"Let’s Turn to Baikal...": a Poetic View

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Many poets living during different epochs reinvented the image of the Great Lake in their works. Today we will tell you about some of them.

In 1848 the inspector of the Verkhneudinsk District College Dmitrii Pavlovich Davydov wrote a poem titled “Thoughts of a Fugitive on Baikal” dedicated by him to the fugitives from penal labor colonies. In the middle of 1850-s the poem became a song. It was believed that the prisoners of the Nerchinsk mines composed the music. They also significantly cut the poem short and made amendments to its text. As a result, the poem by Davydov beginning with the line “Glorious Sea - Spacious Baikal” became a well-known folk song “Glorious Sea, Sacred Baikal” (“Po dikim stepyam Zabaikalya” in Russian). Another famous folk song “Through the Wild Steppes of Transbaikalia” is usually dated by the middle of 1880-s; but the song became popular only in early XX century. However, this was not the first mention of Baikal in poetry.

The researchers believe that the earliest known poems about Lake Baikal date back to 1765. Exactly in the same year the book titled “Yeniseysky District and Its Life" was published in St. Petersburg: the book included several poetic lines by M.F. Krivoshein, an official who investigated Siberia and at the same time appreciated the beauty around. Today it is believed that his poem mentions not only Lake Baikal, but also the legend of the beautiful Angara in Russian language for the first time:

When underground fire
Broke the spacious steppe
Between the mountains
By some miraculous force,
Then Baikal poured in waves...

...Suddenly a cliff –
A stubborn mountain –
Stood in its way,
Like an insubmissive fortress,
It did not let the waves come through…
But the lake strained its forces
So the cliff was crashed:
The cold waves of Angara
Noisily streamed through it!

“The Newest Interesting and Trustworthy Stories about Eastern Siberia” were published in St. Petersburg in 1817. This most interesting publication was “dedicated to the minor orphans of the city of Irkutsk” and included a folding engraved map of Baikal, a map of Eastern Siberia and a table of distances between cities. The book also published the poem "A Letter from Neva to Angara” by an unknown author:

Oh, my dear friend!
You were by my side on Kultuk;
You saw those awful mountains around Baikal
Right at your hand and from the distance,
Everything surprised our eyes:
The deep abysses, mountains standing on mountains
Backed up by mountains, don’t they represent the fear we had?

Oh! Certainly they do,
Some time ago the nature there was suffering,
It moaned, grieved, was tortured, torn apart,
It burned itself with flames from the underground…
What a terrible day! Oh, no! It was an hour,
When the place where  we walked around Baikal
Was turned into a pit by an earthquake.
The darkness and the light came one,
The sunshine and the sky went into the shade,
The nature changed its usual ways at once.
The breath of storm with the thunder broke everything,
Then lightnings fell like serpents, it rained sulfur;
Then came a muffled underground rumble, convulsions in the valleys
They proved to be the harbingers of God’ wrath

And his severe punishment to all things.
The earthquake has astonished those living on the ground...
But they were lost among the dark abysses…
The nature and its creatures suffered.
Khamar-Daban grew out from nowhere -
A ridge of high mountains, so many countries were
Protected by its shadow: from the East to the West.
All rivers flow to Baikal from everywhere on Earth:
The East, the West, the North, the South, and
The lake takes them all.
But only Angara
Is like young Daphne, pure, agile and quick,
It runs through forest,  far from Apollo’s gaze,
Not caring for his love’s cries and moans.
A frightening cracking rumbling sound in the mountains
Was heard. The place was once taken by the valleys and forests,
Its ground was crumbled, and abysses opened;
And these abysses, they got flooded everywhere.
Since then these were tributaries – springs and streams,
A lot of lakes and  streams of big rivers;
But only Angara flowing through the entire Baikal,
Runs to the North between the two huge rocks,
Emerges from the depths of Lake Baikal...
Just like an arrow, it streams down, to merge with Irkut.
Even the Shaman Stone

Rising above Angara like a mountain,
No matter how hard it tries
To stop her waters,
It cannot stop the flow of Angara.

