BBC Radio 4: The Cultural Front

The latest episode of the excellent BBC Radio 4 program(me) The Cultural Front, “Reality and Reconstruction,” focuses on “the meeting of Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen at Craiglockhart hospital in Edinburgh”; Pablo Picasso’s “collaboration with The Ballet Russe and the creation of his biggest ever piece of work — The Parade Curtain”; sculptor Francis Derwent Wood’s tin masks, which were meant to make patients who had suffered facial injuries “look as close as possible to how [they] had been before [they were] wounded”; and the art that arose from the Russian Revolution. I speak to host Francine Stock about the poetry of 1917 at 6:55.

On a related note, this week LARB presented an excerpt from historian Yuri Slezkine’s monumental new book The House of Government: A Saga of the Russian Revolution, alongside a review of the volume by Max Holleran.

Four by Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934)

The final issue of the wonderful and always surprising online journal Numéro Cinq features four poems by the terrible and downright shocking Alexander Tinyakov (1886-1934) in my translation. It’s somehow appropriate that Tinyakov, who was perpetually late to the party — releasing his first book of Symbolist verse in 1912, two years after the “crisis of Russian Symbolism” — should make it into Numéro Cinq by the skin of his gritted teeth.

I want to express my gratitude to Melissa Considine Beck, one of the literary blogosphere’s most distinguished citizens, for soliciting this selection, and to Douglas Glover, the journal’s founding editor, for cheerfully accepting poems he rightly calls “blackly cynical and exuberantly negative.”

You’ll find the Russian texts below the fold.


Любо мне, плевку-плевочку,
По канавке грязной мчаться,
То к окурку, то к пушинке
Скользким боком прижиматься.

Пусть с печалью или с гневом
Человеком был я плюнут,
Небо ясно, ветры свежи,
Ветры радость в меня вдунут.

В голубом речном просторе
С волей жажду я обняться,
А пока мне любо — быстро
По канавке грязной мчаться.

Март 1907

Поздний грач

Подморозило — и лужи
Спят под матовым стеклом.
Тяжело и неуклюже
Старый грач взмахнул крылом.

Дожил здесь он до морозов,
Дотянул почти до вьюг
И теперь почуял позыв
Улететь на светлый юг.

Клюв озябшей лапкой чистя,
Он гадает о пути,
А пред ним влекутся листья
И шуршат: «Прощай! Лети!»

Декабрь 1909

Радость жизни

Едут навстречу мне гробики полные,
В каждом — мертвец молодой,
Сердцу от этого весело, радостно,
Словно берёзке весной!

Вы околели, собаки несчастные, —
Я же дышу и хожу.
Крышки над вами забиты тяжёлые, —
Я же на небо гляжу!

Может, — в тех гробиках гении разные,
Может, — поэт Гумилёв…
Я же, презренный и всеми оплёванный,
Жив и здоров!

Скоро, конечно, и я тоже сделаюсь
Падалью, полной червей,
Но пока жив, — я ликую над трупами
Раньше умерших людей.

28 июля 1921

Моление о пищи

Ухо во всю жизнь может не слышать звуков тимпана, лютни
и флейты; зрение обойдется и без созерцания садов; обоняние
легко лишается запаха розы и базилика; а если нет мягкой, полной
подушки, все же хорошо можно заснуть, положивши в изголовье
камень; если не найдется для сна подруги, можешь обнять руками
себя самого – но вот бессовестное чрево, изогнутое кишками,
не выдерживает и не может ни с чем примириться.

Пищи сладкой, пищи вкусной
Даруй мне, судьба моя, —
И любой поступок гнусный
Совершу за пищу я.

Я свернусь бараньим рогом
И на брюхе поползу,
Насмеюсь, как хам, над Богом,
Оскверню свою слезу.

В сердце чистое нагажу,
Крылья мыслям остригу,
Совершу грабёж и кражу,
Пятки вылижу врагу.

За кусок конины с хлебом
Иль за фунт гнилой трески
Я, — порвав все связи с небом, —
В ад полезу, в батраки.

Дайте мне ярмо на шею,
Но дозвольте мне поесть.
Сладко сытому лакею
И горька без пищи честь.

