Küchlya: Decembrist Poet,
Reviewed by Nicole Yurcaba
For Western readers, the story of the Russian-German Romantic poet Wilhelm Ludwig Von Küchelbecker is little known. A contemporary and close friend of famous Russian poets like Pushkin and Delvig Küchelbecker, Wilhelm Ludwig Von Küchelbecker, known as Küchlya, came from a rather elite family, attended the Tsarskoye Selo Lyceum, and eventually fell into ruin and was exiled for crimes against the state. A poet who held a pantheistic vision of the world, Küchelbecker’s best known poem is his noble elegy on Pushkin’s death. Küchelbecker, however, is least remembered for his poetry. Instead, Küchelbecker is remembered for his role in the Decembrist Uprising, when he made an attempt on the tsar’s brother’s life. After he was sentenced to corporal punishment, which was then commuted to imprisonment in Sveaberg, Kexholm, and other fortresses for 10 years, Küchelbecker spent the remainder of his life in exile—first in Kurgan, and eventually in Tobolsk, where he died of tuberculosis. While Küchelbecker’s biography has largely remained unmentioned in Western literary circles, Russian writer and literary theorist Yuri Tynianov’s first novel Küchlya is now available in a first-ever English translation, bringing the poet’s life and the first Russian Revolution’s sweeping drama to an entirely new audience.
Initially, readers may see Küchlya as a biography-as-novel focused solely on Küchelbecker’s life. That initial impression isn’t quite accurate. The novel offers subtle critiques of the power of language and the necessity of keeping literary movements fresh. First, this appears in the section titled “Petersburg.” Readers see Küchelbecker interacting with writers like Griboyedov and Ryleyev. Griboyedov advocates that he, Küchelbecker, and Ryleyev are the keys to a “‘revolution in literature’” and that revolution should focus on ousting “‘Zhukovsky with his palace Romanticism.’” Griboyedov suggests that the writers should embrace “‘The spirit of the people’” because “‘that’s our stronghold.’” He continues, arguing “‘Language should be crude and unpretentious like life itself, only then will literature gain strength. Otherwise, it will be forever lounging in bed.’” This idea doesn’t disappear from the novel, as readers encounter it again in “Caucasus.” Griboyedov and Wilhelm find themselves together gain, conversing about ways to revolutionize the theater. Their post in the Caucasus during The Caucasian War (an imperialist move in which Russia annexed parts of the North Caucasus) allows them adequate time to discuss the arts. Griboyedov proposes “‘Our language should be either rough and simple—from the street, from the hallway—or elevated… One must write as one lives: free and easy.’” Griboyedov’s suggestions prove almost prophetic, especially as the spirit of revolution takes hold of the population, sparking a flame and social change that few at the time could have anticipated.
If readers consider Griboyedov’s comments regarding language, they see how the novel slowly transforms into an observation of not only the class struggles separating the peasantry from the elite, but also the excessive bloating of the Russian Empire that, given recent and growing tensions between Russia and former Soviet blocs like Ukraine, many observe continue to this day. These become evident in the way the novel first treats censorship. Readers see Pushkin banished to the South by a tsar who states “‘he [Pushkin] has flooded the country with outrageous verses. All the young people recite them by heart. His behavior is brazen in the extreme.’” Turgenev dangerously comments to Wilhelm that he and the others are united “‘by one thing: the desire for immediate change’” Turgenev implies that the tsar’s government is full of “‘ignoramuses’” who “‘put obstacles in the way of education; surveillance is on the increase with every passing day.’” Turgenev reminds his friends that Man “‘must strive for the good of his neighbors, not just for his own good,’” and that “‘He must always strive…even if he is not certain that he will achieve his goal.’” At this point, readers see Küchelbecker distanced from the peasantry, but soon they see him envying them, so much so that in “In the Country,” Ivan Letoshnikov, described as an “old village joker and a drunkard,” warns Wilhelm that “‘it’s a bit of a joke to go envying peasants.’” Ivan tells Wilhelm that envying a peasant is “‘like envying a hunchback. A peasant’s life isn’t all cakes and ale. What’s there to envy?’”
In “Sons of the Fatherland,” the novel’s descriptions of how the peasantry’s struggles eventually consume all of the social classes employ the realistic language Griboyedov theorized he and his contemporaries needed: “Everyone was living in a kind of vacuum, waiting for something.” The language reemphasizes Turgenev’s descriptions of the tsar and his government: “Russia was ruled by ignorant monks who fought each other like dogs, the censorship turned down verses where women’s smiles were referred to as ‘heavenly.’” By this point in the novel, everyone is a criminal, including Küchelbecker who, along with Ryelev and others, finds himself advocating for a change of rule in an empire gone mad.
