On October 22, 1987, Joseph Brodsky, the outstanding Russian poet, sentenced to hard labor in 1964 for being a "social parasite" and expelled from the Soviet Union eight years later, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
On learning the news, Brodsky, by then an American citizen, described his condition as "delighted, bewildered, pleased.” The poet, 47 at the time – an age relatively young for a Nobel Laureate - received an award worth $340,000, and was widely hailed by both poets and literary scholars worldwide. As Clarence Brown, professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, noted, “I don't know that he has any rivals as the greatest living Russian poet.” Even Seamus Heaney, rumored to have been a candidate for the prize, had nothing to say other than to express praise toward his fellow poet.
Officially, Brodsky was awarded for “all-encompassing authorship, marked by the clarity of expression and poetic profoundness.” However, the choice of the Nobel panel was suspected to have had political ramifications, as Brodsky’s figure perfectly fit into the selection of the past Nobel prize winners among the Russian writers, such as Ivan Bunin who, also condemned by the Soviet authorities, lived and died in exile, Boris Pasternak, who wasn’t even permitted to accept the Nobel Prize by the authorities, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, dubbed as an enemy and traitor of the Soviet regime.
Before the expulsion, only four of Brodsky’s poems were published in the Soviet Union. After the prize had been awarded, many foreign literary experts were convinced that under principles of Glasnost, propelled by Mikhail Gorbachev, the reaction of the authorities would be favorable; moreover, the fact that the Soviet literary establishment persecuted Brodsky gave Gorbachev’s administration all the more reason to accept this victory.
However, the attitude toward Brodsky did not change. The Soviet media chose not to cover the event at all, only acknowledging it in a short article issued as late as November 4. The news was an outrage for Soviet literary circles, as many thought of themselves as worthy of such an award, and therefore felt betrayed. Adding to their rage was naming Brodsky a laureate of literature in the United States, which happened the same year.
Neither his parents nor his son were allowed to leave the Soviet Union, and Brodsky himself was refused entry to the Soviet Union even to attend the funerals of both his parents.
As a response to the accusations of being a poet and therefore a social parasite on the Soviet regime, Brodsky said in his Nobel speech, “I am totally convinced that a person who reads poetry is a lot harder to triumph over than those not reading it… I am not asking to substitute the government with the library – though that idea did cross my mind not just once – still, I have no doubts that, by choosing our leaders based on our literary instincts rather than on their political agendas, we could significantly cut down on grief on Earth.”
Obviously, all the pain his country had caused him didn’t vanish. He felt strongly about those condemning him in the Soviet Union, simultaneously envying and despising those who positioned themselves as dissidents, but compromised with the authorities in exchange for safe homes, saying that, “if they are against something, I will definitely go for it.”
Still, in an open letter to Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, Brodsky wrote: ''Although I am losing my Soviet citizenship, I do not cease to be a Russian poet. I believe I will return. Poets always return in the flesh, or on paper. I want to believe that both are possible."
Joseph Brodsky died in 1995 and was buried in Venice, as he himself requested, since up to his death he was not allowed to come back to Russia.