Ноябрь 1921

Igor Golomstock (1929-2017)

The Russian-born art historian Igor Golomstock, one of the most extraordinary people I have ever met, passed away on July 12, 2017, in London. Robert Chandler’s obituary of his late friend appeared in The Guardian today. In it, Robert mentions that Igor’s “last publication, in Russian, was Memoirs of an Old Pessimist (2011). The complete memoir is due to be published in English next year.” Two chapters of this important book, about Igor’s childhood in Kolyma, appeared in Cardinal Points.

In an earlier version of the obituary, Robert had included what I think is a significant and moving passage: “Igor was an Anglophile. He spoke of two moments in his life when he felt overwhelmed, unable to believe he was really in England and not just dreaming. One was in the Senior Common Room at New College, Oxford; the other was in an ordinary London pub. Nevertheless, his inner world, like that of many Russian émigrés, remained deeply Russian, and most of his friends were either Russians or English Russianists.”

I am now in London myself, for an event at the British Library, and feel a measure of Igor’s joy at being here.

“Justice in Quotes”

On July 12th and 13th, Odessa celebrated the 123rd birthday of its beloved myth-maker, Isaac Babel, with a bash that would have pleased the party-loving Kriks: a flashmob! My friend, the intrepid travel and food writer Caroline Eden, was on the scene and tweeted a photo of the festivities — as well as one of her mouthwatering, if “slippery,”  lunch. (Ah, the sprats of my childhood! “And suddenly the memory returns.”)

You can read about the event in the 9th issue of The Odessa Review. And I’m deeply grateful to the journal’s Chief Editor, Vladislav Davidzon, and its Senior Editor, Katya Michaels, for including my translation of what may have been Babel’s earliest Odessa story, “Justice in Quotes,” in the same issue. “Justice,” which is written in the voice of the scheming broker Tsudechkis, was published in an Odessa newspaper in August 1921 and never reprinted in Babel’s lifetime. (July 7 was also my birthday, and I couldn’t have asked for a better gift from my hometown.)

The Odessa Review has been a boon to Odessa — a vibrant, inventive, cosmopolitan publication in the city’s own image. May it prosper!

Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky

I’m very glad to see the unfailingly perceptive Phoebe Taplin’s lovely review — the first, I believe, but certainly not the last — of Bryan Karetnyk’s superb anthology Russian Émigré Short Stories from Bunin to Yanovsky. Bryan’s selection is wide-ranging and revelatory. While he translated most of the pieces himself — and did so brilliantly — he also included the work of Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Justin Doherty, Rose France, Donald Rayfield, Irina Steinberg, and Anastasia Tolstoy. I contributed renditions of Georgy Ivanov’s mysterious “Giselle” and Vasily Yanovsky’s phantasmagoric “They Called Her Russia.” You can read Bryan’s thoughts on anthologizing the Russian emigration, along with an account of an evening dedicated to the book at the British Library, at the TLS website. Below is the full table of contents:

Ivan Bunin: “In Paris,” “Un petit accident,” “In the Alps,” “In such a night…”
Teffi: “Thou Shalt Not Covet,” “Hedda Gabler,” “A Conversation”
Ivan Shmelyov: “Moscow in Shame,” “Russie,” “Shadows of days”
Sasha Chorny: “Spindleshanks”
Vladislav Khodasevich: “Pompeii,” “Atlantis”
Mark Aldanov: “The Astrologist”
Don Aminado: “Auto-Suggestion”
Ivan Lukash: “A Scattering of Stars”
Georgy Adamovich: “A Literary Studio,” “Ramón Ortiz”
Yury Felsen: “An Experiment,” “The Recurrence of Things Past”
Georgy Ivanov: “Giselle,” “The Atom Explodes”
Boris Butkevich: “Klasson and His Soul”
Irina Odoevtseva: “The Life of Madame Duclos”
Vladimir Nabokov: “The Visit to the Museum,” “The Assistant Producer”
David Knut: “The Lady from Monte Carlo”
Galina Kuznetsova: “Kunak”
Nina Berberova: “The Murder of Valkovsky”
Gaito Gazdanov: “The Spy,” “Black Swans,” “Princess Mary,” “Requiem”
Irina Guadanini: “The Tunnel”
Vasily Yanovsky: “They Called Her Russia”

