Spring 1996 (4.1)
Poet and Playwright (1906-1956)
by Vagif Samadoglu, his son
Who was Samad Vurghun? To me, he was father. I was the youngest of his three children.
Azerbaijanis know Vurghun as poet, playwright, academician, Deputy of the USSR Supreme Soviet, member of Azerbaijan's Parliament, recipient of an Honorary Doctorate from Moscow State University, Vice-President of Azerbaijan's Academy of Sciences, Member of the Soviet Peace Committee, President of the Writer's Union in Baku, and recipient of both the Stalin and Lenin Prizes, twice each. He was the Azerbaijani playwright and poet who was invited to read his poems in the presence of Stalin and to offer a toast in the presence of Winston Churchill. And yes, people knew him as a hunter of wild birds, too.
Azerbaijanis love to build statues. An incredible number of them commemorate writers and poets. Several have been erected to my father's memory. In Baku, one stands in front of the Railway Station, another in the portal of the Akhundov National Library. At 4 Aliyarbeyov Street, a bust marks the Apartment Building of his home which has been converted into a museum. There's another statue in the village of Salahli where he was born, as well as one in the city of Bilasuvar erected next to a statue to the great Russian poet, Pushkin. Bilasuvar is the Azerbaijani city which used to be called "Pushkin." My father translated Pushkin's poetic novel, "Yevgeni Onegin" (1833) which is considered the most important work of that period. My father's translation from Russian to Azerbaijani was done with such great love and proficiency that it won him the "Great Pushkin Medal." So these two statues deserve to stand beside each other some place in the world.
Samad Vurghun is a page in the history of Azerbaijan's literature. I don't say this just because I'm his son. He had prodigious talent. His poetry penetrated deep into the hearts of readers because of its sincerity and genuineness. His works are musical; you feel this even in his poems written for Stalin. More than any of the accolades I've listed, I hope he'll be remembered for being a great poet and an incredible human being.
Above: 15th Anniversary of the Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic, 1936. Samad Vurghun (3rd row: first from left); Stalin was present at the event (lighter colored suit). First row: collective farmers and workers. Photos: Courtesy Samad Oglu and Vurghun Home Museum, Baku.
There are many legends that circulate about my father. Some are true; some are mere exaggerations; some are totally absurd. Some even began circulating before he died in 1956. For example, I've traveled throughout many Azerbaijani villages where I've been told the following story, "Once Samad Vurghun came to our village to go hunting when suddenly his car got stuck in the mud and a tractor helped pull him out. He then presented the driver with a hunting gun." I've been told this story, maybe 50 times, but it could have only happened once.
Then there's his educational background. Some people say he possessed a great natural talent but was uneducated That's not true either. My father finished the fifth grade in his native village, Salahli, before being sent off to Kazakh Seminary (a secondary boarding school in the northwest region of Azerbaijan). His aunt, Ayshe Khanum, took him there in 1918, But the head of the school saw the boy and told her, "Ayshe Khanum, this boy can't study here. He's very weak. He looks sick." When my father, twelve at the time, heard that, he began reciting verses from the Holy Koran just to demonstrate his brilliant memory. Needless to say, they admitted him and afterwards he became known as the brightest student in the school. Apart from studying, he also learned to play musical instruments like the saz, tar and violin, and he took an active part in the Drama Circle. Both, undoubtedly, greatly influenced his literary work later on.
He continued his studies at the Baku Pedagogical University and Moscow State University though it's hard for me to imagine my father attending classes conscientiously and taking lecture notes. But I know he read extensively. He knew philosophy, literature and history including Kant, Schopenhauer, Hegel, Marx and Engels. He knew world literature through Russian which he knew exceptionally well.
Despite his language ability in Russian and his prestigious position in society, my father sent us children to Azerbaijani (language) schools, not Russian. And for that, he was severely criticized and branded as a nationalist. But he used to say, "I'm a poet. It would make me miserable if my children had to read my works in translation."
My father and many others wrote what came to be known as "locomotive poems" in order to get their works published. "Locomotive" refers to a concept borrowed from Soviet ideology which conceptualized the driving force of socialism as a locomotive. In poetry, it meant that if you wrote a poem devoted to your beloved, you had to write something about Stalin or Lenin to get it published. Even when you wrote about love, you had to propagate Soviet ideology.
Razul Reza, the father of the contemporary writer, Anar, used to write protest poems in the mid-30s and publish them as if they were translations of an American black poet, Jim Lenny. But such a poet didn't exist. Reza had invented the name to disguise his own poems. Today, of course, we have an American Embassy in Baku and you couldn't get away with this. But in the 30s, the Soviet Union was a very closed country and nobody would have checked the facts.
We can't really say that there were dissident poets in Azerbaijan. Only Moscow and Leningrad could produce such writers as they had access to the outside world via foreign embassies and journalists. In Baku, if we had tried to oppose the system, no one would ever have heard about us. Officials would have "found" narcotics or US dollars in our homes. We would have been arrested, not for our poetry, but for other "criminal activities."
