This biography of Nazim
Hikmet portrays a writer who combined political courage with artistic
creativity, even under prison conditions.
Born in Salonika in 1902, he was
descended from a cosmopolitan Ottoman family. It was the turmoil of the
First World War and the Allied occupation of Istanbul that inspired him to start writing
poetry. After escaping to Ankara
at the age of nineteen to join the anti-imperialist resistance, he was advis 252j97c ed
by Mustafa Kemal (Atatürk) to write 'poetry with a purpose'. But it was
during the 1920s that he found his mission, drawing inspiration from the
artistic experiments of Mayakovsky and Meyerhold as well as the political
vision of Lenin.
Returning to Istanbul
in 1928. he became the charismatic
leader of the Turkish avant-garde, publishing an exhilarating series of poems,
polemics and plays. He was not only a communist committed to revolution,
but a romantic who was passionately in love: with his country and his people,
with nature and the women to whom he dedicates his finest poetry.
Repeatedly arrested for his political beliefs, he was sentenced in 1938 to
twenty-eight years imprisonment on trumped-up charges of organizing a revolt in
the armed forces. His epic poem Human Landscapes was written
during a ten-year period in Bursa Prison.
From 1949, an international campaign centred in Paris helped to secure Nazim's release under
an amnesty in July 1950. In November 1950, at a congress in Warsaw, he was officially
awarded a peace prize, which he shared with Paul Robeson and Pablo Neruda.
Since he was not permitted to leave Turkey to attend the conference,
Neruda received the prize on Nazim's behalf.
Nazim's position during this period is summed up by a poem ironically entitled 'A Sad State of freedom'. The Turkish people, he
wrote with bitter irony, are free to see their country turned into an American
air base, free to be drafted to fight in Korea. He himself was under
constant police surveillance. And although he was now forty-eight years
old and in poor health, the authorities decided to conscript him to military
Having failed to persuade the authorities to be exempt from the military
service and the anti-Communist climate of the Cold War led him to fear further
imprisonment, he fled to the Soviet Union in 1951, and during the following
decade he used his literary prestige to campaign against the spread of nuclear
weapons, He became a prominent member of the World Peace Council sharing a
platform with Sartre and Picasso, Neruda, Ehrenburg and Aragon.
With his most poignant poem 'Japanese fisherman' he protested against
the testing of the Hydrogen bomb at Bikini Atoll
in 1954. He remained remarkably creative, becoming involved in the
theatre and broadcasting and entering into further relationships which find
their echo in poignant lyrics and love letters, as well as political poetry of
great imaginative power. His work, although banned in Turkey, was
translated into many other languages. In exile he became the poet laureate of
the Soviet-backed peace movement, which reflected his lifelong commitment to
internationalism. His satire on Stalinism, Ivan Ivanovich, which
was banned by the Soviet authorities, led Stalin's daughter, Svetlana
Alliluyeva, to identify him with 'romantic communism'. His poetry
celebrates the vitality of struggle rather than the authority of any system,
and his writings retain their vitality precisely because they challenge the
historical determinism of his day.
Approaching the age of sixty, he fell in love and married again, but his health
had been undermined by long years in prison, and his late poetry is permeated
by intimations of death and longing for his country. He died in Moscow in June 1963.