Out with the Old: The Death of Aleksandr Blok


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Monument to Tsar Aleksandr III, Petrograd. The victorious proletariat did not demolish the memorial of the tyrant, but instead had the following verse of the poet Demian Bednyi inscribed on the base: Scarecrow Their well deserved hangman's fee My son and sire received. But I, A specter of ancient slavery, Shall ride through all eternity, Derided by humanity.

Monument to Tsar Aleksandr III, Petrograd. The victorious proletariat did not demolish the memorial of the tyrant, but instead had the following verse of the poet Demian Bednyi inscribed on the base:
Their well deserved hangman’s fee
My son and sire received. But I,
A specter of ancient slavery,
Shall ride through all eternity,
Derided by humanity.


After the Bolsheviks had succeeded in taking control of Russia in a “dictatorship of the proletariat”, they still had a long way to go in achieving socialism. The next step was to change the culture of Russia.


Aleksandr Blok was one of the leading poets of the intelligentsia during the late imperial period. He, like most members of the intelligentsia, was from a wealthy bourgeois family, and through his education had come to support the Revolution. There was a shared sense of duty among some of the educated upper class that they had to free the working class because they were benefiting from the unfair conditions in the factories.


However, when members of the intelligentsia actually saw the violence of the revolution, there was less enthusiasm. Blok wrote Scythians in January of 1918. In the poem, he addresses the “Old world”, asking it to be as “sage as Oedipus before the ancient riddle of the Sphinx”. The allusion used here is to the story of the ancient Greek legend about Oedipus meeting a Sphinx when he was on the road coming back from the oracle at Delphi. The Sphinx asked him a riddle: “What has one voice, is four-footed, two-footed, and three-footed?”

Everyone coming down the road before Oedipus had not answered the riddle correctly, and had been eaten alive by the beast. Oedipus answered “Man”, which was correct, and as a result, the Sphinx killed herself by jumping off a cliff. This illusion is helpful in understanding Blok’s work, because he is asking the bourgeois and intelligentsia who are now out of power to be patient and use their advanced education to outwit the Sphinx of the Russian proletariat, which would then perish.

The conclusion Blok had come to once witnessing the Revolution was that it was too violent, which is why he likened it to a Sphinx devouring everything about the old culture. He even says near the end of the poem that the “cruel Huns” would “rummage the pockets of corpses, burn cities, drive cattle into churches, and roast the meat of our white brothers!” This violent imagery shows that Blok’s feelings had changed by his death. He no longer supported the Revolution and wanted the old world to wait for its chance to retake power. He also alludes to the war between the red Bolshevik army and the white monarchist army in these last lines.


With Blok’s death in 1921, the age of bourgeois art had come to an end. Gone were the days of the intelligentsia running the show. Instead the literary and art scene increasingly belonged to the emerging proletariat culture, which was supported by the state. Lenin had called for an emphasis on proletariat values and art through a mandate passed by the Proletkult Congress in 1920, and before his death in 1924 called for a Cultural Revolution that would rock the country from 1928-1932.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

Beat the Whites with the Red Wedge.

Works Cited:

Freeze, Gregory L. Russia: A History. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. Print

Blok’s Scythians: http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/mdenner/Demo/texts/scythians_blok.html

William G. Rosenberg, ed., Bolshevik Visions: First Phase of the Cultural Revolution in Soviet Russia (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1984), pp. 469-474: http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1921rapp1&SubjectID=1921blok&Year=1921

V. I. Lenin, Selected Works in Two Volumes (Moscow: Foreign Language Publishing House, 1952), Vol. 2, pp. 316-317:            http://soviethistory.macalester.edu/index.php?page=article&ArticleID=1921pcult2&SubjectID=1921blok&Year=1921

Information on Sphinx:  http://www.users.globalnet.co.uk/~loxias/sphinx.htm


8 thoughts on “Out with the Old: The Death of Aleksandr Blok

  1. Interesting analysis on one of Blok’s most famous pieces. It’s intriguing how someone who was so supportive of the Revolution could end up being so disillusioned with it by the end (so much so that he even stopped writing poetry). Side note – you should definitely take the Soviet Culture course with Dr. Nelson next time it’s offered. You get to read lots of poetry, short stories, etc. just like this!

  2. This was an interesting read. I had never heard of Blok before, but his story sounds interesting. I wonder if Blok’s story is similar to other members of the intelligentsia, that many of them became disillusioned to a revolution that they had initially supported.

  3. This was a great read! You did a great job of analyzing the poetry and connecting it back to Aleksandr Blok’s beliefs and what issues and events were occurring at the time. This also shows the shift in Russian culture as the bourgeoisie age of culture came to an end, with the rise of the Bolsheviks as they attempted to erase old culture and symbols in order. It is interesting to see how people such as Blok came to resent the Revolution, and it makes one wonder how many others felt the same way?

  4. Blok is the best! And this post does a fine job of highlighting the anticipation, angst, and then disappointment of creative intellectuals who hoped to find productive synergy between political and artistic revolutions. But check back on the Scythians, which is an amazing, powerful poem. The first line: “You are millions. We are hordes and hordes and hordes.” What does that mean? Who were the Scythians?
    http://max.mmlc.northwestern.edu/mdenner/Demo/texts/scythians_blok.html (cited here)

  5. I really love the Spinx metaphor; I feel that it really fits well with the revolution. I’m taking a Russian literature class, and while I was never interested in literature before, it’s starting to pique my interest. Probably because I can see how what these authors write connect with the time period they were living in.

  6. This was a really neat post. As someone also unfamiliar with Aleksandr Blok (other than his name rings a bell) this offers a nice insight into how the remaining intelligentsia acted during the years following the revolution. It would be interesting to learn more about the pressures Blok and others like him may have faced from the Bolsheviks due to their attachment to the old regime’s class structure.

  7. I thought this was a very cool post and really highlights through the case of Blok’s life, how many people who strongly supported the revolution at first came to disapprove of it once they saw how violence it became. Blok’s works no doubt reached many others of the intelligentsia who may have been influenced by him. This shows that the revolution was not without its opposition.

  8. It’s really interesting to see a person who supported the early movement, was a member of the bourgeoisie, and was a poet. These three just sound like an unlikely grouping. Its also awesome to see the opinion of someone from a social class (intelligentsia) that will never be seen again. Its a piece of history that i think is very valuable to the history of Russia.

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