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Modernism: The Creation of Nation-States

Ahmet Ersoy
Maciej Górny
Vangelis Kechriotis

Chapter V. Socialism and the nationality question

The legend of the national militia

Nazim Hikmet
Traduction de Ahmet Ersoy

Texte intégral

1Title: Kuvayi Milliye destanι (The legend of the national militia)

2Originally published: The first version of the poem was completed in 1941, only fragments of which were published in collections and anthologies in 1943 and 1946. The entire work was secretly circulated until being published in 1965 with the title ‘The legend of the War of Independence’

3Language: Turkish
The excerpts used are from the 2001 reprint of the 1968 edition: Nazim Hikmet, Kuvayι Milliye (Istanbul: Yapı Kredi Yayınlanı, 2001), pp. 11, 71–72, 89–90.

About the author

4Nazim Hikmet (Ran) [1902, Selanik (Gr. Thessaloniki, present-day Greece) –1963, Moscow]: poet and playwright. Recognized as Turkey’s first and foremost modern poet, Nazim Hikmet was born to a family of pashas and bureaucrats. Following his elementary education, Nazım was enrolled in the Ottoman Naval Academy and started publishing his first poems at seventeen. In 1919, during the Allied occupation of Istanbul, he was discharged from the army on medical grounds. The following year, he fled home to join the independence struggle in Anatolia. In the course of the long trip to Ankara, the center of the independence movement, he encountered a group of Turkish students deported from Germany for being involved in the Spartacus movement, who introduced him to the ideas of Marx and Lenin. During the Independence War, the Soviet government allied with Ankara in its struggle against imperialist powers. The institutionalization of the Turkish communist movement and its contacts with the Soviet regime were thereby tolerated, albeit with a great deal of suspicion, by the Kemalist regime. In 1921, Nazim received a grant from the Turkish Ministry of Education to visit the Soviet Union. As a member of the Turkish Communist Party, Nazim spent three years in Moscow which were decisive in the shaping of his literary and political outlook. Relishing the revolutionary zeal of the early Soviet years, Nazim attended classes in the Communist University for the Workers of the East, and was deeply inspired by the innovative works of Russian Futurists such as Mayakovsky and Meyerhold. Returning to Istanbul in 1924, he started publishing essays and poems in Aydιnlιk (Light), the monthly journal of the Communist Party, where, for the first time, he incorporated modern political and revolutionary themes into Turkish poetry, employing a free and highly experimental style. In 1925, as the new Republic sought to consolidate its power by suppressing all forms of political dissent, Nazım, along with many left-wing intellectuals, was charged in absentia for engaging in ‘subversive’ activities and sentenced to fifteen-years in prison. He fled to Moscow and stayed there until 1928. Upon his return, following a brief period of imprisonment, he contributed to the efforts to rebuild the Communist Party, which had largely been crippled by the authoritarian Kemalist regime. Having by now gained a reputation as a poet, Nazim worked in journals and film studios, spearheading the nascent avant-garde movement in Turkish literature and drama. Between 1929 and 1938, he was recurrently in and out of prison, while publishing several plays, novels and poetry collections. The turning point came in 1938, when he was found guilty (by a farcical military tribunal) of inciting revolt among military students and sentenced to twenty eight years in prison. He composed some of his most celebrated lyrics during his long imprisonment. In 1949, an international committee of artists, organized by the poet Tristan Tzara, campaigned for Nazim Hikmet’s release. The next year, he was awarded the Peace Prize (along with Pablo Picasso and Pablo Neruda) by the World Peace Congress. Nazim was released in a general amnesty in 1950, and to avoid being drafted escaped once again to Moscow, where he lived with Polish citizenship until his death in 1963. While he remained an unassailable political and artistic icon for the Turkish left wing, for many years, Nazim was considered to be a traitor by conservatives. It was only after the 1980 coup, with the full eradication of the leftist movement in Turkey, that his artistic legacy was gradually embraced by a broader public.

