Some time ago a questionnaire circulated in the Moscow Educational Institute of Literature, asking: Who is your favourite contemporary poet? Three quarters of the respondents, all of them prospective poets, filled in the name of Boris Ryzhy. The result is all the more remarkable, because Ryzhy, who died in 2001 at the age of twenty-six, in no way could be said to be associated with the complacent hip Moscow writers ambiance.

Ryzhy was born in Tchelyabinsk on the 8th of September, 1974. His father was employed in a scientific function as a mineralogist and had a leading position in the local Communist party. His mother was a medical specialist.

In 1980 the family, with Boris’ two kid sisters, moved to Sverdlovsk, the present and prerevolutionary Yekaterinburg. This city in the Ural has not only become the recurring background of his work, but also a recurring theme in itself.
A deciding influence in Boris’ growth and development was the more or less accidental allotment to the Ryzhy family - due to housing shortage - of an appartment in a remote working-class district. This proved to be the ultimate cause of the split that influenced Ryzhy’s existence for the rest of his life, and that is so characteristic of his work.

The manuscripts Ryzhy left after his death contain more than a thousand poems, most of them in a fairly finished state and of high quality, not counting the wooden partitions of the veranda in the Ryzhy family flat that are all scribbled over with poems. His work shows that he had seriously and deeply submerged himself in the poetry (and prose) of others. His favourite models were the Leningrad/Peterburg poets of the past generation, most notably Brodsky.

Ryzhy’s delicate and seemingly simple technique offers evidence of thorough familiarity with forgotten 19th-century poets as well as with marginal figures in Soviet literature and poetry of the emigration. Added to this there is Ryzhy’s versedness, most of all directly from the street, in the rich Russian folk tradition of bandit songs.

In 1999 his great national break-through began. The rest of his life is the story of continuing successes outwardly, paralleling his final inward road to desolation and collapse. Hardly anyone around him was aware of his inner crisis in these times. Many could see that he was in an extremely bad state, in spite of occasional elated fits of energy, but afterwards it appeared that no-one really had been able to fathom the full gravity of his situation.

When his alcohol abuse dramatically worsened, it could be attributed to marital problems and the dilemma of whether or not to leave his family. Besides he felt the pressure of his meteoric rise to fame and maybe feared not to be able to live up to the expectations. A couple of attempted suicides, always under the influence of alcohol, were accompanied by such unmistakeable calls for help that people around him considered them to be nothing moren than the temperamental expressions of his unhappy state of mind.

A Yekaterinburg specialist in addictive diseases recommended a treatment entailing the permanent insertion in his arm of a tube with a substance causing a violent aversion to alcohol. The cure took place without any psychological assistance. Shortly after he was declared ‘clean’, Ryzhy, in the early morning of the 7th of May, 2001, in his parental home, took his own life by hanging himself. On his writing desk he left a piece of paper with the words: ‘I’ve loved you all, no shit! Your Boris.’

Kees Verheul

Translated by Robbert-Jan Henkes