“With the Help of Hunger”: Alexander Voloshin’s Mock Epic of Russian Hollywood

My quest to round up the hidden literary treasures of Russian LA has turned up something like a Holy Grail — or rather, like Monty Python and the Holy Grail. It is an honest-to-goodness mock epic of the First Wave of immigration in fifteen chapters (not counting the prologue and epilogue), more than half of which is dedicated to the life of the Russian colony in Hollywood. Handsomely printed in San Francisco in 1953, the poem’s title is On the Tracks and at Crossroads, and its author is Alexander Alexandrovich Voloshin (1886-1960).

Born in Ananiv, Ukraine, about two hours north of Odessa, Voloshin was drawn to the theatre at an early age and, apparently, enjoyed a successful career as an actor before the start of the First World War. After the Revolution he became an officer in the anti-Bolshevik Volunteer Army, took part in the infamous retreat known as the “Ice March,” and eventually sailed from Crimea with other White émigrés. The first stop was Gallipoli, but soon Voloshin found his way to Berlin, where he took to the stage once more and also edited an anthology of Russian poetry titled Evenings Beneath the Green Lamp (1922).

By 1926, Voloshin was in Hollywood, working as a waiter and an extra in films. Some of his roles, mostly uncredited, can be found on IMDB, under the name “Alex Woloshin.” They include those of “Assistant Bartender” in 1939’s Destry Rides Again, of “Janitor” in 1929’s The Case of Lena Smith (now lost), of “Hotel Clerk” in 1928’s His Private Life, and, most appropriately, of “Russian General in Jail” in 1938’s You Can’t Take It With You. His screen career clearly didn’t come to much — but it did feed into his genuinely funny and touching poem, in which the daily travails of Russian immigrants are depicted down to the last humiliation. I’ll surely end up translating a number of passages from On the Tracks, but I’ll begin with this one, which sets the scene as effectively as any Hollywood script.

Things weren’t looking good at first,
but — with the help of hunger, thirst —
the Russians soon found new professions.
Look here: a seasoned barrister
no longer bothers with confessions —
instead he copies out film scores
for studios… One officer
is now a butler and chauffeur…
Sure, there were many lamentations,
but also countless transformations:
with enviable sleight of hand,
our science lecturers began
to “beautify” the local ladies…
Their past anxiety now fading,
without a worry or a care
our “aunties” skillfully prepare
embroidered silk, satin, and tulle;
meanwhile, a Major General
repairs your footwear “while you wait”…
Forgetting brilliant parades,
our brave Brigade Commanders mow
your lawn, make sure your roses grow.
A lauded senior engineer
is a mechanic (shifting gears)…
An actor of the Russian theatre
has opened a café… serves beer or
Żubrówka, cutlets or grilled beef…
No stage for him, and no relief:
all day he stands behind the bar —
but these hot goods can get you far…
He slings his cocktails to the throngs
of patrons, even sings old songs
with a guitar for company.
The actor’s happy as can be!
He needs no fame now that he’s found
respect — and has a bank account.

Сначала всем здесь было жутко.
Но – под влиянием желудка, –
Профессий новых вырос ряд:
Вот старый русский адвокат
Забыл судебные заботы
И переписывает ноты
Для кино-студий… Офицер –
Теперь он «ботлер» и щоффер…
Не скрою – были дни мучений, –
Зато – десятки превращений:
С завидной ловкостию рук,
Доцент каких-то там наук, –
На женщин «красоту наводит»…
Тревоги – в прошлое уходят
И – о былом забыв тоску –
Крестом и гладью на шелку, –
Успешно вышивают «тёти»…
Там – чинит вам – «пока вы ждёте» –
Ботинки Генерал-Майор…
Стрижет траву и чистит двор,
Забыв блестящие парады, –
Садовник – Командир Бригады,
А инженер – лет двадцать стаж –
Пошел механиком в гараж…
Актёр Российской Оперетты –
Открыл кафе… Шашлык, котлеты,
Зубровка, пиво и вино…
Пусть вместо сцены суждено
Ему торчать весь день за «баром», –
Торгует ходким он товаром,
Коктейли бойко продает,
По вечерам – гостям поет…
Звенят гитары переливы,
И у актёра вид счастливый, –
Что в славе – если есть почёт,
Клиенты и текущий счёт!…


19 thoughts on ““With the Help of Hunger”: Alexander Voloshin’s Mock Epic of Russian Hollywood

  1. Incredibly evocative, Boris! If the whole poem is this good, I’ll also cast my vote for you to translate it in full, when you can. Voloshin’s voice is a triumph, as is your wry, affectionate feeling for these lines.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Спасибо Вам! But I’m afraid you won’t have much luck on Litres. The book was published in the old orthography, probably in quite a small run, and hasn’t been digitized. A few copies are available for sale, and I’ll be typing up more of it as I translate.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What a treasure to read in the original and your translations! I’ll look forward to more of the same! Can you tell if the LA Russians entered the US directly from Russia, or entered in NY and then were lured to LA by the tinsel of Hollywood?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, Linda, I’m deeply touched by your kind words! Your excellent book on Zoshchenko was my faithful companion as I worked on Sentimental Tales. And that’s a great question about the roads these Russians travelled. Voloshin himself spent some time back East before lighting out for Tinseltown, and he devotes a couple of chapters of his poem to the scene in NYC. He suggests that his trajectory was not unusual. Lodijensky, for instance, came through Ellis Island in 1918. My sense is that most of the LA First Wavers coming from Europe tended to land on the East Coast, while those who came by way of Shanghai and Harbin landed in San Francisco.


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