Birthday in Odessa with Babel, Utyosov, and Zoshchenko

This year, for the first time since 1990, I’m celebrating my birthday in the town of my birth, Odessa. I turned eight in 1990 and left the Soviet Union in 1991, a few months before turning nine. Now I’m 37, wandering through the streets, parks, and courtyards of my childhood. They haven’t changed all that much since the 1980s — in fact, they haven’t changed all that much since Babel’s day. That’s certainly the impression one gets when one steps into the courtyard of Babel’s former residence, at the corner of Rishelievska and Zhukovs’koho streets, as Jenny and I did this morning (pictures to come). It was a moving experience, but not as moving as my solo visit to another courtyard, at Ut’osova Street, No. 7, just around the corner from where my grandparents once lived. The street is called Ut’osova precisely because of this courtyard at No. 7, which was once home to Leonid Utyosov, the voice of Odessa, whose jazzy tunes have become the soundtrack for this blog.

I entered the gate without ringing the bell, sneaking in behind a busy young man who seemed to be running late for something — a tea party?

Utyosov 01 - Gate.jpgBy the time I made it through the tunnel-like entranceway, the young man had disappeared. What I saw instead were two figures: an Odessan granny feeding pigeons in a state of St. Francis-like grace and a dapper song-and-dance man tipping his straw hat. But I couldn’t get a word out of either of them…

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Utyosov 03 - Utyosov Statue.jpg

If my attention hadn’t been drawn by a grinning cat at the top of a flight of stairs, I might never have seen the sign of the “apartment-museum” (an admirable Soviet tradition), which was founded in 2015 and occupies most of the rooms in which Utyosov spent his earliest years.

Utyosov 04 - Cat Sign.jpg

I greeted the charming petite cat and hardly had time to knock before the door was opened by a charming petite lady, Valentina Nikolaevna Lys, the museum’s assistant director. Looking a bit fatigued and frustrated by some computer mishap (the young man, it appears, had been rushing to her rescue), Valentina Nikolaevna at first showed little interest in me, but then, without warning, she flipped on the lights and began her tour.

Utyosov 05 - Valentina Lys.jpg

To say that she knows all there is to know about Utyosov’s career and the Odessan cultural scene of the 1910s and ‘20s would be an understatement. As she led me from one framed item to the next, she bubbled over with names, dates, addresses, and anecdotes. Here it all was: photographs of Utyosov’s parents, the Vaysbeyns (the singer took his stage name from the cliffs — utyosy — on the coast of his beloved Black Sea); tickets to theatrical performances at Odessa’s legendary variety theaters; playbills; fragile shellac and durable vinyl records of Utyosov’s hits; his clarinet; and even his podstakannik! (Valentina Nikolaevna, who admitted that she sometimes even pokes around in scrapheaps for Utyosov memorabilia, is still looking for a glass that’s thin enough to fit the podstakannik perfectly.)

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As we came to the end of the exhibition, I saw two familiar faces on the wall: Isaac Babel and Mikhail Zoshchenko. Both were friends of Utyosov’s, and in the case of Zoshchenko, Utyosov proved to be a real friend indeed. In the late 1950s, after Zoshchenko was expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union and made a pariah, Utyosov was one of the few well-known cultural figures who didn’t hesitate to visit him. (I told Valentina Nikolaevna that I’ve translated both Babel and Zoshchenko into English, and she said that she still reads Zoshchenko all the time: “Nothing has changed!”)

Utyosov 08 - Exhibit 03.jpg

When I left the museum, the cat, who hadn’t budged from the railing, gave me a lick of approval at parting.

