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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Brodsky's Beloved City Mourns Its Exiled Son

The untimely death of Joseph Brodsky last Sunday shocked this city probably more than any other recent death, even though the poet, born and bred in St. Petersburg, has been detached from the city.


He was exiled to a remote northern village in 1964 and then driven out of the country in 1972. He never came back. Neither being granted the status of honorary citizen, nor the personal invitation of Mayor Anatoly Sobchak, nor numerous appeals from his old friends could lure him back. Brodsky cited many reasons, from politics to his ever deteriorating health. But his persistence suggested something else. He admitted to his friends that he feared the agitation and hype which surrounded every one of the many returnees who reappeared in Russia.


"Had I suddenly found myself there as a private visitor, I would have enjoyed quietly seeing a few of my close friends," he once said in an interview.


Another reason for this unwillingness to return must have been strictly personal. His own memory of Leningrad/St. Petersburg, painful as it was, was too precious for him -- precious in the way it stayed intact in his mind, untarnished by time. Positive or negative, new impressions of St. Petersburg would inevitably have damaged those memories and thus ruined the vision which Brodsky cast into words and which hoisted him into the realm of the immortal.


Words were his universe. Born into the world, then finding himself incarcerated by political borders, Brodsky, as well as his generation, became an addict of the word. He wrote of his generation: "Nobody knew literature and history better than these people, nobody could write in Russian better than they, nobody despised our times more profoundly."


Brodsky's distaste for current times was only nourished by his admiration of history. The city of his youth provided him with an abundant past. The building he lived in was once inhabited by Alexander Blok. Brodsky's family's modest apartment was near that once occupied by Dmitry Merezhkovsky and Zinaida Gippius, "the couple that dominated the pre-revolutionary Russian literary scene as well as the intellectual climate of Russian emigration." A few blocks away, Pushkin once lived.


But he came back in his writings. Two of the essays in "Less Than One," his most famous book written in English, are an homage to St. Petersburg, "the most beautiful city on the face of the earth."


After he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1987, the walls of his house were covered with graffiti of love, respect and admiration. Every morning the cleaners rubbed them away, but they reappeared.


On Monday, Sobchak said that on May 25, Brodsky's 56th birthday, his house on Panteleimonovskaya will be adorned with a plaque.