Emily Laigo / Exeter Ligo (Exeter) — literary critic. She studied at the University of Ockford, where she defended her thesis in 2005 on the topic: «Leningrad Poetry 1953-1975». In 2006 she received a post at the University of Exeter (England), where the Russian language, literature and culture are still teaching (senior teacher). Scientific interests include Russian poetry of the twentieth century, Russian poetry in emigration, the history of literary translation, and the history of cultural ties between England and Russia of the Soviet period.





Oleg Okhapkin was born in Leningrad in 1944, the year the siege was lifted. His father was a peasant from Tver guberniya; his mother suffered from mental illness, and so Okhapkin, in common with many children born during and just after the war, was brought up by his grandmother.(1) The story of Okhapkin’s childhood is unusual to the point that it sounds apocryphal; it is recounted in an essay by David Dar, which may be the only published record of it.(2) It is known, though, to Okhapkin’s friends and acquaintances who do not disagree about the main events.(3) When Okhapkin was born with a particularly angelic face in 1944, some people came to believe that he was special. St Ioann of Kronshtadt had prophesied that in Russia’s darkest hour, a child with an angelic face would be born, and would bring the word of God to the Russian people who had fallen into sin; Okhapkin’s grandmother and the nanny (‘nyanechka’) at the maternity hospital were both followers of the Orthodox cult of St Ioann,(4) and they believed that Oleg was this ‘chosen one’. The grandmother brought him up as an Orthodox believer, and his life was filled with the church. He sang in the choir of the Aleksandr Nevsky Monastery in Leningrad in 1957-8, and from an early age was familiar with Russian Orthodox psalms, liturgy, and prayers; the language of these texts is clearly an important influence on his poetry. What is more, his grandmother and other members of the group of Kronshtadtskii believers to which she belonged instilled in him the belief that he had been born with a special purpose in life.
Dar describes how, when he finished school, Okhapkin trained first to be a painter and decorator (malyar), and later, at a music school, to be a singer. He worked for a while in the choir of Leningrad radio and television, where he was promised a successful career, but did not stay with this profession. It was perhaps Okhapkin’s sense that he was ‘chosen’ which made him abandon both these career directions.

Dar describes how, as a young man, Okhapkin grappled with the idea that he had been born with a special purpose in life: at times he accepted it as a burden and responsibility, at other times he rejected it.(5) His ‘false starts’ in careers could simply indicate, of course, that he took some time to discover the subject which most interested him in life, which was literature. During the years of his musical training and career, according to Dar, Okhapkin read voraciously literature, history, philosophy, and especially poetry, and began writing quite seriously at the same time; apparently, however, his friends showed little enthusiasm for what he wrote. By 1966, at the age of 22, he had become disillusioned, and planned to leave Leningrad to work in a village school; he abandoned these plans, however, after meeting Brodsky, who inspired him to dedicate himself to poetry with renewed enthusiasm and vigour.

Okhapkin’s poem ‘Iosifu Brodskomu’(6) describes a meeting between the two poets on the roof of the Smolny cathedral; Dar suggests that this meeting was their first. At any rate, it seems that Okhapkin became acquainted with Brodsky in 1966, and the older poet, who was himself only 26 at the time, became important to Okhapkin as both a friend and poetic influence. In the year that they met, Anna Akhmatova died, and Okhapkin explains that her death prompted him to conceive of himself as a poet.(7) Through Brodsky he became friends with the other three ‘Akhmatova orphans’ – Naiman, Bobyshev, and Rein – and that same year began to attend David Dar’s LITO ‘Golos yunosti’ (see Appendix 1).(8) A new job at the Hermitage museum brought Okhapkin into contact with other young writers and artists: Mikhail Shemyakin, Vladimir Alekseev, and Yevgeny Zvyagin, among others.(9) Through these new acquaintances, he became immersed in the literary culture of Leningrad.

