The russian revolution of 1917: Bruno Jasienski

We think that a powerful and vigorous movement is impossible without differences — “true conformity” is possible only in the cemetery.

Joseph Stalin, “Our purposes” Pravda #1, (22 January 1912)

For many of those who threw themselves into the russian revolution, with whatever understanding or naivety, ideology or goals, the passions that the events grew from and that were generated therefrom were often heroic, frequently tragic, and by the end of the regime, only pathetic: no one of the regime knew any longer what purpose Stalin’s cemetery served. 

Yet the memory of the movements’ revolutionaries should not be simply dismissed, or worse ignored; for it is in part on this ground that the possibility of revolution is kept alive.

On this centennial year of russia’s 1917 revolutions, we add one further testimonial to our series: a brief account of the life and work of the militant poet, playwright and novelist  Bruno Jasienski.  We present below, in translation, a short text by Thomas Misaszek, published with the french journal Ballast (02/10/2017).

Fire and oblivion: Bruno Jasienski, revolutionary poet

Here is the story of an author who burns.  Who burns, in his novels, Paris.  Who burns 37 years of a short and intense life, spent between Warsaw, Paris and Moscow.  Who is burned by a revolution that he ardently defended, for which he left Poland, was expelled from France, lauded, judged and then condemned to death in the USSR.  Victim of the Stalinist purges, he is executed by firing squad in 1938, his books prohibited, his name erased.  His work is corrosive, always, scornful, often, moving from futurist poetry to fantastic and grotesque novels, finally embracing Stalinist socialist realism. … Here then is Bruno Jasienski.

By Thomas Misiaszek

From the depths of his cell of the Butyrka Moscow prison, Bruno Jasienski wrote in 1937, perhaps still animated by some slight glimmer of hope: “I don’t blame you, my fatherland, for anything./I know that only in losing faith in your children/Could you believe in such a heresy/And break my song with a sword…/But you, my song, that forges thunder in your furnace,/Cry not for our presence in this dungeon./Our renown is infamous, yet sooner or later/The fatherland will perceive its terrible mistake.1  Jasienski was nevertheless executed on the 17th of September 1938, a few months after his first wife, and while his second wife was condemned to exile.  His son was placed in an orphanage, the ensemble of his work removed from public, all mention of his name proscribed.  His rehabilitation at the time of the de-stalinization process of 1956 will evidently change nothing with regards to his tragic end.  It will also not recuperate him from oblivion.  Jasienski is today almost unknown in Poland, and is to no one outside it.  The Stalinist terror consumed one of the enfants terribles of the Revolution.  For this eccentric, arrogant and incisive man dedicated his whole life to the proletarian cause.

Wiktor Bruno Zysman was born in 1901 in Klimontów, a small city in the south-east of Poland.  His father, Jakub, doctor, changes his name to Jasienski with the aim of hiding his Jewish origins.  Bruno’s childhood unfolds between Warsaw and Moscow, where he pursues his secondary school studies between 1914 and 1918, but he makes no mention of his experience of the revolution.  He develops however an immense admiration for the futurist poets Igor Severyanin and Vladimir Mayakovsky, the later whom he considers for a long time his mentor and inspiration.  Returning to Poland, he founds in 1918 in Krakow with two other poets, Stanislaw Mlodozeniec and Tytus Czyzewski, the futurist club Katarynka, with the purpose of promoting a new poetry and of breaking with heritage in a city traditionally turned towards its past.  At the age of 18, Jasienski has a singularly ostentatious appearance, donning a long black coat and a tall black hat which he completes with a disproportionate tie and a monocle that gives him the air of a romantic caricature.  This air of a 19th century dandy is the only tie that the young poet authorises himself with the past, Jasienski being convinced that the essence of art resides in its permanent rupture with tradition.  This view is shared with the Warsaw futurists Aleksander Wat and Anatol Stern who, in a manifesto entitled Primitivists to the Peoples of the World and to Poland, openly proclaimed throwing “civilisation, culture and their sickness into the rubbish bin“.2  Futurism as conceived  by its founder Filippo Tommaso Marinetti appeared obsolete to Jasienski, who no longer wished, in the begiinig of the 1920s, to repeat the precepts announced in 1908 in the Futurist Manifesto.