Alexei Tolstoy’s First Take on Peter I (and Curtis on Bulgakov)

The venerable journal Index on Censorship has just released its latest issue, which is dedicated to the legacy of the Russian Revolution. It’s full of thought-provoking material on a wide range of subjects, including the propaganda value of Sergei Eisenstein’s films, the nefarious rapprochement between Putin and Erdogan, and the suppression of free speech in today’s Russia and Uzbekistan. In one piece, Nina Khrushcheva — Nikita’s great-granddaughter — reflects on life in Trump’s America. I was asked to contribute a work from the revolutionary period and chose to translate an excerpt from a gripping, disturbing story by Alexei Tolstoy (1882-1945), titled “Peter’s” (1918). Here is my introduction to the excerpt:

Few authors associated with the pre-revolutionary regime, and especially those of noble origin, adapted so well to Soviet life and literary culture as Alexei Tolstoy. But this wasn’t the case from the start.

Born into a prosperous and literary family in 1882, Alexei was a remote relative of the more famous Leo Tolstoy (and a descendant of Peter Andreyevich Tolstoy, who appears in the excerpt). He published his first story in 1908, and soon developed a reputation both as a gifted craftsman of prose and an essentially apolitical bon vivant. During the civil war in the wake of the 1917 October Revolution, Tolstoy sided with the monarchist White Russians. In 1919, Tolstoy escaped the advancing Bolshevik army via Odessa, winding up, along with hundreds of thousands of other Russian refugees, in Paris. He quickly realised, however, that emigration did not suit him; he missed his native land, and saw no way to establish the kind of sumptuous lifestyle to which he had grown accustomed. After proving his bona fides by writing for a number of Bolshevik-friendly publications, he returned to Soviet Russia in 1923.

Although he started his Soviet career with experimental works in a number of popular genres, including the science fiction classic Aelita, published the year he returned, he found his true métier in historical fiction. Peter the Great (1929-1943), his three-volume novel chronicling the emperor’s life, won the acclaim of the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tolstoy’s portrait of a fearless Russian moderniser appealed to a man then implementing his own radical policies of industrialisation and collectivisation. As the historian Robert C. Tucker puts it, Tolstoy’s “Peter became the would-be Stalin of yesteryear, and his revolution from above the partial piatiletka [five-year plan] of early eighteenth century Russia”.

But Peter the Great wasn’t Tolstoy’s first work about the monarch. In 1918, in the midst of the civil war, Tolstoy wrote a very different story tracing a single day in Peter’s life, never before published in English. This Peter is a somewhat different type — a self-indulgent, drunken fanatic and sadist. In the scene below, which is based on an actual historical incident, he tortures Varlaam, one of the “Old Believers”, a sect that split off from the Russian Orthodox Church, for preaching that he, Peter, is the Antichrist.

What Tolstoy’s story dramatises is the personal interest — the downright pleasure — Peter took in crushing opposition and those who spoke against him, as well as the foolhardiness of his mission. This image of Peter as bloodthirsty tyrant, clearly inspired by the bloodshed of the civil war, is an uncensored moment of truth. It is a message in a bottle from 1918, which profoundly alters our impression of the glorified Peter in Tolstoy’s later work. This is not the image of Peter that Stalin authorised, precisely because it is far closer to the leader Stalin actually was. Needless to say, this powerful story was not widely circulated in the Soviet Union at the time.

Those who have access to the SAGE Journals database through an academic institution or library can read the excerpt online.

And the latest issue of the TLS (23 June 2017) carries my review of J. A. E. Curtis’s compelling and concise biography Mikhail Bulgakov, an entry in the Reaktion Books Critical Lives series.