Like many young people in Leningrad who emerged on the literary scene at the end of the Khrushchev Thaw, Okhapkin experienced difficulties when he came to try to publish his work. The predominance of religious themes and references to the soul seem to have been the chief obstacle. The threat of parasitism loomed for Okhapkin, and to protect him from a fate similar to Brodsky’s, Dar and his wife, the writer Vera Panova, made him their literary secretary in 1970. With the help of Efim Etkind they were also able to obtain for him membership of the gruppkom Soyuza pisatelei.(10) With more legitimate and secure status, Okhapkin managed to publish some poems in Molodoi Leningrad in 1970 and 1971; at that time, these publications probably appeared to be the start of a literary career. In a discussion of young writers in December 1973 at the Writers’ Union, it was said of Okhapkin: ‘Охапкин талантливый человек. Его, конечно, печатают немного, но он пробьёт себе путь’. (11)

After 1971, however, he did not publish again until a few poems appeared in Avrora in 1977; he had to wait a further ten years for the next opportunity. Meanwhile, his work circulated widely in samizdat.
Editors’ decisions not to publish Okhapkin’s work may not have been made entirely on the basis of his poems; his association with unofficial writers probably influenced their decisions as well, and also the fact that at some point in the 1970s he voluntarily gave up his membership of the gruppkom because he resented the onus it placed upon him to attend political meetings, report on the progress of his work, and hide his belief in God. In a recent interview, he has suggested that the attitudes of editors towards him were defined by their awareness of his religious belief.(12) He was not entirely cut off from official literature, however, and during the 1970s a collection of his work was put together for publication by the publisher Molodoi Leningrad. When, in 1978, the internal reviewer insisted that, among other things, the word dusha be removed, Okhapkin would not agree to the changes, and the project was stalled.(13) In the latter half of the 1970s he began to send his work abroad.(14)

When the letter that he, Krivulin, and Chirskov sent to the Secretariat of the Writers’ Union in 1974 failed to make any difference to the plight of young writers,(15) Okhapkin became progressively more involved in unofficial literary culture. The unofficial literary activities in which Okhapkin was involved included the compiling of the collection Lepta;(16) the ‘Gumilevskie chteniya’ seminar, which started in 1976 and was first held at Okhapkin’s flat;(17) and the Christian seminar which began in 1974, began producing samizdat in 1978, and ended in many arrests and even sentences to the GULag in 1979.(18) It was his involvement in the latter which led Okhapkin furthest from official literary culture, since the authorities treated religious activity as more serious, anti-Soviet, and dangerous than literary activity. Although he was not arrested, his involvement in the Christian seminar had serious consequences for his mental health and well-being, and therefore for the future of his literary career.(19)

Okhapkin was an important figure for the Christian seminar because, unlike most of the seminar’s members, he had been brought up an Orthodox believer.(20) He joined the seminar in 1975 and became close friends and shared a flat with its Leningrad organiser Vladimir Poresh. In 1978, Poresh invited Okhapkin to edit the literary section of the journal; when, at about that time, Okhapkin understood that his collection was not going to be published without being heavily edited, he ceased to worry that an association with a samizdat journal might jeopardise its publication, and consented.(21) In the same year, house searches and arrests began among the seminar’s members, and students and teachers alike were expelled from institutes. In 1978, the Moscow organiser Ogorodnikov was arrested, and a year later it was Poresh’s turn: both men received terms in the GULag. In connection with Poresh’s arrest, Okhapkin’s flat was searched and he was interrogated. The stress of seeing friends arrested and the constant fear that he would be next caused him to become paranoid and develop a persecution complex.(22) At the beginning of the 1980s he had the first of a series of nervous breakdowns and went into a psychiatric hospital.(23)

Except for the periods he spent in hospitals, from 1979 onwards Okhapkin worked as a stoker in a boiler room. He continued to write poetry intermittently, and eventually his work began to be published more widely: in 1987 some poems appeared in Den’ poezii and Neva; in 1989 a collection of 122 poems was published in Paris,(24) and in 1990 a much smaller collection, containing 51 poems, was published by Sovetskii pisatel’ in Leningrad.(25) Another collection, Vozvrashenie Odisseya, which is also smaller than the Paris edition, was published in 1994 by the Mitki group of artists in St Petersburg.(26) In 1993 he joined the St Petersburg Writers’ Union, and since perestroika has published more work, although he continues to suffer from mental illness. In 1995 he was awarded the Derzhavin prize for his contribution to the development of the Russian ode.

