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Soviet-Era Activist & Poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya, 1936-2013

By Harriet Staff


Russian poet, translator, and foremost civil rights activist Natalya Gorbanevskaya has died at the age of 77 in her Paris home, reports The New York Times. Carcanet reprinted her Selected Poems in 2011: “In 1969 Natalya Gorbanevskaya was sentenced to imprisonment in a Soviet psychiatric hospital for her dissident activities; in 1972 Carcanet published Daniel Weissbort’s first translations of her poems, with a transcript of her trial.”

The NYT goes on:

On Aug. 25, 1968, Ms. Gorbanevskaya and a handful of other dissidents gathered in Red Square, in Moscow, to denounce the Soviets’ sending tanks to Czechoslovakia four days earlier to quell the liberal reforms known as the Prague Spring. The group stood on a spot reserved for executions in prerevolutionary times and held up banners with slogans like “shame to the invaders.”

Ms. Gorbanevskaya’s companions were arrested, but she was not, presumably because she had two young sons. She wrote about the trial of her associates for The Chronicle of Current Events, an influential underground publication she had helped to start earlier that year. Produced on mimeographed sheets, it concentrated on human rights news. Such publications — called “samizdat,” meaning self-published — were meant to be counterweights to official Soviet publications like Pravda and Izvestia.

In 1969, Ms. Gorbanevskaya helped found a group to promote civil rights in the Soviet Union. “One must begin by postulating that truth is needed for its own sake and no other reason,” she said.

The next year, she published a book called “Noon” about the demonstration and subsequent trial. Later in the 1970s, it was published in Britain, France, Mexico and the United States under the title “Red Square at Noon.”

The author and New York Times journalist Harrison E. Salisbury wrote in the introduction to the English edition, “The virtue of the document is its meticulous detail; its crystal exposition of the rude violation of Soviet law; the willful application of force and deceit; the use of the court as an instrument of injustice; the falsification and suppression of testimony; the deliberate provocation by state organs; and over it all the total banality of the system.”

Ms. Gorbanevskaya’s Chronicle writings prompted her arrest and imprisonment in December 1969. Psychiatrists diagnosed “continuous sluggish schizophrenia,” and she was confined to a psychiatric prison until February 1972.


Natalya Yevgenyevna Gorbanevskaya was born in Moscow on May 26, 1936. She was expelled from Moscow State University for her political activities, then earned a degree in philology from Leningrad State University.

She worked as a librarian, bibliographer and translator, but her focus was on poetry, little of which was published. Her poems were described as more modern in style and content than most Soviet poetry. Konstantin Bazarov wrote in 1972 in the British publication Books and Bookmen, “Great claims have been made for her as one of the most important contemporary poets.”

Few of her poems are political. Her spare, direct style is displayed in “Seaboard,” about facing death, written in the 1950s or 1960s and included in her 2011 collection, “Selected Poems”:

I lay my head on the scrubbed block

As on a lover’s shoulder.

Gorbanevskaya settled in Paris in 1975, where she worked for several Soviet emigrant publications, according to the Raw Story. Read the full NYT obituary here. And you can find a brief review of the challenges facing her writing in this snippet from Modern Poetry in Translation.

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Posted in Poetry News on Monday, December 2nd, 2013 by Harriet Staff.