A Russian Émigré Channels Dorothy Parker: On Zinaida Kovalevsky

My mission to recover the literary legacy of Russian LA is not a lonely one. I’m lucky to have the help of two stalwart comrades, Sasha Razor and Ivan Podvalov. Last Monday I stopped by Ivan’s home to pick up a few books of verse he had salvaged from the dustheap, some by poets I’ve read and translated (Ellis, Ter-Boghossian, Avtamonov), and some by poets whose names I’d seen but whose work I’m now encountering for the first time. The most impressive of these new discoveries is Zinaida Kovalevsky, a poet of genuine wit with a gift for occasional verse — a hallowed tradition in Russian literature, perfected by Pushkin and his circle. Yet there’s a double shadow that hangs over even her lightest poems. For one thing, her life and the lives of her fellow literary émigrés were touched by many tragedies, which she sometimes addresses directly, sometimes indirectly. For another, it’s sad to reflect on the fact that her vers de société were meant for such a small circle to begin with, and now that whole small société is largely gone, having left only a few flimsy traces.

The book that contains Kovalevsky’s poems is one of these flimsy traces. Modestly titled Verses (Stikhi), it’s set in a jumble of awkwardly spaced typewriter fonts, with some words threatening to fall right over the right edge of the page. It was published in Los Angeles in 1996, when the poet was 94. She died the following year, on March 27, and is buried in Hollywood Forever Cemetery. The brief, enthusiastic preface to the collection — the work of former Soviet political prisoner Yuri Vetokhin — provides the only details we have of Kovalevsky’s life.

Born in Warsaw on October 25, 1902, Kovalevsky (née Sidorova) was raised in Moscow and educated at a prestigious high school. Soon after graduating she married an officer in the Imperial Army with the glorious double-barreled surname of Grotto-Ślepikowski. Towards the end of the Civil War the couple emigrated to Egypt, and from there to Yugoslavia, where they reunited with the poet’s parents. Kovalevsky continued her education in history and philosophy at the University of Belgrade. After her husband’s death in the 1920s she married another former officer, Kovalevsky. When the Second World War broke out, the Kovalevskys wound up in Austria, where they were eventually placed in the Kellerberg DP camp, and where the poet went to work for the International Refugee Organization. Some of the lyrics in her book were written in the camp, while others poignantly revisit the experience. The couple immigrated to the United States in the late 1940s, settling in Los Angeles, where she took a position as a secretary at an insurance company. Kovalevsky’s second husband died in 1962, and she seems to have found a great deal of solace and support in the company of other literary Russians.

The poem I’ve chosen to share testifies to Kovalevsky’s strength of character, as well as to the power of irony to banish dark thoughts — or rather, to entertain dark thoughts, to give them a home and so quieten them. It is a kind of Russian émigré version of Dorothy Parker’s razor-sharp “Resumé.” My translation is an early birthday homage to this humble, resilient poet.

Life is too hard for me, really.
Rather than dying of boredom,
I think I’ll commit harakiri:
take a deep breath, plunge the sword in.

Cyanide, too, is an option —
so are drowning, the bullet, the rope.
Happiness lay in the offing,
and stayed there. Played us for dopes.

Who needs it? I’ve had enough and
am ending it all. No regrets.
Basta! But first let me puff on
the last of these cigarettes.


Мне тяжело в этом мире,
Я от тоски умираю,
Лучше всего — харакири,
Харакири — как самураи.

Есть и цианистый калий,
Омут, верёвка и пуля.
К счастью путей мы искали,
Нас все пути обманули.

Ну, и не надо. Что толку?
Так надоело всё это.
Баста! Вот выкурю только
Последнюю сигарету.

12 thoughts on “A Russian Émigré Channels Dorothy Parker: On Zinaida Kovalevsky

  1. Well, you had me at the title of your post, Boris, and that is indeed a powerful poem – a worthy companion to the Parker. You’re doing sterling work in preserving these emigre poets from LA – I had no idea there was such a wonderful community of them until you began sharing them with us. Thank you! 😀

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  2. Dorothy Parker is one of my favourite poets, though as I get older, her depression and self-loathing no longer feel quite as romantic to me. Zinaida Kovalevsky’s poem – beautifully translated, as ever – is heartbreaking. That a human being should have sunk into such darkness and despair is harrowing.

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    1. Yes, you’re absolutely right: there’s little romance to depression for anyone who’s been through it. May all those who suffer find aid and comfort in things far less harmful and fleeting than cigarettes… Poems, too, can provide that.

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  3. Like Karen that title drew me in immediately – I love all the new-to-me émigré poets’ work you and others have tracked down and highlighted. And makes me wonder if there are some here in the Seattle area which has a fairly decent sized Russian emigrant community.

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    1. Thank you, Julé, for this deeply heartening comment! If I manage to inspire someone to start translating the Russian-language authors of Seattle, I’ll be immensely proud. I’ll do a little investigating myself and will let you know what turns up!

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      1. That’s very kind, thank you. I should probably take a close look at what the University of Washington is doing, they have good Russian history and language departments though I don’t know what the situation is with literature.

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      2. I’ve consulted some sources, including an informative illustrated pamphlet on the history of Russians in Seattle, I’ve learned that most of the literary émigrés who passed through the city soon moved on to San Francisco, New York, and elsewhere. But elsewhere I did discover a talented poet named Elena Antonova. She was born in 1900, came to Seattle after first immigrating to Harbin, and trained as a civil engineer at the University of Washington. She was later based in New York, and the date of her death is unknown (though I think I may be able to find it with a little effort). The poems I’ve read are tasteful, evocative, and moving love lyrics.

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      3. Thank you Boris! You’ve really gone above and beyond! I’ll take a look at that pamphlet and also see if I can find out any more through the university or their libraries. Perhaps the focus here was more on history and politics and writers went where they could group together in large cities. But you’ve got me started on an interesting question and I VERY much appreciate all that you’ve tracked down.

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