Mikhail Gerasimov (poet)

Mikhail Prokof’evich Gerasimov (Михаил Прокофьевич Герасимов) was one of the most widely-read working-class poets in early twentieth century Russia. Initially embracing the Bolshevik revolution as a liberating event and participating in the effort to create a new "proletarian culture," by the Stalinist 1930s he was disillusioned and imprisoned.


Mikhail Gerasimov was born on 30 September (12 October) 1889 in the village of Petrovka, near the town of Buguruslan, in Samara province in the Volga region of Russia. His father was a railway worker and crossing guard. His mother was a peasant of ethnic Mordvinian background. Starting at the age of nine, Gerasimov began helping out around the railroad, pulling weeds near the tracks. In the winter months he attended a two-class school in the town of Kinel'. After finishing school (in four or five years) he attended, while working in a variety of railroad jobs, the Samara railway technical school, allowing him to become a railway technician after graduation.

During the 1905 revolution, when Gerasimov was 16 and working on the railroad, he got involved in an armed revolutionary detachment (druzhina) of railway workers, and became increasingly involved with the socialist underground. In 1906, he was arrested and imprisoned, but after six months escaped through a tunnel leading to a secret Russian Social Democratic Labour Party apartment. From there he was smuggled out of the country in the fall of 1907 by way of Finland (where he briefly met Lenin and other leading Social Democratic émigrés). For the next eight years, he lived mainly in France and Belgium, where he worked variously as a loader for blast furnaces in an arms factory in Nancy, France, as a hauler and coal-hewer in mines in Belgium, as a metal fitter and electrical fitter in French locomotive and automobile factories (including Renault), as a stoker and coalman on ocean liners, and in a variety of jobs in a number of other factories. In these years in exile and labor, Gerasimov managed to explore much of Western Europe (especially France, Belgium, Italy and the Alps), often working in winter and wandering by foot in summer--for which he was several times arrested for vagrancy. He began to write sometime before 1913. That was the year he began visiting Lunacharsky's "Proletarian Culture" circle in Paris, where he met other Russian émigré worker writers including Fedor Kalinin, Alexei Gastev, and Pavel Bessalko. He also began a correspondence with Maxim Gorky at this time, sending Gorky poems for comments. Gerasimov's first poems were published in 1913 in the Bolshevik magazine Prosveshchenie (Enlightenment). Other poems appeared in print in 1914 in the party newspaper Pravda, in Ilya Ehrenburg's émigré magazine Vechera (Evenings), and in other publications.

When the First World War broke out in 1914, Gerasimov volunteered to fight against the Germans in the French Foreign Legion. He saw combat at the Marne, Champagne, and the Argonne, and was wounded several times but returned to battle. In the fall of 1915, for participating in anti-war agitation and for insubordination (he joined an uprising of Russian soldiers against harsh treatment by French officers), Gerasimov was deported to Russia. Returning to Samara he was placed under the surveillance of the military authorities and the following spring was arrested and assigned under guard to a reserve military engineering battalion. Amnestied as a result of the February revolution, Gerasimov became a member of the Samara Soviet of Soldiers’ Deputies, and was elected chair. In June 1917, he was a delegate at the First All-Russian Congress of Soviets and chosen a member of the new national Central Executive Committee (VTsIK) (see Soviet (council)). In July, he joined the Bolshevik party, and in October 1917 was a delegate to the Second Congress of Soviets (which endorsed Soviet power). Returning to Samara, he became assistant chair of the Executive Committee of the Samara Provincial Soviet (Gubispolkom) and was named a military commissar. During the civil war he organized Red Guard detachments and commanded a unit on the Orenburg front.

While continuing to write and publish a large number of poems (in a wide-variety of newspapers, magazines, and collections) during the years from 1918 to the mid-1930s, Gerasimov also became one of the leaders of the proletarian culture movement (Proletkult). In 1918, he organized and was chair of the Samara Proletkult and in 1919 edited the Samara Proletkult magazine Zarevo zavodov (Glow of the factories). Later that year he moved to Moscow, where he was named head of the literary department of the Moscow Proletkult and joined the staff of the literary department of the Anatoly Lunacharsky's People's Commissariat of Enlightenment (LITO Narkomprosa). In 1920, at the head of a group of worker writers discontented with the Proletcult, he played a central role in organizing and then leading the Kuznitsa (Smithy) group, helped plan the First Congress of Proletarian Writers, and was elected (along with Il'ia Sadof'ev) assistant chair of the congress and of the resulting All-Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (VAPP). In 1921, in response to the New Economic Policy (NEP), which he viewed as signaling the end of the revolution, Gerasimov quit the Bolshevik party. In the mid-1920s, he became less involved in cultural organizations as well, but continued to publish--though these writings, according to Soviet critics, "diverged from the path of proletarian poetry." In 1937, he was arrested. He died in prison in 1939.


  • RGALI (Russian State Archive of Literature and Art, Moscow), f. 1374, op. 7, d. 13, l. 1-22
  • Kratkaia Literaturnaia Entsiklopediia, 2:129-30
  • V. L’vov-Rogachevskii, Noveishaia russkaia literatura, 350-66
  • Literaturnaia Entsiklopediia, 2:468-71
  • Russkie pisateli, 1800-1917, 1:540-41
  • Russkie pisateli: Poety, 5:388-419
  • Mark D. Steinberg, Proletarian Imagination: Self Modernity and the Sacred in Russia, 1910-1925 (Cornell University Press, 2002)

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