Perhaps the most dramatic account is Baltrusaitis' attempt to save Osip Mandelstam. Of the poets that were hounded and persecuted by Stalin, Mandelstam's is the most harrowing case. Mandelstam bitterly opposed Bolshevism. At an informal gathering in 1934, at the Moscow apartment of Boris Pasternak, Mandelstam recited scathing verses insulting to Stalin. The poem which does not explicitly mention the dictator by name, runs like this:
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer And his boots gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders
Fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat
For the broadchested Ossete.
After the arrest for this poem about Stalin, Mandelstam was in danger of being executed. To save him from this fate, a number of prominent people interceded on his behalf, including Baltrusaitis. In her classical memoir, Hope Against Hope, Nadezhda, Osip Mandelstam's widow, provided the drama of the events:
At a congress of journalists taking place in Moscow just at that
time, Baltrusaitis frantically made the rounds of the delegates and,
invoking the memory of Gumilev who was shot in 1921, begged them to
save M. from a similar fate. I can imagine how this combination of
names sounded to the ears of our hard-bitten journalists of those
years, but Baltrusaitis was a citizen of a foreign country and they
could scarcely expect him to be impressed by the suggestion that it
was better not to "get involved". Baltrusaitis had long before had a
presentiment of what M.'s end would be. At the very beginning of the
twenties (in 1921, before the execution of Gumilev) he had urged M.
to take out Lithuanian citizenship. This would have been quite feasible, since M.'s father had once lived in Lithuania and M. even
went so far as to hunt out some papers and take them round to
Baltrusaitis, but then he thought better of it: you can't escape
your fate and better not try. (Mandelstam, p. 27)
Well, we know that these efforts were abortive, Stalin made sure of that. There are other cases of Baltrusaitis' diplomatic intercession on behalf of fellow artists. Marc Chagall, the expressionist, famous Russian-Jewish painter, also had lost favor with the Bolsheviks. The government withdrew financial support because his art was considered decadent. Chagall made many efforts to emigrate abroad and finally succeeded with the aid of Maxim Gorki and Demian Bedny. Both writers, politically close to the new regime, prevailed on A. V. Lunacharsky, the People's Commissar of Culture and Education, to issue Chagall an exit visa. Baltrusaitis' role, in Chagall's case, was different from his other involvement. He helped save over forty major Chagall paintings belonging to the artist's early period. Baltrusaitis did this by permitting the paintings to be shipped by diplomatic pouch via a courier to Lithuania. The account is given to us in Sidney Alexander's Marc Chagall. (p. 241) Baltrusaitis therefore, saved Chagall's early work by sending it to the free West.
The recent biography of Victoria Schweitzer on Marina Tsvetaeva gives us another factual entry on Baltrusaitis' efforts to get Tsvetaeva out of Russia. In 1921, Tsvetaeva wanted to get a travel visa to Riga, Latvia and from there make the attempt to join her husband, Sergey Efron, at that time living in Berlin. The prospect of departing Russia was undertaken by Baltrusaitis to procure a visa sometime in October of 1921. With much personal indecision and delay, Tsvetaeva did not depart Moscow until May 11, 1922 and successfully traveled via Riga to Berlin where she joined Sergey. All indications of the success of this enterprise point to the diplomatic service rendered by Baltrusaitis to one of the most important women poets of this century. (Schweitzer, pp. 216-18) In an article by Leonid' Sabaneev entitled "My Meetings: the Decadence", appearing in Memoirs From the Silver Age, we find the mention of Baltrusaitis' close working association with Vyacheslav Ivanov during the early period of the Bolshevik regime. The two men worked for Lunacharsky's Peoples' Commissariat of Culture and Education. It is that section of Sabaneev's article that seems to be indicating Baltrusaitis' efforts to get Ivanov to leave Russia as well (i.e. to emigrate abroad). (Kreid, pp. 348-52) By the way, in 1918, Baltrusaitis was elected President of the Soviet Russian Writers' Union and Chaired its Section of Theater Performance, known as T.E.O. (Terras, p. 38) (Khodasevich, p. 347).
