Gennady Aygi, who has died of cancer at the age of 71, was one of the outstanding Russian poets of the 20th century. His most important works remained virtually unpublished in the Soviet Union until the 1980s, by which time he had been published and translated in more than 20 countries and several times nominated for a Nobel prize.
He was born in the remote village of Shaymurzino in the Chuvash republic, a land with a Turkic language, some 450 miles east of Moscow. His original name was Lisin, which he changed to the older family name of Aygi (meaning "that one"). His father, a teacher of Russian, was killed in action during the second world war. His mother was the daughter of a peasant, one of the last "priests" of the ancient pagan religion.
Showing a precocious gift for poetry, Aygi went to Moscow in 1953 to study at the Literary Institute, and stayed in the writers' colony of Peredelkino, where Boris Pasternak was a neighbour. He became close to Pasternak, who encouraged him to write in Russian and whose love and gratitude for life remained an inspiration to the younger poet.
From 1960, all Aygi's major poetry was in Russian. His friendship with Pasternak, at that time being harassed by the authorities, and his own innovative poetics made him persona non grata in Chuvashia. Even so, the fields and forests of his native land permeate his work, and he remained deeply attached to his ancestral culture, striving to give it a place among the cultures of the world. He translated poetry from many languages into Chuvash and produced an Anthology of Chuvash Poetry (published in English by Forest Books in 1991). Eventually, after the perestroika of the late 1980s, his work was acclaimed in his homeland and he became the Chuvash national poet.
His main home, however, was in Moscow, where in the 1960s he found a much-needed support system among "underground" writers, artists and musicians, who together were discovering the forbidden fruits of western culture. For 10 years he worked at the Mayakovsky Museum, acquiring a deep knowledge of the Russian avant garde of the early 20th century. Modern French poetry (above all Baudelaire) was another essential influence, but his personal pantheon also included Nietzsche, Kafka, Norwid, Kierkegaard and many religious writers.
Aygi quickly became known abroad. In 1972 he won a prize from the Académie Française for his Chuvash anthology of French poetry. More dangerously, he was published in the émigré journal Kontinent, which made him a target for attacks at home. During the Brezhnev years he led a precarious life, subsisting mainly on his meagre earnings from translation. He lived in a series of small flats in the outskirts of Moscow, close to the fields and woods.
Perestroika brought radical changes. Aygi was now published in Russia and recognised as a key figure in the Russian avant garde. He was also able to travel widely, he was further translated, received many honours and was invited all over the world to poetry festivals and symposia. He made four visits to Britain, feeling a particular affinity for Scotland, where he made a pilgrimage to the grave of Robert Burns, and for London, the city of his beloved Dickens. Six volumes of his poetry have been published in English, the most important being the bilingual Selected Poems 1954-94 (Angel Books, 1997) and Child-and-Rose (New Directions, 2003).
Aygi remained a controversial figure. For some readers his free verse (still unusual in Russian poetry) was too much to take, and there were accusations of cosmopolitanism and wilful obscurity. His work was highly unusual; writing, as he put it, on the borders of sleep and waking, he created a medium full of ambiguities and silences to suggest visions, anxieties and joys that defied direct statement. His poetry was quiet and simple, refusing the rich vocabulary and rhetoric of some of his contemporaries, yet it was also intensely oral - audiences were overwhelmed by his powerful incantatory delivery.
He wrote from a deep awareness of the losses and destructions of the 20th century. Though many of his poems were devoted to victims of oppression, from Raoul Wallenberg to Varlaam Shalamov, the great writer of the Gulag, his work was not political. It was tragic in essence, yet he always resisted the poetry of despair. One of his collections bears an epigraph attributed to Plato, "The night is the best time for believing in light", and like Pasternak's (from which it differs in manner) his poetry was a poetry of light, seeking to assert the values of human community and oneness with the rest of creation. At times, too, as in Salute to Singing, a set of Bartok-like variations on Chuvash folk songs, his poetry has a piercing simplicity:
Like our father's field of hemp,
The forest tops are level,
Over them swims my song,
As if the forests were singing.
Aygi was married four times, the first being a short-lived student affair. From two subsequent marriages, to NA Aleshina and ML Barabash, he had five sons (of whom the second, Aleksey, is a well-known musician), and in 1983 a daughter, Veronica, who inspired one of his most appealing collections, Veronica's Book (English translation, 1989). In 1989 he achieved a new stability in his marriage to the German specialist Galina Kuborskaya.
Inspirational as he was (and often presented by the media as a modern-day shaman), Aygi was a kind, unassuming man with a ready sense of humour and a rare quality of attention. In his later years, he achieved a serene presence that communicated itself equally to his family, his friends around the world and to audiences who were meeting him for the first time.
Galina and his sons and daughter survive him.
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