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Slutskii, Boris Abramovich

(1919–1986), Russian poet. Boris Slutskii spent his childhood and youth in Kharkov. His serious early interests in literature, art, and history led him to attend the Moscow Institute of Law (1937) and then, on the recommendation of the well-known poet Pavel Antokol’skii (1896–1978), the Gorky Institute of Literature (1938). Slutskii’s studies at both places ended with the Nazi invasion of June 1941, when he volunteered for the front. A recipient of four battlefield medals, he was demobilized in 1946 and spent time in treatment for wounds and shell shock. Because of his talent and civic frankness, he became an unofficial leader of young poets. They looked to him both for advice about their craft and about living ethically in a totalitarian state.

After the war, with no permanent residence, Slutskii lived on a meager invalid’s pension and on chance earnings from work done for children’s radio programs and for magazines as a translator and editor. Although he published individual poems in 1941, his first collection, Pamiat’ (Memory), was not issued until 1957, and then only with the help of Ilya Ehrenburg. Subsequently, however, collections of Slutskii’s poems appeared every two or three years. In addition to his own writing, he translated Polish, German, English, and Yiddish poems into Russian and became the first editor of a Soviet edition of Israeli poetry, Poety Izrailia (Poets of Israel; 1963). Many of Slutskii’s unpublished verse and prose works were passed from hand to hand in manuscript copies, to be published only after his death. A three-volume edition of his Sobranie sochinenii (Collected Works), the most complete version available, was published in Moscow in 1991.

The main themes of Slutskii’s work were war and the human being in wartime; the fate of his generation; power and conscience; cruelty and kindness; duty toward oneself and others; truth and falsehood; the life of the country; and routine affairs. A master of the poetic word, he intentionally merged it with prosaic inflections, introducing colloquial speech into his verse. He had a major influence on Russia’s literary life; indeed, Joseph Brodsky wrote of him: “Slutskii almost single-handedly changed the sound of post-war Russian poetry. . . . His inflection is harsh, tragic, and dispassionate” (in Valentian Polukhina, Brodskii glazami sovremennikov [Saint Petersburg, 1997], p. 72).

Slutskii was a man of great personal and civic courage; even during a period of raging antisemitism he wrote about the Stalinist regime (in “Khoziain” [The Boss]): “But my boss did not love me / He did not know me, nor did he hear or see me, / And yet he feared me, like fire / And gloomily, morosely, hated me.” Chastising himself for a speech he gave at the Writers’ Union meeting that vilified Boris Pasternak (1890–1960), who had just been awarded the Nobel Prize, Slutskii, with the same courage, confessed: “Once I was a coward / And this moment / Whatever you might call it / Settled in my blood / Like the most bitter, biting salt” (“Gdie—to strusil. Kogda—ne pomniu”).

Jewish themes had an important place in Slutskii’s work. With delicacy and pain he wrote about the decline of the shtetl, lamented the people lost in the Holocaust, and lashed out at antisemitism. Although the extensive literary criticism devoted to the poet says nothing about his Jewish themes, their significance in his life and work can be seen in the collection edited by his friend Petr Gorelik, Teper’ Osventsim chasto snitsia mne . . . (Often Now I Dream of Auschwitz . . . ; 1999), and in the chapter entitled “Evrei” (Jews) in Slutskii’s Zapiski o voine (Notes about War; 2000).

Suggested Reading

Boris Slutskii, Things That Happened, ed. and trans. Gerald Stanton Smith (Moscow and Chicago, 1999); Gerald Stanton Smith, ed. and trans., Contemporary Russian Poetry: A Bilingual Anthology (Bloomington, Ind., 1993).



Translated from Russian by I. Michael Aronson