“Scattered Shards of Glory”: Marina Tsvetaeva’s New Year’s Greeting to the Losing Side

White Army Monument in Gallipoli

In January 1921, Moscow was no place to be writing mournful panegyrics to the vanquished White Army, yet that’s precisely what Marina Tsvetaeva was moved to do. This should really come as no surprise: the poet’s heart was always with the underdog. As Victor Erlich writes in Modernism and Revolution (1994), “One suspects that even at the peak of her infatuation with the White cause , she was drawn to it not so much because she thought it right as because she sensed it was doomed . She was singularly vulnerable to the romance of lost causes.” For my anthology 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, I translated a wind-swept poem from the Civil War-era cycle that would eventually be collected under the title The Demesne of Swans in 1957, sixteen years after Tsvetaeva’s death. Now I offer her New Year’s greeting to the White exiles on Gallipoli, who had escaped Crimea by the skin of their teeth — a flight memorialized in a heartbreaking lyric by Nikolay Turoverov.

Here Tsvetaeva alludes to the historical Prince Igor, whose failed raid again the Polovtsians became the basis of an epic poem that may date back to the twelfth century, as well as of Alexander Borodin’s opera of 1890. You can hear Tatyana Tugarinova’s 1969 performance of the lament of Yaroslavna, Igor’s wife, below the poem.

Happy New Year, o demesne of swans!
Scattered shards of glory!
Happy New Year — roaming foreign lands —
knapsack-bearing warriors!

Red pursuers nearly chased you down,
frothing at the lips!
Happy New Year — broken, on the run —
homeland on the skids!

You can hear it, bending to the ground —
earth sings to your health.
Listen, Igor — Yaroslavna moans —
Russia’s shattered self.

“O my prince! My darling son! My brother!” —
grief’s exhausting pleas.
“Youthful Rus, I bid you happy New Year,
over deep blue seas!”

Moscow, January 13, 1921


С Новым Годом, Лебединый стан!
Славные обломки!
С Новым Годом — по чужим местам —
Воины с котомкой!

С пеной у́ рта пляшет, не догнав,
Красная погоня!
С Новым Годом — битая — в бегах
Родина с ладонью!

Приклонись к земле — и вся земля
Песнею заздравной.
Это, Игорь, — Русь через моря
Плачет Ярославной.

Томным стоном утомляет грусть:
— Брат мой! — Князь мой! — Сын мой!
— С Новым Годом, молодая Русь
За́ морем за синим!

Москва, 13 января 1921

Victor Mall: A Suprematist in Southern California

It stands to reason that the most visually striking collections of Russian LA poetry in my possession contain the work of a professional painter, Victor Mall (whose surname is spelled “Moll” in Russian, and was originally Malakhov). Born in Odessa on April 30, 1901, where his musician father was on tour, Mall was raised in Omsk. According to the letters and brief autobiographical sketches included in these posthumous volumes prepared by his widow, Mall’s talent for drawing inspired his father to find him a tutor, who eventually recommended that the boy continue his studies with Kazimir Malevich. And so, in 1919, he found himself in Vitebsk, Belarus, the most unlikely of artistic capitals, taking classes with Malevich and observing Chagall and El Lissitzky. His experience there was short but formative, though it would be a long time before he felt its full impact not only on his art but also on his spiritual worldview, which finds expression in his verse.

In one of his letters from the mid-1980s, he writes: “On most days, as he entered the classroom, Malevich would raise his arms over his head and cross his palms. When we asked what this meant, he replied: ‘It’s a sign — a symbol of the fourth dimension.’ I couldn’t understand it, like much of what he said. It took me many years to make sense of his philosophy. Now I realize that he was more of a philosopher than a painter. His approach and his system were completely different from those of other art instructors. He spoke of things that I couldn’t grasp at all, but the seeds of his philosophy remained inside me and sprouted later in life.” Here Mall mimics Malevich’s gesture of greeting.

In 1920 Mall was back in Omsk with his father, mother, and twin brother, Nikolay. After the confiscation of the family’s property — including Mall’s art, which was lost forever — they fled to Vladivostok, where Mall met another important avant-gardist, David Burliuk. From there the family emigrated to Harbin, where the American consul took a special interest in Mall’s work and secured him a visa for the United States. He left for Seattle in 1923, never to see his parents or his brother again. All three would return to the Soviet Union, where Nikolay would be swept up in the Stalinist purges, accused of spying for Japan, and executed in 1937.

Mall would not learn of any of this until the 1970s, when his wife managed to make contact with Nikolay’s daughter. By that time the couple had been living in Los Angeles for decades, where Mall had worked as a designer and art director for ad agencies, including one headquartered on the Sunset Strip. It’s pleasantly odd to imagine the seeds of Suprematism sprouting in Southern California advertising art.

