“One Against All, All Against One”: Alexander Voloshin, Rolfe Humphries, and the Quarrels of Émigrés

Reading Alexander Voloshin’s On the Tracks brings me the pleasure of recognition tinged with a sad frisson. Some things in the émigré experience never change… I admire his ability to coat his exilic disappointments in sweet humor, which doesn’t drain them of their essential bitterness, just makes them easier to stomach. In the passage below, written in the early 1930s, he bemoans the fractiousness of the diasporic community (a refrain in émigré writing), enumerating the strange political allegiances of certain desperate Hollywood Russians. Any movement that held out the faintest promise of return — the “legitimists” who backed Grand Duke Kirill Vladimirovich, the Italian fascists, even the Nazis — was good enough for some.

In Balta, Petersburg, and Tomsk,
Odessa, Vologda, and Omsk,
on Lake Baikal, the Dnieper River,
our countrymen huddled together —
then, from each corner of Great Russia,
our vast and varied band came rushing…
Somehow it seems that every road
led to provincial Hollywood!

Now that some fourteen years have passed,
what do we see?… Firm proof, alas,
that, though the days of war are gone,
we Russians still can’t get along!
Son versus father and grandfather —
they all devour one another!
It’s true that man is wolf to man,
but this is getting out of hand…

Anarchists feud with democrats
amid loud nationalist spats…
Some think Grand Duke Kirill’s our future…
Others (go figure!) like Il Duce…
Enthralled by wild Nazi orations,
some yearn for wars and occupations…
A few are willing to appease
the power-hungry Japanese!…
[…] Russians forget, in Hollywood,
of friendship, love, and brotherhood.

These verses reminded me of a more solemn, existential treatment of the same theme by the American poet and translator Rolfe Humphries (1894-1969), who was himself a committed leftist. Published towards the end of the global catastrophe that the Nazis had unleashed, the poem describes the life of political exiles but expands its focus to take in the whole of the human condition.

The Exiles

Lie in the darkened room and hear
The voices in the street at night
Beyond the open window, talk
In a foreign language, and a strange
Foreign cadence in the walk.

Or look at half a dozen coins
Counting them carefully and slow
To pay for magazines or meals;
This does not seem like money, though,
Nor feel the way real money feels.

Nor is it any longer true
They change the sky, but not the mind,
Who run across the sea, and live
Expatriated, fugitive,
Leaving their land behind.

For the mind changes more than sky,
Becomes infected, covets grief,
Craves, but rejects, the newer loam,
Still clinging to the old belief
Of some day going home.

The resolute, who used to form
Firm ranks against the old regime,
Move in a nightmare kind of dream
Where every comrade is a spy,
Each new report another lie.

And those most sensitive and tall,
By that same virtue, dwindle more;
Having a longer way to fall,
Become much worse than men who were
Below their worth before.

The nerves are bad, and tempers flare
In petty quarrels, mean intrigue:
Jealousy and suspicion leer,
Organization is undone,
One against all, all against one.

Talent becomes a show-off ape,
Honesty sickens, having had
No offer to betray the cause:
Why not? Corruption feeds the poor —
If poor enough, all men turn bad.

Demoralized by shattering fears,
Braced against pressure night and day,
The last collapse surprises most;
Disintegration makes the ghost
Even from himself an émigré.

This is what happens, not alone
To men from Germany and Spain
And other lands remoter far, —
We have this sickness, wish in vain
We were not exiles. But we are.

1944


Из Вологды, Одессы, Томска,
Из Балты, Петербурга, Омска,
С Байкала и с Днепра-реки –
Сюда сбежались «земляки»…
Со всех сторон Руси Великой
Собрался табор многоликий, –
Как видно – все пути ведут
В «Уездный Город Холливуд»!

