Tales of a Red Storm Coming

Book review: 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution
selected by Boris Dralyuk

In college I took a class in Russian Literature of the Silver Age. This is the period of the late 19th/early 20th century when Russian literature reached impressive creative heights. It was such an enlightening course, and introduced me to many of the names that come up in this collection: Tsvetaeva, Mayakovsky, Gippius, Blok, Bely, Gumilev, and of course, Akhmatova – all the regulars, once you’re familiar with the period. It also inspired in me a deep love for any writing coming out of this era, so much so that my heart really does skip a beat when I read or see anything connected to it, like with this title. I hope this collection might bring that passion for this literary sphere to other readers. It’s an excellent sampling of selected works of all of the luminaries I mentioned and many others, both household names even in the English-speaking literary world (Pasternak, Bulgakov) and the lesser known but influential.

The editor, Boris Dralyuk, acts as a curator and separates the pieces thematically, singling out common themes that relate to the works of this period and tie to the historical events the authors found themselves living through. Each section begins with some academic background providing context for what was going on and about the authors themselves – their specific kind of work, connection to the revolution and its events, perception of their work. This makes the collection very accessible even to anyone who has zero background or previous knowledge of the era or this type of literature.

I was interested in reading it for the poetry, to see some different translations of pieces I already knew and hopefully come across some new ones, but the prose was excellent as well. The Remizov and Bulgakov pieces are completely excellent. In addition to much of that particularly Russian sense of dark gallows humor paired with the ridiculous, I noticed the theme, over and over, of Russia as a distinct personality and the authors in mourning for what has been suffered and endured with hopes for healing and a return to normalcy in the future. There’s a strong, often uneasy sense of foreboding in every selection here, knowing as we do what was still to come. But this collection is so evocative of the time, the fear and uncertainty and the kind of anticipatory electricity in the air before a storm.

I would’ve liked a little more emphasis on poetry – sometimes after reading the introductory section buildup I was disappointed when there were only a few poems in the section. But it’s also because I’m in love with poetry of this era and always want to read more and different translations. And I think there are some poems that are even a bit more evocative of the times, the tension, and the atmosphere than what’s included here. I would’ve liked to have seen more. But overall, a great collection for both the newly curious and familiar readers in time for the 100th anniversary of the Russian Revolution.

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution
selected by Boris Dralyuk
published December 13, 2016 by Pushkin Collection

I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for review.

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