Places: The Twelve

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: Dvenadtsat’, 1918 (English translation, 1920; collected in A Treasury of Russian Literature, 1943)

Type of work: Poetry

Type of plot: Ballad

Time of work: 1917

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Petrograd

*Petrograd. Twelve, TheRussian city in which the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 started, when the city was known as St. Petersburg. Blok places the action of his ballad in the streets of the city during a blizzard at night. Twelve revolutionaries march through the almost deserted streets, chanting and yelling revolutionary slogans. They are rowdies, mistreating the bystanders, robbing and burning homes. Blok emphasizes their proletarian background by having them wear convict attire. They are looked upon with fear, suspicion, and hatred by their traditional enemies on the sidewalks–an old lady, a bourgeois, a writer, a priest, and two fur-coated ladies–all representing the old world that is crumbling in that winter night. The observers stand, as if nailed to the ground, while the revolutionaries move ahead, signaling progress.

The poem reaches a climax by having an apparition of Jesus Christ appear in front of the twelve. Blok himself was not sure why Christ appears. Is he leading or confronting them? If he is leading them, why is he facing them and why are they shooting at him? Despite many rejections of this symbol on the part of the critics and readers and despite Blok’s own misgivings, there is no question that, by using clear symbols such as the number twelve (perhaps representing Christ’s twelve Apostles), Blok wanted to express his acceptance of the revolution as necessary, hoping that it would bring about badly needed reforms. He would soon change his mind just before he died in 1921, but The Twelve remains artistically the best-known literary work about the Bolshevik Revolution.

BibliographyHackel, Sergei. The Poet and the Revolution: Aleksandr Blok’s “The Twelve.” Oxford, England: Clarendon Press, 1975. One of the best analyses of the content and the form of Blok’s The Twelve.Kisch, Cecil H. Alexander Blok, Prophet of Revolution. London: Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 1960. A study of Blok’s life and work, illustrated by translations from his poems and his writings.Mochulskii, Konstantin. Aleksandr Blok. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 1983. A perceptive study of Aleksandr Blok by an émigré critic of spiritual orientation, with an emphasis on Blok’s relationship to the revolution.Pyman, Avril. The Life of Aleksandr Blok. 2 vols. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979-1980. The most exhaustive treatment of Aleksandr Blok as a man and a writer, by a leading former Russian scholar of Russian literature. The Twelve is discussed from page 274 to page 305.Vickery, Walter, ed. Aleksandr Blok Centennial Conference. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica, 1984. A collection of twenty-one articles about various aspects of Blok’s life and works. Of special interest is “The Polyphonic Structure of Blok’s Dvenadtsat.”
Categories: Places