Mall’s poems, which he began to write in the 1950s, reveal a deeply spiritual sensibility and a view of art as a repository of living energy and thought. The lyrics below were written just a few years before Mall’s death on June 5, 1989. His eyesight was failing, but his memories of Malevich were as vivid as ever.

Homage to Malevich

I write this for the sake of truth —
I’m in my past, newly arisen,
youthful, arrayed in rainbow hues,
my hands upon Suprematism.
Back then we shared a love for peace
and Kazimir’s philosophies.
So I believe…
                           No, so it was!
Our thoughts in sync, harmonious —
it seemed to me I could divine
his consciousness, could read his mind.
I stood beside him, demonstrating
what lay within me, growing, waiting.
Later I fabricated, lied:
my punishment is loss of sight.

August 8, 1986

* * *

I thicken music’s
colors on the canvas.
The olive underpainting
comes to life with ochre,
while cinnabar
shines on the nose,
remembering Rublev.
The drying oil
stiffens upon the icon
and music’s colors
now will never cease —
like a crown’s glow,
or love’s resounding
chimes.

July 5, 1987


Дань Малевичу

Пишу теперь я правды ради , —
Я будто юношей проснулся:
Я в прошлом, в радужном наряде,
K супрематизму прикоснулся.
Была любовь к идее мира
И к философьи Казимира.
Как будто было…
                     Это факт!
Ведь с ним я думал в звучный такт.
Казалось — что читаю мысли
Малевича — сознанья числа.
Как будто рядом с ним стоял,
Непроявлённость проявлял.
А за обман и вымышленья
Потерей я наказан зренья.

8 августа 1986

* * *

Я краски музыки
Метаю по холсту.
Оливковый санкирь
От охры оживает.
А киноварь сияет
На носу,
Рублёва вспоминает.
Олифой покроется
Ковчег иконы,
И краски музыки
Не остановятся —
Как блеск короны,
Набат любви,
И звоны.

5 июля 1987

“One Against All, All Against One”: Alexander Voloshin, Rolfe Humphries, and the Quarrels of Émigrés

Reading Alexander Voloshin’s On the Tracks brings me the pleasure of recognition tinged with a sad frisson. Some things in the émigré experience never change… I admire his ability to coat his exilic disappointments in sweet humor, which doesn’t drain them of their essential bitterness, just makes them easier to stomach. In the passage below, written in the early 1930s, he bemoans the fractiousness of the diasporic community (a refrain in émigré writing), enumerating the strange political allegiances of certain desperate Hollywood Russians. Any movement that held out the faintest promise of return — the “legitimists” who backed Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the Italian fascists, even the Nazis — was good enough for some.

In Balta, Petersburg, and Tomsk,
Odessa, Vologda, and Omsk,
on Lake Baikal, the Dnieper River,
our countrymen huddled together —
then, from each corner of Great Russia,
our vast and varied band came rushing…
Somehow it seems that every road
led to provincial Hollywood!

Now that some fourteen years have passed,
what do we see?… Firm proof, alas,
that, though the days of war are gone,
we Russians still can’t get along!
Son versus father and grandfather —
they all devour one another!
It’s true that man is wolf to man,
but this is getting out of hand…

Anarchists feud with democrats
amid loud nationalist spats…
Some think Grand Duke Kirill’s our future…
Others (go figure!) like Il Duce…
Enthralled by wild Nazi orations,
some yearn for wars and occupations…
A few are willing to appease
the power-hungry Japanese!…
[…] Russians forget, in Hollywood,
of friendship, love, and brotherhood.

These verses reminded me of a more solemn, existential treatment of the same theme by the American poet and translator Rolfe Humphries (1894-1969), who was himself a committed leftist. Published towards the end of the global catastrophe that the Nazis had unleashed, the poem describes the life of political exiles but expands its focus to take in the whole of the human condition.

The Exiles

Lie in the darkened room and hear
The voices in the street at night
Beyond the open window, talk
In a foreign language, and a strange
Foreign cadence in the walk.

Or look at half a dozen coins
Counting them carefully and slow
To pay for magazines or meals;
This does not seem like money, though,
Nor feel the way real money feels.

Nor is it any longer true
They change the sky, but not the mind,
Who run across the sea, and live
Expatriated, fugitive,
Leaving their land behind.

For the mind changes more than sky,
Becomes infected, covets grief,
Craves, but rejects, the newer loam,
Still clinging to the old belief
Of some day going home.

The resolute, who used to form
Firm ranks against the old regime,
Move in a nightmare kind of dream
Where every comrade is a spy,
Each new report another lie.

And those most sensitive and tall,
By that same virtue, dwindle more;
Having a longer way to fall,
Become much worse than men who were
Below their worth before.

