The Life & Works of Semyon Lipkin

Image depicting Lisnyanskaya (Lipkin's wife and poet in her own right), Lipkin, Akhmatova and Grossman.

Early Life

Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin was born into a Jewish family in 1911 in Odesa, where his father was a tailor. Although largely self-taught by reading at home, and despite the restrictions placed on Jews at that time, he was accepted into a local college where he excelled at his lessons and joined the literature club. He also studied Hebrew and the Torah and developed a lifelong fascination for the teachings and scripture of many other faiths, such as Catholicism and Buddhism. He began writing poetry at age 15 and became friends with the poet Eduard Bagritsky, who encouraged him to move to Moscow, which he did in 1929.

In Moscow, he joined the Engineering-Economic Institute and also began to study oriental languages, including Persian and Persianate languages such as Kalmyk, Kirghiz, Kazakh, Tatar, Tajik, and Uzbek, languages of cultures whose epic literature he would go on to translate.

About this time, he began trying to get his work published, and in his memoir, Testimony, he recalls how he tried to place a poem in a soon-to-be-published almanac, The Depth. He visited the publisher’s office only to find the censors had deemed the subject of his poem too political and had refused publication. While there, he ran into Mikhail Bulgakov, one of the great writers of early 20th-century Russia, who welcomed Lipkin to the world of literature with the line, “You start your career in the best Russian tradition, with the censor against you.”

‘World Literature’

In the years after the revolution, the Soviet Union launched an enormous project, “world literature” (mirovaia literatura) which not only sought to bring the best international classics to the Soviet public but to help weave the cultures of disparate republics like Kirgizstan and Tajikistan into the Soviet cultural web. Lipkin’s fluency and deep love of these mainly Central Asian and Persianate languages enabled him to translate many of the region’s epics, thus helping to preserve those languages and cultures. When, like many authors, he realised that publication of work containing his true thoughts and feeling would incur the displeasure of the authorities he threw himself into this translation project and became one of its key figures, translating many national epics such as the Kalmyk epic Djangar and the Indian Mahabarata (see the Bibliography of Lipkin’s work in both volumes for a full list of translation works).

World War Two

After the German incursion into the Soviet Union in 1941, Lipkin was sent as a journalist to cover the Siege of Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), the bombing of Kronstadt, and later was seconded to a cavalry division on the Kalmyk Steppe in the south of Russia, where his troupe became encircled by German tanks, and he nearly didn’t survive. After that, he was sent to serve on a gunboat in the Stalingrad flotilla, which sank. His experiences of these events were later distilled into his epic poem ‘The Technical Lieutenant-Quartermaster.’ which appears on p37 of A Close Reading. At Stalingrad, he met up again with the journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman, with whom he would eventually form a lifelong friendship. Although he usually contrasted himself unfairly with Grossman’s bravery in the face of the barbarity at Stalingrad, he emerged from the war with many honours and medals.

Post War Work

As with Grossman, Lipkin’s literary work was critical of Soviet policy and behaviour on a number of fronts. But unlike Grossman, he declined to fight for his work to be published; hence the vast majority of his poems were unavailable to the public until much later in his life. However, even in this line of work, Lipkin ended up on a dangerous path. When the focus of Stalin’s policy towards those republics turned hostile and their cultural independence was deemed anti-soviet, it attempted to eradicate and Russify them, even organising the mass deportation of their peoples to other Soviet regions. Lipkin’s role in becoming a living repository for these cultures invited severe risk and censure. Luckily he passed through this era relatively unscathed, apart from his inability to publish his own work. His translation work won many accolades, and he was lauded by other literary greats such as Anna Akhmatova.

Literary Friendships

In Testimony, Lipkin recalls the occasions of his visits to the apartment of Anna Akhmatova, long walks with Marina Tsvetaeva and details of his long association with Vasily Grossman, one of the preeminent authors of the Soviet period.

Grossman had reported extensively from Stalingrad and other major battles of WW2, and his newspaper articles and books based on his experiences made him a literary hero to the Soviet public. Initially, his novels were exemplars of praise for the Soviet war effort. Novels like For a Just Cause and The People Immortal echoed the conventional view of the war as a heroic and morally justified defence of the Motherland against Fascism. But as time passed, Grossman wrote increasingly about the ways in which the Soviet’s prosecution of the war and the barbarous behaviour of the Red Army paralleled the atrocities and inhumanity of the Nazis. When he insisted, against Lipkin’s advice to the contrary, on the publication of the novel Life and Fate, which drew a direct comparison between the two sides, the authorities acted decisively and in 1961 the KGB raided Grossman’s apartment and office and removed every manuscript they could find. Foreseeing this, Lipkin had taken an earlier draft of the book and hidden it at the flat of his son-in-law, Sergei Makarov. The novel was later smuggled to the West and published in instalments.

Lipkin also remembers the fear both he and Grossman felt during Stalin’s post-war anti-semitism drive, known as ‘the Doctor Murderer Campaign’, where many prominent Jews were imprisoned or banished from public life due to allegations of anti-Soviet activity. The campaign unleashed a wave of anti-semitic behaviour and both Lipkin and Grossman, finding themselves often abused in public, feared they would be swept up in the pogroms. Thankfully, Stalin’s death in 1953 put an end to the campaign if not to broader anti-semitic attitudes at large in Russia.

Testimony contains a wealth of fascinating correspondence between Grossman and Lipkin including an interesting interlude where Grossman took work in Armenia, translating the publication of a well-known Armenian author. Many of the related incidences in his letters home to Lipkin became the subjects of his final work, An Armenian Sketchbook.

