“What Route Is Safe These Days?”: Alexander Voloshin Advises Refugees of All Eras

Refugees during the Russian Civil War, 1919

Every day since February 24 I’ve given thought to what the Russophone émigré poets I translate would have made of Russia’s indefensible, barbaric invasion of Ukraine. How would the Angeleno exiles who had been born on the territory of Ukraine and fought against the Bolsheviks to defend what they regarded as their country, Russia, identify themselves today? I keep going back to Alexander Voloshin, author of On the Tracks and at Crossroads, the mock epic of Russian Hollywood (more here, and here), to look for clues. There is no question that he thought of himself as Russian, but he writes with such warmth of his life in Ananiv and of Ukrainian folkways that I have to wonder: would he, like so many Russian-speakers in Ukraine today, draw a firm line and declare himself Ukrainian? I suspect he might, but I can’t be sure. What I am sure of, however, is that the plight of Ukrainian refugees would remind him of his own experiences in the 1910s and ’20s. He would, I venture, see these refugees as his true “compatriots” — not only because they come from the geographic region he himself called home, but also because they have been made stateless by a senseless war. My evidence? The final chapter of On the Tracks, which appears to have been written just after the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the US’s entry into the Second World War. With his usual blend of pathos and humor, Voloshin contemplates the coming displacement of his fellow Russophone exiles, who have already been robbed of all their earthly possessions once. This earlier brush with the Bolsheviks, he claims with tongue in cheek, gives them a leg up on other exiles-to-be — they know just what to do: pick up sticks and get moving. Besides, he adds — as a kind of Marie Kondo avant la lettre — who needs all those beloved possessions? They only weigh you down. Voloshin’s ironic depiction of what it means to be “liberated” certainly suggests that he would laugh ruefully at the Russian propaganda of today.


Today the United States of America has declared war
on Japan, which treacherously attacked Pearl Harbor.

— Newspaper headlines in 1941
The wind returneth again according to his circuits…
— Ecclesiastes

Nothing in life is new, or lasts…
Ends weave themselves into beginnings,
beginnings fade into the past…
There — crowns go flying off and spinning
into the void and thrones are razed;
here — laws are trampled and some crazed
loony takes on the World entire!
War, with its bloody wind and fire,
again has set the globe aglow…
One thinks: “There’s simply no salvation!”
And wonders: “Where am I to go?
What route is safe these days? What station?”

Well, we have had these thoughts before,
those of us born in Russian lands.
Even our children understand.
We well remember that long war,
and how we languished, how we bled,
how our whole families then fled,
leaving our homes for evermore…

There we had been the slaves of things
slaves of our pots for cabbage soup,
our vodka glasses, favorite cups,
ladles and skimmers, frying pans…

We all dreamt about this or that,
sought things and bought them, piece by piece.
Our faces flushed and dripping sweat,
we kept acquiring without cease!
We were so confident, so proud,
and unafraid to say out loud:
My gramophone, my samovar,
My cigarette case, my cigar,
My painting in my private home,
My chair and table in my room!”

Our liberation finally came
in ’17, that fateful hour,
when — what misfortune, what a shame —
the Bolsheviks rose up, seized power…
And we immediately lost
our tailcoats, pianos, family homes…
In ’21, the winter frost
met us abroad, and there we roamed…
To left and right, we spread in waves,
a flood of “liberated slaves”!

For five long years, we knocked around…
Our souls grew weary in those days.
But then we finally settled down,
and — yes — went back to our old ways…

Ladies again pursue their whims:
they want fine china, by the dozen,
and hats and dresses and perfumes…
Their closets overflow with clothes and
all sorts of rubbish, of no use…
One hears the same old conversations:
she craves a shawl for all occasions;
he went and bought himself a coat;
these built a farmhouse on some land,
while those, a Russian restaurant…

Their recent wounds now hurt no more…
Their bitter losses? All forgotten…
It is as if an open door
has shown them Eden’s verdant garden;
as if they’d never tasted woe —
a taste, what’s more, they’ll never know!
Yes, nothing troubles them at all;
they don’t expect a bloody squall.
For them, the sky is purest blue —
yet they have been enslaved anew:
they’re drowning in the things they own,
are literally overgrown!

Alas! The bloody god of war —
cruel-hearted Mars — again has stirred,
straightened his shoulders, and once more
pulled out and brandished his broad sword!

The diplomats have fallen silent;
weapons are speaking in their stead…
The earth’s aflame and turning red.
A “time of losses” has begun —
for us, of course, the second one.

The circle’s closed… Our wounds are aching…
Well, get your suitcases, start making
preparations — and then wait…
Don’t think, don’t guess — it’s far too late.
No sense in sounding the alarm…

If we must go, then let us go.
We know the drill — we’ll hit the road.
We’re Russians — we won’t come to harm!


Сегодня С. А. С. Ш. объявили войну Японии,
предательски напавшей на Перл Гарбор!