Utyosov 09 - Cat Lick.jpgThen I took a closer look at the statue of the granny and noticed an inscription on its base, the first line of one of Utyosov’s biggest hits, written by the Odessan poet Semyon Kirsanov (1906-1972)…

I sing of a town that I see in my dreams —
if only you knew how I cherish
this town that I found on the coast of the sea,
this town full of blooming acacias —
this town on the Black Sea…


Maximilian Voloshin’s “Newspapers”

Kustodiev Voloshin 1924.jpg

(Boris Kustodiev’s Portrait of Maximilian Voloshin, 1924)

In our work on The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I would concentrate for weeks at a stretch on particular poets. During one of these stretches, we delved into the verse of Maximilian Voloshin (1877-1932), an accomplished and original Symbolist whose work took on a strikingly prophetic tone in the years of the Great War, the Revolution, and the Russian Civil War. We included a number of his Civil War-era poems in the anthology, in Robert’s searingly powerful translations, and a few of these also found homes in journals. An excerpt from Voloshin’s “Russia” was published in Standpoint and “Terror” appeared on PEN Transmissions. In his introductory note to “Terror,” Robert writes: “Part of Voloshin’s appeal lies in his steadfast refusal to accept any ideology as absolute truth. One of the slogans most often repeated by Putinites today is ‘Whoever is not with us is against us.’ Such thinking was anathema to Voloshin.” This refusal to accept the dominant ideology of the day also informs Voloshin’s prescient poem “Newspapers,” which I included in an issue of the much-missed journal Chtenia: Readings from Russia dedicated to the literary legacy of the Great War. More than a hundred years have passed since Voloshin wrote the poem, yet his Cassandra-like warning could not be more timely in our era of “fake news.” Below is an updated, and slightly condensed, version of my translation. (As Robert also notes in his introduction, Voloshin’s poems are often “uneven, but there is much that is incisive and moving.”)

My eyes run greedily across
the scalding letters of the news
to scorch my soul. The bloody rows
bristle with lethal little worms.

Fermenting vengeance, yeasty ire
seep in and rot within my heart.
Lies muddle and becloud each thought,
then blossom with the devil’s fire,

while half-truth’s vacillating shapes,
like molten wax, flow and congeal.
I languish silently and feel
my soul cut back, my conscience scraped.

Oh, to sense nothing whatsoever…
To turn to salt… To hide in snow…
Let me not cease to love my foe
and not begin to hate my brother!

May 12, 1915

Tolstoy on Film, and Two Odessans

I have long been fascinated by Russian film history, and I well remember the revelatory experience of reading Yuri Tsivian’s Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (1994, translated by Alan Bodger) in graduate school. A concise survey overflowing with insightful analysis, the book opened up an entire world for me. Many of the films Tsivian discusses — including the first Russian feature, Alexander Drankov’s Stenka Razin (1908) — are now available on YouTube and DVD. All are worth watching. That Drankov, by the way, was a schemer of gargantuan proportions; he fled Russia during the Revolution, opened an ill-fated shipboard restaurant named The Volga Boat in Venice, California, in the late 1920s, and died in obscurity in San Francisco in 1949. Need I add that he was likely born in Odessa, or at least near it?

Stenka Razin 1908.jpg

Poster for Stenka Razin (1908)

I went back to Drankov’s cinematic legacy a couple of days ago, pulling up the footage he shot in 1908 in Yasnaya Polyana, Tolstoy estate, starring the Count himself. Having just finished a translation of four Tolstoy stories, all of which end in death, I was eager to see the author in life again:

At the time this film was made, Drankov was in fierce competition with Pathé, who had the global newsreel market cornered. Indeed, Pathé was almost synonymous with cinema, as the poem below (quoted by Tsivian in another translation) testifies. Its author was another Odessan, Alexander Moiseyevich Krantsfeld (1897-1942), a medical student who took active part in Odessa’s film-worthy literary life in the years surrounding the Revolution, but who later gave up poetry. His one book-length publication after the 1910s was a medical textbook, The Parasitic Worms of Man (1931) — a highly unpoetic title, unless one reads it though Baudelairean spectacles. In 1942 he was serving as a doctor at the front; finding himself hopelessly encircled by the enemy, he committed suicide. That sad end contrasts starkly with the wide-eyed wonderment of this poem from 1916, which was first published in the Odessa journal Theater and Cinema:

All cheek by jowl: dandy and vandal,
a car, a camel, vaudeville,
the God of War, handsome and dreadful,
caught in the latest Pathé reel.

