Crimea Then and Now: A Soldier’s Petition

Last month I posted my translation of a boisterous poem by the happy warrior Denis Davydov (1784-1839). What I didn’t mention is that the translation will appear in an exciting anthology titled Russia at War, now in the works for Columbia University Press’s Russian Library. The anthology’s editor is the illustrious Tolstoy scholar Donna Orwin, who was kind enough to involve me in the project. Donna has launched a full-scale campaign to capture the best Russian writing on military matters of all eras, from the epic byliny of the medieval period to poems written in response to Russia’s most recent conflicts, such as the annexation of Crimea.

Yeni-Kale Fortress in Kerch, 2014.jpg

The Ruins of Yeni-Kale, Crimea, 2014. Photograph by Aleksander Kaasik.

One theme that is sure to emerge is that history repeats itself. The 2014 annexation wasn’t Russia’s first foray into Crimea, which the former Empire first conquered in 1783-84, during the reign of Catherine the Great. A decade earlier, the Russian military took over two fortresses on the peninsula, at Kerch and Yeni-Kale. One of the more fascinating documents that Donna will include in her anthology is a poem, which we call “A Petition from Crimean Soldiers,” composed at one of those fortresses in the mid-1770s. As Donna writes, “[Its anonymous soldier] author traces the origins of war back to the story of Adam and Eve, and the passions of greed, pride, and vainglory it unleashed.” I will only offer three of the poem’s 16 stanzas below, to give you a flavor of the many treasures Donna’s book holds in store.

Yes, Adam is the subject of our plaint,
And Eve as well, for she too is no saint;
They weakened in those very crucial hours,
And due to this, their weakness is now ours;
And so, because both Adam and Eve sinned,
All their descendants are forever stained.


Adam and Eve now live in paradise,
While we are here, in cursed Crimean climes;
We chop wood with our scythes, as Adam had,
And gather up manure with our bare hands,
Lug dung upon our shoulders night and day;
For this, O Lord, our forbear is to blame.


Adam had served only a single God,
So why are we subjected to a squad
Of little gods? And each demands his honors;
Nor do we know which will take pity on us;
We sing their praises and we bow down low,
But never get awards that we are owed.

Всемилостивый боже, Адам виной всему,
Не права и Ева, почто дала ему;
Ослабели они оба в той самой час,
И пала слабость их на всех нас;
Согрешили в том сии человеки,
Остался их грех всем потомкам навеки.


Ныне же Адам и с Евою живет в раю,
А нас оставил в проклятом крымском краю,
Показав, как дрова рубить косами
И сбирать в поле навоз нашими руками;
День и ночь кизяк на плечах носим,
И в том тебя, господи, и на праотца просим.


Адам трудился и служил только для одного бога,
Для чего ж у нас явилось земных божков много
И каждый принуждает себя кадить и почитать,
Да не знаем, от кого нам милости ожидать;
Мы всякому поем, хвалим и величаем,
Только награды и заслужа не получаем.

5 thoughts on “Crimea Then and Now: A Soldier’s Petition

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