The most any of us could do was to experiment with free verse in the 50s and 60s. That, in itself, was considered a kind of protest, a deviation from standard literary form. It was impossible to deviate in content if you wanted to get published. I've written many poems myself, for example, which deal with the loneliness of man. But the Soviet man could not be lonely. I've written about life's difficulties but they would have said that Soviet life was happy and so only two small books of my poetry have been published (1968 and 1972). That's only 10% of my work. Three books are ready for publication now. Today, we have no censorship, but there is a financial problem.
The main problem for any writer, regardless of when he writes or even where, is how to survive. We want to survive. We want our language to survive. We want our poems to be published and read by people.
My father's poems were criticized as well. For example, Bagirov (who was Stalin's Party Secretary in Azerbaijan) didn't like the piece, "Aygun" because the hero was a miserable drunk whose family life had disintegrated. My father tried to explain that the character became more reasonable in the end under his wife's influence. Bagirov wanted to know why he was drinking in the first place if that were the case. My father replied that such a piece would have been a different poem with a different plot but that he could write that, too, if Bagirov so wanted. My father was supposed to have been arrested in 1953 and would have, no doubt, had it not been for Stalin's death and the subsequent arrest of Bagirov.
In fact, that's one of the great mysteries about my father. How could such a great, talented poet escape Stalin's repression in 1937? That's another part of the legend that surrounds him. Some say my father betrayed someone else and thus escaped danger himself. Another story says that he behaved so bravely during investigations that nobody dared pronounce a verdict against him. Others claim that arresting him would have caused an outcry from all Azerbaijanis.
Some say that the best, the most talented were purged while the remaining survived. That's not true at all. If it were, how is that the Russian poet Mandelstam was repressed while Boris Pasternak survived? It's not because Pasternak wrote poems about Stalin. Mandelstam was the first to include Stalin's name in poetry. There was no standard of criteria about who was repressed and who wasn't. In Azerbaijan, such great poets as Hussein Javid, and Mikail Mushfig were arrested but Samad Vurghun, Rasul Reza, Suleyman Rustam and tens of others survived.
My mother has her own ideas. She thinks it has to do with having the right relatives. Her older brother, my Uncle Agabey, was head of the "Red Partisan's Organization" of which Bagirov was Deputy.
But the most reasonable hypotheses about my father's survival was told to me once by the well-known writer and poet, K. Simonov, when I was in Moscow in 1971. Like other dictators, Stalin liked to demonstrate his phenomenal memory. I'm sure that every time he received Bagirov he would inquire about how my father was doing in Baku. Stalin's egoism might have been what saved my father from all those threats or even death.
Back in 1936 during the celebration of the 15th Anniversary of the Founding of the Soviet Union, my father was invited to the Kremlin to read a poem written in Stalin's honor, who, of course, was in the audience. When my father finished reciting his poem, Stalin addressed him while my father was still standing at the rostrum.
Below: Symbols of Vurghun's personal interests: Hunting and Music (the saz). Courtesy: Vurghun Home Museum.
"Samad is your first name and Vurghun the last. Am I right?" Stalin asked.
"No, Comrade Stalin," my father replied. "'Vurghun is my nickname."
"What does it mean?"
"A person in love."
"With a girl?" asked Stalin.
"No, with his Motherland," my father had replied.
A recording of this conversation still exists today at the Vurghun Home Museum. The truth was that my father had adopted that nickname, "Vurghun," after his first experience of falling in love with a girl which had ended in failure. So, my father had downright lied to Stalin. The following day, however, Stalin was given a list of the names of Azerbaijanis who were to be awarded honors and medals. My father expected to received the "Red Labor Banner Order." But Stalin had crossed out his name and written it under the column of "Lenin Order," thus bestowing upon my father the highest prize in the nation. So it may be that there was a certain logic in what Simonov told me years later about the occasion.
On the other hand, I'll never forget the words that Bagirov uttered in the courtroom during his own trial after Stalin's death. They asked him why hadn't he arrested Samad Vurghun and he had replied, "If I had wanted to, I could have done it long ago." In my opinion there was truth in these words as well. Who will ever know the real reason why my father was never arrested. Perhaps, there are many factors that influence the events of history. But my father's life was rather short-lived, he died of lung cancer when he was 50. That's nearly forty years ago.
Left: Samad Vurghun with a group of Writers (1940).
First Row: Suleyman Rustam, Samad Vurghun, Russian Poet, Nigar Rafibeyli (Mother of Writer Anar), Russian writer, Mirvarid Dilbazi. Second Row: Ahmad Jamil, Mammad Rahim and Osman Sarivalli. Courtesy: National State Archives.