The nerves are bad, and tempers flare
In petty quarrels, mean intrigue:
Jealousy and suspicion leer,
Organization is undone,
One against all, all against one.

Talent becomes a show-off ape,
Honesty sickens, having had
No offer to betray the cause:
Why not? Corruption feeds the poor —
If poor enough, all men turn bad.

Demoralized by shattering fears,
Braced against pressure night and day,
The last collapse surprises most;
Disintegration makes the ghost
Even from himself an émigré.

This is what happens, not alone
To men from Germany and Spain
And other lands remoter far, —
We have this sickness, wish in vain
We were not exiles. But we are.

1944


Из Вологды, Одессы, Томска,
Из Балты, Петербурга, Омска,
С Байкала и с Днепра-реки –
Сюда сбежались «земляки»…
Со всех сторон Руси Великой
Собрался табор многоликий, –
Как видно – все пути ведут
В «Уездный Город Холливуд»!

Годков четырнадцать промчалось…
И что-ж в итоге?… Оказалось,
Что даже после стольких лет, –
Средь русских – дружбы нет, как нет!…
Отцы и дети, внуки, деды –
Все оказались «людоеды», –
Волками злобными глядят,
Друг дружку поедом едят…

Тот – «демократ»… Те – «анархисты»…
Те – «нео-националисты»…
Тем люб Великий Князь Кирилл…
Тем – почему-то – «Дуче» мил!…
Те – признают одних лишь «наци»
И жаждут войн и оккупаций…
А есть такие чудаки,
Что ждут «японские штыки»!…
[…] В Холливуде
Российские забыли люди
О «дружбе, братстве и любви».

“There’s No Free Lunch in Hollywood”: Alexander Voloshin and the Plight of Russian Extras

Back by popular demand is Alexander Voloshin! Today’s excerpt from his mock epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, introduces us to the crowds of émigrés who sought, if not stardom, then at least a little pocket money on the sets of Paramount, Universal, and other studios around town. Among them was Voloshin himself, and the tale he has to tell is a cautionary one. Reading this passage, I can’t help but think of the opening scenes of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), in which Emil Jannings appears as an exiled White General on his uppers, scraping together a living as an extra in films.

Jannings’s character is based loosely on a real Hollywood émigré, Theodore Lodijensky (1876-1947), who appeared in films under the name Theodore Lodi. You can learn more about Lodi — as well as his Russian Eagle café — in an old essay of mine. But you’ll get a good sense of the texture of his days from the lines below.

Just about half the émigrés
are in the movies, where they “play”
jigits and knights, both noblemen
and jolly serfs who work the land,
soldiers and officers and sailors,
both men of means and simple tailors,
both courtly ladies and their maids…
Early each morning, at the gates
of studios, “our crowd” amasses —
mothers and fathers, lads and lasses —
a proper family affair…

Friends, I won’t lie: you’ll find me there —
not very often, no, but still…
Why be ashamed? What’s the big deal?
I earn a little “pocket money,”
which keeps my disposition sunny…

Not many Russians “break through,” though.
Believe me, it’s a thorny road
that leads up to the starry skies…
You’ll need some “pull” here, otherwise
you’ll have to squirm and beg and wail,
hold on to someone else’s tail,
keep beating down producers’ doors,
give gifts on holidays, and more…
You’ll have to “sweeten” every pot
or you won’t even have a shot.
Those who don’t give, who play it straight,
are asked to wait… and wait… and wait…
The sad thing is, they’ll never get it,
poor fools — they might as well forget it…

Reader, it’s time you understood:
there’s no free lunch in Hollywood!…


Ну а примерно половина
Колонии – «играет» в кино:
Джигитов, рыцарей, дворян,
Весёлых русских поселян,
Солдат, матросов, офицеров,
Галантных, светских кавалеров,
Торговок, баб, придворных дам…
И ежедневно, по утрам,
У студий можно видеть «наших», –
Тут и мамаши и папаши,
И дети – словом – вся семья…
Бываю там, друзья, и я.

Не очень часто, но – бываю …
А впрочем – я не унываю:
Хватает «мелочи» прожить,
Так значит – нечего тужить!…

Из русских «выплыло» немного, –
Весьма тернистая дорога
Ведёт на «звёздные пути»…
Необходимо «пул» найти,
Просить, канючить, унижаться,
За хвостик чей-нибудь держаться,
Пороги студий обивать,
Подарки к праздникам давать…
«Борзых щенков» здесь очень любят,
Без них – безжалостно погубят,
И если кто не хочет «дать»,
Так будет «ждать»… и «ждать»… и «ждать»…
И драма в том, что – не дождётся, –
Напрасно мучится и бьётся…

Да… Не легко, читатель, тут, –
Жестокий город Холливуд!…

“With the Help of Hunger”: Alexander Voloshin’s Mock Epic of Russian Hollywood

My quest to round up the hidden literary treasures of Russian LA has turned up something like a Holy Grail — or rather, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is an honest-to-goodness mock epic of the First Wave of immigration in fifteen chapters (not counting the prologue and epilogue), more than half of which is dedicated to the life of the Russian colony in Hollywood. Handsomely printed in San Francisco in 1953, the poem’s title is On the Tracks and at Crossroads, and its author is Alexander Alexandrovich Voloshin (1886-1960).