Another poetic work about Baikal dated by 1870 is the poem by Fedor Baldurf who served at the Governor-General’s office.  The poem is titled “An Evening on the Coast of Lake Baikal”:

A mighty giant of boundless waters,
With its ever-stormy  gusts,
Tell me, where do you come from,
The nature’s wild son?
Who’s hiding in the shadow of your forests
That grow deep on your bottom,
Why are you so severe under a heap of clouds
And in the hoarse storms above?
I’ll bring them on the joyous fairy’s wings –
The dreams I took from foreign fields,
Let me hear a familiar voice in the waves
Of your mysterious depths!
And let my soul come alive at your talk
With invaluable sweetness of memories:
I was at home, under a hut’s roof,

I did not know what heartache was,
Then I lost peace of mind and grieved;
The distant sky was dark and gloomy,
The dusk was everywhere around me,
As well as rippling Lake Baikal
Which seemed so black between the lonely mountains.

The first attempt to collect all the poetic works about Lake Baikal in one book was made by the Irkutsk publisher Mikhail Evstigneevich Stozh. In early XX century he founded one of the first East Siberian publishing houses and called it in a poetic way:”Irises”. The publishing house was known for producing pocket dictionaries and postcards with the views of Irkutsk, but Stozh craved for more. And finally he took the trouble of compiling the first poetic anthology about Baikal that was titled “The Way Baikal Was Praised in Poetry and Prose”. The poems made up the first volume, but the collection of prose was not ever published. Literature scholars justly believe that Stozh’s collection is not of literary value, because the publisher initially pursued commercial, not educational goals. Nevertheless, today we have an opportunity to get familiarized with the creative reinterpretation of the Baikal’s image dated by the end of ХIХ - beginning of XX century.

For example, one of the poems dated by 1911 was written by L. Ignatovich:

The mighty Baikal has been sleeping
In silence and with great pride.
For many centuries by now.
The enchanted world of water depth
Is in mysterious oblivion.
Gloom dominates there.
The fancy bottom stores
An enchanted circle of eternal dreams:
The sleep has shackled everything.
All things are in a mysterious haze,
It’s magic: there are no sounds...

And here is the poem by M. Vakar:

Oh, radiant Baikal! You gleam with steel
In the sunshine,
You shine with turquoise,
Make thousands of waves,

So calm and so magnificent,
Among the fog of your blue expanse.
Oh, splendid Baikal, the boundless sea,
The sacred sea of the Siberian tribes,
The vast expanse of yours has
Some mysterious meaning.

A vision of the Siberian lake was also expressed by the famous representative of the Silver Age of Russian Poetry Igor Severyanin in early XX century:

I have dreamed of Baikal since my childhood,
And so, I have seen Baikal.
We sailed, and the waves’ crests hovered,
And the mountain ridges looked at us.
Then I remembered many different stories,
Then I remembered lots of various songs
Devoted to this splendid sea lake,
Devoted to Sacred Baikal.
We sailed from pier to pier.
It was windy and cold. It was May.
We took a train and departed
To the Celestial Kingdom.
How often did my soul cry out:
Come back to Baikal once again?
I still do not know this lake:
To see does not mean to know.

Small poetry collections were published in Irkutsk in 1920-s, those included the poems by the Siberian poet Aleksandr Oborin, the famous participant of the Irkutsk Literary and Art Society:

In the darkness of the dead times,
In the place where Baikal waves
Now roam free and wild…
There were no animals or men:
Only large rocks stood around.
Then grief came down and fell upon the rocks,
And stopped the dance of the faded dreams of olden days…
The rocks were buried by the restless Baikal
Born out of their late and bitter tears.

