A portrait of a poet who was imprisoned in a Soviet labor camp and went on to become a leading figure in contemporary Latvian literature.
A Portrait of a Poet
“It was the gulag life that made me a poet.”—Knuts Skujenieks
Knuts Skujenieks (b. 1936) is a Latvian poet, translator, and culture worker whose life in the 1950s to 1970s is a demonstrative example of the relationship between art and power in the Soviet Union.
First, a rough sketch of the epoch in which the story of Skujenieks unfolds.
Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in June 1940. The Union’s leader at the time was Joseph Stalin whose reign (1922-1953) is defined by mass deportations, Russification of small nations, collectivization (consolidation of individual land and labor into collective farms), and abolishment of private property. During this time, art and literature in the Soviet Union serve power and are subject to demagogic whims. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the regime’s crimes committed against people under Stalin’s command come to light and are reproached; those who were deported are rehabilitated; Stalin’s personality cult is denounced. Union’s lead is taken over by Nikita Khrushchev, and starting around 1956, people are talking about a “thaw” period—the power seems more tolerant, more freedom of expression is allowed. In Latvia, during this thaw period, so-called national communists rose to power. They were against large-scale industrialization and the ensuing mass immigration (each new factory built in Latvia was an excuse to bring in a Russian workforce), which threatened the vitality of Latvian culture and language (because of this assimilation politics, many small languages died out in the Soviet Union). However, Khrushchev’s thaw period comes to an end soon.
It is actually an art event that marks the turning point. On December 1, 1962, accompanied by the U.S.S.R.’s Minister of Culture and other high rank officials, the First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev, attends the local Artist Union’s thirty-year anniversary exhibition in Moscow Manège. The organizer of the exhibition is Ernst Neizvestny (1925-2016), who later became a world-renowned sculptor and soviet dissident (he emigrated to the U.S. in 1976 and lived and worked in New York City). Looking at the exhibited Russian modernist works, Khrushchev bursts out: “What is hung here is simply anti-Soviet. It’s amoral. Art should ennoble the individual and arouse him to action. And what have you set out here? . . . The people and government have taken a lot of trouble with you, and you pay them back with this shit. . . . This is an art for donkeys. . . . You’ve either got to get out or paint differently. As you are, there’s no future for you on our soil.”1
Knuts Skujenieks was born in Riga in 1936, but was raised by his foster mother in the countryside in scarce conditions.2 At the end of World War II, Skujenieks’s father was forced to flee Latvia; he ends up settling in Cleveland (he dies in 1965, while his son is still in confinement). Skujenieks studies in the Philology and History Department of the University of Latvia, continuing (in late 1950s) his studies in the Maxim Gorky Literature Institute in Moscow, which provided a five-year education to those who had demonstrated certain literary abilities. In Moscow, there were students from all over the Soviet Union—it was a place of a relatively more liberal atmosphere. There was also a sense of solidarity among the students from smaller nations; for that reason, those who studied or had studied in Moscow were under a particular scrutiny of Soviet Union’s Committee for State Security (KGB).
Skujenieks returns to Riga at a time when a discontentment with the board of the local Writers Union has ripened (in Soviet Union, in order to work as an artist or a writer—and be able to officially exhibit or publish your work—you had to be a member of a union). Young writers want to change the board because, in their eyes, it consists only of stale communists—writers who have sold themselves to the power and whose works are pure demagogy. Even though Skujenieks himself is not yet a member of the Writers Union, he takes an active role in developing plans for a new board.3
Yet the power realizes that the young writers are up to something and decides to teach them a lesson. Skujenieks gets arrested. The arrest was based on well-known charges: anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda (a charge that could be made against any soviet citizen in any degree of loyalty) and not reporting crimes against the state, respectively. Skujenieks’s violation of the former was having was having a copy of British Encyclopedia at home.4 The year is 1962, Skujenieks is twenty-six years old, half a year since married.