Born in Ananiv, Ukraine, about two hours north of Odessa, Voloshin was drawn to the theatre at an early age and, apparently, enjoyed a successful career as an actor before the start of the First World War. After the Revolution he became an officer in the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, took part in the infamous retreat known as the “Ice March,” and eventually sailed from Crimea with other White émigrés. The first stop was Gallipoli, but soon Voloshin found his way to Berlin, where he took to the stage once more and also edited an anthology of Russian poetry titled Evenings Beneath the Green Lamp (1922).

By 1926, Voloshin was in Hollywood, working as a waiter and an extra in films. Some of his roles, mostly uncredited, can be found on IMDB, under the name “Alex Woloshin.” They include those of “Assistant Bartender” in 1939’s Destry Rides Again, of “Janitor” in 1929’s The Case of Lena Smith (now lost), of “Hotel Clerk” in 1928’s His Private Life, and, most appropriately, of “Russian General in Jail” in 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You. His screen career clearly didn’t come to much — but it did feed into his genuinely funny and touching poem, in which the daily travails of Russian immigrants are depicted down to the last humiliation. I’ll surely end up translating a number of passages from On the Tracks, but I’ll begin with this one, which sets the scene as effectively as any Hollywood script.

Things weren’t looking good at first,
but — with the help of hunger, thirst —
the Russians soon found new professions.
Look here: a seasoned barrister
no longer bothers with confessions —
instead he copies out film scores
for studios… One officer
is now a butler and chauffeur…
Sure, there were many lamentations,
but also countless transformations:
with enviable sleight of hand,
our science lecturers began
to “beautify” the local ladies…
Their past anxiety now fading,
without a worry or a care
our “aunties” skillfully prepare
embroidered silk, satin, and tulle;
meanwhile, a Major General
repairs your footwear “while you wait”…
Forgetting brilliant parades,
our brave Brigade Commanders mow
your lawn, make sure your roses grow.
A lauded senior engineer
is a mechanic (shifting gears)…
An actor of the Russian theatre
has opened a café… serves beer or
Żubrówka, cutlets or grilled beef…
No stage for him, and no relief:
all day he stands behind the bar —
but these hot goods can get you far…
He slings his cocktails to the throngs
of patrons, even sings old songs
with a guitar for company.
The actor’s happy as can be!
He needs no fame now that he’s found
respect — and has a bank account.


Сначала всем здесь было жутко.
Но – под влиянием желудка, –
Профессий новых вырос ряд:
Вот старый русский адвокат
Забыл судебные заботы
И переписывает ноты
Для кино-студий… Офицер –
Теперь он «ботлер» и щоффер…
Не скрою – были дни мучений, –
Зато – десятки превращений:
С завидной ловкостию рук,
Доцент каких-то там наук, –
На женщин «красоту наводит»…
Тревоги – в прошлое уходят
И – о былом забыв тоску –
Крестом и гладью на шелку, –
Успешно вышивают «тёти»…
Там – чинит вам – «пока вы ждёте» –
Ботинки Генерал-Майор…
Стрижет траву и чистит двор,
Забыв блестящие парады, –
Садовник – Командир Бригады,
А инженер – лет двадцать стаж –
Пошел механиком в гараж…
Актёр Российской Оперетты –
Открыл кафе… Шашлык, котлеты,
Зубровка, пиво и вино…
Пусть вместо сцены суждено
Ему торчать весь день за «баром», –
Торгует ходким он товаром,
Коктейли бойко продает,
По вечерам – гостям поет…
Звенят гитары переливы,
И у актёра вид счастливый, –
Что в славе – если есть почёт,
Клиенты и текущий счёт!…

A Russian Émigré Channels Dorothy Parker: On Zinaida Kovalevsky

My mission to recover the literary legacy of Russian LA is not a lonely one. I’m lucky to have the help of two stalwart comrades, Sasha Razor and Ivan Podvalov. Last Monday I stopped by Ivan’s home to pick up a few books of verse he had salvaged from the dustheap, some by poets I’ve read and translated (Ellis, Ter-Boghossian, Avtamonov), and some by poets whose names I’d seen but whose work I’m now encountering for the first time. The most impressive of these new discoveries is Zinaida Kovalevsky, a poet of genuine wit with a gift for occasional verse — a hallowed tradition in Russian literature, perfected by Pushkin and his circle. Yet there’s a double shadow that hangs over even her lightest poems. For one thing, her life and the lives of her fellow literary émigrés were touched by many tragedies, which she sometimes addresses directly, sometimes indirectly. For another, it’s sad to reflect on the fact that her vers de société were meant for such a small circle to begin with, and now that whole small société is largely gone, having left only a few flimsy traces.