Several influences in Okhapkin’s poetry have already been alluded to: Joseph Brodsky, the Russian Orthodox liturgy, psalms and prayers, and Derzhavin. To this list, Krivulin adds myth and literature of the classical world.(27) Okhapkin himself has stated that the language of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries has always been very close to him.(28) As this catalogue of influences suggests, Okhapkin’s poetry is formally strict, and encompasses both lyrical poems, and more public, formal works. Lyric poems predominate in the period 1967-75, which this study will now address.

‘Mednaya lira’ (p. 122; Supplement, Poem 24) can be read as a poetic manifesto, declaring Okhapkin’s sense of calling as a poet, and his position as heir to the traditions of the Golden and Silver Ages of Russian poetry. It opens by describing a striving for a measured ‘middle way’ in life that is characterised by evenness and balance: these qualities are mentioned often in Okhapkin’s work, and seem to be important preconditions for the poet’s creativity. To find this state, the persona does not battle with the distractions of his impoverished surroundings, but seeks to transcend the mundane world, (though he is careful not to express contempt for it), and reach a haven from the earthly world in poetry and, ultimately, silence. Okhapkin’s choice of metre in this poem, iambic hexameter, with its standard caesura after the third foot, recalls not only a major poetic form of the eighteenth century and its associated ideas of restraint and rationality; but also specifically Pushkin’s poem ‘Osen’’ which is written in this metre, and also describes a retreat from the mundane world that leads to poetry:
И забываю мир, и в сладкой тишине
Я сладко усыплен моим воображеньем,
И пробуждается поэзия во мне (29)

Thus from the outset the poet self-consciously associates himself with Pushkin and the tradition of Russian poetry.

In the third stanza, the sickle of the crescent moon, and the evening star Vesper represent the twin influences over Okhapkin of context and tradition: the former, being part of the Soviet flag, is the context in which the poet is living; the latter, meanwhile, is a canonical poetic image and sets him in a wider, literary tradition. The distant murmuring of trees, the sound of an electric train, and of the wind might be another reference to Pushkin, this time to ‘Prorok’ and the sounds the poet is given by the six-winged seraph. Here the sounds filter through to the poet from the outside world and are assimilated by him into his state of equilibrium and calm.

The peace which the poet has chosen over the outside world, and which exists between the word and the word’s subject – which is to say, which is neither life nor art – is brought into existence at night, and is in opposition to the daytime, everyday world where the poet is guilty by virtue of his existence. This opposition recurs in Okhapkin’s work, and consistently carries these associations. In lines 13–24 Okhapkin describes how, in choosing the opposite to what is normal and ‘daytime’, he is criticised by the Soviet world he does not engage with. Snatches of disapproving phrases allude to the kinds of comments that might be made about his way of life and work (line 20), and typical accusations are voiced such as indifference to his neighbour and the petty squabbles of everyday life. ‘Прожигая свет народный’ (line 21) suggests that the poet is wasting electricity by staying up all night writing. In line 24, which closes the sixth stanza, the poem switches to the poet’s point of view, with its image of a torch in his soul whose light is not dimmed by quotidian cares. It thus moves from the external image of the lyric poet criticised for his indulgent and antisocial way of life, to a more spiritual and sympathetic portrait.

This ‘stoical’ image of the poet obtains in the final stanza, but here it is conflated with the idea of the poet’s mission. It is salient to recall that Okhapkin was brought up to believe he had been born with a ‘mission’ to return Russians to the Orthodox faith. Even in a recent interview he has alluded to the ‘function’ of his poetry during the Soviet era as bringing the word of God back to Russians, explaining that, ‘сейчас, когда открылoсь столько храмов, где звучит настоящая литургическая поэзия, мои стихи уже не так нужны.’(30) The light of the table lamp in the second stanza, which belongs to the external world, is replaced in this penultimate stanza with the poet’s inner light, and the torch of line 24 is perhaps the true image of the poet here. Indeed, the final stanza further reinforces this image of the poet’s religious calling, as he describes himself as otpushchennyi – sent out into the world with the task of keeping evil at bay – and as creating an ark of silence, which is an image of sanctuary, for the souls which read his poetry.

