Dagestan's “most famous son,” poet Rasul Gamzatov (1923-2003) composed a flood of poetry, prose and analytical work that has been passed on to future generations in many of the world's languages.
Welcomed by Bullets
Rasul Gamzatovich Gamzatov was born September 8, 1923 in the village of Tsada in the Hunzahskogo district of Dagestan. Practically a poet at birth, Gamzatov's father—Tsadasa Hamzat (1877–1951)—had also held the title of People's Poet of Dagestan and had been awarded the USSR State Prize for poetry in his lifetime as well.
Gamzatov recalled his naming in his lyric novel, Moi Dagestan (My Dagestan, 1967–1971). He was the third son, and according to Dagestani tradition, because he was a boy, pistols were pointed at the ceiling inside the house and bullets were shot in his honor. The family's male names had been given to his two older brothers, and there had been no deaths of revered men in the community to provide a namesake, so his mother handed the infant Gamzatov to an elder, who chose the name “Rasul”—which means messenger or representative—then whispered the name in one of the babe's ears and shouted it in the other.
Gamzatov's father served as his first tutor in the literary arts and remained a mentor throughout the poet's life. He listened eagerly when his father recited memorized stories— from folk legends and fairy tales to epic songs—and read everything he could get his hands on. While many sources say Gamzatov was composing poetry at the age of nine, some claim it was not until the ripe old age of eleven that the Dagestani boy began working on his craft. His poems began to appear in local newspapers and other cultural publications and in 1940 he graduated from a pedagogical college in Buynaksk and taught in the school in his village for a short period before taking work assisting the director of the Avarskogo State Theatre. He followed this work with a position as department head and correspondent for the newspaper Bolshevik Mountains, while also acting as editor for the radio program Avar Transmission in Dagestan.
Love and Hate: The Poet's Muses
Gamzatov's first collection of poetry was written in the Avar language, which is spoken by only approximately 500,000 people. The book was released in 1943 and its title, Plamennaia liubov' i zhguchaia nenavist, proved to be an interpretational challenge with translations ranging from “Flaming Burning Love and Hatred” to “Love Inspired and Fiery Wrath.” In the biography on Gamzatov's official Web site, the poet remembers when this first collection was released, and recalled that “He was overjoyed when girls in the mountains who read it wrote to him—and to this day he cannot forget his pain on seeing a shepherd in winter pastures using a page to roll a cigarette.”
Gamzatov was 20 when he joined the Union of Writers of the USSR. Sometime in 1945 Gamzatov's poem “Children Krasnodona” was translated into Russian by Ilya Selvinskim and its influence earned him an invitation to attend the Gorky Literary Institute located in Moscow. The institute's director at the time noted Gamzatov's poor Russian, but also recognized the young poet's nimble yet powerful style. While Gamzatov read a variety of poets as a student, he remained partial to Russian Romantic author Alexander Pushkin (1799–1837), Caucasus poet Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841) and Russian poet, critic and publisher Nikolay Nekrasov (1821–1878). Gamzatov graduated from the Gorky Literary Institute in 1950, publicly grateful for the immersion in Russian literature that he received while there. Love Inspired and Fiery Wrath was translated into Russian in 1947, and the prolific poet followed his primary work with more than twenty books of poetry and prose—a versatile wealth of epigrams, long narrative poems, philosophical octaves, ballads, and short love lyrics.
The Road to Celebrity
Gamzatov's fame as a poet was well–earned and well– known, but he was also a gifted translator and is credited with introducing the work of Pushkin to a Dagestani readership with such enthusiasm that said author's work became a national phenomenon that enriched the culture of the Avar people. In fact, every year on June 6—Pushkin's birthday— all of Dagestan celebrates Pushkin Poetry Day. Gamzatov translated a wealth of works from their native languages into Avar, including the creations of Mikhail Lermontov (1814–1841), Nikolay Nekrasov (1821–1878), Taras Shevchenko (1814–1861), Alexander Blok (1880–1921), Vladimir Mayakovski (1893–1930) and Sergei Yesenin (1895–1925). Much of Gamzatov's poetry and prose gained additional momentum when it was turned into popular songs or adapted for the stage and the opera.
Gamzatov's poetry often showcased and praised the heroism of soldiers because he lost his two older brothers in the Great Patriotic War, the term that was used almost exclusively in the Soviet Union for World War II. The most famous of Gamzatov's poems, “Cranes,” was composed after a visit to Japan where he saw the monument to Sadako—a Japanese girl who survived Hiroshima only to die of cancer at the age of twelve. Gamzatov was profoundly moved by the monument and the tale, and further shaken by news in a telegram of his own mother's death. He composed the piece while in flight to Moscow—recalling his father and brothers, then deceased, and thinking about the casualties of war. The poem was crafted into a stirring song which appeared in the 1957 award–winning film Flying Cranes and continues to serve as a requiem for the dead in all wars. The reach of Gamzatov's imagery remains vast. “The Moscow Circus's celebrated aerialists The Flying Cranes are considered exceptional the world over, and their [performance] enacts the words of a Russian song, ‘Cranes.’ ” Glenn Collins wrote in his 1990 New York Times piece about the troupe. “The Cranes use their safety net as both a trampoline and, in the context of their narrative performance, a symbol of the earth. Their text, derived from a poem by Rasul Gamzatov, celebrates the souls of soldiers who have perished and who are transformed into white cranes that ascend to the sky. It is a powerful, traditional Russian image.” Indeed, the symbol is so strong that many of Gamzatov's contemporaries, when interviewed at the time of the poet's death, shared that they pictured Gamzatov's spirit as a white crane circling those he left behind on earth and a memorial—aptly titled, “White Cranes”—was erected next to the poet's grave.
