Joseph Brodsky had already served 18 months of his sentence in a labor camp for his “anti-communist” literature, but on this day, May 16, 1972, he was ordered to leave the Soviet Union.
Brodsky was sentenced to five years at a labor camp for “social parasitism” in 1964. He was released early after protests by Russia’s prominent literary figures like Anna Akhmatova, Samuil Marshak, and Dmitry Shostakovich. But even after his release not a single newspaper or publishing house could dare to print his poetry.
On the early morning of June 4, 1972, when leaving his country, Brodsky wrote a letter to the General Secretary of the Communist Party - Leonid Brezhnev. In this letter he expressed his hope that he would eventually be allowed to have his work published in Russian magazines and books. This is an excerpt from Brodsky’s letter:
“I belong to the Russian culture, I am part of it, and no change of place could influence this. I feel bitter to leave Russia. I was born here, I have lived here and everything I have in my soul I owe to Russia. All the bad things that I experienced were exceeded by the good things and I never felt offended by my country. Nor do I feel that way now. Because no longer being a citizen of USSR, does not stop me being a Russian poet.”
“I ask of you to give me an opportunity to exist in Russian literature, on Russian soil in the future. I think I am not guilty of any crime against my motherland. On the contrary, I think I am right in many ways. I don’t know what answer you will give to my request, or if you will answer at all. I am sorry that I did not write to you earlier, and now time has run out. But in any case, if my people don’t need my body, my soul will still be useful.”
This desperate attempt fell on deaf ears. Brodsky traveled to Austria and then to London before settling in the United States. He became hugely popular and his poems, interviews and essays appeared in numerous publications, including the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, Newsweek and many more. Brodsky won many awards including the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987 and taught Russian literature at leading US universities.
Brodsky’s parents made over ten requests to be allowed to travel and visit their son in the United States, but were each time refused. Even after Brodsky underwent heart surgery in 1978, their request to come and take care of him was denied. His mother died in 1983 and his father passed away shortly after. On both occasions Brodsky was not allowed to return to the Soviet Union to attend the funeral.
It was only in the 1990s, after Perestroika, that his poetry and books began to be widely published in the Soviet Union. He was given awards and invited to return to his homeland in 1995. Brodsky delayed his return, afraid it would be hard to resettle and he worried about all the publicity an event like that would bring. One of his final arguments was “My better part is already there – my poetry.”
Joseph Brodsky died in New York in 1996 and was buried in the San Michele Island cemetery in Venice, Italy. He is still remembered and praised as a great poet in Russia and the West.