All cheek by jowl: Le Prince, La Joconde,
merciless Caesar, fine ballets,
Ceylon and Moscow, Cairo, London:
gone are the obstacles of space!

Все вместе: денди и апаши,
Верблюд, мотор и варьете,
И бог войны, красив и страшен,
В последнем выпуске Патэ.

Все вместе: Прэнс и Джиоконда,
Суровый Цезарь и балет,
Цейлон, Москва, Каир и Лондон:
Преград в пространстве больше нет!

“Just One Way to Go”: Marianne Moore and Zinaida Gippius


Zinaida Gippius (1897) and Marianne Moore (1948, Carl Van Vechten)

Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Irina Mashinski, and I exchange letters about translation, poetry, and life on a daily basis — sometimes a dozen a day. Our correspondence is an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Last week Robert sent us a quatrain by Marianne Moore titled “I May, I Might, I Must,” and described it as “perfect, in its quiet way”:

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.

I responded by saying, “this is perfect,” and continued: “I especially admire the ‘that’ in the penultimate line, which throws a mountain of emphasis on ‘I’ at the line break. That is the key word, the small yet lofty standard borne by the individual. But then, each of the monosyllables in the quatrain (there are so many!) is a stand-in for the individual, and together they march like an army across the long ‘impassable,’ overwhelming it.”

The poem dates back to 1909, and Moore republished it in 1959. In Marianne Moore: Questions of Authority (1995), Christian Miller writes that it “declare[s] an ability and a stretching after power that have great resonance for a poet who has, throughout her professional life, surmounted the barriers of tokenism and condescension.” The poem itself, and this description of it, brought to mind the equally defiant Zinaida Gippius, whose work I’ve featured here twice before. One Gippius poem in particular seemed to resonate especially well with Moore’s quatrain. Here is her “Difficulties,” in my translation:


Why go back to simplicity?
All right, let’s say I know…
Yet some cannot go back. Like me,
they’ve just one way to go.

I struggle through the thorny bush —
a harsh and wounding track…
I may well crash before I glimpse
the new simplicity —
but there’s no turning back.


(I should note that this translation traveled its own thorny path of revisions, with Robert’s indispensable assistance!) Discussing Gippius’s search for this “new simplicity” — which she calls “second simplicity” (“вторая простота”) in the original — the scholar Aleksandr Lavrov writes: “The simplicity that Gippius sought was not primordial, elemental simplicity, but rather the overcoming of difficulty, the result of passing through difficulty.” Many poets have fought their way through to this “second simplicity” late in their careers; I think of Auden in English and Pasternak in Russian, but also of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy, whose 2011 English-language collection — selected, translated, and introduced by Hoyt Rogers — is titled Second Simplicity: New Poetry and Prose, 1991-2011.


К простоте возвращаться — зачем?
Зачем — я знаю, положим.
Но дано возвращаться не всем.
Такие, как я, не можем. 

Сквозь колючий кустарник иду,
Он цепок, мне не пробиться…
Но пускай упаду,
До второй простоты не дойду,
Назад — нельзя возвратиться.


Yuz Aleshkovsky and Maxim Osipov in the TLS

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This week’s issue of the TLS (31 May 2019) brings an especially wide smile to my face. It features both my review of Yuz Aleshkovsky’s Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage and, on the same page, Anna Aslanyan’s superb reading of Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors. Aslanyan is one of the finest critics of Russian literature in translation working today, and here she offers her keen appraisal of the individual strengths of the volume’s three translators: “Boris Dralyuk’s idiom packs a punch, Anne Marie Jackson lends Osipov’s prose a gentle English timbre, and Alex Fleming meticulously recreates its cadences and wordplay.”