Rasul Gamzatov married Patimat Saidovna (1931–2000) and they had three daughters—Zarema, Patimat and Salihat. After becoming a widower, Gamzatov lived in Makhachkala—the capital of Dagestan, located on the shores of the Caspian sea—with his daughters and granddaughters Shahrizat, Madina, Tawus, and Aminat. Gamzatov's literary and eventually political popularity rose into the cultural stratosphere, and “poetical” events honoring the modern bard were always well attended. An avenue bears his name in Makhachkala, and his obituary in the Caucasus Reporting Service pointed out that to the younger generation, Gamzatov was “a more remote figure, a poet laureate constantly caught up in one celebration or commemoration [or] another.” He was showered with awards, honors, titles and medals—serving as chairman of the Union of Writers of Dagestan from 1950 until his death in 2003. His 80th birthday celebrations were extravagant to the extreme, with more than a million dollars spent by the government and a hectic schedule of proceedings and appearances that led mourners to suspect that the event might have inadvertently killed the people's poet. In fact, 2003 was declared the Year of Rasul Gamzatov in Dagestan even before his death.
A simple mountain bard at heart, Gamzatov never got used to his celebrity. Janice Turner quoted the poet in her 1989 South Magazine interview, “If writers and speakers were previously prone to boasting and being surrounded by the pomposity and privileges accompanying the position of a writer, they are now surrounded by wicked bureaucracy and admiration and never have time to write, look at the stars and cry on the graves of those who died.” Further into Turner's interview, Gamzatov went on to say, “I like individuality in literature and don't mind what nationality it comes from. Poetry is the passport of the country one belongs to. I come to the world as Rasul Gamzatov, who tells of … his village and his people. That is what I represent. And when I return to my village, I speak the language of the world.”
Despite Gamzatov's humility, his influence was profound. Russian poet Robert Rozhdestvensky (1932–1994) recalled the way Gamzatov's compassionate perceptions seemed truly ownerless, so that millions of readers in a multitude of languages felt like “citizens” of his unique poetic world. He never cultivated fluency in Russian, a fact that allowed him to maintain his simple image and meant he could travel in times when Russians were often discouraged from going abroad. Thousands wrote of their sorrow at his passing, some marveling at how the mention of Gamzatov or the recitation of his poetry had acted as an identifier for those who found it hard to explain where they came from— unity in just a handful of words. Dagestani President Mukhu Aliyev (1940–) also used Gamzatov's words to address a security conference, and, according to the BBC World Monitoring Trans Caucasus Unit, reminded the crowd, “As you remember, Rasul Gamzatov used to say that a small nation needs either a big knife or a big neighbour. The people of Dagestan have a big neighbor. We are part of the Russian state.” It is clear that Gamzatov's words were for everyone, however. An opposition leader also used a quotation from My Dagestan to express his hope that the authorities would not use excessive force during a planned opposition rally in April of 2007. As recorded in BBC Monitoring Central Asia Unit That same leader went on to say, “I am confident that they will not resort to force. To rephrase the words of the famous poet, Rasul Gamzatov, by shooting with a gun, they will get a blow from a cannon. Because shooting people means that you have given yourself the death sentence.” The lyricism and wisdom of Gamzatov's words seemed to charm everyone who read them.
Gamzatov was discharged from the Central Clinical Hospital on November 3, 2003 with no explanation of what he had been treated for, or how his health was at the time of release. He died at home on November 3, 2003 at the age of 80, and the cause of death was never released. The Dagestani culture is famous for its hospitality, but devoted about maintaining the privacy of its people—heros included. Little has been written about Gamzatov's personal life beyond what he offered in his own autobiographical work, out of respect to his family. He was buried on November 4, 2003 in the Tarky–Tau Mount Cemetery in Makhachkala, Dagestan and is remembered, above all, as an international man. In the obituary released by the Caucasus Reporting Service, the journalist explained that Gamzatov “represented a certain kind of Dagestani who was loyal to the communist system, but was also modern and internationally–minded.” His jovial verses, weighted with a dark undercurrent, are likely to be read and recited for lifetimes to come. Even the inscription Gamzatov composed for a tombstone embodies his frank simplicity (as quoted from his official Web site), “A thousand roads you build, but one thing's clear: Whichever road you take, you end up here!”
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