The sentence: seven years in a labor camp. Skujenieks is sent to Mordovia, located about three hundred miles east of Moscow and about nine hundred of the native Riga. Skujenieks on Mordovia: “In hot weather, there was an odor of swamp everywhere, there were a lot of mosquitos and other insects. Winter was quite severe.”5 However, Skujenieks admits that there was a very good and highly intellectual community at the camp.6 Cultural and national evenings were hosted in which poetry as well as academic lectures were read. Poets translated each other’s poetry, each national group celebrated their holidays (behind closed doors of course—somebody was on the watch for guards). There were people of all occupations and interests from all of the Soviet Union in the camp; starting from a kolkhoz (collective farm) shepherd who hadn’t seen more of the world than “the tails of his cows, but who had while drunk beaten the chairman of the kolkhoz and as a result gotten an article for political terror” and ending with history and philosophy PhD candidates who “wanted to teach Marxism according to Marx and not some other doctrines.”7
Skujenieks saw the camp as a microcosm of the whole Soviet Union—in particular, of its work culture. The job in the camp was furniture production—logs were brought in, and out of the camp was supposed to come furniture. But since most of the prisoners were saboteurs by principle, the result of the work was poor—similar to the situation in the Soviet Union at large (to say that the Soviet people were saboteurs or loafers would be untrue, however treating one’s occupational duties with neglect was not uncommon in the Soviet Union—usually, no matter how hard you worked, your salary was the same as everyone else’s, so a lot of people didn’t see the purpose in laboring diligently for the state).
Before the camp, Knuts was a person who wrote poetry. Going to Mordovia, he didn’t know if he would have enough strength—both physical and mental—to write there, if he would be able to retain any of what he’d written, or if the poems would ever have other readers besides the camp comrades (those who spoke Latvian).8 In the camp, however, writing poetry becomes a “life principle” for Skujenieks, a means for survival—his own survival and that of the others, too. Skujenieks received social support from his fellow prisoners, but also began to recognize that he has a social responsibility towards his people. “In the gulag is where I realized that a poem needs an explicit addressee.” The camp life taught Skujenieks to write concretely, express his feelings precisely. Twenty years after returning, the poet said: “I am grateful to the gulag for it was the gulag life that made me a poet.”9
If Skujenieks had died in Mordovia, the body would not be sent to the relatives. Fear of death was overcome by “awareness that at any moment I can commit suicide, that I am the master of my death and my life too, that I have the last word—that awareness gave a lot.”10 There was a lot of black humor in the camp (as in the Soviet Union in general), for example: “Don’t take life too seriously, you won’t come out of it alive anyway.”
With time, Skujenieks’s case gained resonance in the West. Radio Free Europe started talking about him, and Amnesty International undertook his defense.11 Some Soviet officials tried to persuade Skujenieks to make an appeal. But Knuts refused—he was convicted innocent. To make an appeal would be to sanction his charge. “I said—I can’t be smarter than the Soviet power, can I? If the Soviet power has decided that in order to make a human being out of this degenerate seven years are needed, I can’t know better. In the end, when the talk got serious, I said, no, I am not going to spit in my own face. Because then no one else can. That simple. It is a question of principle.”12 Till the very last minute, Skujenieks endures the whole sentence—seven years (1962-1969). In the camp, Knuts observed: “In captivity, a human does not age because time seems to have stopped there.”13
It was permitted to send out two letters a month from the camp, to one addressee; Skujenieks sends his to his wife, but in those envelopes are also letters to other writers, as well as poems, written in tiny letters on frayed yellow paper. One letter, written in January 1965, begins with a hail:
“Friends, comrades and colleagues! . . .
“Behind me, there remained an empty space. Do I really have to prove you that gaps in creative work can by no means be compensated? Do really I, ‘especially dangerous state criminal’, as I am officially titled, have to remind you . . . the most elementary norms of morale, the most minimal humanity, not even mentioning professional humanism? Does it really, when you propagand these principles, write and talk about them from podiums both high and low, does it never occur to you that by accepting my, and peoples’ similar to me, fate, you are reducing your beautiful words to a naught? Do I really need to repeat the axiom-become truth that there is no culture without carriers of culture, that we have to fight for each and every one of them instead of helping to destroy them physically and morally? The space that’s left behind me demands an answer, today. . . . In the ignoring of my case there hides a dangerous symptom—ignoring of culture . . . Indifference is more dangerous than crime, for it is the soil of crime.”14
Skujenieks brings home about a thousand poems from Mordovia (about one for every mile away from home). Because of the pressure from Amnesty International, soon after returning, Skujenieks is already getting published; the poems that had arrived to Latvia from the camp through letters are already known there. However, the regained breath of freedom is brief. Curtsey for the West performed, the powers decide it is no longer necessary to support the poet whose works apparently contain anti-Soviet propaganda. All of a sudden, publication opportunities disappear, the promised first book doesn’t come out (it comes out several years later, in 1978). Skujenieks has to subsist from translating poetry.
