Revolution, Sex, and Jewish Masculinity in Eduard Bagritsky’s “February”

Evgenii Bershtein, Reed College

In this paper, I undertake an intertextual analysis of Eduard Bagritsky’s narrative poem “Fevral’” (1933-1934). The first-person poem tells the story of a shy Jewish youngster in a southern Russian city. Rejected by a Russian girl, the protagonist takes his revenge in February 1917 when he becomes a commander in the revolutionary militia. As the hero leads the raid of a gangster den, he recognizes his former beloved in one of the prostitutes. He then rapes her “without pulling off” his “holster,” “without taking off” his “trench coat.”

This poem, Bagritsky’s masterpiece, has long attracted the attention of critics who interpret it, depending on their ideological agenda, as either an expression of Russophobic Jewish extremism (Igor Shafarevich, Stanislav Kuniaev) or an idealistic dream of harmonious fusion between the Jewish and Slavic elements (Maxim Shrayer). Most recently, the historian Yuri Slezkine has presented Bagritsky’s lyrical narrative as emblematic of Russian Jews’ pre-war enthusiasm for the world revolution and the Soviet state.

I will argue that these interpretations overlook a thick layer of intertextual references that are crucially important for constructing the meaning of “February.” Through transparent allusions to the works of Boris Pil’niak, Vasilii Rozanov, and Otto Weininger, Bagritsky’s poem addresses two main issues: the sexual nature of the Revolution, and Jewish masculinity. The notorious rape scene, in which “February” culminates, is to be understood as a convergence of two visions: that of the Revolution seen as gigantic explosion of sexual energy, and that of the Jewish emancipation interpreted as formation of wholesome Jewish manhood. Bagritsky’s appropriation of the Pushkinian form complicates the meaning. The reference is to Pushkin’s “I vnov’ ia posetil…,” but Bagritsky opposes the raw sexual emotion to Pushkin’s mood of serene reconciliation with aging and death.