The principles of Polish futurism nevertheless differ little from their Italian and Russian counterparts.  In 1921, Jasienski publishes four manifestos with the ambition of laying the foundations of a new poetry and for futurising society.3  He therein declares his desire to liberate the world from the sway of logic, to raise absurdity and humour as the norms of life: “We, futurists, want to reveal the path out of this ghetto of logic.  Man has ceased to be happy because he has ceased to hope … for a deluge of wonders and surprises.  Absurdity dances in the streets.”  Technology is considered as an art in itself, equal to painting, sculpture or architecture.  “A good machine is the best example of a work of art as a consequence of its perfect combination of economy, determination and dynamic“, writes Janienski.  Art itself is presented as a mass, popular, democratic and universal discipline, destined to invade the public space, factories, tramways, parks and balconies.  Everyone can at the same time consume and create art.  New artistic forms are sought after – as regards poetry, syntax, punctuation and meter are abolished, words being usable independently of their meaning to privilege their phonetic character.  The past is of course rejected and the future given over to a boundless cult.  All of these aspects developed by Jasiesnki are nevertheless very similar to the Russian and Italian programs.

Perhaps the Polish futurists distinguished themselves by a certain form of aggressiveness that sought to shock their audience as much as possible.  And, according to the testimony of Jasienski in the preface to his first novel, in 1923, they succeeded rather well: “As I was returning in September 1921 from a poetry reading where I had read my best poetry and where the audience had followed me with a volley of stones large enough to break the head of any common or even uncommon mortal, I thought that the opinion of the elite of our public, expressed directly on that night, was too flattering.”4 His first poems, then strongly influenced by Mayakovsky, describe the urban environment as a decadent space where high society and artistic bohemians rub shoulders with the plebe, proletarians and their lot of drunks, thieves and prostitutes. He plays with language, juxtaposing unfinished words and phrases to illustrate the urban dynamic and speed.  Rapidly, following on the bloody repression of a workers revolt in Krakow, his youthful poetry colours itself with a revolutionary orientation.  In “Un chant sur la faim” (A song of hunger/Piesn o g?odzie), then “La Terre à Gauche” (Land to the left/Ziemia na lewo), he imagines a proletarian revolution abolishing poverty and injustice to establish equality and happiness.  He announces the end of poets, cries out his rejection of the contemporary world (“Down with your art!  Down with your religion!  Down with your social system!“), rebels against the whole earth, glorifies the socialist revolution.  It would be an understatement to say that these rants and appeals to insurrection were badly received in the Poland of the 1920s.  In 1925, Jasienski exiles himself to France denouncing, perhaps with a little exaggeration, the hostile demonstrations against him in different cities, the cancellation of poetry readings, the tearing down of posters publicising him by the public and even members of parliament.6  Two years earlier, in 1923, he announced, not without arrogance, the end of futurism in these terms: “I am no longer futurist, now that you have all become.  That resembles a paradox, but it is how it is”.7

I burn Paris

Arriving in Paris, Jasienski dedicates himself entirely to the cause of the revolution.  He presents himself as a communist writer, tries without success to integrate the literary milieus – he speaks little french – and lives monastically in a small apartment in Barbès.  There he writes a long poem, “The song of Jakub Szela”, in which he revisits a bloody Polish jacquerie of the 19th century.  At the opposite of futurism, this poem takes the form of a medieval song to rehabilitate the massacres perpetrated in 1846 and during which peasants manipulated by the Austro-Hungarian authorities assassinate Polish nobles with independentist sympathies.  Jasienski reinterprets the events and justifies the peasant massacres as a revolt against injustice and servitude.  Their leader, Jakub Szela, is made Grand Inquisitor accusing Jesus of his indifference to the peasants’ social condition, as well as martyr condemned to death by the emperor of Austria for his rebellion.  The adaptation of the poem to theatre provokes protests from the Polish embassy in Paris.8

These however pale before the reactions to Bruno Jasienski’s principal novel, I Burn Paris, which he writes a few years later, in 1928.  The provocative title is chosen in response to an anti-communist and anti-Semitic short story published in 1925 under the title I Burn Moscow.  Its author, Paul Morand, representative of ideas later close to those of the Vichy regime (and who became a member of the French academy in 1968), there describes Moscow as a city infested with Jewish Bolsheviks, primitive and venal women and, ultimate outrage for Jasienski, caricatures Mayakovsky with the traits of a hypochondriac, obsessed and neurotic artist.  In response to this insult, Jasienski publishes his I Burn Paris in various installments in [the communist party newspaper] l’Humanité.  For the occasion, he adds to his corrosive style a fantastic and grotesque dimension that will characterise the remainder of his work.  Paris is described as a capitalist Babylonia, plunged into lust, excess and the obscenity of wealth: “An endless flow of swollen men filled the streets, well nourished, with fat necks, resembling sausages.9  In this setting, Pierre, a young worker abandoned by his fiancee and in the street after having lost his job, decides to take out his vengeance against a world that he rejects.  After having stolen a sample in a laboratory, he inoculates the city with the bacillus of the plague.  This, far from being an allegory of evil as later with Camus, is here cathartic and purifying.  Before the spreading scourge, the helpless Parisians first find refuge in festival and alcohol: “Someone had pitched a new formula: the best antidote to the pest, it’s alcohol!  The bistros resuscitated.  The corks popped.  Paris, mad, drowned itself in wine.10

