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.