Nobel prize-winning poet Josef Brodsky and ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov were good friends. Really good friends. Brodsky hated calling Baryshnikov ‘Mikhail’ or ‘Misha’ so he called him ‘Mysh’: mouse! He called himself Josef the Cat, adding in a little miaow afterwards This is how the pair always referred to each each.
They met in 1974 in New York where the twenty-year-old Russian dancer was making waves, and the thirty-four-year-old Brodsky was the most famous living Russian poet.
Brodsky died seventeen years ago and was buried in the city he loved, Venice. On 7 June, Baryshnikov will be present at a meeting of the Brodsky Foundation which wants to realise a dream of the poet: to establish a Russian Academy in Rome.
The day after Baryshnikov will be present at the inauguration of a show of his photographs at Galleria Corsini, and then he’s off to Spoleto to prepare for Robert Wilson’s The Old Woman with Willem Dafoe.
Benedetta Craveri of La Repubblica talked to him about his great friend.
When did he discover the poems of Brodsky?
In 1964, when I went to St Petersburg, in those days Leningrad, to study at the Vaganova Academy, a fellow student gave them to me in secret, something severely prohibited by the authorities.
Why prohibited? Here’s Wikipedia:
In 1963, Brodsky’s poetry was denounced by a Leningrad newspaper as “pornographic and anti-Soviet.” His papers were confiscated, he was interrogated, twice put in a mental institution and then arrested. He was charged with social parasitism by the Soviet authorities in a trial in 1964, finding that his series of odd jobs and role as a poet were not a sufficient contribution to society.
They called him “a pseudo-poet in velveteen trousers” who failed to fulfill his “constitutional duty to work honestly for the good of the motherland.” The trial judge asked “Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?” — “No one,” Brodsky replied, “Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?” Brodsky was not yet 24.
For his “parasitism” Brodsky was sentenced to five years hard labor and served 18 months on a farm in the village of Norenskaya, in the Arctic Archangelsk region, three hundred and fifty miles from Leningrad.
So what did fellow artists and intellectuals think of his conviction?
He was seen as someone fearless, a man of intelligence, a genius. But the sentence caused fear, bitterness and disgust.
In 1972 Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union, so settled in America with the help of W. H. Auden and other supporters.
The government ousted Joseph from Russia, convinced that once abroad he would lose contact with his language, and, consequently, with his readers… For me it was easier. The language I used for my art was dance.
And so the two Russian exiles met in New York at a private dinner with, among others, Rostropovich, Galina Vishnevskaya, and Salvador Dalí.
We didn’t have the chance to speak, but we left together and, hypnotised, I accompanied him to Morton Street in the West Village where he lived. We started to see each other often, and talked for hours on the phone.
More than for Russia, we had a nostalgia for St Petersburg… During our walks he would stop now and then and ask me if this or that reminded me of St Petersburg.
He was proud and happy to be an American. His citizenship gave him a structure to his life, and legitimized his relationship with the authorities; something unthinkable in Russia where the government certainly didn’t imbue a sense of security. At his funeral they played When Johnny Comes Marching Home, a military march from the Civil War, which Josef adored.
And the project to found a Russian Academy in Rome?
Josef was a guest at the American Academy in Rome many times… Italy represented for him an essential experience to encounter poetry, architecture, art and wished that other artists could have the same opportunities that he’d had.
So now Baryshnikov comes to help Brodsky fulfil his dream.
I truly adored him. I admired him, unconsciously I tried to imitate him, I was jealous of his success with women and, like a little brother, I was always aware of his authority. With the passing of the years it boiled down to a little phrase that he used now and then, also during our last telephone call the day before he died, “Yes, good boy Mysh.”
Seventeen years later Baryshnikov is being a good boy, helping his poet friend help future artists. That’s what friends are for.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.