The city then organises itself into innumerable independent parts in which communities unite according to their nationalities, political orientations or professions, to so isolate themselves from the rest of the city and prevent the spread of the disease.  The Jews occupy the Marais, the Chinese the Latin Quarter, the workers of Belleville and of Ménilmontant create their autonomous soviet republic, the French monarchists reestablish the crown between the Invalides and the Champ-de-Mars, the White Russians take Passy, an anglo-american capitalist republic is created around the current 8th arrondissement, while, to struggle against “anglo-american negrophobia“, an autonomous black republic is created at the Place Pigalle and its neighbouring streets.  The police are expelled from the ensemble of the territories and are confined to the Île de la Cité where, to give a meaning to their condition, they create a dictatorship.  Their despot is a little old paralytic and deaf man.  In this delirious environment, where all fight against all, Jasienski gives himself over to great fun.  He takes a piece of everyone, including Jesus, in which he takes a malicioous pleasure in not forgetting: “Father Francis told of many funny things about him (of Jesus).  For example, if one hit him and if one slapped him, he wouldn’t say anything, but would turn the other cheek.  There, hit him again!  Like a clown at the fair.11

The pest, cowardly and pitilessly, rapidly decimates the whole of the population of Paris.  Only the proletarians closed in a prison and isolated from the rest of the city survive the epidemic.  In leaving the prison, they find a devastated capital, in which they found anew a Commune, something between Fourier’s phalanstères and a totalitarian ideal: “Where before there extended a smooth sheet of asphalt, from the Chamber of Deputies to the Madeleine, from the Champs-Élysées to the Tuileries, to the light breath of the breeze, the ears of a field of wheat swayed to and fro.  Men, broad shouldered, tanned, dressed in white, reaped.  Men and women, also lightly dressed, gleaned and loaded trucks with golden sheaths.  At the end of the field, women breastfed children.12 It was too much for the French authorities who, despite the protests and petitions initiated by Henri Barbusse and Romain Rolland, expel Jasienski from the territory in 1929.  He is received as a hero in the USSR, while his novel is a success in France, published by Flammarion.

Jasienski in the USSR: apogee and disgrace

With his arrival in Leningrad in 1929, the Litieraturnaïa Gazieta reports on the coming of “Bruno Jasienski – dangerous enemy of the bourgeoisie, the most faithful friend and the best combatant of the working class.13  The writer settles in Moscow, visits the USSR.  On vacation in the Caucuses, he meets two children playing with eaglets, which he decides to take with him and offer to the Moscow zoo.  On the return journey, he takes a liking to the chicks, settles them in his home and a few months later, works with several adult eagles in his office, and whose strident and incessant cries he assures don’t disturb anyone.14  Jasienski integrates himself into soviet cultural life, becoming the editor and chief of Kultura Mas (The Culture of the Masses), a literary review in Polish whose aim is to develop a Polish proletarian literature.  In 1930, he also becomes the secretary of the Muscovite Association of Proletarian Writers.  In parallel to these activities, he continues to write vitriolic novels and pieces for the theatre, to the glory of communism and those who struggle against capitalism and fascism.

Le Bal des Mannequins (The Mannequins’ Bal/Bal Manekinów, 1931) returns to Paris for its setting and plays out a satire of the social democrats, presented as marionettes in the hands of industrialists.  The piece describes an absurd and fantastic reality in which the mannequins of fashion shops come alive and organise their annual ball, which by chance stops a socialist leader on his way to a reception organised by an automobile manufacturer.  Irritated by this intrusion, the mannequins cut off his head, which they graft onto one of their bodies before going off to attend the industrialists’ reception.  The idea of the piece is to mock the bourgeois way of life and to “allow a proletarian public to spend two hours laughing soundly of their enemies.”15  While the Bal des Mannequins was criticised for being too fantastic in a Stalinist state that swore by socialist realism, Jasienski persevered in his favourite style and published a second theatre piece, Le Nez (The Nose/Nos).  This play finds its inspiration in a story by Gogol in which a Saint Petersburg civil servant notices one morning that his nose has disappeared.  Jasienski places the story in Nazi Germany of the 1930s and depicts the misadventures of a Nazi anthropologist who wakes up one fine morning saddled “with a large and crooked nose of the Semitic type.

