Arsenij Tarkovskij and the Problem of Citizenship in the “State of Russian Speech”

Arsenij Tarkovskij (1907–1989) is regarded as one of the influential Russian poets of the 1950s–1970s. At the same time his “citizenship” (graždanstvo) in the “state of Russian speech” (deržava russkoj reči), as Tarkovskij himself defined it in a poem composed after Stalin’s death, presented a considerable personal challenge for the poet. (Besides, his original poetry couldn’t pass Soviet censorship until the mid-1950s). In order to acquire this citizenship, he had to transcend his own mixed cultural heritage and be able to deal with the recurring sense of linguistic and geographical loss and emotional displacement which chased him all his life.

Tarkovskij was born in the South Eastern Ukrainian city of Elisavetgrad in a family which descended from the Arab Muslim šamxals (princes) of the city of Tarki who ruled Daghestan since the VIII century CE. Tarkovskij’s immediate ancestors, however, were Eastern Orthodox Ukrainian Polish gentry.

Deep attachment to Ukrainian, Polish, and Russian culture and languages together with the memories their Daghestani origin and a pronounced political liberalism, constituted the essence of Tarkovskij’s family heritage. In his sixteen-line masterpiece, “It was the time when they were not yet at war with Germany …” (Togda ešče ne voevali s Germaniej, 1966), he describes this heritage as a pre-catastrophic, mainstreamly cosmopolitan and dominated by “mania of ignorance.” The end of a superficially optimistic existence came with the year 1914, when all European nations, including Russia, entered a grim period of wars, revolutions and utopian dictatorships. It was his family’s multiple cultural allegiance that provided Tarkovskij with a sense of inherited displacement: linguistic (although Russian was spoken at home), geographical, even ethnic.

My paper explores some of the mechanism which—under the double pressure of the “state of Russian speech” and changing political climate in the USSR (from the officially “internationalist” empire of Stalin to Xruščev’s “thaw” and growing national awarness)—were employed by Tarkovskij the poet to overcome the inherited state of cultural separation and to accomodate himself to his new role as accepted poet during “liberalization.” E.g., the archaic opposition of “one’s own” (svoj) and “alien” (chužoj) was transformed in Tarkovskij’s mature poetry into oppositions of “everyday” vs. “extraordinary,” “commonly shared” vs “individualistic,” and “natural” vs. “supernatural.” Also, references will be made will to the evolution which Tarkovskij underwent from the 1920s.