Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

Gorbunov and Gorchakov

Gorbunov and Gorchakov
Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky

PLOT SUMMARY: Gorbunov and Gorchakov is an epic poem arranged in fourteen cantos, composed entirely of dialogues and monologues between two patients in a psychiatric hospital—one quotation after another, with no narration or indications of the speaker. In the opening cantos, the pair discuss Gorbunov’s dreams, which are about “Oh, mushrooms mostly” (165) and the conversation turns to the nature of dreams and reality, and of love, pride, and sin. Canto III marks the first monologue of the poem as Gorbunov, lying in bed at night, meditates on the multiplicity of the mind, which “divides the way a microbe splits / and in the silence multiplies forever” (172). In the next canto, doctors interrogate Gorchakov, asking him to report on Gorbunov’s health, disposition, and political views, and they decide to discharge him from the hospital: “Thank you, Comrade Gorchakov. It pleases us to let you off at Eastertime” (177).

     Canto V, “A Song in the Third Person,” is a turning point of the poem, a bizarre experiment in the structure of language and dialogue itself, which takes the phrase “he said” and expands it to its limits: “‘He said to him.’ ‘And then he said to him.’ / ‘And then he said.’ ‘He answered.’ ‘And he said’” (177).

     Cantos VI and VII return to the typical dialogue form, and Gorchakov asks his partner again about his dreams—this time “the sea” (180)—before Gorbunov accuses him of playing “the stoolie” (181) for the doctors. The two quarrel, and their argument segues into a deep deliberation on time, space, and language. Canto VIII is Gorchakov’s monologue, which, like Gorbunov’s in Canto III, articulates the experience of doubling and opposites, and he admits that “I feel my very self’s at stake / when I don’t have an interlocutor” (188), conceding his absolute dependence on Gorbunov. Canto IX, like Canto IV, pits the doctors against one of the pair—this time Gorbunov—and they demand him to “‘tell / us everything’ ‘About?’ ‘Your dreams.’ ‘About / the compass.’ ‘And your daughter.’ ‘And the shell.’” (189). He evades their questions, and the doctors decide to keep him in the asylum forever.

     The final four cantos begin with a conversation about conversation itself, which transforms the madhouse, gate, and courtyard—the entire world—into “a conversation, too, / since all these things have been described in words” (193). One last time, Gorchakov asks Gorbunov about his dreams, but this time he answers, “Nothing new” (196), and they reflect on emptiness, eternity, and Gorchakov’s coming departure. Their discussion turns back to the sea—the subject of Gorbunov’s dreams, a way of reimagining the lilac stripe painted on the walls of the hospital, which Gorbunov insists is “real—more real than you there on your stool” (205). The two quarrel over the absurdity (or perhaps the tragic implications) of Gorbunov’s statement, and their roommates join in the brawl—until the doctors interrupt the fight and Gorbunov falls asleep. In the final scene, Gorchakov whispers to the still-asleep Gorbunov his apologies: “my self and self are out of tune. / Forgive me” (207), and he begins to hallucinate visions of the sea.

ANALYSIS: The most striking characteristic of the poem is its dialogical form, which achieves a symmetry and synthesis of voice and language. Lev Loseff, Brodsky’s lifelong friend and biographer, contends that the dialogue between Gorbunov and Gorchakov reflects Brodsky’s own experiences in a psychiatric hospital, and serves as “a great auto-therapeutic project: preventing descent to the ‘black valley’ of delusional voices by imagining two voices as two characters in a poem and letting them speak for themselves” (“On Hostile Ground” 53). As two facets of the same mind, Gorbunov and Gorchakov are neither interchangeable nor entirely distinct, but rather opposing and co-constitutive. As Gorbunov declares in his monologue, “I am—a circle cleaved. Thus more or less, / we’re magnets, horseshoe shaped, identical” (Brodsky 173). That is, they are two parts of a whole, with equal poles of attraction and repulsion, and a continuity of magnetic fields when linked. Gorchakov expands on this continuity in his own monologue, when he cries “I feel my very self’s at stake / when I don’t have an interlocutor. / It is in words alone that I partake / of life. They need a witness and an heir!” (188). It is in the monologue that the necessity of the dialogue becomes apparent—Gorbunov and Gorchakov can only exist juxtaposed and defined in relation to one another, in the dynamic tension of dialogue.