I wish I could celebrate this and all the other appreciative reviews that Rock, Paper, Scissors has received with Maxim in London, at Pushkin House, where he and Alex will present the book on June 11. I’ll just have to wait for Maxim’s tour of the US in October. But if you happen to be in London on the 11th, don’t miss the event!

Vadim Strelchenko’s “A Flash”

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I couldn’t find much information about Vadim Strelchenko (1912-1942), whose life, like the lives of so many talented poets of his generation, was cut short by the Second World War. He was born in Kherson but grew up in Odessa, where he went to work at a factory and began publishing poems in local newspapers. Some of these early efforts reached Sterlchenko’s fellow Odessan, Eduard Bagritsky, who was by then one of the best known poets in the Soviet Union. Bagritsky helped his younger colleague place poems in more prominent journals, and in 1936 Strelchenko moved to Moscow and was enrolled at the Literary Institute. He saw two collections into print, The Poems of a Comrade (1937) and My Photograph (1941), before enlisting in the army. He disappeared at the front at the age of 29. The poem below, written in 1940, evokes a rare moment of stillness on a bustling square in the Soviet capital. Much of Strelchenko’s verse can be described as patriotic, and I see a certain kind of patriotism in “A Flash,” but it is in no way jingoistic. What Strelchenko expresses is a sense of genuine comradeship, of total unity, with the citizens all around him. This sense of total unity lasts only a moment, but it leaves a trace, a barely perceptible pulse, as the poet goes on with his day.

A Flash

At times there are, on Moscow squares,
flashes of quiet, fleeting islands:
no horses and no trolley-cars —
only unfathomable silence.

As if a moment’s thought were granted
to every person passing through;
as if what every heart had wanted
would, in a moment, all come true;

as if these people — perfect strangers —
were meant to meet that afternoon,
were meant to recognize each other,
to walk together,
and commune.

Yes, yes: it’s happening, it’s starting!
(… A distant hail, a cheerful cry …)
… But suddenly, without a warning,
a lorry thunders by.
Again, the sound of engines revving —
ribbons of wind float through the air.

But what’s that blowing through my hair?
Not wind — but people, breathing.



Есть, порой, на московской площади
Тихий промельк, секунда одна:
Ни троллейбуса вдруг, ни лошади —
Непонятная тишина.

Словно время на размышление
Всем идущим на миг дано,
Словно сбудется во мгновение
Все, чем сердце порой полно.

Словно всех незнакомых ранее
В этот полдень сошлись пути,
Узнаванье пойдет, братание
С кем вместе жить и идти.

Вот уж кажется: начинается!
(…Дальний оклик, веселый вскрик…)
…Но вот тут-то и появляется
Неожиданный грузовик.
Вновь машин легковых мелькание,
Ветра легкая полоса.

Но не ветер, людей дыхание
Овевает мои волоса.


“A Learned Neighbor”: Joshua Yaffa on Maxim Osipov

Osipov Quote in New Yorker.jpg

The latest print issue of The New Yorker, dated May 13, 2019, carries a penetrating and wide-ranging profile of Maxim Osipov by staff writer Joshua Yaffa, who has a personal connection to the town of Tarusa, where Maxim makes his home. Although Alex Fleming, Anne Marie Jackson, and I came to know Maxim and his world intimately as we worked on Rock, Paper, Scissors, and Other Stories, I still learned a great deal from Josh’s piece. I won’t spoil the experience of reading it from start to finish by quoting all my favorite passages, but I will offer Josh’s insight into one of Maxim’s stories:

The story, “Objects in Mirror,” describes a day in the life of an urbane screenwriter turned professor, Andrey Georgievich, who lives in a Moscow apartment with his wife and daughter. Andrey grew up in an anti-Soviet family but was among the first in his class to submit, out of “utter foolishness,” an application to the Communist Youth. He is now a successful screenwriter — “although there’s really no such thing as a sufficiently appreciated artist,” Osipov writes. Andrey is the kind of man often described, in Russian, as an intelligent — meaning not so much smart as cultured. He is perhaps a little neurotic. As Osipov put it to me over coffee, in his kitchen in Tarusa, “He is noble and wise, but he should spend less time looking at his own reflection.”