The book that contains Kovalevsky’s poems is one of these flimsy traces. Modestly titled Verses (Stikhi), it’s set in a jumble of awkwardly spaced typewriter fonts, with some words threatening to fall right over the right edge of the page. It was published in Los Angeles in 1996, when the poet was 94. She died the following year, on March 27, and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The brief, enthusiastic preface to the collection — the work of former Soviet political prisoner Yuri Vetokhin — provides the only details we have of Kovalevsky’s life.

Born in Warsaw on October 25, 1902, Kovalevsky (née Sidorova) was raised in Moscow and educated at a prestigious high school. Soon after graduating she married an officer in the Imperial Army with the glorious double-barreled surname of Grotto-Ślepikowski. Towards the end of the Civil War the couple emigrated to Egypt, and from there to Yugoslavia, where they reunited with the poet’s parents. Kovalevsky continued her education in history and philosophy at the University of Belgrade. After her husband’s death in the 1920s she married another former officer, Kovalevsky. When the Second World War broke out, the Kovalevskys wound up in Austria, where they were eventually placed in the Kellerberg DP camp, and where the poet went to work for the International Refugee Organization. Some of the lyrics in her book were written in the camp, while others poignantly revisit the experience. The couple immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, settling in Los Angeles, where she took a position as a secretary at an insurance company. Kovalevsky’s second husband died in 1962, and she seems to have found a great deal of solace and support in the company of other literary Russians.

The poem I’ve chosen to share testifies to Kovalevsky’s strength of character, as well as to the power of irony to banish dark thoughts — or rather, to entertain dark thoughts, to give them a home and so quieten them. It is a kind of Russian émigré version of Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp “Resumé.” My translation is an early birthday homage to this humble, resilient poet.

Life is too hard for me, really.
Rather than dying of boredom,
I think I’ll commit harakiri:
take a deep breath, plunge the sword in.

Cyanide, too, is an option —
so are drowning, the bullet, the rope.
Happiness lay in the offing,
and stayed there. Played us for dopes.

Who needs it? I’ve had enough and
am ending it all. No regrets.
Basta! But first let me puff on
the last of these cigarettes.


Мне тяжело в этом мире,
Я от тоски умираю,
Лучше всего — харакири,
Харакири — как самураи.

Есть и цианистый калий,
Омут, верёвка и пуля.
К счастью путей мы искали,
Нас все пути обманули.

Ну, и не надо. Что толку?
Так надоело всё это.
Баста! Вот выкурю только
Последнюю сигарету.

“Life Backtracks into Death”: Boris Poplavsky’s “Magic Lantern”

On Friday, while presenting on five Russian Angeleno poets, I mentioned that, in his first years as an émigré in Constantinople, Vernon Duke founded a Poets’ Guild with Boris Poplavsky (1903-1935), a Moscow-born poet who is now widely recognized as one of the major talents of the First Wave of Russian emigration. Before his death from an overdose at the age of 32 exactly 86 years ago (accident, murder, or suicide? an open question), Poplavsky managed to publish a few chapters from his novel Apollon Bezobrazov and a single collection of poems, Flags (1931). Both his prose and his verse reflect the influence of European literary movements, from the Symbolism of Rimbaud to the Surrealism of Breton. Reviewing John Kopper’s translation of Apollon Bezobrazov, which was published in 2015, Bryan Karetnyk writes: “Boris Poplavsky was the enfant terrible of the Montparnassians, the set of young Russian émigré writers exiled in Paris in the interwar years. […] Chronicling the riotous adventures, affairs and amusements of a throng of penurious Russians, led by the titular Bezobrazov, Poplavsky’s novel exquisitely captures the zeitgeist of les années folles.” Karetnyk’s translation of the poet’s second novel, Homeward from Heaven, will be published by Columbia University Press in June 2022.

Poplavsky’s poems were no less apt to épater le bourgeois. They even repelled the aesthete Nabokov, whose 1931 review of Flags has been translated by Anastasia Tolstoy and included in Think, Write, Speak (2021): “Rarely, very rarely, does poetry waft through the poems of Poplavsky. […] To be frank, Poplavsky is a bad poet, his poetry an unbearable blend of Severyanin, Vertinsky, and Pasternak (the latter at his worst), on top of which it is seasoned with a kind of awful parochialism, as though the man were permanently living in the same little Estonian town where the book was printed, and printed very badly.” But as he looked back on the shattered world of Russian Paris two decades later, Nabokov changed his tune. In Speak, Memory he writes: “I met many other émigré Russian authors. I did not meet Poplavski who died young, a far violin among near balalaikas. His plangent tonalities I shall never forget, nor shall I ever forgive myself the ill-tempered review in which I attacked him for trivial faults in his unfledged verse.”

