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Leonid Bershidsky

An Invasion That Russian Poets Just Couldn’t Take

From Pushkin on, Russian poets have played a leading role during moments of crisis. But today's are responding to Putin's invasion of Ukraine not with a bang but a whimper.

Pushkin in St. Petersburg

Pushkin in St. Petersburg

Photographer: Loop Images/Universal Images Group Editorial

If you want to understand what Russia has done to itself by attacking Ukraine a year ago, let me suggest a look back on this year in Russian poetry. There are few better ways to examine the moral trauma that Vladimir Putin has inflicted on his country — and to understand the feebleness of Russian society’s response to an event that will determine its trajectory for decades to come.

At the dizziest turns of Russian history — the Decembrists’ failed uprising in 1825, the 1917 revolution and civil war, World War II, the short-lived “thaw” of the mid-1950s to mid-1960s after Stalin’s death, the Soviet Union’s collapse — poetry has played an outsize role in public life, a phenomenon Yevgeny Yevtushenko, one of the thaw’s leading poets, described with his most famous line: “A poet in Russia is more than a poet.”