In addition to translating contemporary Western poetry (the permitted one), Skujenieks translates poets from other small Soviet republics. There is a wish to show solidarity with nations smaller and even more threatened by the Soviet yoke than Latvians. Another Latvian poet of that time, Vizma Belševica, has said: “If Injustice befalls any of the big nations, they perceive it as an extreme exception and also in their literature document it in the minutest detail. For Latvians, it is a normal state, therefore a Latvian seeks not to describe the anatomy of the whip and executioner, but rather the sky and the stars above the head.”15
In an interview, Skujenieks says it is difficult—“why should I?”—to speculate what could have been had he not been arrested and sent to the camp.16 He doubts however that the results would have been any better. Skujenieks does not carry bitterness for the people who spied on him and planned the arrest. “All the investigators, judges, ratfinks, and others—they were just puppets. It was a weak or a bad character, depends, but God with them.”17 He can’t tell the exact moment, but Skujenieks realized that there can’t be any “victories of justice” or reparations in regard to the past; what has been, has been, he says.18 Describing the time after returning from the camp, Skujenieks says: “I didn’t need anything else—just to write that poetry when she was asking.” “In the end,” he says, “in the basis of everything, is not a problem, but human. In this regard, a good example is Blaumanis [a Latvian realist writer of late 19th century]—problems arise from people and their relationships. He [Blaumanis] allows each person their truth and realizes that that is where the tragedy of the human society begins, that these truths are not compatible.” Skujenieks thinks that human conflicts emerge not only because of clashes between “natural and codified rights,” but also because of “different levels of thinking and perceiving.”19
Juris Kronbergs (a Latvian-Swedish poet and translator), in an afterword for the Swedish edition of Skujenieks’s poetry book Seed in Snow (which is also translated with that title in English), writes:
“Lets imagine, had these poems secretly made their way out of the camp, to the West, and been translated into the big languages back then, in the sixties! Then Skujenieks would have become world-famous, released and exiled from the Soviet Union; he would have settled in California (for health reasons) and would be a well-off college professor. But then missing would have been his unique contribution to Latvia’s culture life in those hard years—both nation and himself would be poorer.”20
For his literary activity and contribution to Latvia’s culture, Skujenieks has received Latvia’s highest award, Order of the Three Stars, as well as several high rank distinctions from other countries (Lithuania, Ukraine, Norway, Spain, Sweden) for his translation work (Skujenieks translates from more than a dozen languages).
Around two million people live in Latvia. Now, if a poetry book comes out in a thousand copies that is a lot. In Soviet times, thirty-thousand was the normal print run, and still the book was hard to come by; you had to know somebody. In Soviet times, literature and art served as spiritual orienteers, people wanted to hear what the poets, the intelligence, had to say. Skujenieks remembers how, in the evenings, in commuter trains, the saleswomen from the market were reading and discussing literary polemics.21 In a 2010 interview, Skujenieks says that Latvia’s independence means a lot for him, however he admits that it brought with it a tremendous dose of provincialism, also mediocre, feeble art. He explains: “We have lost scale and standards; we no longer know how our neighbors in Lithuania, in Estonia live; we now have Hollywood gossip which, of course, doesn’t make up for a meaningful life. The second thing, which is a global phenomena, is that the term ‘good’ or ‘quality’ is replaced by another term—‘successful.’ In place of ‘masterpiece’ we now have the ‘bestseller’—and surely there are attempts to present the latter as former.”22
Asked about postmodernism and art for art’s sake, Skujenieks responds that he thinks that it is, too, a temporary thing:
“There have already been phenomena like this in the world’s culture—times of decadence. Apparently, there are times when there is a need, an enthusiasm for deconstruction. I can look at it with some interest, but what interests me more is what is going to come after this deconstruction—what new construction? Because one cannot hold as a value in art a mere experiment; an experiment in itself, in any sphere, is not a value. What’s important is what the end result of that experiment is, what is its residue.”23
Nevertheless, Skujenieks thinks that we will get there, come back to valuing values and traditions, not just experiments. What confuses him, however, is that if he looks at the “previous breakers and destroyers and rippers,” then it seems to him that, “mostly, they were still educated—they knew what was it that they were destroying, breaking.” He gives the French ‘damned’ poets as an example, who “were still strongly rooted in the French classical culture, however what they were doing was absolutely against it. And because of that [their knowledge of what it was they were rebelling against] their ‘breach’ later became a stable value.” However “if a person wants to break absolutely ignoring or, honestly, not knowing what has been accumulated before him”—in that, Skujenieks doesn’t see much meaning.24
Another thing that concerns him is that people ask for comedy, and comedy only. “Yes, comedy is necessary. But I think a tragedy would be necessary no less. People need some kind of a catharsis, but they don’t want this catharsis. They don’t want to accept it. They only want to relax, they want to discharge themselves. I sometimes ask people, but listen—when are you going to charge yourselves up? If all you want to do is discharge.”25 But apparently it’s not the time for that yet, he thinks. “The moment of catharsis will come when the society starts to really understand its situation.”