In 1922, he also helped two more friends escape Soviet Russia, the accomplished poet-critic Vladislav Khodasevich and his wife Nina Berberova. She writes about Baltrusaitis in her memoir The Italics Are Mine. (Berberova, p. 146).
The story was personally related to me by Nina Berberova herself, when she taught Russian at Yale University in 1961. At that time, I was taking a course in advanced conversation-composition Russian in which we did a great deal of reading and writing. The corrected homework was religiously handed back at the next class meeting. It was a relatively small group of students, about 12, meeting every day for two hours for six weeks. I remember Professor Berberova being impatient with students whose papers where sprinkled with corrections in scarlet. My performance in the class was average, but she never lost her patience or got angry with me. At that time, I wondered to myself why I was being spared!
We were all in awe of Professor Berberova. Her high level of cultural sophistication came through in the manner she conducted herself and her class. If we were reading Chekhov or Turgenev, or stories by other Russian writers, she would embellish the topics with the erudition and interesting anecdotes. There was a Russian table that summer at the university dining hall where those pursuing Russian language, met during lunch for practice with their professors.
Nina Berberova frequented these conversation sessions. At times she would reminisce on the pre-revolutionary Russian world of art and literature, of which she was a participant. It was on one occasion, towards the end of the semester, that Professor Berberova asked me to see her after class. I felt intimidated and anxious regarding this request to meet. It immediately occurred to me that my work might not be on par with the rest of the class and that I would be taken to task for my shortcomings. Berberova could be rather sharp in her correction of mistakes in the language. I hoped that I would not be reprimanded. As it turned out, she asked me if I would have lunch with her.
Nina Berberova said that she wanted to share some private thoughts with me and asked whether or not I had ever heard of Yury Kazimirovich Baltrusaitis or read any of his poetry. My answer was affirmative to knowing of and having read some of his poetry, but in Lithuanian, not Russian. And I followed up with the comment that when I am fluent in Russian I will read his Russian verse. During lunch, Berberova related part of the story about Yury Kazimirovich, as she called him. Nina said I would appreciate hearing it, because I was majoring in Russian language and literature and also because I was Lithuanian. In detail, she narrated how Baltrusaitis had helped draw up legal papers for Vladislav Khodasevich, her husband, and her permitting them to leave Moscow. This resulted in their safe passage abroad to Prague. Later the two established themselves in Paris, safe from Lenin's persecution of Russian intelligentsia.
In conclusion, Baltrusaitis may not be on the same scale as Schindler, but in a modest way he did save a number of Russian artists from Bolshevik repression and persecution in his diplomatic capacity as Lithuania's Ambassador to Moscow. As for Nina Berberova's influence on my career as a scholar of Russian literature, specialist in Russian symbolism, Baltrusaitis was the topic of my doctoral dissertation and has become a life long pursuit.
Alexander, Sidney. Marc Chagall: A Bibliography.
New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1978.
Berberova, Nina. The Italics are Mine.
New York: Harcourt, Brace World, Inc., 1966.
Davies, Joseph, E. Mission to Moscow.
New York: Pocket Books Inc. 1941.
Khodasevich, Vladislav. Literaturnye statu i vospominanya.
New York: Chekhov Publishing House, 1954.
Kreid, V. Vospominaniia o Serebrianom Veke (Memoirs form the Silver Age).
Moskva: "Respublika", 1993.
Mandelstam, Nadezhda. Hope Against Hope.
New York: Athenaeum 1976.
Mochulsky, Konstantin. Andrej Belyj.
Paris: YMCA Press, 1955.
Schweitzer, Viktoria. Tsvetaeva.
New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1992.
Terras, Victor. Handbook of Russian Literature.
New Haven: Yale University Press, 1995.
Zaitsev, Boris. Dalekoe.
Washington D.C.: Inter-language Literary Associates, 1965.
© Copyright 1996 Casimir Norkeliunas, Ph.D.
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