In this story, and in others by Osipov, I recognized the traits of many Russian intelligents I have come to know: an empathy for the miserable underclass which flickers on and off depending on one’s mood, and a world-weary certainty, often misplaced, about how things work. Osipov’s characters are disgusted by the slovenliness and stupidity of those around them, and then disgusted by their own disgust.

Objects in Mirror” was the first Osipov story I translated, and Josh read an early draft of my version in 2017, at Maxim’s request. It’s great to learn that the story inspired these intelligent thoughts about Russian intelligents, which will now reach The New Yorker’s readers worldwide.

“How Admirably Self-Possessed”: Anatoly Fioletov’s Horses


David Burliuk, Horse-lightning (1907)

I’m translating Tolstoy’s short story about, and partly from the mouth of, a horse, and am falling in love with all the interesting animal natures he has invented…  The work sent me back to a poem by the Arthur Rimbaud of Odessa, Anatoly Fioletov (1897-1918), about whom I wrote in my essay on “Odessa’s Neglected Poets”:

Born Natan Shor, the young poet adopted a pseudonym that reflected his decadent, ego-futuristic leanings: Fioletov — the violet one. But he was no shrinking violet. In 1917, while still a student at the law faculty of Novorossiya (now Odessa State) University, he joined the city’s Criminal Investigation Department, where he worked alongside his younger and even more colorful brother, Osip Shor (1899-1978). Osip, nicknamed “Ostap,” would serve as the model for Ostap Bender, the antihero of [Ilya] Ilf and [Yevgeny] Petrov’s picaresque novels The Twelve Chairs (1928) and The Little Golden Calf (1931). In 1918, Fioletov was killed by bandits. In My Crown of Diamonds, [Fioletov’s friend and Petrov’s brother, Valentin] Katayev claims that the bandits — who belonged to the gang of Mikey the Jap (Mishka Yaponchik, né Moyshe Vinnitsky, 1891-1919), the model for Babel’s Benya Krik — had mistaken Fioletov for his brother Osip.


I went on to quote Fioletov’s famous quatrain about horses, which Ivan Bunin recalled and recorded after the poet’s death, and which likely inspired Mayakovsky’s much more famous “A Good Attitude to Horses” (1918). But that quatrain is actually the second half of a two-part poem, and yesterday I was inspired to translate the first part. With the help of Robert Chandler, I’ve groomed both halves and now feel confident enough to trot them out:

On Horses


A chilly night descended on the streets
аnd glimmered woefully in oval puddles.
Poor little horses, dutifully fleet,
raced back and forth, trying to earn their humble
oat dinners through back-breaking labor.
Dejected raindrops drizzled from the sky;
the little horses, yawning on the sly,
would whisper: “Brother, it’ll be so sweet…
Back home ’round midnight, enough time to eat…
Then, leaning up against a neighbor,
off to sleep…”


How admirably self-possessed –
these horses of a lower class,
who keep a mental distance
from the troubles of existence.

О лошадях


На улицы спустился вечер зябкий
И горестно мерцал в овальных лужах.
Сновали исполнительно лошадки,
Стараясь заслужить, как можно лучше,
Физическим трудом свой скромный ужин.
Уныло падал дождь, сочась из тучи,
И лошади, зевавшие украдкой,
Шептали про себя: «Как будет сладко,
Домой часов в двенадцать воротившись,
Овес сначала скушать, утомившись,
Затем уснуть, к коллеге прислонившись…»


О, сколько самообладания
У лошадей простого звания,
Не обращающих внимания
На трудности существования!