The symbol of the bronze lyre of the title broadens the poem’s reference from just Okhapkin, to the generation of poets to which he belongs. The post-Stalin period was at the time, and still is described widely as the ‘Bronze Age’ of Russian Literature, following on from the Silver Age at the beginning of the century.(31) The title implies that Okhapkin’s description of the poet writing his poetry is a generalised portrait of the poet in his age. In doing so, he suggests that there is considerable common ground between the poets, which seems to spring in part from their sense of literary calling, and in part from the ‘corner’ into which they are forced by the attitudes of society and the authorities towards them.

The central images of quiet (tish’), peace (pokoi), and silence (molchanie) in ‘Mednaya lira’ are found throughout Okhapkin’s poetry, and always represent a spiritual state that the poet is aiming to achieve. One route to this condition of silence seems to lie through poetry. In the beginning of the poem ‘Meditatsiya’ (p. 50), Okhapkin elaborates on this motif:
Есть в молчаньи внятный смысл,
Как жалость в самоистощеньи –
Секрет весов и коромысл,
Виденье истины в смущеньи.

The idea of a hidden meaning in silence points to a mystical belief lying behind Okhapkin’s work, and recalls the mysticism of Tyutchev and, later, the Russian symbolists. The mystical elements of his worldview seem likely to have their roots in Russian Orthodox practice as well, which has many mystical (some have said oriental) elements. It is characteristic of Russian Orthodoxy to believe that religious feeling and understanding is attainable not through the senses and rational thought, but through intuition, meditation, and introspection. Okhapkin’s silences, stillness, and peace seem to refer to the state in which the soul becomes open to this kind of perception; thus, the mention of these states is a marker for the description of spiritual experience. Because of this lexicon, poems which directly describe religious experience can seem, superficially, to be about only nature; it is quite possible that Okhapkin wrote some such ‘encoded’ poems in the early 1970s in the hope that they might be considered for publication.

A poem from 1970, ‘S vechera do trekh popolunochi’ (p. 71; Supplement, Poem 25), makes explicit reference to religious themes, although, as is common for Okhapkin, these are illustrated through the experience of nature. The setting of this poem is the coast of the Finnish Gulf, near the village of Komarovo. The poem describes a walk from the village to the sea, which passes though a belt of pinewoods before coming out directly on to the beach. The walk begins late evening, as the title suggests, and the first section of the poem describes the night fall. In this section the sentences are short, and almost every line ends with a period: the effect is to convey an immediacy of the impressions, and a matter-of-factness about the description. Later in the poem, longer, more involved descriptions with complex syntax and enjambment contrast with this first section, as the significance of the environment grows, and the intensity of the persona’s experience deepens.

The process of the walk mirrors the development of the persona’s thoughts and feelings: with this parallel structure in which the two elements often overlap, the poem is reminiscent of Brodsky’s poetry. In fact, Brodsky’s influence is discernible in various aspects of the poem: firstly, in Okhapkin’s choice of long-line syllabic verse, since Brodsky was perhaps the only well-known poet of his generation to experiment with this.(32) His poem written in 1966, ‘Podrazhanie satiram, sochinennym Kantemirom’, which is written in verse of the same type as Okhapkin’s,(33) was probably the immediate model for Okhapkin here. Second, towards the end of the poem the extensive use of enjambment recalls Brodsky’s verse. Third, also in the latter section of the poem, in a style reminiscent of Brodsky the structure of the rhyming couplets is pitted against the syntax of the lines, with the period or comma which marks the end of a phrase more often than not coinciding with the end of the first line of the couplet, while the second line runs into the following couplet.

Unlike Brodsky’s poetry, however, which tends to construct a logical argument and is hence often labelled ‘metaphysical’, Okhapkin’s poem traces the course of an emotional and spiritual journey which the persona experiences over the course of the night. As in ‘Mednaya lira’, night in this poem is the setting for spiritual experience. With the onset of night (lines 9), in which all things are connected, the persona seems to grow focussed: lines 9 and 10, describe a defining moment of realisation; the persona’s gaze is channelled through the trees in line 14; and in line 16 his thoughts converge upon one moment of silence. The night time focuses his mind on God and transports him from rational thought to spiritual perception. The transition from day to night is described in line 13 by a metrically irregular line that marks this change as significant.