Lviv (and Odessa) in LARB

André van Loon has written a superb review of — or rather, an essay on — Odessa Stories in the latest issue of The London Magazine (June/July 2017), and Uilleam Blacker shares his insight into Babel’s Odessa and Józef Wittlin’s (1896–1976) Lviv/Lwów/Lvov/Lemberg at the Los Angeles Review of Books. (Needless to say, I kept my mitts off Dr. Blacker’s piece, and am very grateful for his kind words.) This is the second LARB piece inspired by the very worthy City of Lions. We ran Jacob Mikanowski’s magnificently lyrical essay on the book in May. I’ll also take this opportunity to promote two more important LARB pieces on Slavic subjects: Cynthia Haven’s interview with Russian poet and public intellectual Maria Stepanova, and Louise Steinman’s conversation with Adam Zagajewski, one of Poland’s literary giants, who was also born in Lviv (then Lwów) in 1945.

In other news, I’ve completed my translation of Mikhail Zoshchenko’s Sentimental Tales — and am getting rather sentimental about it. Parting with Zoshchenko’s hilariously ham-handed narrator, I. V. Kolenkorov, is such sweet sorrow. I’ll write more about this cycle in the weeks to come.

Ivan Elagin and Vladimir Markov

The final print issue of the excellent literary journal The Los Angeles Review, vol. 21 (not to be confused with The Los Angeles Review of Books) carries two poems, in my translation, by Ivan Elagin (1918-1987) and Vladimir Markov (1920-2013), who were associated with the Second Wave of Russian emigration — a group cast adrift during the Second World War. Both Elagin and Markov were children of families torn apart by Stalin’s “Great Terror” in the late 1930s. Their fathers were arrested and executed; Markov’s mother was sent to the Gulag, while Elagin’s was committed to a psychiatric hospital. Both men left the Soviet Union during the war and spent time in DP camps before immigrating to the United States. Elagin earned his PhD from NYU and took a post teaching Russian literature at the University of Pittsburgh. Markov earned his PhD at Berkeley and went on to teach at UCLA, where he established himself as one of his generation’s most perceptive and influential scholars of Russian modernist poetry. Both men were also gifted poets in their own right. As one might expect, many of their lyrics touch on the usual themes — and are touched by the usual moods — of emigration: the sense of displacement, stagnation, and loneliness, the temptations of nostalgia and the threat of oblivion. These two poems — one written in transit, the other in a new home the poet still finds foreign — articulate, quietly but powerfully, the experience of exile.

Vladimir Markov

Мy life slips from my mind —
days, objects, faces, towns.
All I remember now
are rattling, wailing trains.

Look round, nothing has changed:
I’m in third class once more,
with eggshells on the floor…
Seats shine like greasy skin.

Tomorrow is a pond
obscured by scum, while my
whole life lies on my palm,
weblike, in some strange tongue.


Ivan Elagin

My neighbors hang on walls facing my flat,
in heavy frames, behind thick glass:
a woman dressed in plaid sits deep in thought,
a student stoops above his writing desk.
While farther off, two girls, bored and alone,
have pressed their foreheads up against their panes.
A year will pass, I’ll stare out at the same
old page in this, my album made of stone.


Владимир Марков

Я жизнь свою позабываю —
Дни, вещи, лица, города —
И помню только поезда,
Что мчат, стучат и завывают.

И до сих пор кругом все то же:
С дощечкой «третий класс» купэ,
Где пол в яичной скорлупе…
И лоснятся скамьи, как рожи.

День завтрашний тягучей тиной,
Как пруд, покрыт, лишь на руке,
На непонятном языке, —
Вся жизнь — гравюрой-паутиной.


Иван Елагин

Напротив, на стене, мои соседи
Висят в тяжёлых рамах под стеклом.
Вот женщина задумчивая в пледе,
А вот студент за письменным столом.
Поодаль две скучающих девицы
Бессмысленно в стекло уткнулись лбом.
И через год мой каменный альбом
Открою я на этой же странице.


Yevgeny Yevtushenko (1932-2017)

Just over a month ago, on April 1, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the last of the major Soviet poets, passed away in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he had been living for two decades. In 1964 he famously declared that in Russia a poet is more than a poet; his own life bore out the truth of those words. A handsome, charismatic man with a stentorian voice, he came to embody the spirit of “The Thaw,” a period of relative liberalization in Soviet cultural policy after Stalin’s death. His poems “Babi Yar,” on the massacre of Jews outside Kyiv during the Second World War, and “Stalin’s Heirs,” on the General Secretary’s lingering legacy, tested the limits of that liberalization.

