Joseph Brodsky: Trial, Exile, and Ukrainian Independence Opponent

An image of Joseph Brodsky from the Wall Street Journal

Joseph Brodsky was born Iosif Brodskiy in Leningrad, now present-day St. Petersbug, Russia in 1940. Brodsky was born and raised while Joseph Stalin led the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), and life under Stalin’s harsh Soviet likely influenced Brodsky’s thinking and writing. In the 1950s, Brodsky began writing poetry for the first time, and it did not take long for his writing to be recognized. “Joeseph Brodsky: A Virgilian Hero, Doomed Never to Return Home” by Bengt Jangfeldt explains why Brodsky was recognized when the following is mentioned: “Brodsky Revolutionised Russian poetry by introducing themes that were taboo in the Soviet Union…in the Soviet Union, such things did not go unpunished” (6). Joseph Brodsky wrote in a way and on topics that did not conform to the common practice of Soviet poets in his time. He went against what was expected of him within his writing, and many took this as his way of going against the Soviet Union. Often, Brodsky is still known as an anti-Soviet Soviet poet, but he is also largely known for being put on trial in the USSR in 1964.

            In 1964, Brodsky was put on trial by the Soviet Union after being deemed a parasite. The USSR deemed Brodsky a parasite and a rebel because his poems did not portray the USSR as it desired to be portrayed, and because of his lack of conformity to USSR standards, he was not considered a poet by the government. While there were attempts to keep Brodsky’s trial private within the USSR, manuscripts of the trial were released. “The Trial of Joseph Brodsky” by Frida Vigdorova and Michael R. Katz shares some of the original manuscripts from the trial, including the following verdict from the judge: “Brodsky has systematically failed to fulfill the obligations of a Soviet citizen with regard to producing material value and personal well-being…Brodsky is not a poet…Brodsky will be sent to remote locations for a period of five years forced labor” (207). While Brodsky was sentenced to five years of forced labor, he was released in 1965 after only one year of service. Brodsky’s release was largely due to support he received from both Soviet and Western individuals who knew his work and protested on his behalf. After being released from his forced labor sentence, Brodsky returned to his hometown of Leningrad until 1972 when he was sent into permanent foreign exile without any trial. London’s The Times emphasizes how well-known Brodsky’s trial and treatment were within “Voices of Leningrad” by Suzanne Massie which explained that Brodsky’s “harsh treatment by the authorities and subsequent expulsion are too well known to ignore” (6). After being exiled, Joseph Brodsky moved to the United States where he officially changed his name, Iosif Brodskiy to Joseph Brodsky, and eventually became a U.S. citizen.

            Although many view Brodsky as an anti-Soviet Soviet poet, “The Crimes of Joseph Brodsky” by Roberta Reeder, Efim Etkind, and Yakov Gubanov emphasizes that Brodsky was not exiled “because he was fighting against the Soviet regime, but because the Soviet regime was fighting against him” (105). Even after being exiled, Brodsky shared many beliefs that his former home did. One of the greatest pieces Brodsky’s ways of thinking is seen in is his poem “On Ukrainian Independence.” “On Ukrainian Independence” by Joseph Brodsky was never officially published or circulated, at least not within his lifetime; however, Brodsky did read it one time in the early 1990s at a public event. This poem by Brodsky emphasizes the similar thinking he and the USSR had, even Russia has now, in regard to Ukrainians. Within the poem, Brodsky writes, “Good riddance, Khokhly, it’s over for better or worse, / I’ll go spit in the Dnieper, perhaps it’ll flow in reverse” (24-35). The word Khokhly was a common racial slur used to refer to Ukrainians, and it was often used to refer to Ukrainians in a condescending manner. The Dnieper River is one that flows through Ukraine and into the Black Sea. Mentioning spitting in the river is likely similar to spitting on Ukraine itself which shows so much disrespect. Brodsky’s lines “But mark: when it’s your turn to be dragged to graveyards, / you’ll whisper and wheeze, your deathbed a mattress a-pushing, / not Schevchenko’s bullshit but poetry lines from Pushking (38-40) also show Brodsky’s belief that Ukraine is inferior to the USSR, or Russia. Schevchenko mentioned in the final line was a Ukrainian nationalist poet while the Pushking mentioned is a classic Russian poet. By mentioning that Ukrainians will desire words of a Russian poet over words of a Ukrainian poet as they are dying, Brodsky is again portraying Ukraine as inferior and less satisfying. The view of Ukraine as inferior is still seen today. In fact, in the current attack on Ukraine from Russia, Russia is attempting to force Ukraine into submission and a controlled state. Although Brodsky’s poem was written thirty years ago, it allows us to better understand current events by allowing us to understand the thinking of a Russian-born, Soviet poet.

Works Cited

Beaty, Keith. “Nobel Prize-Winning Russian Poet Joseph Brodsky in 1994.” Wall Street Journal, 28 Apr. 2022, Accessed 30 Apr. 2022. 

Jangfeldt, Bengt. “The Nobel Prize in Literature 1987.”, 

Massie, Suzanne, and Michael Glenny. "Voices of Leningrad." Times, 17 Aug. 1972, p. 6. The Times Digital Archive, Accessed 30 Apr. 2022.

Reeder, Roberta, et al. “The Crimes of Joseph Brodsky.” New England Review (1990-), vol. 20, no. 3, 1999, pp. 95–135, Accessed 30 Apr. 2022.

 Vigdorova, Frida and Michael R. Katz. "The Trial of Joseph Brodsky." New England Review, vol. 34 no. 3, 2014, p. 183-207. Project MUSEdoi:10.1353/ner.2014.0022.

Related Links

The Toxic Patriotism timeline relates to Brodsky's belief that Ukraine and Ukrainians are inferior to Russia and Russians. These beliefs that are held by many within Russia have caused conflict, just as the Toxic Patriotism timeline emphasizes a connection to war and conflict.

Truitt's entry on the most recent Russian invasion of Ukraine is a climactic event resulting from events and ideaologies such as the ones mentioned in this entry.



Associated Place(s)

Event date:

4 Feb 1964 to 1992

Parent Chronology: