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, My Comrades (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.

1940


Промельк

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
Всех,
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.

1940

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“A Learned Neighbor”: Joshua Yaffa on Maxim Osipov

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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

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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.

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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

1.

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…”

2.

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


О лошадях

1.

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…»

2.

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

Prince Mirsky on Pushkin’s Perfection

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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.

Pushkin in Mexico City, and Other Adventures

In the middle of March, to celebrate our engagement, Jenny and I spent two magical days in Mexico City. We stayed at a hotel in Colonia Santa María la Ribera, a neighborhood that still retains the European-influenced character of the porfiriato — the reign of Don Porfirio Díaz, who came to power in 1876 and was forced to resign in 1911, a year after the outbreak of the decade-long Mexican Revolution. Though not exactly in excellent repair, the colonia’s buildings are all very handsome, and its largest plaza — Alameda Park — boasts a dazzling centerpiece, the gigantic wrought iron and glass Morisco Kiosk, which was first shown at the 1884 World’s Fair in New Orleans. It was a joy to see this nearly 150-year-old architectural wonder in constant use, filled with locals dancing to salsa and cumbia.

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But for me, the most surprising sight off Alameda Park was a little restaurant called Kolobok, which I would have recognized as Russian even without the matryoshka dolls painted on its windows or the stylized Cyrillic-like script on its awnings. (Kolobok, the wily spherical dumpling who refuses to be eaten until he falls into the paws of a still wilier fox, was always one of my favorite fairy tale creatures.) The story behind this Russian restaurant, which involves a family’s desperate flight from Tatarstan and the broken promises of a human trafficker, is very touching indeed; it has been told well here and here.

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Kolobok wasn’t the only touching trace of Eastern European culture that we found in Mexico City. One day I hope to locate the Russian-language poems of Jacobo Glantz, who was born in a Jewish agricultural colony in Ukraine and received an education in Odessa before coming to Mexico, where he became one of the prime movers of a vibrant Yiddish-language cultural scene. He and his wife, Lucía Shapiro, also owned the Café Carmel, which Vicente Leñero described as “the refuge of poets snubbed by the city’s literary mafias … and writers who have nowhere else to go for dinner. Every night don Jacobo Glantz, the Carmel’s proprietor, joins several tables so his friends can hear and extol his latest biblical poems in Yiddish. ‘Superb, don Jacobo!’”

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Jenny and I were regaled with stories of don Jacobo by Homero Aridjis, one of the great contemporary Mexican poets, and his wife, Betty Ferber. I can just picture them at one of the Carmel’s tables in the 1960s, egging don Jacobo on…  And thanks to the Yiddish Book Center, you can hear more stories about Glantz from his daughter, Margo, an important scholar of Mexican literature.

The Eastern European connections don’t end there… On Sunday morning Jenny and I made a pilgrimage to Colonia Roma Norte, to visit Pushkin Garden, where I asked a bust of Alexander Sergeyevich to grant me the inspiration I needed to finish my translation of his delightful unfinished novel, The Blackamoor of Peter the Great, which is based on the life of his African-born great-grandfather, Abram Petrovich Gannibal.

 

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My pleas must have moved the stony Pushkin; the translation is now complete. Last week, in London, Robert Chandler and I went over it line by line, along with Robert’s sparkling translations of two other unfinished Pushkin works with which it will be published, “The History of the Village of Goriukhino” and “Egyptian Nights.” We then went to see an exhibition at Tate Britain, where Robert met another inspiring artist, Van Gogh, who knew a thing or two about translation.

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Osipov in Print, Ozerov in New York

Just over a week ago Maxim Osipov’s Rock, Paper, Scissors and Other Stories received another starred review, this time from Publishers Weekly, which praised the collection as “masterful and sublime.” As if this were not gratifying enough, that same morning Thomas Gebremedhin of The Wall Street Journal named it one of “The 12 Best Books of Spring.” And a few days later, in World Literature Today, Robert Allen Papinchak wrote that the “twelve scintillating stories […] are brilliant. Not one disappoints.”

It is reassuring to read such sympathetic reviews in the days before the collection’s official release on April 9. I’ll be in the air that day, flying to New York, to launch, a bit belatedly, another NYRB Classics volume. Irina Mashinski, Maria Bloshteyn, and I are very much looking forward to presenting and reading from Lev Ozerov’s Portraits without Frames at McNally-Jackson on April 11 and at Hunter College on April 15. Speaking personally, I’m extremely eager to meet Maria, with whom I’ve worked so closely — yet so distantly — for so long. And I’m also eager to hear one poem in particular. When Robert Chandler and I launched the Granta edition of the book in London last November, I read Irina’s nimble translation of Ozerov’s touching and gently humorous portrait of Anna Akhmatova. The poem showcases Ozerov’s capacity for clear-sighted empathy, and I am sure that Irina, a superb reader, will bring out every nuance in every line. If you happen to be in New York on the 11th or the 15th, do come — and enjoy!