Between 1989-1991, Baku was deeply involved in a national liberation movement process even though we had not yet gained our independence. It was a complicated period. Azerbaijanis were awakening, the Soviet Empire was disintegrating and Armenians were becoming very aggressive. Monuments were being destroyed in Baku and other towns, especially those of Lenin, Kirov (who led the Bolshevik army into Baku in 1920 and Shaumyan (leader of the 26 Commissars who brought the first Soviet government to Azerbaijan).
To tell you the truth, a terrible fear gripped me. I was afraid that in the heat of anger and rage, people would continue their rampage and destroy the monuments of our great writers and composers, especially Uzeyir Hajibeyov and my father as they were both considered "Soviet." I feared a repetition of China's "Cultural Revolution." Not only would this have been a deep personal tragedy, it would have tarnished the reputation of Azerbaijanis as lovers of great literature. Fortunately, these monuments were preserved.
There's another unique feature about our family that cannot be separated from my father and his work. It's my mother. He met Khavar Mirzabeyova back in 1933. My older brother, Yusif Samadoglu, was born in 1935. He's a writer, too, and a member of Parliament. My sister, Aybaniz, was born in 1937. She was really my father's favorite. He had an extraordinary love for her that can only be explained by the fact that he never had a sister and that his mother had died while he was still a child.
And then there's me, born in 1939. A few hours after I was born, my father sent my mother a letter-poem which began, "So, our son's name is 'Vagif' and he'll be a master in poetry." It was meant to be a joke-my father identifying me as a poet at birth! But writing has turned out to be what gives me the deepest satisfaction in life.
What else should I say about my father? I would be happy to see his poems published in one of the issues of "Azerbaijan International" some day. It's always difficult to translate poetry into a foreign language. I don't know how his ideas will translate in English but I would like Vurghun to be known as he was in reality-both as a poet who wrote about love and about Stalin.
I believe history will remember Vurghun for his contribution in the formation of the literary Azerbaijani language via poetry. There's no doubt in my mind that as long as the Azerbaijani language lives, my father's poetry will be read and loved and that's what matters most.
Below: Text translated by Jala Garibova; Vagif Samadoglu's poetry translated by Farhad Mustafayeva; Vurghun's poetry translated by Walter May and Zeydulla Agayev ("Hearts Aflame", Baku: Yazichi, 1985) .
Poetry by Vurghun
- Listen, Khavar
If death should take his place at the head of my bed,
Like an executioner, scythe in right hand,
You, my beloved one, do not grieve-instead
Don't look upon with horror, boldly stand.
If your red cheeks from grieving should grow pale,
Conceal that tragedy deep within your soul.
Let speech upon your bud-like lips not fail.
Preserve your morale, your love and dignity whole.
And then my soul will rejoice, contentment find.
My grave will open its flowers beneath your light.
If people ask what remains of me in your mind--
Then with your love, like a statue, stand full height!
Left: Vurghun with his wife, Khavar Khanim (1930s)
Do Not Bend
O life! At times it's smirched with mire and dirt,
But see, life's stage a thousand curtains knows
When you, young man, in difficult times are hurt,
Then bless the manliness which in you grows.
O Time! It may be pitiless, or sad,
And now and it brutally shakes the earth.
If Time intends to annihilate you, my lad,
Go boldly forward, and fight for all you're worth.
O Boldness! Every moment it must imbue.
Without it, life would perish, that's my belief.
And you, who've come to know my words are true,
As a man, a son of man, control your grief.
Now what I wished to say, I cry aloud:
Aspire to wide horizons, to highest skies!
Don't think, young man, that life's a rosy cloud,
And do not bend, no, not in any wise!
Extract from Vurghun's Drama, "Man"
Shahbaz: Your writings aren't original. They're the ideas of the philosopher, Nietzsche.
Albert: Perhaps, you don't even like Nietzsche?
Shahbaz: Not "perhaps." Our ways are different. To Nietzsche, everything is bleak. He laughs at the pain and anguish of mankind. Tragedy gains victory in every situation. But the strength of man always remains in the shadow.
Poetry by Vurghun's son, Vagif Samadoglu
by Vurghun's son, Vagif Samadoglu
Oh, my God!
They're killing a man
in the forest
in the presence of so many trees.
by Vurghun's son, Vagif Samadoglu
If there is a woman on earth,
If there is a single infant
If there is a tree
If there is a single grain of sand
Then Motherland exists.
by Vurghun's son, Vagif Samadoglu
In the evenings
Amidst the shade of the olive trees
And the tender whispers of breezes,
On my white sheet of paper,
I would never give up the loneliness of my pen
Which challenges the logic of the world.
Not for the shadow of a state's flag,
Nor for a woman's voice,
Nor for the breath of my own child,
Not even for you, God,
by Vurghun's son, Vagif Samadoglu
It is high time
To flee from complaints;
It is high time
To open doors without knocking.
Now is the time
For all voices and clamor
To turn to serene calmness.
It is high time to concentrate on humanity
Not nations and states.
It is not time to plead and curse
And make sacrificial victims.
The world must be silent.
It is high time to help God.