Rasul Gamzatov was born on September 8, 1923, in the Avar village of Tsada in the north-east Caucasus. His father, Gamzat Tsadasa, was a well-known bard, heir to the ancient tradition of minstrelsy still thriving in the mountains.
Gamzat Tsadasa’s House in the Village Tsada.
Bards were held in high honour. When Makhmud, famous poet of the previous generation, sang in a busy market-place, plucking the strings of his pandura for accompaniment, young and old would listen in silence with bated breath: even a bee’s flight could be heard.
In the early twenties of this century when the first Soviet lecturers came to a village women would sit with their backs to the speaker, who was not supposed to see their faces. But when a bard followed with his songs they would face him out of respect for his art and were even permitted to throw back their veils.
The young Rasul, impatient of any interruption, would listen for hours on end to the Avar stories, legends and fables his father would relate. «When I was quite small,» he recalls, «he would wrap me in his sheepskin cloak and recite his poems to me, so I knew them all by heart before 1 ever rode a horse or wore a belt."
From the small window of his father’s flat-roofed house of solid stone he could see a patch of green field spread like a tablecloth below the village and, above it, overhanging rocks.Paths wound like snakes up the steep slopes where caves gaped like the jaws of wild beasts. Beyond the mountain ridge rose yet another, arched and rough as a camel’s back.
As a boy Rasul would graze a neighbour’s horse for three days with the telling of a story as his reward. He would climb half a day to join shepherds in the mountains and walk half a day back just to hear a single poem!In the second form at school he walked twelve miles to see an old man, a friend of his father’s, who knew many songs, poems and legends. The old man sang and recited to the young boy for four days from morning till night. Rasul wrote down what he could and went happily home with a bagful of poems.
In 1945 with a few books of his own in Avar tucked under his arm and with a meager sum of money in his pocket, he arrived in Moscow to enter the Gorky Institute of Literature. There in the stimulating company of younger poets and under the guidance of veteran writers he studied Russian and world literature and the craft of poetry. By turns he fell in love with Blok, Mayakovsky, Yesenin, Pasternak, Tsvetayeva, Bagritsky, the Avar Makhmud and the German Heine.
But Pushkin and Lermontov remained his constant love. Over the past fifty years Rasul Gamzatov has been one of the most prolific of Soviet poets. From his pen have come short love lyrics, long narrative poems, ballads, epigrams and philosophical octaves, which have won him millions of devoted readers.
He lived with his three charming daughters Zarema, Patimat and Salikhat in Makhachkala, the capital of Dagestan on the shores of the Caspian. His home was open to all. With pride in fine craftsmanship he showed friends his collection of splendid swords, riding cloaks, wine horns and the rust-brown pottery for which Dagestan is famed.
Of the land of his birth, of its people and its poets he had drawn a fascinating, intimate and human portrait in his recent prose volume of musings and reminiscences «My Dagestan».
Winner of a Lenin Prize for poetry and honoured with the title of People's Poet of Dagestan, Rasul Gamzatov is a well-known public figure, chairman of the Union of Dagestan Writers. He has traveled widely in Europe, Asia and America.
Rasul Gamzatov wrote in his native Avar tongue, a language spoken by no more than 500,000 people. Yet even so the Avars along with the Darghins, Lezghins and Kumyks are among the largest ethnic groups in the two-million population of Dagestan, where 36 different languages are spoken.
According to old legend the horseman who rode across the world distributing languages threw a whole sackful into the mountain gorges and told the people, «sort them out your-selves!» So the problem of translation is a familiar hurdle to the people of Dagestan, where books are written and published in nine different languages.
Rasul Gamzatov was fortunate in his Russian translators, Naum Grebnev and Yakov Kozlovsky, many of whose brilliant versions have become classics of Russian poetry. So much so that Rasul himself, reciting his poems in public in the strongly rhythmic guttural Avar tongue, often follows on smoothly and spontaneously with the Russian translation which he also knows by heart.
Gamzatov translated many of the best Russian poets into the Avar language. Among his many translations are the works of Pushkin, Lermontov, Mayakovsky, and Esenin. His poetry collection Year of My Birth (1950) was awarded the USSR State Prize in 1952. Gamzatov also won the Lenin Prize for his 1962 collection Lofty Stars. Some of his other titles include, Word About The Older Brother (1952), Dagestani Spring (1955), Miner (1958), My Heart is in The Hills (1959), Two Shawls, Letters (1963), Rosary of Years (1968), By The Hearth (1978), Island of Women (1983), Wheel of Life (1987) as well as the lyrical novel My Dagestan (1967-1971).
In 1959, Gamzatov was declared a People's Poet of Dagestan. In 1974 he became a Hero of Socialist Labor.
In 1950, Gamzatov was named Chairman of the Dagestani Writers Union, a post he held until his death.
In connection with the approach of Gamzatov's 80th birthday, the entire of 2003 was declared the Year of Rasul Gamzatov in Dagestan.
On 3 November 2003, Rasul Gamzatov passed away in the Central Clinical Hospital in Moscow.
Stars of night, stars of night,
at my verses peer
like the eyes, like the eyes
of men no longer here.
In the hour of night repose
I can hear them say:
«Be the conscience bright of those
the war years took away!»
A hillman, true to Dagestan
no easy path is mine.
Who knows, perhaps, who knows, perhaps
I'll be a star sometime?
Then at another's verse I'll peer,
an earth-committed star,
The conscience bright of those who my
Shall my successors only read
translations of Makhmud?
Am I the last Avar to write
and still be understood?
I love this life, the whole wide world
I view with loving gaze.
But best I love the Soviet land
which I-in Avar-praise.
I'sd die for this free land of toil
what ranges East and West.
But let it be on Avar soil
that in my grave I rest,
And let it be in Avar words
that Avars meeting there
speak of Rasul, their kinsman, poet.
A poet'ss son and heir!
I sometimes think that warriors brave who met their death in
bloody fight were never buried In a grave but rose as cranes with plumage white.
Since then unto this very day they pass high overhead and cry, is that not why we often gaze in silence as the cranes go by?
In far-off foreign lands I see the cranes in evening’s dying glow fly quickly past in company, as once on horseback they would go.
And as they fly far out of reach I hear them calling someone’s name. Is that not why our Avar speech recalls the clamour of a crane? Across the weary sky they race who friend and kinsman used to be, and in their ranks I see a space – perhaps they are keeping it for me. One day I’ll join the flock of cranes, with them I shall go winning by, and you who here on earth remain will listen to my strident cry.