In line 16, the poet reaches the state of silence, and thought gives way to intuition and visionary, rather than sensory perception. In this heightened state, described from line 17 onwards, the persona feels increasingly tense: he is ultra-sensitive to his environment, and jumps at any sound which threatens to disturb his inner sense of quiet. From line 18 onwards, the syntax ceases to follow the structure of the rhyming couplets, and works against them, as I have indicated. This marks a change in the tone of the poem: the enjambment which bridges the poem’s formal boundaries does not allow the reader to pause, but pushes the poem forward insistently. A sense of anticipation and urgency is implied. By this stage in the night and in his walk, Okhapkin’s persona has reached a critical, frenzied state, nervously anticipating that the fragile stillness inside him will be destroyed: even the moon seems threatening, hanging over his head like the curved blade of a sword (lines 26-7). Such anticipation and fear are too much for the persona; when they are broken by the first gust of sea air to reach him, we feel relief in an end-stopped line closing a rhyming couplet, where finally the structure and syntax of the poem coincide again, and give the reader a chance to pause.

In a new stage of the poem, which begins at line 29, the sight of the sky and the sea through the silhouettes of the trees interrupts the stillness that had reigned in the pinewood. This intrusion enters the persona’s consciousness through the mouth as an intoxicating salty taste. In its saltiness converge impressions of godlessness, since the condition of heightened spiritual meditation which he had reached in the pinewoods has been broken. For a moment, it seems that the persona falls victim to doubts as to God’s existence, which dissipates ‘like the power of silence collapsing in a fountain’. As he continues, however, the moment of doubt passes and God’s presence is felt once again. The arrival at the sea is the climactic moment which concludes this section: as the persona walks out of the woods and onto the open sand, a revelation dawns upon him. This is encapsulated in two images of the sea (lines 36 and 37) which are closely linked by anaphora; one is given in terms of God and the other of nature. After line 37, as we have seen, the metre changes, and signals that a new section of the poem has begun.

Lines 39-42 describe the nature of the revelation, which arose from the juxtaposition of God’s and nature’s elemental forces. On the beach at 3 o’clock in the morning, Okhapkin sees how much greater nature is than we, who are slavishly obsessed with winning God’s approbation and reassurance. He sees that, were God to abandon us and the elemental force of nature to take His place, we would become hysterical. We would be unable to cope without a sense of Him watching over us. is His This insight into human weakness is elating, for the perception of this weakness is also the key to understanding our spirituality. The persona sees that God is present in the desperate cries we sometimes make; that were He not in them, we would make no sound. Thus, he sees, at such moments we come so close to God that He is discernible in us, and through our courage and faith we find evidence of His existence.

Lines 50-55 retell the experience of revelation, and pinpoint the moment when a wider truth dawned on the persona. Extending the image of the pines moving towards the sea with him, with which he opened the poem, Okhapkin sees the pines as moving towards the sea at the call of the Creator. This sense of the power of the sea pulling nature towards it leads to another rhyming couplet which stands out from the rest of the poem through its anaphora, and which echoes the first. It describes in retrospect the surge towards the sea. This time the image of the sea is expanded to represent much more than the power of nature and God: here the rhythm of the sea represents the passing of time, and the rhythm of poetry which humans write to find a spiritual path to God. From poetry, the metaphor moves to an ‘ancient image of a spirit in the foaming waves’, which suggests a pagan or classical god; and finally it arrives at the image of man in the sea. In this cluster of images Okhapkin strives to reach a representation of God, passing through conventional concepts, elemental and artistic power, generic and not only Christian images, and finally arriving at an image combining the human and divine, which would seem to represent, although the connection is not made explicit, Christ himself.

The final four lines describe the persona’s meditative, almost inert state after his spiritually tumultuous journey which brought him to the beach, and the epiphanic joy which he experienced on arrival. As we saw in ‘Mednaya lira’, the state he describes here is neutral: he is unable to lift even grains of sand, such is his powerlessness; the pines which had pressed forward intensely towards him seem to ebb away. He has reached the state of true calm at night time in which he is at peace with himself, and the final repetition, ‘счастливо, счастливо’ seems to echo the sound of the waves breaking measuredly and incessantly against the shore, a constant reminder of the presence of God.

