“Which One is Cain and Which is Abel?”: The Civil War in Andrey Kurkov’s Latest Novel and Varvara Malakhieva-Mirovich’s Poems

Varvara Malakhieva-Mirovich

As Russia’s war on Ukraine grinds on, I find myself immersed in an earlier conflict that raged over the same terrain. Last month I broke ground on my latest translation project, the first in a series of historical crime novels by Andrey Kurkov, titled Samson and Nadezhda. Set in Kyiv in the spring of 1919, in the midst of the bloody Civil War, which saw a half dozen regimes rise and fall in the span of a couple of years, the novel follows the adventures of Samson, a young electrical engineer turned police investigator, and his sturdy, no-nonsense love interest, Nadezhda. Andrey doesn’t shy away from the realities of the era, with its kidnappings, murders, black markets, crooked schemes, and even cannibalism, yet he leavens them, as usual, with a dose of light surrealism and humor. The series resonates with echoes of, if not outright allusions to, the works of authors who witnessed the Civil War in Ukraine firsthand — namely, Mikhail Bulgakov and Isaac Babel. And as it happens, a new selection of my versions of Babel’s stories, Of Sunshine and Bedbugs, was just published last week by Pushkin Press.

Andrey has based Samson’s cases, however, not on incidents out of literature but on the actual, often hair-raising, archives of the Cheka and other crime enforcement agencies in Kyiv. I’m greatly enjoying the challenge of finding ways to introduce the period details to Anglophone readers — from street names to professions to the various currencies then in circulation — without confusing the narrative. But I’m also reading around the book, looking to prose and poems from 1917-1920 that can help conjure up the mood of the time.

One remarkable discovery I made in my search for mood-setting material is a sequence by the Kyiv-born poet Varvara Malakhieva-Mirovich (1869-1954), written in Rostov in 1919. Malakhieva-Mirovich’s name is hardly known. She published only a single collection in her lifetime, in 1923, and spent the rest of her life writing with no hope of publication. This allowed her to remain honest to her vision, which had been shaped by Symbolism, theosophy, and the writings of her old friend from Kyiv, the émigré religious philosopher Lev Shestov (1866-1938). Many of the poems she wrote in her mature period reflect these metaphysical leanings, but some, like the sequence from 1919, are shatteringly concrete, almost Beckettian. Below are two lyrics from the sequence that will hang over my work on Samson and Nadezhda. Those who read Russian can find more in a collection published in 2013.

An old woman died queuing for bread.
The queue went on and on.
She sat down on the iced-over road.
A cannon sounded at dawn.
While all others scurried away,
she just sat there, wide-eyed, all day.

* * *

Daniel is with the Reds.
Ivan is with the Whites.
The brothers’ regiments fight.
They slash each other’s faces with their sabers —
embrace and fall face down onto a mound…
Which one is Cain and which is Abel?
The Lord will sort them out…
Now they lie buried side by side.
Death has left them pacified.


В череду умерла старушка.
Простояла всю ночь в череду,
Не дождалась хлеба и села.
На рассвете грянула пушка.
Разбежались все, а она – на льду,
Как живая до полдня сидела.

* * *

В кавалерии красной Данила.
В кавалерии белой Иван.
Брат на брата с полками идет.
Бились шашками, лица друг другу рубили…
Обнялись и свалились ничком на курган…
Кто тут Каин, кто Авель –
Господь разберет…
Схоронили их рядом в могиле одной,
Усмирила ты, Смерть, их своей тишиной.


8 thoughts on ““Which One is Cain and Which is Abel?”: The Civil War in Andrey Kurkov’s Latest Novel and Varvara Malakhieva-Mirovich’s Poems

  1. What is the difference between Cains and the Abels? The brunt of the suffering fell on others, as the poet and translator make clear with the opening image.

    Liked by 1 person

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