Заголовок газет 1941-го года.
Возвращается ветер на круги своя…
Экклезиаст

Все в жизни тлен и «все бывало»…
Концы вплетаются в начала,
Начала в новые концы…
Там — кувырком летят венцы
И рушатся дворцы и троны,
Здесь — кто-то топчет в грязь законы
И хочет Мир завоевать!..
Кровавый шквал войны – опять
Безумьем охватил Планету…
Приходит мысль: «Спасенья нету!»…
Встает вопрос: «Куда уйти?!..
Где безопасные пути?!!»…

Ну, что-ж, не новы мысли эти, —
Отцы то помнят, да и дети —
Те, что в России родились, —
Как мы боролись, как дрались,
Как мы томились, как страдали,
Как всей семьей потом бежали,
Покинув Родину навек…

Там были мы — рабы вещей!
Рабы горшков для варки щей,
Рабы «привычной» рюмки водки,
Кастрюль, шумовок, сковородки…

Мы все — о том, о сем мечтали,
Искали что-то, покупали,
И — в поте тела и лица —
Приобретали без конца!..
Самоуверенными были
И о вещах мы говорили:
«Мой граммофон, мой портсигар,
Мой книжный шкап, мой самовар,
Мой особняк, моя картина,
Мой стол, мой стул, моя перина!»

Освобождения начало
Пришло в «семнадцатом году»,
Когда — России на беду —
Большевики у власти стали…
В тот год — мы сразу потеряли
Рояли, фраки и дома…
А «двадцать первого» зима
Нас повстречала за границей…
Тянулись всюду вереницей
«Освобожденные Рабы»!..

Лет пять по свету нас мотало…
Потом душа бродить устала,
Осели… Занялись трудом…
И что-ж?…

Проснулись милых дам капризы, —
Их снова тянет на сервизы,
На шляпки, платья и духи…
Опять в «кладовках» чепухи
И хлама накопились горы…
И, снова, те-же разговоры:
Та — хочет заказать манто,
Тот — приобрел себе пальто,
Те — дом и фарму покупают,
А эти — скоро открывают
Шикарный русский ресторан…

Забыта боль недавних ран…
Забыты горкие потери, —
Как будто-бы открылись двери
В Эдема пышные сады…
Как будто не было беды,
Да и в грядущем быть не может!..
Ничто их больше не тревожит,
Не ждут они кровавых бурь,
Для них — чиста небес лазурь,
Они опять «рабами» стали,
Вещами вновь пообрастали
Буквально — с головы до ног!..

Увы!.. Войны кровавый бог —
Жестокосердый Марс — проснулся…
Расправил плечи… Потянулся
И вытащил широкий меч!..

У молкла дипломатов речь…
Пожары Землю озарили, —
Орудия заговорили…
И приближается теперь
Вторично к нам — «пора потерь»!..

Замкнулся круг… Заныли раны…
Что-ж — приготовим чемоданы,
Мешки, и будем скромно ждать…
Не стоит думать, да гадать, —
Нет смысла — бить в тоске тревогу…

А, коль в дорогу, — так в дорогу!..
Идти придется… Что-ж — пойдем!..
Мы — Русские!.. Не пропадем!..

15 thoughts on ““What Route Is Safe These Days?”: Alexander Voloshin Advises Refugees of All Eras

  1. Outstanding translation, Boris, and inspiring to keep seeing more such sustained strong passages from Voloshin’s work. It’s as if his voice had been waiting to reemerge when we’d need him most, and namely as is cohering in this rendering. Such supple language, such philosophical depth carried lightly.

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    1. Ah, thank you, dear friend, for seeing in. Voloshin precisely what I see! It satisfies me deeply to know that I have managed to reveal those qualities in my translation!

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  2. Wonderful! It’s interesting to see him use the phrase “slave of things” — which, to my ear sounds, distinctly Soviet — socialist? I had to google it and am comping up with Engels as one of the possible sources of origin 🙂 Which is a good reminder, I think, that it was very easy to be anti-Bolshevik and still give weight to socialist ideas…

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    1. That’s certainly true, Olga, but I do think he was being at least largely ironic. The notion that being stripped of your possessions, however “useless” in utilitarian terms they may be, is a blessing probably struck him as bitterly funny. There’s something to it, of course: gamblers often speak of the liberating effect of losing it all — a thrilling if devastating sense of freedom from the vice that holds them bound. But here I see a wry pseudo-justification for the unjustifiable crime of being stripped bare by brutes of all political stripes. I sense that Voloshin, who ended his days driving a taxi in LA, would have been very happy to keep his cigarette case, his private home, and his cluttered closet.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. You ask a question I’ve been wondering a lot about too over the past months – how would someone like Voloshin see themselves today? Such a wonderful poem by him through your words, thank you for sharing it. His ironic, yet despairing humor cuts to the bone here.

    Liked by 2 people

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