     This dyad quickly multiplies, for “that which splits into two will surely split / into two hundred just as easily” (173), and at each level, the poem splits, and splits again. Cantos I–IV and VI–IX are mirror images in their titles, plot, and themes; each stanza follows an ABABABABAB rhyme scheme, a dialogue in the very shapes of utterances themselves; and each line in the original Russian adheres to iambic pentameter, a dialogue between unstressed and stressed. Mushrooms sprout like islands, microbes split, lips part, and the form of the poem—endlessly proliferating dialogues under a single whole—matches its function as a reflection of the mind. Loseff points out that “As is well known, Brodsky placed language at the top in the hierarchy of human faculties” (“On Hostile Ground” 95), and the poem blurs the relationship between language and reality, form and function, signifier and signified: “‘The moment that we give a thing a name, / that thing’s transformed into a part of speech.’ / ‘But what about the body?’ ‘It obeys / the rule.’ ‘And what about this place?’ ‘It’s called / a madhouse’” (193). In Gorbunov and Gorchakov’s universe, the imagined mushrooms and sea are just as expressible, real, and malleable as the body under captivity. In other words, they turn the Marxian phrase “Existence […] determines consciousness” into a “palindrome” (197)—that is, consciousness determines existence—an assertion of the primacy of language and its role in defining reality itself. In this way, we might see “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” that “auto-therapeutic project,” in continuity with Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago or Akhmatova’s Requiem, which found solace under oppression through language, memory, and the mind.


But these disordered musings are the state
that follows from the silence of the near-
by beds. I feel my very self’s at stake
when I don’t have an interlocutor.
It is in words alone that I partake
of life. They need a witness and an heir!
And, Gorbunov, you are, make no mistake,
my judge. While I am but an agent here,
connecting sleep and sleeplessness, to make
appraisals of front teeth beyond repair.

“The moment that we give a thing a name,
that thing’s transformed into a part of speech.”
“But what about the body?” “It obeys
the rule.” “And what about this place?” “It’s called
a madhouse.” “And the days?” “Their names are days.”
“Oh, everything’s transformed again to old

Sodom, built of greedy words.”

“The eyelids. Close them, you see darkness, right?”
“But in the light?” “In light too, as a rule …
And suddenly you see, your eyes shut tight,
a feature. One, a second … third … You feel
your ears hum; your mouth’s cold. The height
of sky. And children running down the quay. A gull
is catching bread crumbs midway through its flight.”
“Am I not there? On that embankment?” “All
I see, that moment, everything in sight
is real—more real than you there on your stool.”

BIOGRAPHY: Joseph Aleksandrovich Brodsky was born to a working-class family in 1940 in Leningrad, and as a child he was “bookish but disliked school, where he was discriminated against for being a Jew” (“Joseph Brodsky” [Gale]). As a teenager, he meandered through an assortment of jobs working as a “laborer, metal worker and hospital morgue attendant” (McFadden), where the boredom of work and life in the Soviet Union drove him to literature. At fifteen, he began to write his own poetry, which he published in samizdat—the hand-reproduced publications secretly circulated by dissidents (Terras 610)—and in 1961, the famous poet Anna Akhmatova took Brodsky and his friend, another young poet named Dmitry Bobyshev, under her mentorship (Gessen). However, just two years later, a Leningrad newspaper denounced Brodsky, calling his poetry “pornographic and anti-soviet” (McFadden). Among his inner circle, many suspected this denunciation to have originated from Bobyshev, who desired Brodsky’s girlfriend Marina Basmanova (Gessen). He was arrested, and the court charged Brodsky with “parasitism,” citing his capricious job-hopping and unsanctioned poetry. “And who told you that you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?” the judge asked him, to which Brodsky famously answered “No one. Who assigned me to the human race?” (Remnick). He was sent to a labor camp where for 18 months he “chopped wood, hauled manure and crushed rocks” (McFadden), and there, he read the work of W. H. Auden (Remnick).