Religious experience, it is apparent, is the dominant subject of Okhapkin’s poetry. Although many poems veil references to belief in God, or, as in the case of ‘S vechera do trekh popolunochi’, confine their references to general terms such as ‘Creator’, ‘faith’, and ‘belief’, Okhapkin’s belief is firmly Orthodox, and many poems are explicitly so (we can assume that these poems were never intended for publication in the USSR). A close identification with Biblical events and characters is characteristic of many of Okhapkin’s religious poems, which not only retell, but also animate the stories so that the reader is drawn into them emotionally. If we recall his belief that his poetry was important in the USSR because so many churches were closed, a ‘purpose’ can be discerned in Okhapkin’s religious poems: to disseminate the word of the Bible. His intense evocation of the emotions of a believer was perhaps intended partly as a model for Soviet citizens who were interested in religion, but lacked the traditions which would normally accompany religious culture. In the same way, poems such as ‘Vkhod Gospoden’ v Ierusalim’, ‘Ballada o bludnom syne’, and ‘Mariya Magdalina’ retell and revive Christian stories.

Religion in 1970s Russia was, by virtue of being suppressed by the state, closely associated with various underground or unofficial groups,(34) and most people in these underground groups had anti-Soviet leanings, although their politics could differ widely. Orthodox religious groups came to be associated with the Russian nationalist revival, and Okhapkin became a prominent member in these as well as literary circles. In his poetry, he frequently refers to the politics of the time, and religion and politics can overlap, as they do in ‘Na smert’ Patriarkha’ (p. 67; Supplement, Poem 26), written in response to the death of the Russian Orthodox Patriarch Aleksii I on 17 April 1970. The poem presents the death of the patriarch as having special significance because of the time it occurred: firstly, at the beginning of a new decade, and secondly, at Easter time that year.

The borderline between epochs, the poem states, is a time when the ‘chosen’ are taken by death; we understand, implicitly, that the Patriarch belongs to these ranks, and his death is being placed in the context of cosmic processes. The second stanza describes how, after the sword of time has cut off the last decade and the chosen with it, there should be a thaw, when signs of spring emerge and new growth comes forth. This image of the life to come after death echoes the symbolism of Easter, of course, with which the Patriarch’s death coincided. Thus, over the first three stanzas we are given to understand that some kind of renewal is due in Russia now. In the poem, it seems, Okhapkin is searching for signs of this renewal, for an indication of what is to come. In the third stanza, he states that the opportunity to see into the svet gryadushchii – the world to come – comes at Easter; although this phrase suggests he hopes to gain privileged insight into what comes after death, in fact, in this context, it seems to have the more general meaning of Russia’s future.

In the fourth stanza, a barren spring and dying landscape reflect the miserable chances of a miracle coming to Russia. It is, however, the dearth of hope for Russia’s spiritual future which suggests even more strongly to the persona that the Patriarch died at this particular moment for a reason. In line 25, Okhapkin returns to his conviction that the death is a historical event which marks a time of change. He then draws a parallel between 1970 and 1917, when tsarism – represented here by the two-headed eagle – gave way to the unnatural image of Revolution as a ‘blistering carnation’. He continues to describe the Revolution in the sixth stanza, when he says that, at the beginning of the century, Orthodoxy was imprinted with a pentacle. This is the red star of the Soviet government, but also a Masonic and satanic symbol, the resonance of which tinge the USSR with negative associations, and make the poem’s point clear: Orthodoxy was perverted by the Revolution.

The sixth stanza returns the poem to the subject of the Patriarch’s portentous death, describing it as a miracle play at Easter; Okhapkin suggests that the Patriarch’s death was a re-enactment of the passion of Christ, designed to bring the Bible alive for Russian people, and draw them to the Christian faith. His comment that the reactionary Pobedonostsev (1827–1907, Procurator of Holy Synod 1880–1905) would have been watching the play from its ‘foreword’ suggests a direct link should be formed between the tsarist period, when religion was central to the state and kept there by institutional arrangements, and the spring of 1970, when the patriarch’s death has signalled the beginning of a religious revival in the USSR. The intervening period, Okhapkin seems to imply, was just a hiatus.

The seventh stanza stands back from the details of history, and takes a broad view of Russia in which there are twin influences upon her fate: time and oblivion. If time is on one side of the coin – which marks events and remembers them as history – on the other side are the waters of Lethe, into whose oblivion it is easy to fall. This may be an oblique reference to the masses who died and were forgotten in twentieth-century Russia under the Communist regime. In contrast to these forgotten masses, the ‘Voronezh singer’ Osip Mandel’shtam, entered time and history. The images Okhapkin uses in this stanza recall Mandel’shtam’s poems, with the khrebet (from Mandel’shtam’s ‘Vek moi, zver’ moi’) which symbolises the broken back of a blighted era, and the wings, which echo the wings of the swallow in Mandel’shtam.