Prince Mirsky on Pushkin’s Perfection


Pyotr KonchalovskyPushkin in Mikhailovskoe (1932)

It is no exaggeration to say that translating Pushkin’s prose earlier this year restored my sense of well-being, if not my health. Although I benefited from the salubrious effect of his writing, I couldn’t quite explain it. Then, as if by magic, I found my explanation where I so often do, in the criticism of Prince D. S. Mirsky. This time the source wasn’t Mirsky’s indispensable History of Russian Literature, but a much less masterful volume, which I picked up in London at Any Amount of Books. As Mirsky’s biographer, G. S. Smith, reports, “One of the least well known but most rewarding of [the critic’s] general works on Russian poetry was published as an introduction to a book of translations by the obscure amateur Charles Fillingham Coxwell.” The book is Russian Poems (London: C. W. Daniel, 1929), and though its sweep is admirable — 216 poems by 51 poets, from the 18th century to the 20th — Coxwell’s translations vary greatly in quality. Mirsky’s introduction is the collection’s saving grace.

The essay is written in Mirsky’s usual style, at once curmudgeonly and passionately earnest. His main argument is that the Russian poetic tradition is defined by its concern with the things of this world, “from the ‘matter-of-fact’ and realistic poetry of the Classicists to the social realism of the mid-nineteenth century.” But Mirsky is always alert to nuance; as he writes, “all generalizations are one-sided, and, however characteristic, realism is not the whole of Russian poetry.” Here Mirsky turns to Pushkin, in whom the critic finds “an element which he does not share, to the extent he does his realism, with other Russian poets, and which I do not know what other name to give than perfection.” He goes on:

Perfection is not a thing of degrees, the smaller or greater amount of which makes poetry good or bad. It is a quality that may be absent in the greatest poetry (and is indeed strikingly absent in the greatest of all poets, Shakespeare) while it may be present in relatively minor verse. Nor is it necessarily combined with the kind of poetry that is called classical — good examples of poetry that is perfect without being classical are ’The Ancient Mariner,’ and — very different from this — the Odes of Keats. But Pushkin’s perfection is classical, for it is composed of precision and harmony. His diction is always precise and entirely exempt of all looseness and vagueness. If, for instance, he gives a woman’s kisses the epithet of ‘incisive,’ he means to say that she bites when she kisses; if he makes a Circassian sleep under a ‘wet cloak’ he is prepared to explain that, though wet, it is quite comfortable to sleep in, because being waterproof it is wet only on the outside. It is doubtful if poetry ever approached to precision of verse more than in the work of Pushkin. But precision alone does not constitute Pushkin’s perfection. Its most essential element is harmony, by which I mean firstly a sound-pattern in which the poet answers for every single vowel and consonant, pause and intonation, each of them playing its indispensable part in the effect of the whole; and secondly a harmony of sense — a complete adequacy and consistency of the overtones and associations of all the sense elements of a given phrase, passage or poem.

What Mirsky says of Pushkin’s poetry applies equally to the poet’s prose, and it might partly account for its capacity to heal. Pushkin’s precise, crystalline diction washes over us like pure water, cleansing our wounds; his harmony resets the rhythms of our hearts and minds. But if Pushkin were only clear, only harmonious, he would not be the great poet that he is — he would have no personality. He does, of course, and, as Mirsky writes, “his ultimate personality as a poet is conditioned by an underlying ethical groundwork, a tragic understanding of life that is akin to Shakespeare’s and is not logically deducible from the perfection and harmony of his style.”

In a moving, open-hearted essay published in Cardinal Points in 2010, Stanley Mitchell reflects on all these components of Pushkin’s work and personality, which he came to know intimately while completing his peerless translation of Eugene Onegin:

I saw now a different beauty in Onegin, not just the familiar serenity, light-heartedness and harmony, but the disparity of dark and light, which reminded me of similar contrasts in the music of Mozart and the paintings of Leonardo. The surface sparkle rests ‘upon a base of suffering’ as Nietzsche said of the art of the Apollonian Greeks or, as Pushkin himself noted, upon ‘The heart’s impressions marked in tears.’