     Shortly after he left prison, his mentor Akhmatova passed away, he had a son with his girlfriend Marina Basmanova (Gessen), and then he was exiled. In 1972 “authorities invaded his apartment, seized his papers, took him to the airport and put him on a plane for Vienna” (McFadden), leaving Basmanova and his son behind. By happenstance, in Austria he met Auden, who became “one of his earliest supporters” (Molotsky) and who offered him a job as poet-in-residence at the University of Michigan (McFadden). His poetry “frequently spoke of exile and loss” (Weil), informed by his experiences in psychiatric hospitals, prison, and exile, and major themes include “ideas of eros, nature, politics, and ethics [...] guilt and forgiveness, Christian love, Neoplatonism, and existentialism” (Shaw). Brodsky held a complicated relationship with politics and the two nations he called home. Some critics have called his work apolitical (McFadden) while others have drawn a distinction between apolitical and antipolitical (“Joseph Brodsky” [Poetry Foundation]). He dwells in what Appadurai calls the “hyphen that links the nation to the state” (40), aligning himself with the United States as a state—“I’ve been here 19 years. I pay taxes here” (Molotsky)—but Russia as a nation: “I belong to the Russian culture [...] A language is a much more ancient and inevitable thing than a state. I belong to the Russian language” (“Joseph Brodsky” [Poetry Foundation]). In the United States, Brodsky rose to superstar status: he won the MacArthur Award in 1981, the National Book Award for criticism in 1986, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1987, and he became the poet laureate of the United States in 1991 (Molotsky). His major works include “Gorbunov and Gorchakov,” Marbles, and Watermark, as well as the collections Less Than One, A Part of Speech, and To Urania. He died of a heart attack in January of 1996 at the age of 55 (Weil).


Appadurai, Arjun. Modernity at Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization. University of Minnesota Press, 1996.

Brodsky, Joseph. “Gorbunov and Gorchakov.” Collected Poems in English, edited by Ann Kjellberg, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2000, pp. 165–208.

Gessen, Keith. “The Gift.” The New Yorker, 16 May 2011,

“Joseph Brodsky.” Newsmakers, Gale, 1996. Gale In Context: Biography, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

“Joseph Brodsky.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation,

Loseff, Lev. “On Hostile Ground: Madness and Madhouse in Joseph Brodsky’s ‘Gorbunov and Gorchakov.’” Madness and the Mad in Russian Culture, by Angela Brintlinger and Ilya Vinitsky, University of Toronto Press, Toronto, Canada, 2007, pp. 90–100.

McFadden, Robert D. “Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 29 Jan. 1996,

Molotsky, Irvin. “Joseph Brodsky Goes From Gulag to U.S. Poet Laureate.” The New York Times, The New York Times Company, 11 May 1991,

Remnick, David. “Gulag Lite.” The New Yorker, Condé Nast, 13 Dec. 2010,

Shaw, Gene. "Loseff, Lev. Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life." Library Journal, vol. 136, no. 4, 1 Mar. 2011, p. 73+. Gale Literature Resource Center, Accessed 26 Feb. 2021.

Terras, Victor. A History of Russian Literature. Yale University Press, 1994.

Weil, Martin. “Nobel-Winning Poet Joseph Brodsky, 55, Dies.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 29 Jan. 1996,


Barańczak, Stanisław. “The Ethics of Language.” Breathing under Water and Other East European Essays, by Stanisław Barańczak, Harvard University Press, 1992, pp. 203–213.
In this essay, Barańczak analyzes the rhyme scheme and meter of “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” and other poems. Citing one of Brodsky’s own essays, he suggests that these structural qualities of poetry can serve as a “defense against evil” since by reorganizing language, poetry “reorganizes time as well” (207), producing a deindividualized understanding of human history.

Loseff, Lev. Joseph Brodsky: A Literary Life. Translated by Jane Ann Miller, Yale University Press, 2011.
The canonical biography of Joseph Brodsky, written by his close friend of over 30 years, covers all aspects of the poet’s life from birth to death. Of particular interest is the section on “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” (130–136), which details Brodsky’s experiences at a psychiatric hospital and examines the influences of Christianity, Freudian pansexuality, and Bakhtinian polyphony present in the work.

Reich, Rebecca. “Madness as Balancing Act in Joseph Brodsky's ‘Gorbunov and Gorchakov.’” The Russian Review, vol. 72, no. 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 45–65., doi:10.1111/russ.10680.
In this essay, Reich reads the depiction of madness in “Gorbunov and Gorchakov” as an “estranged consciousness” (48), an inversion of the Marxian concept of estrangement. She casts the dialogue between Gorbunov and Gorchakov as a dialectic or balancing act between the forces within each person—the material and spiritual, being and consciousness, sanity and creativity, Marx and Freud.

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