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Nadson, Semen Iakovlevich

(1862–1887), Russia’s most popular poet in the three decades preceding the 1917 Revolutions. Nadson was the first Russian poet of Jewish origin to achieve national fame and to reach a large, popular audience. Following the collapse of the revolutionary movement in the 1870s, his writing captivated younger readers during the reign of Alexander III. Oscillating between the poetry of pure art and social reflection (the former exemplified by Afanasii Fet and Aleksei Apukhtin), Nadson bridged the styles that marked the civic poetry of Nikolai Nekrasov and early Russian Symbolism. Emotionally evocative, his verses showcase a disillusioned poet’s quest for a liberal ideal of humanity. His first collection, Stikhotvoreniia (Poems; 1885), was reprinted 29 times before 1917 and sold more than 200,000 copies.

Semen Nadson was born in Saint Petersburg in 1862. His father, a civil servant, came from a family of baptized Jews, and his mother, a teacher, descended from Russian nobility. When Nadson was two years old, his father died in a mental institution; in 1873 his mother died of tuberculosis. In his autobiographical notes, written in 1880 and published in 1902, Nadson recalled his humiliation as a ward in the antisemitic household of his uncle I. Mamontov, who called the impressionable boy a “kikish ninny.”

Nadson’s first poem was published in 1878. After attending a military boarding school, he entered military college in 1879. In 1881 he met the prominent poet Aleksei Pleshcheev, who published Nadson’s poems in the review Otechestvennye zapiski (Fatherland Notes), thus forging the young poet’s literary reputation. In 1882 Nadson entered the 148th Caspian Regiment as a lieutenant. However, tuberculosis forced him to retire in 1884, and he left for European resorts with his companion Mariia Vatson. Returning to Saint Petersburg in 1885, Nadson lived in Ukraine, dying in Yalta in 1887. He was buried in Saint Petersburg at the Volkov cemetery, next to Nikolai Dobroliubov (1836–1861), a leading social and literary critic who had also died young of tuberculosis.

Nadson wrote one poem with an explicit Jewish theme. Composed in 1885, “I grew up shunning you, O most degraded nation” first appeared in the collection Pomoshch’ evreiam, postradavshim ot neurozhaia (Aid to the Jews Devastated by Poor Crops; 1901). The relative importance of Nadson’s “Jewish poem” is tremendous, as he, a Russian Orthodox, openly identified in the 1880s with the people of his father and their plight at the time of pogroms and new antisemitic restrictions.

Suggested Reading

G. A. Bialyi, “S. Ia. Nadson,” in Stikhotvoreniia, by Semen Nadson, ed. F. I. Shushkovskaia, pp. 5–42 (Leningrad, 1957); A. A. Iliushin and K. M. Polivanov, “Nadson, Semen Iakovlevich,” in Russkie pisateli, 1800–1917: Biograficheskii slovar’, ed. P. A. Nikolaev, vol. 4, pp. 213–216 (Moscow, 1999); Neil Parson, “Semen Iakovlevich Nadson, 1862–1887,” in Reference Guide to Russian Literature, ed. Neil Cornwell, pp. 568–570 (London, 1998).