The eighth stanza’s image of the Red East growing lilac invoke the idea of the dawn turning to daylight, and symbolise a maturation of Soviet power. The black sun of the Soviet day, in line 44, is another image from Mandel’shtam. Its description as bloodying the crosses of church domes with its red light is an open criticism of the USSR for its level of bloodshed and death, in particular with regard to its persecution of the church. The poem finishes its portrait of the century on a positive note, however, with a vision of how the Orthodox movement in Russia will prevail. After identifying as two defining moments and directions in Russian history the westernising reforms of Peter I, and Russia’s adoption of Eastern Orthodoxy from Byzantium, Okhapkin sets out a third, new direction in which Russia should now turn for salvation, which is to God. The image of a cluttered manhole to the sky, through which this course leads, conjures an image of the underground religious movement in Russian and contrasts with the phrase ‘чаем расчистить’ (line 52) that represents the faith of believers which will open up Russia to God once again. The time, Okhapkin declares, has come, and his vision of Christ’s salvation for the people entails not so much the meekness of Christ the Son, but the wrath of the Father. Finishing on this note, the poem sounds a ‘call to arms’ to save Orthodox Russia.

It is tempting to see Okhapkin’s religious poetry as his personal response to the sense of calling instilled in him from an early age; indeed, it would appear that he would not disagree. This should not distract us from noting other immediate and tangible influences upon him, however. His friendship with Joseph Brodsky, for example, was clearly an important factor in his self-definition as a poet, and the older poet’s influence is most clearly marked in the formal features of Okhapkin’s verse. The general interest in religion which developed among many Soviet citizens in the 1970s was undoubtedly an environment conducive to the positive reception of Okhapkin’s work, and the development of the poet’s sense of poetic identity. As I have said, Okhapkin’s poems range from intensely private lyrics expressing doubt, fear, and an individual search for God, to more public works which would appear to have been addressed to an audience, such as ‘Na smert’ Patriarkha’, which speaks from, as it were, the platform of the religious movement in Russia. It seems very likely that for Okhapkin, this context of the religious movement in the USSR was a defining influence on his work: it provided him with both an audience and a means of dissemination for his poetry. His authority within this movement, which derived from his extremely rare religious upbringing, seems to have led quite naturally to his role of one of its leading poets.