He became a celebrity at home, reciting his verse to stadiums packed with adoring fans, and was sent abroad as an ambassador of the new USSR. Like any star, he had his detractors. In the eyes of some unofficial Soviet-era poets and dissidents — Joseph Brodsky among them — Yevtushenko’s semi-official status was evidence of a Faustian bargain with an evil regime. And those whose tastes run to the sophisticated often dismissed his verse for its accessibility and popularity. I myself find “Babi Yar” and his poems on civic themes unappealing. But Yevtushenko was, undeniably, a poet of great gifts. And just as importantly, in the words of Irina Mashinski, “he cared more about poetry than about himself in poetry.”

Yevtushenko’s anthology of 20th-century Russian verse, Stanzas of the Era (Strofy veka, 1995), published in English as Silver and Steel, features the work of 875 poets. It was attacked by critics and competitors both for its size and its arbitrariness, but a student of Russian poetry would be hard-pressed to find a more useful resource. Every time I think I’ve discovered a completely forgotten poet — Anna Prismanova, Aleksandr Tinyakov, Yuri Kazarnovsky — there he or she is, in Yevtushenko’s pages. His Stanzas is the fruit of a lifetime in the service of poetry.

And that lifetime of service also produced strikingly beautiful poems. On the day of Yevtushenko’s death, Jennifer Croft — a writer and translator who had been a student of his at the University of Tulsa — sent me one such poem, “Людей неинтересных в мире нет” (“There are no boring people in this world,” 1961). This lyric, which sits at the heart of Jennifer’s brilliant novel Homesick, is a moving affirmation of Yevtushenko’s deep-rooted humanism, of his genuine interest in the experience of others. I couldn’t help translating it — or part of it.

Today The Guardian published my translation, which condenses the original’s fifth and sixth stanzas into one, ending the poem with the quietly devastating line, “it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.” The publication functions as an epitaph, and I felt that this line — solemn and cosmic — struck the right concluding note.

But the Russian poem does go on, rising to a half-stifled cry of agony, which Jennifer captured, better than I ever could, in her translation of the final stanza. Below is our joint translation.

There are no boring people in this world.
Each fate is like the history of a planet.
And no two planets are alike at all.
Each is distinct — you simply can’t compare it.

If someone lived without attracting notice
and made a friend of their obscurity —
then their uniqueness was precisely this.
Their very plainness made them interesting.

Each person has a world that’s all their own.
Each of those worlds must have its finest moment
and each must have its hour of bitter torment —
and yet, to us, both hours remain unknown.

When people die, they do not die alone.
They die along with their first kiss, first combat.
They take away their first day in the snow…
All gone, all gone — there’s just no way to stop it.

There may be much that’s fated to remain,
but something — something leaves us all the same.
The rules are cruel, the game nightmarish —
it isn’t people but whole worlds that perish.

People die. Their deaths can’t be reversed.
Their secret worlds won’t be traversed
again. And all that’s ever left for me to do
is cry, How can we lose you, too?


Leopold Staff (1878-1957)

Looking over some of my quaint and curious attempts at translation, I found a version of a nostalgic sonnet by the Polish poet Leopold Staff (1878-1957). It seems to have been inspired by Baudelaire’s “Le Voyage,” with that beautiful opening stanza:

Pour l’enfant, amoureux de cartes et d’estampes,
L’univers est égal à son vaste appétit.
Ah! que le monde est grand à la clarté des lampes!
Aux yeux du souvenir que le monde est petit!

Staff’s poem is called “Childhood” (“Dzieciństwo”):

The poetry of ancient wells, of broken clocks;
the attic; cracked, mute violins without a fiddler;
a yellow book, where dried foget-me-nots
still sleep – were to my childhood an enchanted woodland…

First I collected rusty keys… A tale
whispered that one key was a wondrous gift of gifts,
which opened castles hidden in a mist
where I would go – pale prince out of a Van Dyck oil.

Then I collected butterflies, a magic lamp’s
charmed marvels that appeared upon a papered wall,
and also, for a long time, postage stamps…

For they were like a crazy journey through the world,
full of departures to the earth’s four corners…
Sweet dream, ridiculous, like happiness… like happiness…