5Main works: 835 Satir [835 lines] (1929); Jakond ile Si-Ya-U [Gioconda and Si-Ya-U] (1929); Sesini kaybeden sehir [The city that lost its voice] (1931); Benerci kendini nicin öldürdü? [Why did Banerjee kill himself?] (1932); Taranta Babu’ya mektuplar [Letters to Taranta Babu] (1935); Simavna kadisi oğlu Şeyh Bedrettin de-stani [The legend of Sheykh Bedrettin, Son of the judge of Simavna] (1936); Kurtu-lus Savasi destani [The legend of the War of Independence] (1965); Memleketimden insan manzaralan [Human landscapes from my country] (1966–67); Son şiirleri [Last poems] (1970).


6The long and painful prison years from 1938 to 1950 were among the most productive in Nazim Hikmet’s literary career. Acknowledged in Turkey as the most controversial and powerful literary figure of his time, fragments of the poet’s works were secretly circulated among friends, intellectuals and students. During this period, Nazim worked simultaneously on several projects, all informed by his intimate personal encounters in the context of prison life. One project, entitled ‘Human Landscapes in Turkey’ was about compiling a biographical encyclopedia of common Turkish individuals from all walks of life, including workers, peasants, students, clerks and housewives. Omitted in standard historical works reserved for ‘great men,’ these silent and underprivileged masses were cherished by Nazim as the real and unacknowledged agents of historical change. Another major project, begun in 1939, was an epic on the War of National Liberation, narrated, again, from the perspective of numerous men and women participating in the struggle for independence. The individual stories were dispersed within a broader narrative on the actual course of the war, which, for purposes of historical authenticity, drew heavily on Mustafa Kemal’s published accounts on the independence struggle. When completed in 1941, the overall tenor of the initial draft, entitled Milli kurtulus destam (The legend of national liberation), was distinctly patriotic and bellicose. In the same year, Nazim sent a copy of the manuscript to president Ismet Inönü, with the hope that a favorable impression might change his tarnished image as a ‘traitor’ and help facilitate his release. Several copies of the manuscript circulated in the Parliament and among diverse intellectual circles that were captivated by the forceful patriotic zeal of the epic. No amnesty was granted, however, amidst the turmoil and anxiety of the war years. While all of Nazim Hikmet’s books were banned at this time, part of the initial version of the ‘Legend’ was published in a collection of poems in 1943, and later, in 1946, some fragments were included in an anthology.

7Between 1941 and 1945 the ‘Human Landscapes’ project was extended and further articulated with the integration of subplots derived from the events of the Second World War. The idea was to turn the compilation into a multi-volume epic providing a comprehensive social panorama of Turkey in the twentieth century. The structure of the entire work was daringly innovative, freely incorporating both poetry and prose fragments through the use of Modernist montage techniques and cinematographic sequencing. In 1942, the eclectic and open-ended structure of the plot was unified with the motif of the railway journey, whereby a train departing from Istanbul and traveling through Anatolia forms the main stage for the narration of individual stories. This restructuring prompted a radical shift in the make-up of the project, and the Milli kurtulus destanι was integrated into the second book of the ‘Human Landscapes’ series. Here, the ‘Legend’ appears as a text within the main body of the text, and is represented as a manuscript written by an imprisoned poet and read by a waiter in the kitchen of the first-class dining car of the train. The particular collation of the present and the recent past generates a striking dramatic effect as it reveals the ironic contrast between the sacrifice and misery of the war and the luxury surrounding the first class passengers representing the Republican status quo (contractors, provincial elites and members of the Parliament). As it stood within the broader epic, therefore, the patriotic ‘Legend’ contributed significantly to an underlying critique of the Republican regime as a corrupt and exploitative plutocracy.