Mitchell, who suffered from bipolar disorder, found not only balance in Pushkin’s work, but a means to understand himself. He found a teacher and a friend. This is the real reason Russian speakers — and now, thanks to translators like Stanley Mitchell and Robert Chandler, increasing numbers of English speakers as well — come to Pushkin. I believe the most poignant expression of this intimate bond between Pushkin and his readers is a poem by Georgy Ivanov, which he dictated from his deathbed in 1958. Here is Robert’s translation, which originally appeared in The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry:

To Alexander Pushkin

I dearly, dearly long to be with you,
to sit and chat with you, drink tea with you.

You’d do the talking — I would be all ears;
your voice grows ever dearer with the years.

You, too, knew grief and fury and disdain;
you, too, died slowly, slowly and in pain.

“From an Odessan Hoosegow”

Whenever I feel the least bit down, I can count on Odessa’s own Leonid Utyosov for a pick-me-up. This week I went back to one of his greatest hits, “From an Odessan Hoosegow,” a classic ballad of the criminal underworld — and a personal favorite of Stalin himself. You can read the story of Utyosov’s command performance of this and other officially prohibited songs at the Kremlin in David MacFadyen’s fascinating study Songs for Fat People. I don’t mind agreeing with Stalin just this once: Utyosov’s interpretation is a treat.

His peppy delivery cheered me up right away and reminded me that I have something very exciting to look forward to — a trip to my hometown with Jenny! This July, she and I will spend the week surrounding my birthday in Odessa. We’ll have a ball, no doubt, but here’s hoping we won’t have to bust ourselves out of any hoosegows…  Since you can never be too prepared, however, I’ve worked up a translation of our getaway song.

You’ll notice that the lyrics, which refer to the Russian Civil War and to the anarchist Nestor Makhno’s Insurrectionary Army of Ukraine, are somewhat disjointed. Who are the subjects, criminals or soldiers? Of course, the 1910s and ’20s were a disjointed period; those who were soldiers one minute could be deemed criminals the next. But there’s another reason for the strange shifts: the underworld ballad grew out of a Russian translation of Heinrich Heine’s “Die Grenadiere.” Those grenadiers sure came a long way from their origins!

Two cons have busted loose now
from an Odessan hoosegow —
they’re on the lam and headed for the sea.
But seeing it’s still light out,
they’ve stopped off at a hideout —
they’ve stopped a while to rest their weary feet.

One is a wartime hero,
a Makhno buccaneer who
paid a heavy price for what he’s done.
He’s bandaged up all over
and ain’t exactly sober,
and all the time he sings this little song:

“O comrade, my comrade,
my wounds hurt something awful,
my wounds hurt something awful in my side.
One’s healing pretty well,
the second’s foul as hell,
the third is mighty deep and gaping wide.

O comrade, my comrade,
my melancholy comrade,
tell me: why’d we spill our precious blood?
For a pair of painted lips?
Bare knees and swinging hips?
We did it for the love of some damn broad?

They’re back there, making merry
with some Tom, Dick, or Harry,
while you and me, we’re really in a spot.
The foe is on our track,
there ain’t no turning back,
and any minute now we might get shot.

What is it that we fought for?
What did we spill our blood for?
Tell me: why’d we ever pick up guns?
They’re back there, making merry
with some Tom, Dick, or Harry —
they’re back there, safe and sound, and having sons.

O comrade, my comrade,
please bury my body,
please bury my body deep someplace.
Put a stone above my grave
and a smile, so’s I look brave,
a smile, so’s I look brave, onto my face.

O comrade, my comrade,
please tell my poor mama
her boy went down fighting in the war —
with a rifle in his left hand,
a saber in his right hand,
and wearing a brave smile from ear to ear.”

Two cons have busted loose now
from an Odessan hoosegow —
they’re on the lam and headed for the sea.
But seeing it’s still light out,
they’ve stopped off at a hideout —
they’ve stopped a while to rest their weary feet.