Grossman died in late 1964, an event that deeply saddened Lipkin who always believed that his demise had been brought forward by his inability to get over the ‘arrest’ and suppression of his greatest work, Life and Fate.

Late 20th century and the end of the Soviet Union

Lipkin continued with his translation work and also carried on writing poems ‘for the desk drawer’ as he put it. During the post-Stalin period, attitudes towards writers and artists thawed somewhat, but Lipkin’s hopes of a freer climate of self-expression never materialised which saddened and bewildered him.

In 1979 two young writers, Vasily Aksyonov and Victor Erofeev, organised the printing and publication of an anthology, Metropol, that contained stories, songs and poems from many Russian and even international authors and to which Lipkin contributed what he called ‘a few rather harmless poems’. The anthology broke many of the rigidly applied rules of Soviet literary publication concerning ‘Socialist Realism’, and its authors were attacked by the Writers’ Union and one of its instigators was later expelled from the country. On hearing of this, Lipkin and his wife Inna Lisnyanskaya immediately resigned from the Writers’ Union in protest for which punishment was swift and severe. They were expelled from various funding bodies which provided for writers and even their literary translation work was stopped and new versions of works they had previously translated were commissioned. They were bombarded with abuse from the authorities and their apartment was often ‘visited’ during their absence.

Finally, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Lipkin was able to see his own work published in full with volumes of his poetry appearing in Russia for the first time. As Professor Donald Rayfield writes in the introduction to A Close Reading, “Lipkin and Lisnyanskaya deserve the rank of martyrs, even though they were both vouchsafed a longevity extraordinary for a Russian poet in any era.”

Semyon Lipkin died in 2003 at Peredelkino, nr. Moscow aged 92.


1911, September 6 (Julian Calendar) Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin born 19 September 1911 (Gregorian Calendar), Odesa; son of Israel and Rosalia Lipkin; his father had a tailoring business.

1925  Lipkin’s first poem published, age 15. Eduard Bagritsky recognises the merit of this first publication.

1937 Lipkin graduates from the Moscow Economics Engineering Institute. While studying engineering he had begun studying Farsi, followed by other Oriental languages including Dagestani, Kalmyk, Kyrgyz, Tatar, Tajik, Uzbek, Kabardian, Yiddish and Moldavian; also their history and culture including Islam and Buddhism.

1941 Germany invades the Soviet Union. Leningrad is blockaded and Moscow under threat. Two and a half million Polish Jews are gassed in Chelmno, Majdanek, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka and Auschwitz. Lipkin’s friend, Vasily Grossman, starts work as a war correspondent for Red Star (Krasnaya Zvezda – the Red Army newspaper). Lipkin serves in the Red Army, including at Stalingrad.

1960, October Against the advice of Yekaterina Vasilievna Zabolotskaya and Lipkin, Vasily Grossman submits his novel Life and Fate for publication to the editors of Znamya.

1961 The KGB raid Grossman’s home and destroy all the copies of Life and Fate they can. Lipkin keeps one copy at Peredelkino and later transfers it to Sergei and Lena Makarov’s attic in Moscow for safe keeping. Unbeknown to Lipkin, Lyola Klestova has been given the original manuscript by Grossman who arranges prior to his death for her to give her copy to Vyacheslav Loboda.

1967  Lipkin receives the Rudaki State Prize of the Tadzhik SSR. Lipkin’s first collection of poetry Ochevidets [Eyewitness] published. His poem ‘Conjunction’ is read as coded support for Israel.

1968 Lipkin made People’s Poet of the Kalmyk ASSR.

1970  First issue of Jewish samizdat journal Exodus. Lipkin’s A Notebook of Being published.

1973 Andrei Sakharov awarded Nobel Peace Prize. Lipkin’s Vechnyi Den! [Eternal Day] published. Lipkin asks the writer Vladamir Voinovich to help him get his copy of Life and Fate (the manuscript) published in the West. Voinovich inexpertly microfilms the manuscript but then gets Sakharov to make a better microfilm. The latter film reaches the Parisian dissident journal Kontinent via Russia’s Austrian attaché. Only extracts are published.

1979  Lipkin and Inna Lisnyanskaya submit their poetry to the anthology, Metropol, which is rejected by the Soviet authorities.

1980  Lipkin resigns from the Union of Writers. Internal exile of Sakharov. Grossman’s Life and Fate published in Switzerland, from Voinovich’s films of the manuscript as painstakingly collated by Etkin and Markish.

1981  Metropol published in the United States. Lipkin’s Volya [Free Will] published in Russian in the US on the initiative of Joseph Brodsky.

1986  Lipkin’s Kartiny i golosa [Pictures and Voices] published in Russian in London. Lipkin is reinstated into the Writers’ Union.

1989, November. Fall of Berlin Wall.

1991  Dissolution of USSR. Lipkin awarded Tukai Prize. His Lunnyi Svet [Moonlight] and Pis!mena [Letters] are published.

1995 Lipkin awarded the Sakharov Prize by the European Parliament, and the Pushkin Prize by the Alfred Toepfer Foundation, Germany.

1997 Lipkin’s Posokh [Shepherd’s Crook] published.

2000 Putin elected president. Lipkin’s Sem! desiatiletii [Seven Decades] published.

2003, May 31 Death of Semyon Izrailevich Lipkin at Peredelkino.