“Higher and higher!”: Aviation and Poetics of Flight in Russian Poetry of the Early 20th Century

Yuri Leving, University of Southern California

Following the first public airplane show in St. Petersburg in the spring of 1910, the theme of aviation developed in Russian poetry and art at a rapid pace. In my paper I intend to focus on the impact that the invention of the airplane and flight tests had on poetry and the artistic milieu. Man’s controlled flight became for poets and painters a long-awaited materialization of a once-dreamt-of spiritual experience. The tragic character of early aviation history, numerous newspaper reports and eyewitness stories helped spark an intense interest in aeronautics among contemporaries (I. Kliun’s “Aviator” [1912], A. Morgunov’s “Aviator” [1912-1913], N. Goncharova’s “Airplane Above Train” [1915], K. Malevich’s “Aviator” [1914] and “Flying Aircraft” [1915], as well as V. Tatlin’s experiments with the letatlin device in 1923–1929). The niche occupied by Byron’s Child Harold and Pushkin’s Aleko was taken now by a new “hero of our time” – a person in a leather helmet and a fur-lined jacket who could triumph over physical, earthly limitations. As the interest in flying acquired a universal character in Russia, the pilot’s glory spread nationwide.

Aleksandr Blok was among those who visited the first Russian “Aviation Week” at Kolomyazhsky field in 1910, and what he saw there struck him deeply. As a result, Blok wrote the poem “Aviator” (1911), which was echoed by Vl. Khodasevich’s “To Aviator” (1914) and V. Nabokov’s “Airplane” (1923). The intertextual and thematic relationship between these and other texts dedicated to aviation (by Ehrenburg, Zenkevich, Kamensky, Mandel'shtam, Otsup, Blomkvist, Briusov, Kataev, Zabolotsky, Kissin, Tretiakov, Gumilyev, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Poplavsky, Shershenevich, and others, including the poem on aviation signed by a certain “Karboni,” one of the first to appear in Russia, printed in the Moscow weekly journal Vozdukhoplavanie, nauka i sport on November 11, 1910 and never subsequently reprinted) will be discussed in this paper.

My primary concern relates to the study of the Russian “aviation text” and its poetic evolution through the 1920s as a complex, but continuous phenomenon with recurrent motifs and a rather rigid structural format (such as the mythopoetic basis of the Icarus flight, eroticism and adventure, warfare connection, and the zoomorphization of aircraft).