As in the Bal des Mannequins, the grotesque is here used for satiric ends to reveal the absurdity of the racial and anti-Semitic theories of Nazi Germany.  In the USSR of the 1930s on a path of forced Stalinisation, Jasienski gives to his next novel – the last that he would complete – an industrial orientation to the glory of Stalinism and the five year plans.  L’Homme change de peau (Man changes skin) appearing in 1934 describes the construction of a canal in Tadjikistan and insists on the realisation of the individual in effort and collective labour.  The characters are in every sense Manichean; either they are presented as perfect conscientious workers and devoted to the construction of socialism, or they appear as saboteurs and shirkers.  In La Conspiration des Indifférents (The Conspiracy of the Indifferent), the last work that he was not able to conclude, Jasienski goes further, writing emphatically: “Don’t fear your enemies; at worst, they will kill you.  Don’t fear your friends; at worst, they will betray you.  Fear the indifferent; they don’t kill, they don’t betray, but because of their silent consent, betrayal and murder exist in this world.”16  This well versed Stalinism, this absolutely totalitarian spirit of Jasienski’s last years does not however help to save him.  As with many Polish communists exiled in the USSR, he is suspected of nationalism, a mortal sin in the Soviet Union of the time.

Knowing himself to be threatened, he writes between 1935 and 1937 numerous letters to Stalin, emphasising his indefatigable support for the Revolution and even admitting a few moments of weakness.  To little effect.  Jasienski is arrested on the 1st of July 1937.  On the 15th of September, after two and a half months in prison in the goals of Moscow, he confesses to everything that is demanded of him, recognises his bourgeois, anti-revolutionary and nationalist penchants: he is executed by firing squad on the 17th of September 1938.  His name disappears, his wife is deported, his son placed in an orphanage, his works prohibited – he will be officially rehabilitated in the mid 1950s.  Today, only very few remember this eccentric, futurist, grotesque and fantastic writer.  Also, Stalinist.  But above all, revolutionary.  Almost 90 years ago, Bruno Jasienski burned Paris.  Beyond time, somewhere in the depths, in the depths of oblivion, his embers still burn.

1.Bruno Jasienski, Slovo o Iakube Shele: Poemy i stikhotvorenia (Moskva, 1962), p.117. Dans N. Kolesnikoff, Bruno Jasienski. His evolution from futurism to social realism. Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 1982, p. 9. Author’s note: except for the passages taken from B. Jasieski, Je brûle Paris, the ensemble of the translations into French are original.
2.N.Kolesnikoff, op.cit., p. 14.
3. The four manifestos are: To the Polish Nation – Manifesto for the immediate futurisation of life; Manifesto for futurist poetry; Manifesto on art criticism; The futurism of Poland (Appraisal).
4.Bruno Jasienski, Nogi Izoldy Morgan. Lwów, 1923, p. 4. In N. Kolesnikoff, op.cit., p. 5.
5.Voir, par exemple, « Une botte dans une boutonnière » (But w butonierze), 1921.
6.N. Kolesnikoff, op.cit., p. 7.
7.B. Jasienski, Futuryzm polski (bilans), « Zwrotnica », n°2, (lipiec 1922), pp. 23-31.
8.N. Kolesnikoff, op.cit., p. 7.
9.B. Jasienski, Je brûle Paris, Éditions du Félin, 2003, p. 41.
10.Ibid., p. 78.
11.Ibid., p. 100.
12.Ibid., p. 312.
13.P. Mitzner, smierc futurysty « Karta » n° 11, 1993, p. 59. Dans M. Shore, Kawior i popiól.  Zycie i smierc pokolenia oczarowanych i rozczarowanych marksizmem. Swiat ksiqzki, 2008, p. 124.
14.M. Shore, op.cit., p. 137.
15.B. Jasienski, Quelque chose comme une biographie (Cos w rodzaju zyciorysu), “Przeglad kulturalny” n° 17, p. 5. The text first appeared in Russian in May 1931.  In M. Shore, op.cit., p. 134.
16.N. Kolesnikoff, op.cit., p. 111.

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2 Responses to The russian revolution of 1917: Bruno Jasienski

  1. Thomas says:

    Hi, I am Thomas Misiaszek, the author of the paper on Jasienski. Many thanks for translating it! I would be happy to have further feedback. Cheers, Thomas

  2. Julius Gavroche says:

    Dear Thomas,

    It was a pleasure translating your essay and we are thankful for being able to share Bruno Jasienski’s life and work through it. What comments we receive regarding the piece, we will be sure to forward them to you.

    Our best and in solidarity,

    Autonomies

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