhyming “slave” with “slave” highlights the vivacity of each, unique day in our lives. Truly a modern version of carpe diem. Batyushkov elegantly divulges the aspects of the journey of life. The suffering, weeping, and enduring that Batyushkov highlights show the human experience is like an eternal day in Disneyland. The poet, Batyushkov, later went insane and died (probably because he forgot his daily dose of Russian literature). 

For those days when you just feel blue, read some excerpts from the optimist Mikhail Lermontov: 

I am weary and sad, and there is no one

To whom I can stretch out my hand

In the hour of my soul’s distress…

Desires! What is the use of desiring vainly and forever?

What of passions? Sooner or later their sweet sickness

Will vanish at the word of reason;

And life, if you look around with cold attention,

Is such a hollow and stupid farce…

The emotions this poem induces is like watching a baby panda sneeze or cuddling with puppies. The sense of sheer, unbridled joy truly radiates from every line. The passion and love of life through its ups and downs is simply inspiring. The optimist Lermontov’s use of the “Desires!” clubs the reader over the head with the exclamation point and then laughs it off as a “farce” – an inspiration for us all. After being exiled twice due to his sunny disposition, Lermontov found himself in quite a pickle; some coldhearted pessimist challenged him to a duel. Sadly, Lermontov had his one and only, no good, very bad day, and was shot through the heart. In moments such as these, we must turn our minds and focus on the shining source of solace that is Russian literature. 

But not everything can be rainbows and butterflies; sometimes life is like sunshine and lollipops on a warm summer day. Poet Boris Slutsky shares himself with others in his poem “How They Killed My Grandmother,” about the truly unexpected happenings of life.

How did they kill my grandmother?

This is how they killed my grandmother:

In the morning a tank

Rolled up to the city bank.

Grandmother wept and shouted

And walked.

And then started

Shouting again.

From every window rose a din.

A bullet kicked up her hair.

A grey lock floated down.

And my grandmother fell to the ground.

That’s how they did it to her.

Slutsky did a bang up job. You can tell it’s a fun poem since it starts the rhymes off strong with “tank” and “bank.” The imagery of the little boy with his goldfish tank in a wheelbarrow is such a wholesome picture! While we did not include the full poem, the snippets above really encapsulate the feelings that arise when reading Russian literature. Reading through the words of this poem is like eating mother’s home cooked borscht, a delightful way to improve your day. It’s like Slutsky is giving a nice, warm embrace with his words. 

Some may argue that the constant joy found in these poems is unrealistic, and life can be full of challenges. But, the balmy weather of Russia is guaranteed to elicit such lighthearted works from those who are blessed enough to live in its borders. It is also important to remember the happiness found for centuries in the lives of the average Russian serfs. Serfs enjoyed lives of bliss, free from any obligation or strife. We can all learn from these great Russian works to look on the bright side of life.