Utkin, Joseph Pavlovich

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UTKIN, JOSEPH PAVLOVICH (1903–1944), Soviet Russian poet. Born in Manchuria, Utkin was the son of an employee of the Russian-owned Chinese Eastern Railroad and was raised in Irkutsk, far from the main centers of Jewish life. Nevertheless, he succeeded in learning enough about Jewish customs and traditions, and acquired a sufficient knowledge of Yiddish, to produce the most important long Russian poem on a Jewish theme yet to appear in Soviet literature. His adolescence was far from idyllic. In a poem sarcastically titled "My Beloved Childhood" (Miloye detstvo, 1933), he recalled his bossy aunt who wanted him to devote himself "to God and commerce." Utkin's rebellion led him to the fringes of the underworld and eventually prompted him to join Siberia's Bolshevik guerrillas. His first poems were militant exhortations to greater efforts for a Communist victory. Utkin's most famous poem, highly praised by such writers as Maxim *Gorki and Vladimir Mayakovski, was written in his early twenties. It was Povest o ryzhem Motele ("The Tale of Motele the Redhead," 1925). This was unique in its use of a mixture of Russian and Yiddish. The poem's hero, a humble tailor from Kishinev, is a typical shtetl-dweller. The proletarian Motele shaves off his side curls and sheds his kaftan to become a commissar, but the reactionary Rabbi Isaiah pines after the good old days. Most of Kishinev's Jews, however, are simply confused, and complain in the synagogue about food shortages. They forget that the fleshpots of Egypt were paid for with suffering and humiliation, and that the bread of affliction is also the symbol of freedom and of future happiness. "The Tale of Motele the Redhead," an original and striking poem. is now also a wistful monument to the great expectations awakened among pauperized Russian Jews by the Bolshevik Revolution.

Despite Utkin's unquestionable allegiance to the Soviet cause, orthodox Soviet critics began in the late 1920s to attack him for what they considered the dangerously individualistic lyrical and sentimental character of his verse. He was urged to mend his ways and to write about themes such as industrialization and the collectivization of agriculture. After resisting these pressures for some years, he finally gave in and promised to reform. He was never, however, entirely accepted as a Stalinist poet in good standing and continued to be hounded by the critics until the outbreak of the Nazi-Soviet war in the summer of 1941. His book Ya videl sam ("I Saw," 1942) described the German invasion of the U.S.S.R. Utkin's first war poem was written the day after hostilities began, and he continued to write patriotic verse for army newspapers until the end of his life. Severely wounded in action, he dictated his poems in an army hospital, and though an invalid, returned to active duty. He died in a plane crash a few months before the end of the war.

There is reason to believe that Utkin wrote poems inspired by the Holocaust that were never published.


A.A. Saakyants, Iosif Utkin, ocherk zhizni i tvorchestva (1969), incl. bibl.: A.Z. Lezhnev, Sovremenniki. literaturnokriticheskiye ocherki (1927), 95–118; V.G. Veshnev, Vzvolnovannaya poeziya (1928), 27–43.

[Maurice Friedberg]