(Alexandra Guzeva’s article appeared in Russia Beyond the Headlines, 10/5.

(Public Domain; Tretyakov Gallery; Anefo / Croes, R.C. (CC BY-SA 3.0 NL)

Poetry is usually lost in translation, especially when written in Russian, which is a complicated language with its own rhythm and rhymes. Russians are not only a reading nation, however. We are also a poetic nation and any person you meet will know a dozen poems by heart. Here are great poets whose works Russians have grown up on.

1. Alexander Pushkin (1799-1837)

We just couldn’t start with anyone else. “Pushkin is our everything,” Russians often say. He is without a doubt our main poet. During his relatively short life of 37 years (it’s common for Russian poets to die young), he created poetic works in all possible genres, and also wrote drama plays and a verse novel, Eugene Onegin, which has a unique ‘Onegin stanza’ with a strict inner order of rhythms and rhymes. It’s hard to find a topic that Pushkin would not dwell on through his poetry: from love and friendship, to freedom and loyalty to the state, and finally to a sense of art and life, and the very special feelings that a man feels as he gets older and his life is coming to an end. 

Must read Pushkin poems: 

  • I recall the wondrous moment
  • I built myself a monument, one not man-made
  • A letter of Tatyana to Onegin (From “Eugene Onegin”)

Read more about Alexander Pushkin here.

2. Mikhail Lermontov (1814-1841)


Lermontov lived just 27 years, and like Pushkin, he died after being injured in a duel. He first gained fame as well as official disgrace after blaming St. Petersburg high society for Pushkin’s death (The Poet’s dead! – a slave to honor -/ He fell, by rumor slandered). For this poem he was exiled to the Caucasus region. Lermontov is best known for his romanticism in poetry where he put his lyrical character in opposition to the rest of the world. The poet is also keen on the image of the Demon, a fallen angel who is alone against the universe. Inspired by the Caucasus and its legends, Lermontov wrote two brilliant long poems: Mtsyri and Demon. He is also an author of the frequently staged drama, The Masquerade, where a protagonist falls into insane jealousy and kills his innocent wife. 

Must read Lermontov poems: 

  • Death of the Poet
  • Borodino
  • I go out on the road alone…

Read more about Mikhail Lermontov here.

3. Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-1877)

In the history of Russian literature Nekrasov was first of all important as a reputable editor of the main literary magazines, Sovremennik (The Contemporary) and Otechestvennye Zapiski (Notes of the Fatherland), where he published the best works from the most prominent writers of the era, including Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Goncharov and Ivan Turgenev. In his poetry, Nekrasov was first to uplift the ‘low’ peasant language, and was first to raise the issue of the serfs’ sufferings. His most famous work is a long epic poem, Who Is Happy in Russia?, where he tries to define and outline all of Russia’s problems and looks for people who live happily in Russia… Spoiler: they can’t be found. 

Must read Nekrasov poems: 

  • Who Is Happy in Russia?
  • Russian Women
  • Grandpa Mazai and the Hares 

(Read more)

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