Red Poets Society

Visitors to the Anna Akhmatova Museum, in the Southern Wing of the Sheremetevsky Palace, St. Petersburg, may have stumbled upon a small room dedicated to the writer Joseph Brodsky.


Brodsky (born in Leningrad, May 1940 – died in New York, 28 January 1996) ran afoul of the Soviet authorities in 1963. His poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as “pornographic and anti-Soviet” and he was expelled (“strongly advised” to emigrate) from the Soviet Union in 1972.


Brodsky settled in America with the help of W. H. Auden and other supporters. He taught thereafter at universities including Yale, Cambridge and Michigan.


Brodsky and Groma Kolibri


My Groma Kolibri


The young Brodsky met Anna Akhmatova, one of the Soviet Union’s leading poets,  in 1961. She encouraged his work, and would go on to become his mentor. In 1962, in Leningrad, Akhmatova introduced him to the artist Marina Basmanova, a young painter from an established artistic family who was drawing Akhmatova’s portrait.


Brodsky and Basmanova started a relationship; however, Brodsky’s then close friend and fellow poet Dmitri Bobyshev was in love with Basmanova and started to pursue her. At about the same time, Brodsky began to be pursued by the authorities; and Bobyshev was widely held responsible for denouncing him.

Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labour and served 18 months on a farm in the village of Norenskaya, in the Archangelsk region, 350 miles from Leningrad. He rented his own small cottage, and though it was without plumbing or central heating, having one’s own, private space was taken to be a great luxury at the time. Basmanova, Bobyshev and Brodsky’s mother, among others, visited.


Brodsky and Montana/Hermes Baby?


My Hermes Baby


Brodsky wrote on his typewriter, chopped wood, hauled manure and at night read his anthologies of English and American poetry, including a lot of W. H. Auden and Robert Frost. Brodsky’s close friend and biographer Lev Loseff writes that while confinement in the mental hospital and the trial were miserable experiences, the 18 months in the Arctic were among the best times of Brodsky’s life.

Brodsky’s mentor, Anna Akhmatova, laughed at the KGB’s shortsightedness …

“What a biography they’re fashioning for our red-haired friend! It’s as if he’d hired them to do it on purpose.”

Until recently the Akhmatova Museum contained personal effects from Brodsky’s  study at 44 Morton Street, his home in New York. On display were Brodsky’s books and typewriters, as well as copies of the postcards he sent to his parents from his various travels around the world.


Brodsky’s Optima Elite


My Optima Elite


The fact that Brodsky fell foul of the Soviet  authorities and was exiled in America, subsequently to become an American Poet Laureate, perhaps explains why it’s taken almost 20 years for a writer of his stature – he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 – to  get a museum of his own.

He was, at least, commemorated by a Russian postal cover issued in 1991 …


… and more recently by a postal cover and stamp issued in 2015 …


Today Brodsky has not one, but two museums to his name:

In 2013, the government of Arkhangelsk region purchased the poet’s old house in the village of Norenskaya, Konoshsky district, Arkhangelsk region (where Brodsky spent 18 months of his internal exile in 1964-1965, after being charged with social parasitism for not having a day job!).

And in 2015, the communal apartment that Brodsky shared in Leningrad with his parents from 1955 until his exile to America in 1972 was converted into the Jospeh Brodsky Museum. One resident refused to move and her room had to be partitioned off from the rest of the apartment and given a separate entrance – which is exactly how it should be when you consider that this is where Brodsky wrote about the Soviet housing system in an essay called “A Room and a Half”!

A woman visits the museum-apartment Joseph Brodsky in Saint Petersburg, on May 22, 2015. The museum will open its doors to the public on May, 24, 2015. Brodsky, a Nobel Prize winner Soviet dissident who emigrated to the West, lived in this flat from 1955 to 1972 years with his parents. AFP PHOTO / OLGA MALTSEVA

Nice work comrades. I’m assuming Brodsky’s typewriters have, by now, been moved from the Anna Akhmatova Museum.

The latter was opened to coincide with the 100th anniversary of Anna Akhmatova’s birth in 1989, and was the first museum dedicated to those of Akhmatova’s generation who tried to save their world and personality under the conditions of the totalitarian state.


Poets may have museums named after them, or be immortalised in bronze. But what better way to remember a poet than by reading his or her poems?


Anna Akhmatova making it clear she isn’t coming back – although with a poem like that did she ever leave?

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