A collection of poems and legends about Lake Baikal was published in Irkutsk in 1938. Its compilers - the poet Ivan Molchanov and the literary critic Aleksandr Gurevich - continued the work of Mikhail Stozh, adding new texts to the publication. Those included the poems by Mikhail Skuratov who enrolled at the Eastern Department of External Relations of the Irkutsk State University in 1922 and simultaneously worked at the provincial newspaper, participated in the literary life of Irkutsk. Baikal was one of the leitmotifs of his creative works:

The King of the Sea has lived on Baikal
Since those olden days.
He lies so deep, he can’t be found,
On the Fish’s Bottom.
The King of the Sea
Amazed people by shoals of omul, then
He rode this shoals and traveled around
The splendid sea – Baikal.
And then he saw:
The bears lived in taiga,
The exiled came to his lands.
Right at once he was annoyed,
This was his caprice.
He was the King and ruled his kingdom,
Now everything was changed!
Who were these strange newcomers?
No, they were not old at all.
Alas, the King for them,
Meant not that much those days!
The King had to calm down:
That was his destiny.
Being angry, he hid even deeper –
Right to the Fish’s Bottom.

Telling about the collection of the Baikal poetry, we cannot help help but mention that it was based mainly on the folklore of local indigenous peoples:  Buryats, Evenks, Yakuts. And modern national poets also write their works about Baikal.

The Buryat poet Damba Zhalsaraev (the author of the text of the anthem of Buryatia) dedicated an entire cycle of poems to the Lake:

The land where the sky is propped
By thick-set old cedars,
Where martagons burning bright
Have lit up the valleys for so long.
The land of thick blood of ancestors
Burning in the flames of forest berries,
The sweat that fell on the fields in the spring
Turned into young and fresh rye sprouts.
The land of vast expanses
I’ve known since my childhood,
I passed, drove, and galloped
Along the land Baikal Region
Called by the glorious name of Lake Baikal!

Speaking about the Hall of Fame of Soviet poetry, the leitmotif of Lake Baikal was probably present in the works by all major Soviet poets, from Aleksandr Tvardovsky to Yevgenii Yevtushenko. Andrei Voznesensky, Margarita Aliger, Vladimir Plamenevsky, Mark Sergeev, Rostislav Filipov, Innokentii Novokreshchenykh, Anatoly Olkhon, Elena Zhilkina, Anatoly Prelovskiy and many others dedicated their poems to the Great Lake.

The famous Irkutsk poet Anatoly Kobenkov - the founder of the famous International Festival of Poetry on Lake Baikal that has been named after him since some time – wrote a poem:

The leaves have already fallen to the ground –
Let’s turn to Baikal,
We’ll get out on the forty-seventh,
And then head to Nikola.
Those living on the forty-seventh
Are whirling just like leaves
And cling to Alyona’s skirt:
Gleb, Yaroslav, Svyatoslav…
Those living in Nikola,
Embracing drunken leaves,
They lie on the coast or
At the door of a Russian bath
(Seems that this was Askhad
Groaning next to Prokopych:
Birch leaves fall from
Their steamed bodies)…
The leaves are already on the ground:
Let’s turn to Listvyanka,
To its eternal eccentrics
That consoled us many times.
Those living in Listvyanka
Dip brushes in paint,
Dip their mustache in brew,
Dip themselves in black water;
Goats, Valera, canvases,
Foxes, prints, Volodya,
Inna and Lena repeat:
“The leaves are already on the ground…”
The leaves are already on the canvas –
By oil, by pastels, by gouache…
The leaves brought a quivering gazelle
To a watercolor painting…
Let’s be like those leaves:
Equal to the Baikal coast,
Quieter than hovering canvases,
Lower than flying dogs...

... Besides, the song “The glorious sea, sacred Baikal” continues to live nowadays. In 1995 the Estonian punk band “J.M.K.E.” recorded a cover version of the song. In 2003 the band ”Bakhyt-Kompot” performed “Sacred Baikal” to the tune of “Hotel California” by Eagles; the song was included into the band’s album titled “Stereobanditism”. The first half of the song in many respects coincides with the poem by Davydov, the second half ironically imitates the song by Ivan Kuchin titled “A Man in a Body Warmer". And, finally, in 2011 the band “Aquarium” presented its own version of the song.

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