8After his release in 1950, Nazim Hikmet decided that the only part of the epic he could safely publish in the forbidding climate of the Cold War was the section on the War of National Liberation. He therefore extended and re-edited the war episodes and prepared them for a separate publication entitled Kuvayι Milliye destanι (The legend of the national militia). The revised text, as a chronicle of the heroic exploits of the resistance struggle, was clearly intended to appeal to a broader audience. The highly complex structure of the original narrative was replaced by a chronological sequence of stories starting with the end of the First World War and terminating with the final victory against the Greek army in 1922. The ‘Legend’ was largely divested of its acrid political overtones as it was detached from the broader narrative of the ‘Human Landscapes’ project. Still, in its dramatic account of the national struggle ‘from below,’ it represented a radical alternative to the conventional story line centered around the defining figure of Mustafa Kemal. The image of the leader, whom Nazim genuinely admired as the mastermind of a triumphant anti-imperialist struggle, is only invoked in a short but decisive passage in the ‘Legend’ featuring an unidentified commander resembling “a blond wolf.”

9For unknown reasons, the 1950 manuscript remained unpublished during the poet’s lifetime. An incomplete version of the text was published in 1965 with the title Kurtuluş savaşι destanι (The legend of the War of Liberation). While the entire text of the ‘Human Landscapes’ was published in 1966–67, a complete and annotated edition of the Kuvayι Milliye destanι appeared only in 1968. With its strong emotional and patriotic charge, the ‘Legend’ always carried the potential to appeal to a wide spectrum of readers in Turkey. By the 1990s, as the stigma around Nazim Hikmet’s name waned, even some ultra-nationalists are known to have recited sections of the ‘Legend’ in their public speeches. Indeed, if it were possible to put aside his political commitment to communism, the Kuvayi Milliye destanι would make Nazim Hikmet the quintessential Romantic nationalist of the Republican era.


The legend of the national militia

[from section 1]

They who are numberless
like ants in the earth
fish in the sea
birds in the air,
who are cowardly
and childlike,
and who destroy
and create,
my epic tells only of their adventures.

They who fall for the traitor’s lie
and drop their banner on the ground,
leave the field to the enemy
and run for home,
and they who pull a knife on the renegade
and who laugh like a green tree
and cry without ceremony
and who swear like hell,
my epic tells only of their adventures.

[from section 7]

The night was bright and warm,
and in their wooden beds on the ox-carts
the dark-blue bombshells were stark-naked.
And the women
hid their glances from one another
as they eyed the dead oxen
and the wheels from past convoys…
And the women,
our women
with their awesome, sacred hands,
pointed little chins, and big eyes,
our mothers, lovers, wives,
who die without ever having lived,
who get fed at our tables
after the oxen,
whom we abduct and carry off to the hills
and go to prison for,
who harvest grain, cut tobacco, chop wood and barter in the markets,
whom we harness to our ploughs,
and whom with their bells and undulant heavy hips
surrender to us in sheepfolds in the gleam of knives stuck
in the ground -
the women,
our women,

walked under the moon now
behind the ox-carts and shells
with the same ease
and accustomed weariness of women
hauling amber-eared sheaves to the threshing floor.
And scrawny-necked children
slept on the steel of 15-centimetre shrapnel shells.
And the carts advanced under the moon
beyond Akşehir toward Afyon.

11Translated by Randy Biasing and Mutlu Konuk in: Nazim Hikmet, Human Landscapes from My Country: An Epic Novel in Verse (New York: Persea Books, 2002), pp. 150 and 185.

[from section 8]

To the left, at a distance stands Corporal Ali,
His face and eyes smeared in blood.
A cavalry platoon passes by, in full gallop.
[… and Ali] hears this song:

“Galloping, full speed, from Far Asia
and jutting out into the Mediterranean like a mare’s head
this country is ours.
Wrists smeared in blood, clenched teeth, barefoot
the soil that spreads like a silk rug,
this hell, this heaven is ours.

Close all doors to intruders, never open them again,
stop man’s servitude to man,
this call is ours…

To live, like a tree, alone and free
and in brotherhood like a forest,
this yearning is ours…”

© Central European University Press, 2010

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