One of my favorite poems in Flags adds a surreal touch to a typical émigré scene — a smoke-filled room of the kind Pericles Stavrov describes in his “Café.” Here is my translation:

Magic Lantern

An evil smoker lets loose rings of days
that dangle powerlessly from the ceiling.
A soldier passing through? Digger of graves?
Or just a wastrel, drunken and freewheeling?

His thoughtless art entraps my lazy mind
and I light up — but in the thickening air
he disappears. All that he leaves behind
is just the pipe glowing above his chair.

A country of tobacco floats untethered
beneath an unassuming lampshade’s sun.
From time to time I’m endlessly lighthearted,
but then at times I simply come undone.

How nice to build a solid ground of haze —
a conquest that can bring no fame, no wealth.
Spring floats off into summer, floats and fades…
Incautiously, life backtracks into death.


Волшебный фонарь

Колечки дней пускает злой курильщик,
Свисает дым бессильно с потолка:
Он может быть кутила иль могильщик
Или солдат заезжего полка.

Искусство безрассудное пленяет
Мой ленный ум, и я давай курить,
Но вдруг он в воздухе густом линяет.
И ан на кресле трубка лишь горит.

Плывет, плывет табачная страна
Под солнцем небольшого абажура.
Я счастлив без конца по временам,
По временам кряхтя себя пожурю.

Приятно строить дымовую твердь.
Бесславное завоеванье это.
Весна плывет, весна сползает в лето.
Жизнь пятится неосторожно в смерть.

Cardinal Points, vol. 11

My indefatigable fellow editor, Irina Mashinski, informs me that the latest volume of Cardinal Points, our annual journal of Slavic literature and translation, is available for purchase. As always, I thank Irina for her heroic efforts and Brown University’s Department of Slavic Studies for their support. See here for volume 10 (2020), here for volume 9 (2019), here for volume 8 (2018), here for volume 7 (2017), and here for the journal’s website. This year I also thank our new designer, Ruby Miller.

This is the eleventh volume of Cardinal Points, and as we round the bend into 2020s, I want to highlight a number of contributions that both look back on the Soviet experience and speak with uncanny directness to the current moment. In “We’re Terrorists,” a story translated by Sara Jolly and Irina Steinberg, Polina Zherebtsova, who grew up in Chechnya during the wars of the 1990s and is of mixed heritage, recalls how she and her friends playacted acts of terror from both sides of the conflict. (You can read more about Zherebtsova here.) And in “Hostile Territory,” Lena Wolf, who grew up in Soviet Kazakhstan and is of German extraction, remembers her teacher forcing her to bandage her own head during basic military training, because her classmates have a hard time deciding whether they should help a German if war really broke out. Other pieces in the journal revisit the tumultuous years leading up to the 1917 revolutions and the subsequent civil war (an excerpt from Homero Freitas de Andrade’s superb biography of Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Kevin Windle), the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 (harrowing child’s-eye-view poems by Anna J. Jasinska), the memory of the Leningrad Blockade of 1941-42 (a stately elegy by Svetlana Evdokimova, translated from the Russian by Stephen Capus, as well as James Manteith’s essay on translating the poems of Anna Alekseeva), and offer a portrait of Soviet society coming apart at the seams during Perestroika (an entertaining, colorful excerpt from a novel by Alexei Nikitin, translated by Catherine O’Neil).

Yet this year’s selection also evokes more peaceful moods, pointing to the comforts of nature and community, which may be available to us even under the worst of circumstances. The great literary scholar Avril Pyman chronicles her summers in the Soviet countryside in the 1960s and ’70s, while Kevin Windle translated the nature notes of Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov. Both these moods — terror and consolation, the all-too-real and the transcendentally sublime — appear in two masterpieces of translation, which we are lucky to feature in their entirety: Stephen Capus’s extraordinary version of Anna Akhmatova’s Requiem and Kevin Kearney’s equally extraordinary rendition of Adam Mickiewicz’s The Crimean Sonnets. I will end by quoting the dedication to Requiem:

Mountains are known to bend beneath such sorrow
And mighty rivers to cease to run;
But the prison doors will still stand firm tomorrow,
And behind them the cells will still resemble burrows,
And sadness will long for death to come.
For some cool breezes blow as day is dawning,
Others rejoice in sunsets – but here
Our days are all alike, monotonous, boring:
The hateful grating of keys in locks each morning
And the tramp of boots are all we can hear.
We arose at dawn, as if to pray together;
Through the ravaged city we made our way;
And the morning sun was low in the sky, the Neva
Was veiled in mist as, paler than ghosts, we gathered
And the sound of hope seemed so far away.
The sentence falls… She feels the tears searing
Her eyes, and now she’s all alone;
And they’ll cast her down, their fingers tearing
The life from her heart, coarse and uncaring;
But she’ll stagger on down her lonely road …
We were thrown together in hell – and yet still I miss them,
Those random friends; and I wonder where they are:
What memories crowd the bright full moon, what visions
Haunt them now in their cold Siberian prison?
And I send this farewell greeting from afar.

