Boris Dralyuk

Balmont’s Parable of the Small Sultan


I’d like to share another poem from the “Freedom Anthology.” In March 1901, Konstantin Balmont (1867-1942) — then one of the most popular poets in Russia — was sentenced to three years’ internal exile for reciting a treasonous poem in public. This poem was, ostensibly, about a “small sultan” in Turkey. But neither the audience nor the Tsarist spies were fooled. It clearly referred to events in Russia — namely, the violent suppression of a student protest in front of the Kazan Cathedral in St. Petersburg earlier that month. Here is Balmont’s parable, in my translation:

This was in Turkey, where there is no conscience.
What reigns there is the fist, the lash, the scimitar,
Two-three nonentities, four villains,
And one small sultan, who is none too smart.

Once, in the name of liberty, and faith, and science,
Thinkers assembled — a small, zealous group.
Bashi-bazouks descended on them like a pride of lions,
Each one only as strong as his coarse whip.

The thinkers scattered… Now they’re gone, all fled.
But, secretly, the exiles gathered round a poet.
‘How can we overcome,’ they asked, ‘this evil fate?
Answer us, bard — spare not your wisdom — share it!’

He thought and thought, and then addressed the crowd:
‘Speak words, if you can speak, inspired by the spirit’s breath.
All those who are not deaf must hear those words.
And if they don’t — the knife.’

Between 4th and 14th March 1901

То было в Турции, где совесть — вещь пустая,
Там царствуют кулак, нагайка, ятаган,
Два-три нуля, четыре негодяя
И глупый маленький султан.

Во имя вольности, и веры, и науки
Там как-то собрались ревнители идей,
Но сильных грубостью размашистых плетей
На них нахлынули толпы башибузуков.

Они рассеялись… И вот их больше нет;
Но тайно собрались изгнанники с поэтом.
«Как выйти, — говорят, — из этих темных бед, —
Ответствуй нам, певец, не поскупись советом!»

И он собравшимся, подумав, так сказал:
«Кто может говорить, пусть дух в нем словом дышит,
И если кто не глух, пускай то слово слышит,
А если нет — кинжал».

Между 4 и 14 марта 1901