1. Samizdat Leningrada, pp. 297-9.
2. David Dar, ‘Leningrad. Sud’ba. Poet’, Grani 110 (1978), 43-51.
3. Vyacheslav Dolinin, for example, whom Okhapkin worked with for many years, recounted the story to me. Dolinin, interview, 23 September 2003.
4. See ‘Pravednyi Ioann Kronshtadtskii’, in Russkie Svyatye. Zhitiya sobrala monakhinya Taisiya (St Petersburg: Azbuka, 2001), pp. 678–84.
5. These phases are described in Dar, ‘Leningrad. Sud’ba. Poet’.
6. Oleg Okhapkin, Stikhi (Paris: Beseda, 1989), p. 53.
7. Oleg Okhapkin, ‘Ya – poet, v etom ne moya vina’ [interview with Elena Pudovkina], Professiya 44 (542) 03.11.2004 – 10.11.2004 [page numbers not known]. Also at <http://www.professia.info>. I am grateful to Elena Dunaevskaya for bringing this article to my attention.
8. In his article, David Dar says that Okhapkin first attended his LITO while studying at the College of Crafts; Okhapkin remembers going to the LITO for the first time in 1966, however, and I have followed his dating, since in 1966 he came under the influence of other poets, and would have been more likely to join a LITO. Dar, ‘Leningrad. Sud’ba. Poet’.
9. ‘Oleg Okhapkin’, in Samizdat Leningrada, pp. 297–9 (p. 298).
10. Dar, ‘Leningrad. Sud’ba. Poet’, pp. 50–51. This was the same professional affiliation as Etkind had obtained for Brodsky when the latter returned from Norinskaya in 1966.
11. ‘Protokoly zasedanii sekretariata’, TsGALI, St Petersburg: f. 371; op. 1; d. 621.
12. Oleg Okhapkin, ‘Ya – poet, v etom ne moya vina’.
13. Okhapkin described this process while acting as a witness at the trial of Vladimir Poresh. See Khristianskii seminar, Vol’noe slovo. Samizdat. Izbrannoe, 39 (Frankfurt: Posev, 1980).
14. For a bibliography of works in tamizdat, see ‘Oleg Okhapkin’, in Samizdat Leningrada, pp. 297–9.
15. Described in Chapter 3.
16. See Chapter 3 for details.
17. ‘Gumilevskie chteniya’, in Samizdat Leningrada, pp. 401-2.
18. For details of the seminar see Khristianskii seminar.
19. Okhapkin, ‘Ya – poet, v etom ne moya vina’.
20. Aleksandr Shchipkov, [Interview] Istina i zhizn’ 8 (1998), also found at <http://www.religare.ru/ analytics9782.htm>.
21. Okhapkin explained his decision to take up Poresh’s offer in this way as a witness at Poresh’s trial. See Khristianskii seminar.
22. Oleg Okhapkin, ‘Ya – poet, v etom ne moya vina’.
23. Dolinin, interview, 23 September 2003.
24. Oleg Okhapkin, Stikhi (Paris: Beseda, 1989). I have used this edition as the source for texts discussed here, and page numbers refer to it.
25. Oleg Okhapkin, Pylayushchaya kupina (Leningrad: Sovetskii pisatel’, 1990).
26. Oleg Okhapkin, Vozvrashchenie Odisseya (St Petersburg: Mitkilibris, 1994). Few poems are repeated in more than one of these collections; there are some poems in the samizdat anthology Zhivoe zerkalo and in The Blue Lagoon Anthology, vol. 4A, which do not appear in any of them. I do not know how many, if any more poems by Okhapkin remain unpublished.
27. Viktor Krivulin, ‘Oleg Okhapkin. Poet mezhdu Afinami i Ierusalimom’, in Oleg Okhapkin, Stikhi (pp. 3-7).
28. Oleg Okhapkin, ‘Ya – poet, v etom ne moya vina’.
29. ‘Osen’’, in Aleksandr Pushkin, Zolotoi tom. Sobranie sochinenii, ed. by B. Tomashevsky (Moscow: ‘Imidzh’, 1993), pp. 457–8 (p. 458).
30. Oleg Okhapkin, ‘Ya – poet, v etom ne moya vina’.
31. Okhapkin’s poem ‘Bronzovyi vek’ is a more explicit reference to this appellation, and lists the names of many of the poets, although notably no women, of this era: Krasovitsky, Eremin, Uflyand, Gorbovsky, Sosnora, Kushner, Rein, Naiman, Brodsky, Bobyshev, Okhapkin, Ozhiganov, Krivulin, Kupriyanov, Shirali, Stratanovsky, Cheigin, Erl’, Len, and Velichansky. It is published in Blue Lagoon Anthology, vol. 4A, pp. 97–9.
32. Up to line 38, almost all the lines are of 13 syllables, split by a caesura into two parts of 7 and 6 syllables; after line 38 the lines are predominantly of 12 syllables, split into parts of 6 syllables each; all-feminine couplet rhyme is used throughout.
33. ‘Podrazhanie satiram, sochinennym Kantemirom’, in Iosif Brodsky, Sochineniya Iosifa Brodskogo, vol. 2, ed. by G. F. Komarov (St Petersburg: Pushkinskii fond, 1992), p. 7. For some reason it was not included in the later edition of this publication. Whereas Okhapkin’s line splits into 7+6 and later 6+6, Brodsky’s has a caesura after the eighth syllable to give 8+5.
34. Chapter 3 describes some of the links between literary and religious groups; Okhapkin was one key figure in these relationships.


On the photo: Yriy Petrochenkov, George Kostakis, Oleg Okhapkin, Boris Kupriyanov, Andrei Gennadiev on a visit to the collie maker George Kostakis. Moskow, 1975(?)


© Emily Laigo
© «Okhapkin readings» almanaс № 1, 2015
© «Russian culture», 2018