March 1940

Prose

Homero Freitas de Andrade, “A Writer is Born: An Excerpt from The Devil at Large in Moscow: The Life of Mikhail Bulgakov” (trans. from the Portuguese by Kevin Windle)
Zsuzsa Hetényi, “Lying to Ourselves”
Alexei Nikitin, “Small-time Scammers: An Excerpt from Victory Park” (trans. from the Russian by Catherine O’Neil)
Avril Pyman, “Summers in the Country, USSR 1965-1974”
Ivan Sokolov-Mikitov, “Nature Notes: A Selection of Sketches from Travels and A Hunter’s Stories” (trans. from the Russian by Kevin Windle)
Gaither Stewart, “The Director and the Books (…of the Gogol Library in Rome)”
Yevsey Tseytlin, “Emigration as a Dream” (trans. from the Russian by Veniamin Gushchin)
Lena Wolf, “Hostile Territory”
Polina Zherebtsova, “We’re Terrorists” (trans. from the Russian by Sara Jolly and Irina Steinberg)

Poetry

Anna Akhmatova, Requiem (trans. from the Russian by Stephen Capus)
Svetlana Evdokimova, Four Poems (trans. from the Russian by Stephen Capus)
Anna J. Jasinska, “Glass Balloon: A Triptych”
Adam Mickiewicz, The Crimean Sonnets (trans. from the Polish by Kevin Kearney)
Antony Wood, Original English Verse in the Onegin Stanza: Portrait of an Englishman (Excerpts) and “To Stanley”

The Art of Translation

James Manteith, “‘Seeking Ghosts of Clinking Coins’: Shelters and Travels with Anna Alekseeva”

“Off You Roll, You Powder Keg”: Natalya Medvedeva in Los Angeles

Eduard Limonov and Natalya Medvedeva in LA
Photograph by Alexander Polovets

When Eduard Limonov died on March 17, 2020, Russian literature lost one of its most controversial, undeniably original voices. Due to his despicable behavior during the Siege of Sarajevo, Limonov’s pugnacious, affecting, explosively funny novels are no longer sold in the English-speaking world; his poems are completely unknown. He had only himself to blame, of course, but it’s a loss for all of us… There’s nothing quite like his writing. Never mind — I come to bury Limonov, not to praise him. And to recount an adventure in Los Angeles.

Around 1981, after half a decade of slumming with punks and plotting with Trotskyists in New York, the exiled Limonov wound up in LA, where he met the love of his life, Natalya Medvedeva. You may not recognize her name, but you’ve likely seen her face — here it is, on the cover of The Carsself-titled debut.

She had emigrated to Los Angeles from her native Leningrad six years earlier, with her first husband, at the age of 17. Before long, she left the man and struck out on her own, finding work as a model, trying to break into film, and singing — in her deep, soulful voice — “Gypsy romances” and criminal ballads at local Russian restaurants. Luckily, one of her performances is preserved, along with the restaurant, in The Black Marble, a 1980 adaptation of a Joseph Wambaugh novel about an LAPD detective with Russian roots, played here by Robert Foxworth:

It’s easy to imagine Limonov looking up at Medvedeva for the first time just as Foxworth does here. Self-made, beautiful, passionate, sardonic — here was a woman after his own heart. They had another thing in common: both were damned good writers.

Medvedeva’s autobiographical novel about her years in Los Angeles, Hotel California (1989), is begging to be translated. Charles Bukowski has nothing on her. And some of her poems, like the one below, read like a cross between François Villon and Joan Jett, or maybe Kim Addonizio — here with a dash of Bulgakov.

As one might have expected (and I’m sure many did), the Limonov-Medvedeva union was a rocky one, full of wild nights and fights and betrayals. They lived together in Paris throughout the 1980s, split up in the early 1990s, and officially divorced in 1995. Medvedeva, who had transformed herself into a rock star in Russia, drank heavily. She died in her sleep, in 2003, at the age of 44. Reading the poem below, which was composed in LA in the spring of 1981, one wishes the moon had listened to her pleas.