Годков четырнадцать промчалось…
И что-ж в итоге?… Оказалось,
Что даже после стольких лет, –
Средь русских – дружбы нет, как нет!…
Отцы и дети, внуки, деды –
Все оказались «людоеды», –
Волками злобными глядят,
Друг дружку поедом едят…

Тот – «демократ»… Те – «анархисты»…
Те – «нео-националисты»…
Тем люб Великий Князь Кирилл…
Тем – почему-то – «Дуче» мил!…
Те – признают одних лишь «наци»
И жаждут войн и оккупаций…
А есть такие чудаки,
Что ждут «японские штыки»!…
[…] В Холливуде
Российские забыли люди
О «дружбе, братстве и любви».

15 thoughts on ““One Against All, All Against One”: Alexander Voloshin, Rolfe Humphries, and the Quarrels of Émigrés

    1. Thank you as always! I’m sure you’re right, dear Kaggsy, and I’m grateful to those who recorded the experience without obscuring the unsavory parts. Their words help us see and accept people in dire circumstances today as people, as deserving of sympathy and help not because they are angels but because man ought not be wolf to man.

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  1. “Son versus father and grandfather —
    they all devour one another!
    It’s true that man is wolf to man,
    but this is getting out of hand…”

    These words are disturbingly relevant even now. Will humans ever learn?
    Thank you for this especially poignant post, Boris.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Wonderful observations. Did you do the translations?

    Re: coins:
    I’ve recalled the incident so often, accompanied by so many emotions, that I’m not sure it’s a memory at all any more. Maybe a worn-out marker for a memory, a smooth penny atop a tall stack of coins with each a little more fingered and effaced than the one below it.

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    1. Thank you, my friend! The Voloshin is in my translation, while the Humphries is of course in his own English. What you say about the coins is beautiful… Anyone who has had the experience finds it hard to forget. It reminds you of how arbitrary those funny little items are.

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  3. More amazingly prescient lines, Boris. Perhaps the experience of exile is similar everywhere, but the Hollywood setting has such prophetic resonance. As virtuality eclipses experience, political vagaries multiply. Do you have any idea how Voloshin’s compatriots responded to this work?

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    1. Thank you for this wonderfully perceptive comment, dear James! It’s my sense that those émigrés who had the chance to read or hear Voloshin’s poem found it funny and truthful. George Grebenstchikoff, who was a prominent figure in the community (he founded the Churaevka colony in Connecticut and taught at Florida Southern College), furnished the book with an appreciative introduction. But of course these works circulated poorly… I can’t say how many émigrés actually had access to this one.

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  4. First of all, let me echo the general praise for the fine translation of Voloshin and the forgotten Humphries verses–two poems recovered from oblivion.

    I wanted to add a tiny historical note to the Humphries poem written in 1944. The coins that the speaker used during World War II actually did feel different because they were not made from the usual metals. Wartime shortages required U.S. pennies to be made from zinc rather than copper, and “nickels” were made from silver rather than nickel. Anyone who has held a few of those zinc pennies knows that they feel almost weightless. Every time anyone purchased “magazines or meals” in those all-cash days, he or she would have felt a symbol of the war’s impact.

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    1. Thank you, Dana, for this invaluable addition to the story! It calls to mind “Money: An Introductory Lecture,” a poem by Howard Nemerov, who served in the Air Force during WWII (“in the clean war, the war in the air,” as he put it elsewhere). Though written two decades after his return and focusing on a 1936 nickel, it too defamiliarizes our common currency in disquieting ways.

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  5. I’ve heard said, and it may not be true, that there were no serious shortages of aluminum or copper but the “turn in your cooking pan” drives and non-copper pennies were a (not too non-cynical) reminder that an important war was on and we could all make small sacrifices to help. Especially as Montgomery Ward Chairman Sewell Avery had to be carried out his office forcibly, still in his chair, to make any contribution. I wish I’d kept the $100 war bond my mom bought for me. Much more valuable as memory than just another Ben Franklin that some rich jerk snuffed coke with.

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