“They say that a poet needs a tragedy. But I think that being a poet is tragic enough,” acclaimed contemporary Russian poet, Boris Ryzhy, said in a TV interview in 2000. A year later, he committed suicide at the age of 26.
The gesture obsessed Russian-Dutch filmmaker Aliona van der Horst, moving her to create the documentary Boris Ryzhy in 2008. Starting off as an exploration of the poet’s life and death, the film becomes as much a portrait of his home of Yekaterinburg and Russia as a whole, as a portrait of Ryzhy himself. In particular, the director explores Russia as both the place that gave birth to Ryzhy and shaped his poetic sensibility, and the place that, as she suggests, eventually killed him. Indeed, they are hard to separate: Ryzhy’s poems were full of love for the bleak and dangerous neighbourhood of the city where he grew up, for the shady characters that populated it, and for the deep melancholy of this place that was so unique and yet so similar to other places across the country.
In trying to understand what pushed Ryzhy to suicide, van der Horst has to look back on the 90s and early 00s and examine that especially chaotic period of Russian history. (At the cemetery, she finds many graves with similar dates: at that time, dying young was far from uncommon, due to extreme economic instability and the high crime rate.) Yet the film is also very personal: the interviews with Ryzhy’s widow and their then teenage son are poignant testimonies of grief, anger, and, despite everything, love.
Ryzhy might not have been the first to discover the poetry of grey industrial cityscapes in Russia, but he was among the first artists to successfully convey it in his work. The recognisable scenery of his poems, along with skillful but unpretentious style, made him popular with Russian readers and critics. In the west, Ryzhy is not that well-known: perhaps his work is just waiting for the right translation. Both high- and low-brow, Ryzhy’s poetry is full of Russian slang, nicknames, and cultural references, which makes it hard to translate — and it has to be said that the subtitles in the film don’t exactly do it justice on their own. But what the director offers by combining the translations with the audio of Ryzhy’s recordings in Russian and with desolate visuals from Yekaterinburg is both an informative and a deeply moving way to experience his poems.
For those who want to learn more about Ryzhy, van der Horst also built an English-language website dedicated to the poet, where you can find his biography, translated poems, and some archival materials used in the film.