Arts + Culture

Obituary: Vladimir Fedorovich Markov, poet and UCLA scholar of Russian avant-garde literature

Colorful life involved stints as battlefield courier, farmworker and academic

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Vladimir Fedorovich Markov, a UCLA professor emeritus of Slavic languages and literatures, died Jan. 1 at his home in Los Angeles after a long illness. He was 92.
 
A preeminent scholar who pioneered the study of Russian avant-garde literature, Markov was responsible for such classics of the field as "The Longer Poems of Velimir Khlebnikov" (1962), "Russian Futurism: A History" (1968), "Russian Imagism, 1919–1924" (1980) and "A Commentary on the Poems of K.D. Bal'mont" (2 vols., 1998–1992).
 
He also published numerous anthologies of Russian verse and prose, both in Russian and in English translation, and together with Harvard University professor John Malmstad wrote the first comprehensive monograph on the poet Mikhail Kuzmin, a prominent figure in Russia's "Silver Age" of poetry in the early 20th century.
 
"He was one of the best-known scholars in our field," said Ronald Vroon, chair of UCLA's Department of Slavic Language and Literatures. "Many people were introduced to modernist Russian poetry through his works, especially through an influential 600-page anthology that he co-edited with American poet Merrill Sparks."

Markov is also remembered as a poet in his own right. "His verse occupies a permanent place in the canon of 20th-century Russian literature," Vroon said.
 
Born in 1920, Markov spent the first two decades of his life in Leningrad (today's St. Petersburg) and belonged to the generation that bore the fullest brunt of Stalinist terror, Vroon said. He lost both his father and his grandfather to the Great Purge of 1937. His mother was arrested and sent to a labor camp, from which she was released only after World War II.
 
In the midst of these horrors, Markov attended Leningrad State University, where he studied Germanic languages under some of the most illustrious figures in the Russian academy.
 
When Germany invaded the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, Markov volunteered for military service and was assigned to an infantry artillery battalion in the Leningrad home guard, Vroon said. Only three months into the war, while serving as a courier between infantry units positioned around the Leningrad suburb of Novyi Peterhof, Markov was severely wounded by enemy fire and taken prisoner. He survived, thanks largely to the conscientiousness of a Russian doctor who cared for him at the German prisoner-of-war hospital to which he was taken in Russia. Eventually, he was removed to Germany, where he remained a POW until 1945.
 
Following the end of the war, Markov settled in the German city of Regensburg, in Bavaria, where he married Lydia Ivanovna Yakovleva, who had been a well-known actress at Leningrad's celebrated Aleksandrinsky Theatre. While serving as a supply officer in the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, he launched a career as a poet and critic. During his four years in Regensburg, he published his first book of poems ("Verses," in 1948), an anthology of American novellas translated into Russian, and an article on Emily Dickinson, which was particularly remarkable for its translation of selections of her verse — the first time her poems had appeared in Russian.
 
The unsettled situation in postwar Europe — in particular the tensions associated with the Soviet Union's blockade of Berlin — prompted Markov to explore the possibilities of emigration. An unlikely opportunity arose in the form of sponsorship by the Lutheran Church, whose relief efforts in the postwar period included settling displaced persons in the United States. Under their aegis, Markov and Yakovleva sailed to America in 1949.
 
Lutheran Relief Services found employment for them in the citrus groves of Ventura County, picking lemons alongside migrant workers from Mexico. The job lasted approximately eight months. A letter from Markov to the editor-in-chief of a New York–based literary journal for Russian émigrés explaining that he did not have sufficient funds to continue his subscription initiated a chain of events that brought the Russian field hand into contact with the prominent literary critic and UC Berkeley professor Gleb Struve.
 
On Struve's advice, Markov applied for a position as an instructor at the Army Language School (later known as the Defense Language Institute) in Monterey, Calif., where he ended up teaching for six years. During this period, he was admitted to graduate study at UC Berkeley, and he received his doctorate in Slavic languages and literatures in 1957. His dissertation, a study of Russian futurist Velimir Khlebnikov's longer poems, appeared in the University of California's prestigious "Publications in Philology" series, and it established him as a leading authority on 20th-century Russian modernism. Upon receiving his Ph.D., Markov joined the faculty at UCLA, where he worked until his retirement in 1990.
 
Markov was not only a remarkable scholar and poet but also a devoted and inspiring instructor, said members of his department. Students who wrote their doctoral theses under his direction continue to be active in the field at universities across the country. Colleagues also benefitted from his generosity as an adviser and mentor.
 
"Even in his declining years, he brightened our lives with his wit and wisdom and, above all, an unparalleled dedication to the literary arts," said Vroon. "He will be deeply missed."
 
Markov's wife preceded him in death in 2001, and they had no children. 
 
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