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Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova

A loose-fitting robe, or a housecoat,
or, rather, a coverall
disguises her corpulence—
a gift of the prison queues.
Those used to her slimness
cannot believe
she has grown stout.
It’s Akhmatova, they say,
but not Akhmatova.
“Who’d have guessed
I might end up
waiting day after day
in those long queues outside prisons,
feet swelling,
heart giving up?”
said Anna Andreyevna,
as she passed me a photo
of herself,
straw-thin,
lying on her stomach
and touching the nape of her neck,
the fringe of her little
white cap, with her toes.
Painters never tired
of depicting her poise,
her proud angularity.
The bangs, the hump of her nose,
the tall neck;
her height,
her loftiness.
Somewhere behind her—
a lane in Tsarskoye Selo;
by way of background—
a balcony railing.

The lilac coverall,
with its dark violet folds,
flows, overflows, and iridesces.
Her face is pale
yet lit from within.
“I received this letter.
Please read it aloud.
It begins with praise—
a bad sign! Best to skip that.
Start farther down.
They’d asked me for poems.
I’d sent some—
my new ones, of course.
And what does he answer?
‘But can’t we republish
some of your old ones?’”
A pause. What can I say?
“See how they treat me!”
I’m silent. What can I say?
“Like some servant girl!”
“Don’t say that!” I protest.
“Everyone knows you’re an empress!”
Akhmatova grows quiet.
She gets ready to listen.
So I go on—as best I can:
“Of course, you are an empress!”
She fixes her shawl,
lowers her eyelids,
lifts her head,
and though she doesn’t say, “Go on!”
I do go on—in the same spirit:
“Who will remember him,
this fool of an editor?
But every line of yours,
whether early or late,
will be worth
its weight in gold—
no, that’s not right—
it will be beyond price.”
Without turning her head,
Anna Andreyevna looks
towards the speaker,
who sees
on her face a fleeting
light of pleasure.
Beatitude.
Everyone on earth—
shepherd or prime minister, stoker or poet—
wants to hear
the word
they have been waiting
to hear all their lives.
As they grow older, people want to know
that their life
has not been lived in vain.

Translated by Irina Mashinski

Isaac Babel in Black Mask Magazine

This week Isaac Babel’s tough-talking “Lyubka the Cossack” found herself in fitting company, between the covers of the newly revived Black Mask Magazine, the erstwhile stomping ground of Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Raoul Whitfield, Paul Cain, and other masters of the hardboiled school. I suspect Babel would have been proud to join this murderers’ row — and I’ll speak for myself with greater confidence: The inclusion of my translation in Black Mask feels like the successful end to a case I’ve been trying to crack for ages.

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As I’ve written before, my take on Babel’s gangsters is informed by my long love affair with American crime fiction from the 1920s and ‘30s. I was glad to see that readers and reviewers who looked kindly on Odessa Stories picked up the scent of the pulps in the book’s pages. In The Guardian, Nicholas Lezard wrote: “You could watch Goodfellas or Reservoir Dogs in between reading them and consider them all part of a single, continuous thread.” And in Vice, Andrew Katzenstein traced that thread to its origins: “Boris Dralyuk, who preserves the characters’ Yiddishisms … imbues the dialogue with hard-boiled language reminiscent of Dashiell Hammett.” A snippet of that last review now appears on the gloriously noirish cover of the mass market paperback, which came out in November of last year from Pushkin Press.

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Yes, Babel and Black Mask are together at last, thanks to one pulp-loving Odessan broker… The new Black Mask, by the way, is edited and published by a real mensch, Matthew Morning of Altus Press, who has worked like gangbusters to preserve the legacy of this legendary magazine. The Black Mask website features a number of articles on the writers who shaped, and were shaped by, its unmistakable house style. One of these articles, written by me, pieces together the life of the mysterious Paul Cain, who is remembered (if he is remembered at all) for a single novel, Fast One (1933), which Raymond Chandler called “some kind of high point in the ultra hard-boiled manner.” The same could be said of the fellow’s biography.