Your tongue’s all blue, a dirty rag…
have you been cleaning toilets?
playing the witch at balls, you hag?
and shtuping halfwits?
whose hat was it you knocked off with your hoof?
whose cheekbones did you fondle with your knuckles?
what guiltless passerby did you accuse? what of?
which filthy joke was it that made you chuckle?

the morning finds you wandering home in tears,
a child all wet after a fever clears,
wringing your hands, you whisper: aren’t you tired?
then sleep till nightfall — and another riot.

that face of yours, though, is an angel’s face
no shadow runs across your forehead —
protect your child from barbarous disgrace,
o moon! and ease her torment
don’t let her kill herself,
she knows not what she does
and either soars like Margarita
or falls head first…
the piano’s dying down,
ending the evening’s revels —
but here comes midnight — toothless crone,
she’s managed to unleash her devils —
and off you roll, you powder keg,
onto the market square to sell your wares,
and in the morning, like a cuckoo chick,
you’ll huddle up in bed and sleep all day
with your angelic face

spring 81 L.A.


Язык твой синий — тряпка половая
какие ты уборные мела?
на чьем балу ты ведьмой танцевала?
с каким вчера юродивым спала?
с кого копытцем шляпу ты сбивала?
кого наотмашь изласкала по скулам?
кого случайных и куда послала?
какую пошлость куковала до утра?

а поутру придешь в рыданьях —
ребёнком мокрым от простуд
заломишь руки, обронишь: ты не устала?
проспишь весь день, а в ночь — опять на бунт?

а личико – подобно ангельскому
ни тень не пробежит по лбу
да сохрани её от варварства
не дай убить себя саму
луна! твоё дитя страдает
куда не знает деть себя —
то маргариткой пролетает
то расшибает лоб в кровя
вот кажется остановилась свистопляска
рука на клавиши – нежней
но полночь тут – беззубая и вязкая
прислать успела всех своих чертей
и ты – пороховою бочкой покатилась
заторговала квасом на сенном
и поутру кукушкиным птенцом в кровать забилась
и проспала весь день ты
с ангельским лицом

весна 81 Л.А.

“Since Your Future Is Shrouded in Black”: Vladislav Ellis’s “Lie, My Friend”

Portrait of Vladislav Ellis
by Vladimir Odinokov

On October 7, at noon PST, the Russian-American Cultural Center and its generous director, Regina Khidekel, will host my talk on the poetry of Russian Los Angeles, which I have titled “We Trample on Our Dusty Stars,” after a line from Richard Ter-Boghossian’s “Hollywood.” Ter-Boghossian is one of five poets whose work I’ll present in translation. Three of them found their way to California after the Second World War — found their ways, I should say, as the paths they took were different. Vladimir Korvin-Piotrovsky, who fled Russia during the Civil War, was in Paris when Germany invaded. He joined the Resistance and was imprisoned in 1944, but was eventually freed and remained in France until 1961. Ter-Boghossian, a soldier in the Soviet army, was taken prisoner by the Germans at the front; after escaping from their camp, he was forced to flee Soviet territory too, as returning POWs often faced persecution and even death at home. Vladislav Ellis, whose father and brother were both arrested and executed in the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, was also taken prisoner by the Germans early in the war; unlike Ter-Boghossian, however, he was put to work. A highly trained engineer, he took part in the construction of the German state railway. After the war, together with his wife and young son, Ellis spent several years in a DP camp; eventually he found work in Belgium and, in 1950, moved to Los Angeles.

The portrait above was done in 1945, in the DP camp. The expression on Ellis’s face matches the mood of the poem below, with which he opens his collection of poems from 1968.

Lie, My Friend

Lie about all your great battles
and how you conquered your fear.
Nо need to show me your medals.
We’re all well bemedalled here.

Lie about shooting down warplanes
and the nurse that treated your wounds.
Go on – lie all you want, friend.
When you’re done, I’ll lie a bit too.

Of course, our boasting won’t free us
from what happened or drown all our pain.
Yes, back there, we were all of us heroes,
just not as much as we claim.

When the dirt rises up in your breast,
choke it down, knock a few back:
add a bold ruddy hue to your past,
since your future is shrouded in black…


Ври, мой друг

Ври, кaк рвaлись к последней стaвке
Вы в бою, презирaя стрaх.
Я с тебя не потребую спрaвки
О полученных орденaх.

Кaк косил истребителей стaю,
Кaк любил в лaзaрете сестру.
Ври мой друг, я тебя понимaю,
Ты зaкончишь и я совру.

Этим ухaрски глупым зaпоем,
Боль о прошлом не утолим,
Все мы были когдa-то герои,
Прaвдa, меньше, чем говорим.

Ври мой друг, и в душевной рaне,
Зa бутылкой, утихнет мрaзь.
Коль грядущее в чёрном тумaне,
Тaк прошедшее розовым крaсь!!!