About Latvian folksong (Latvian folklore’s oral tradition, a four or sometimes six verse poem) Skujenieks has said: “The Latvian folksong teaches . . . human not to take up more space in the world than they need. In a philosophical plane, too—not to disrupt the balance of the world. But modesty does not mean humility. Only, self-respect is not to be demonstrated to the whole world.”26
A cherry-tree trying to cover
Its very last berry—
That is me watching over
My ragged shirt’s single button.
When hopes and souvenirs are all gone,
When the burden’s too heavy to bear,
I make sure the button’s still on,
The one that you stitched there.
In spite of years and fears,
In spite of snows and rows,
To this hole-riddled life I am wed
By the stitch of your love’s endless thread.
Day has succumbed to night. I gaze
At a single lit window.
A window it’s not: there on my chest, ablaze,
A life sewn in by you.
Translated into English by Ieva Lešinska.
About “The Button,” a poem that has been translated into thirty-three languages Skujenieks says:
“This poem was written in 1964 while in a Soviet concentration camp in Mordovia, about 500 kilometers to the east of Moscow . . . The poem could be published only in 1990, the year when Latvia reasserted its right to exist as an independent country . . . The poem was dedicated to my wife. Yet years later, when I read it in Stockholm, Paris, Cracow, and elsewhere, the response I got from the audiences suggested that it no longer belongs only to the two of us . . . To me, the ‘button years’ are ancient history, yet in many near and faraway places people still suffer because of their convictions. I dedicate this little, multilingual book to political prisoners and their loved ones worldwide.”27
- “Khrushchev on Modern Art”, Seventeen Moments in Soviet History. September 1, 2015. http://soviethistory.msu.edu/1961-2/khrushchev-on-the-arts/khrushchev-on-the-arts-texts/khrushchev-on-modern-art/ Accessed February 10, 2018.
- Juris Kronbergs, “Par Knutu Skujenieku”, afterword for Skujenieks poem collection’s Seed in Snow Swedish edition (1990).
- Avots. 1988, #10: 18-21
- Avots. 1988, #10: 18-21
- Juris Kronbergs, “Par Knutu Skujenieku”, October 1990
- Inta Čaklā, “Dzejnieka stāja”, Jaunā Gaita, February 1990 (#176) http://jaunagaita.net/jg176/JG176_Cakla-par-Skujenieku.htm
- Knuts Skujenieks, Raksti, book 7: 129.
- Juris Kronbergs, “Par Knutu Skujenieku.”
- Knuts Skujenieks, Raksti, book 7: 129
- Knuts Skujenieks, Raksti, book 7: 133
- Knuts Skujenieks, Raksti, book 7: 133
- Rīgas Laiks, May 2011. https://www.rigaslaiks.lv/zurnals/redzi-ir-tada-lieta-1058 Accessed February 10, 2018.
- Knuts Skujenieks, Raksti, book 7: 131
- LNB (National Library of Latvia) RXA392,3
- Vizma Belševica in Juris Kronbergs, “Par Knutu Skujenieku.”
- Rīgas Laiks, May 2011. https://www.rigaslaiks.lv/zurnals/redzi-ir-tada-lieta-1058.
- The second has been is not a fully accurate translation; the original word izbijis (in contrast to the first has been—bijis) means something closer to has been and is no more.
- Rīgas Laiks, May 2011. https://www.rigaslaiks.lv/zurnals/redzi-ir-tada-lieta-1058.
- Juris Kronbergs, “Par Knutu Skujenieku”
- ‘Viss notiek’ interviews Knuts Skujenieks. DELFI, July 20, 2010. http://www.delfi.lv/video/zinas/arzemes/viss-notiek-interve-knutu-skujenieku.d?id=43934274
- In text, Skujenieks sentences might read stern, but in the video you can see that they are punctuated by smiles (though equally ironic as they are amiable).
- Inta Čaklā, “Dzejnieka stāja”, Jaunā Gaita, February 1990 (#176) http://jaunagaita.net/jg176/JG176_Cakla-par-Skujenieku.htm Accessed February 10, 2018.
- Knuts Skujenieks, Poga (Riga: Neputns, 2011).