Küchlya deftly captures the chaos permeating the tsar’s family, events to which modern readers may draw a significant parallel as sanctions inflicted on Russia by the United States and European countries devastate Russia’s economy. After the sudden death of Emperor Alexander I, the empire learns that Constantine, Alexander’s heir, had previously and privately declined the succession, leaving Nicholas to take power after formal confirmation. Loyalists battled rebels, who had appeared outside the Senate in a large crowd, and after opening fire on the rebels, the loyalists managed to scatter the rebels, capturing them, and sentencing them to death, hanging, or exile to Siberia. Among the prominent, notable figures on friendly terms with Decembrist leaders were Alexander Pushkin, Aleksandr Griboyedov, and Aleksey Yermolov. In “Peter’s Square,” the description of the aftermath and carnage turns Romantically poetic: “The dead and the wounded will freeze to the ice. Later that winter, when people are hacking the ice, they will find human heads, arms, and legs in the clear bluish ice floes.” The natural imagery of freezing and of ice becomes metaphoric for the slow, but undeniable, cycle of change occurring in the empire: “And it will be like this till spring. The ice will float down to the sea in spring. And the water will carry the dead to the sea.” The conclusion also relies on imagery associated with rejuvenating the fields to capture the ensuing transformation: “Peter’s Square is like a ploughed, harrowed, and abandoned field. Strangers wander about it, like dark birds.”
Though Küchelbecker manages to briefly escape the authorities’ long grasp, eventually they capture him, and so begins his journeys from fortress to fortress. The novel’s writing again astutely captures the experience, relying on natural and Romantic descriptions. In “Fortress,” readers experience Küchelbecker’s loss of individuality and freedom:
The Romantics valued freedom from rules, but Küchelbecker finds himself oppressed by the empire’s laws. Significantly, nature becomes the one place that Küchelbecker as a prisoner can imagine freedom, but the harsh reality of his imprisonment strips away any hope that nature can offer:
Küchelbecker’s abandonment of landscape, even an imagined landscape, creates a sense of futility. This futility transforms into resolve and acceptance, and it fuels the novel’s ending.
In “The End,” readers see an aged Küchelbecker, one who has made a life for himself from the scraps he has been handed by an oppressive system hellbent on persecuting, punishing, and silencing the intellectuals, the freethinkers, and anyone else who may not fit into the system’s carefully constructed squares. One motif of the Romantic movement is a longing for innocence, for the past. Bold statements shift the novel’s tone and mark Küchelbecker’s figurative path towards his ultimate end:
That day finally comes and the prisoner is freed—to live in Siberia.
However, Küchelbecker’s freedom is brief, and though he manages to marry and have a family, the ravages of time, age, and tuberculosis lead Küchelbecker to his death. Readers are left with a solemn image as Küchelbecker “lay outstretched, with upturned gray beard, sharp uplifted nose, and eyes rolled back.” Even in death, Küchelbecker remains poetic and defiant, just as he was when he lived.
Readers should take note that embarking on the literary journey that is Küchlya is an investment—in time, in research, in emotion. Gripping and moving, provocative and enlightening, the novel enters the literary world at a relevant time. Its conversations regarding imperialism are needed and imperative, especially as former Soviet countries like Ukraine find themselves once again staving off an old colonialist foe—Russia. For literary scholars, the novel is a significant homage to the little-regarded efforts of one the Romantic movement’s most overlooked poets. In general, it’s a novel that will enlighten readers to the historical and political upheavals that have shaped one of the world’s foremost global powers, but also a poetic spirit that time and tyrants have yet to erase.
Nicole Yurcaba (Ukrainian: Нікола Юрцаба) is a Ukrainian-American poet and essayist. Her reviews, poems, and essays have appeared in The Atlanta Review, The Lindenwood Review, Whiskey Island, Raven Chronicles, Appalachian Heritage, North of Oxford, and many other online and print journals. Nicole holds an MFA in Writing from Lindenwood University, and she frequently reviews books for Colorado Review, Tupelo Quarterly, Southern Review of Books, and Sage Cigarettes. She teaches poetry workshops for Southern New Hampshire University and works as a career counselor for Blue Ridge Community College.