Find more information about

at the Center for Jewish History:

NOTE: you will be redirected
to the Web site for the

Sapgir, Genrikh Veniaminovich

(1928–1999), Russian poet, children’s author, screenwriter, fiction writer, and translator. Not permitted to publish any of his original work for adult audiences in the Soviet Union until 1989, Sapgir was a well-known underground poet during the 1970s and 1980s, as well as one of the most beloved authors for children. During perestroika, Sapgir’s “adult” work finally appeared in the USSR, and he spent his last decade regarded as a patriarch of Russian avant-garde letters.

Genrikh Sapgir’s parents came from Vitebsk (Vitsyebsk, now in Belarus), and his mother was related to Marc Chagall. Soon after Sapgir’s birth in Biisk, in the Altai region, his family moved to Moscow, where he started writing verse at the age of eight. In 1944 Sapgir met Evgenii Kropivnitskii (1893–1978), the poet, visual artist, and composer who was to be his aesthetic mentor. Between 1953 and 1960, following military service, Sapgir worked in the sculpture studios of the Moscow Art Foundation. In the 1950s and 1960s, he was a member of the underground Lianozovo group of painters and poets, led by Kropivnitskii. In his own poetry he aimed for a synthesis of the verbal and the pictorial.

Having destroyed most of his early works, Sapgir considered his book Golosa (Voices; written 1958–1962, pub. in the USSR in 1989) to be his “poetic birth.” His only preperestroika collection, Sonety na rubashkakh (Sonnets on Shirts), came out in Paris in 1978. However, between 1989 and 1999, more than 25 collections and chapbooks of Sapgir’s poetry and prose were published, including Moskovskie mify (Moscow Myths; 1989), Pushkin, Bufarev i drugie (Pushkin, Bufarev and Others; 1992), Izbrannye stikhi (Selected Poems; 1993), and Letiashchii i spiashchii (Levitating and Sleeping; 1997). Under the influence of his third wife, Liudmila Rodovskaia, Sapgir was baptized in Paris in 1998. In October 1999 he died in Moscow, while traveling by trolleybus to a poetry reading.

Absurdist and transcending conventional boundaries of genres, Sapgir’s poems expose aberrations within Soviet and post-Soviet society. From the late 1950s on, Jewish motifs permeate Sapgir’s works, as is apparent in his “Pamiati ottsa” (In the Memory of My Father; 1962). His book Psalmy (Psalms), written between 1965 and 1966 under the impact of his friendship with the Yiddish writer Ovsei (Shike) Driz (1908–1971), whose works he masterfully translated, is Sapgir’s most important text devoted to Jewish topics. Sapgir’s Psalms are transpositions of—and meditations on—biblical psalms. In particular, his rendition of Psalm 137 (“By the rivers of Babylon”) conflates the events of the Babylonian captivity and of the Shoah. Nevertheless, in many of Sapgir’s psalms the setting is Russia, and the psalmist himself may take on the persona of a Yiddish poet-drunkard (-shiker) in the country that by the 1950s had cut off the blood supply to its Jewish culture.

Suggested Reading

Viktor Krivulin, “Golos i pauza Sapgira,” in Leto s angelami, by Genrikh Sapgir, pp. 5–16 (Moscow, 2000); Maksim D. Shraer (Shrayer) and David Shraer-Petrov (Shrayer-Petrov), eds. (with intro. and commentary), Stikhotvoreniia i poemy, by Genrikh Sapgir (St. Petersburg, 2004); Maksim D. Shraer and David Shraer-Petrov, Genrikh Sapgir: Klassik avangarda, (St. Petersburg, 2004).