Yuz Aleshkovsky’s “Song about Stalin”

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Last week I was asked to review Duffield White and Susanne Fusso’s new translations of two brilliant novellas by Yuz Aleshkovsky (b. 1929), one of the great countercultural heroes of the late Soviet period. I’m still reading — with delirious pleasure — Nikolai Nikolaevich and Camouflage, which will appear from Columbia University Press in June 2019. I’ll post my review when it’s published, and will have much more to say about Aleshkovsky then, but now I’d like to share my rendition of his immortal “Song about Stalin,” which he wrote in 1959, six years after he was released from the Gulag. (He served four years for stealing a car.) The song, which you can hear Aleshkovsky perform below the translation, is styled as a criminal ballad. Many took it to be a folk composition, but no ordinary criminal — not even a gang of them — could have produced so elaborate a political satire. Aleshkovsky refers to Stalin’s foray into linguistics; his pre-Revolutionary exile in Turukhansk; the motto of the Communist newspaper Iskra (The Spark); the Right Opposition in the Communist Party; and Stalin’s favorite Russian proverb, “When you cut down the forest, woodchips fly,” with which the General Secretary justified the human cost of his policies. Aleshkovsky weaves all these details into a flawless, elegant tapestry of Soviet black humor:

Comrade Stalin, you’re a major expert,
a big-time linguist… Yes, you know your stuff.
While I am nothing but a plain old convict —
my only comrade is a timber wolf.

I don’t know what my crime is, to be honest…
Of course, the prosecution’s always fair…
And so I’m sitting here in Turukhansk,
where you were sent away under the tsar.

The sins weren’t ours, and still we all confessed —
then we were transferred here to meet our doom.
But Comrade Stalin, we thought you knew best…
We didn’t trust ourselves — we trusted you.

And so I’m sitting here in Turukhansk.
The guards are dogs. They couldn’t be more brutal.
All this, of course, I fully understand
as the intensified class struggle.

We’re in the Taiga every blessed hour.
If it don’t rain or snow, the midges swarm…
From one faint spark, you set the world on fire —
and thanks to you, this fire keeps me warm.

You’ve got it harder, pacing round the Kremlin.
Smoking your pipe, you worry and you think.
You think about us all… You’re at the helm of
all our Plans… And you never sleep a wink.

We bear our crosses for no reason whatsoever
in thickest frost and in the bleakest rain,
then crash onto our bunks like collapsing timber,
without the worries of your ever-wakeful brain.

We dream of you: you’re in your Party cap
and gleaming tunic, off to the parade.
We’re chopping wood, like you do, and the chips —
as usual, they fly every which way.

Just yesterday we laid to rest two Marxists,
made sure to cover them in something red.
One of them was, without a doubt, a Rightist,
the other, it turned out, was innocent…

His final words, before he kicked the bucket,
were meant for you. He turned to us and yelled
the army should be next up on your docket,
then cried out weakly: “Stalin, give ‘em Hell!”

May you live to be a thousand, Comrade Stalin!
And even if I croak here in the end,
I believe that we’ll have plenty steel and iron
for every soul throughout the fatherland.

Brian J. Boeck’s STALIN’S SCRIBE

Quiet Don 1928.jpg

Cover of Quiet Don, vol. 2 (1928)

Brian J. Boeck’s Stalin’s Scribe: Literature, Ambition, and Survival: The Life of Mikhail Sholokhov is a profoundly insightful book on Soviet literary and cultural history. I was very happy to write about it for LARB, and was even more happy to read Robert Chandler’s excellent review in the Financial Times. As I say in my piece,

Sholokhov’s struggle to stay true to his vision in an atmosphere of blinding darkness is the theme of Boeck’s riveting political biography. To his great credit, Boeck himself is never blind to Sholokhov’s profound flaws or to the fact that his struggle was largely doomed from the start. His is a story of a Faustian bargain, a story “in which triumph and terror, disturbing fears, and improbable feats of achievement are inextricably interwoven.” It is a story of Russia in the 20th century.

By the 1960s, Sholokhov, a writer of talent, was nothing more than a tool of the regime — and a rusty tool at that. I cite Boeck’s discussion of one of the man’s moral low points, his speech at the 23rd Party Congress in 1966. In it Sholokhov viciously denounced his fellow writers Andrei Siniavsky and Yuli Daniel, who had been convicted of anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda earlier that year. The following line from his speech echoed through the literary establishment:

If these delinquents with their black consciences pulled the same stunt back in the twenties when people were judged not in accordance with strictly delineated articles of the Criminal Code but instead operated with a “revolutionary understanding of what is right,” oh how these turncoats would have received an altogether different form of punishment!

With bitter irony, Nadezhda Mandelstam complimented Sholokhov for stating the facts so plainly, without hypocrisy, and wondered “what all the fuss was about.” Lydia Chukovskaya, on the other hand, avoided irony and issued an open letter to the disgraced author. Her words proved prophetic:

Literature will avenge itself as it metes out vengeance upon all who retreat from the difficult obligations that come with it. It will sentence you to the highest form of punishment there is for an artist — creative sterility. No kinds of honors, money, or awards, either domestic or international, can prevent this verdict from landing upon your head.

Boeck shows that this verdict was not only justified, but also tragic.