Lev Mak Looks Back from Venice Beach

This image has an empty alt attribute; its file name is surfers-venice-carol-m.-highsmith.jpg

Photography by Carol M. Highsmith

Among the few — the very few — positive memories I have from the month that followed the launch of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the most heartwarming may be of an online event hosted by the Wende Museum and moderated by my good friend Sasha Razor. That event gave me the chance to meet and read with one of my Odessan (and Angeleno!) idols, the poet Lev Mak, whose life story I outlined here, with a couple of representative verses. As I mentioned in that earlier post, Lev had more than one run-in with the KGB in our native Odessa, and the last of these led to his exile — an exile that eventually landed him in Venice, California, where he lives in a house overlooking the ocean.

The lyric below, from 2004, sees Lev reflecting on his life in opposition to all oppressive forces. I love his identification with the surfers beneath his balcony, whom he sees not as blissful slackers but as ant-like warriors fighting against the odds — Davids who snidely take on the oceanic Goliath just as he had taken on the authorities back in Soviet Ukraine. Lev might have lost that last battle in Odessa, but as he says here, the loss opened up new possibilities. He’s not one to give up, and I have a feeling his sands will keep on flowing for a good long time.

From the Balcony

Six surfers run towards the shore
like ants bearing the wings of bees,
clipped cleanly from their mortal foe.

They lie atop these wings they bore
and row — how skillfully they tease
the water, trampling frenzied foam.

So I once teased the KGB.

That wave smacked me against the beach,
but in the end it helped me reach
America. It set me free.

I grow old in contempt of laws,
my life split evenly in two,
and watch the ocean rolling blue.

Sand trickles down my hourglass.

July 16, 2004

С балкона

Шесть серфингистов, сбегающих к пляжу,
Напомнили колонну муравьев,
Несущих крылья пчел, врагов своих.

Они ложатся на свою поклажу,
Гребут, и ярость пенистых валов
Дразнят внезапным попираньем их…

Так я дразнил когда-то КГБ.

Волна меня ударила о берег
И помогла открытию америк,
А с ней европ, и азий, и т.п.

Прожив полжизни там, полжизни тут,
Состарившись в презрении к закону,
Смотрю на Тихий океан с балкона.

Песочные часы мои текут.

16 июля 2004


“The Set Was Hot”: Alexander Voloshin on a Day in the Life of a Hollywood Extra

One of my favorite passages in Alexander Voloshin’s mock-epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, describes a day in the life of a typical Russian extra — and one may be excused for assuming that this typical extra is none other than Voloshin himself. After all, he was a prolific contributor to filmic “atmosphere.” Then again, so were a great many of his countryman, like Theodore Lodi, whom I mentioned in an earlier post. But the intensity of Voloshin’s telling indicates to me that the particular scene described below was experienced first hand. Surely our poet was the face on the cutting room floor — as the cut seemed to smart something awful… Indeed, the documentary quality of this passage alone recommends it for preservation; Voloshin not only peppers it with piquant comments about the worsening political climate of the 1930s, but also records the actual number extras would call to reach Central Casting, “GArfield 3711.” I continue to marvel at Voloshin’s ability to register the political tensions of his day with humor without undermining their seriousness; in fact, the humor underscores their seriousness. The utter helplessness of our émigré extra in the face of a world spinning out of control adds a bitterly ironic and rather touching subtext to his struggle to pay his bills and his pathetic desire to see himself on film. Once we get to his joyous dreams at the end, we might remember the Fuhrer’s speech from the beginning. Speaking of preservation, it’s sad to reflect not only on how many scenes from old Hollywood films ended up in the rubbish bin, but also on how many films are lost… Just the other day I came across a rather expensive document on Ebay: a contract for a bit part signed by our poet. The film is 1928’s The Awakening, in which Voloshin apparently played a character named “Cronie.” Well, the film, if it exists, is slumbering in a dusty canister in some attic, but I’ll keep working to awaken readers to Cronie’s art.

I think I’ll lay out, if I may,
a common extra’s “working day”:
It’s seven-thirty — bored, depressed,
he eats his breakfast, then gets dressed,
but still has plenty time to kill…
Some coffee, then — he’ll drink his fill,
peruse a newspaper or two.
Here’s one more cutlet he can chew
while catching up on world affairs…
Look, “Lindbergh’s taken to the air”
and “Mrs. Simpson cracks a smile,”
“Blum weakens; publicly reviled,
Front populaire goes down the drain,”
while “Ethiopians, in vain,
have pled with Europe for fair play.”
The League of Nations? “Disarray.”
“Edward VIII is on the beach
in France.” “The Fuhrer gives a speech…”
And then he scans a different page:
“Arts — Cinema — News of the Stage.”
He reads the adverts, line by line,
for Lux soap, whiskey, gin, and wine,
and learns that Smith has cut the price
on his Vienna sausage — nice.

Such awful boredom… He sucks down
another cigarette, then frowns
and asks himself: “Where might I get
some money, pay off all this debt?”
Six fifteen for the gas alone;
four twenty for the telephone;
two eighty-five for power; soon
the rent is also coming due…
Oh, how he’d like to cry and shout,
“A Russian suffers – help him out!”

He washes… Slips in his false teeth…
Maybe a chat will bring relief?
Picks up the phone and dials a friend —
no answer on the other end:
“Figures… Always at work, that one…”
Nothing to do but sit and yawn.
Turns on the radio and sighs,
“Maybe somebody will drop by…”
His dog is groomed… His tailcoat’s brushed…
“Time certainly is in no rush…”

It’s twelve o’clock… And so at last he
decides to dial up Central Casting…
“GA” for “Garfield” (of all things),
Three… seven… one… one… And it rings.
“Hello” — then, with a stifled groan,
“You call back later.” Click. Dial tone.

Evening is here… No calls at all —
now it’s too late for them to call.
“How sad… Maybe tomorrow, then.”
At least he can go out again…

Frustrated, feeling quite defeated,
he dines, drinks wine, heads to the theater…
At the Apollo they’re now screening
the film on which, for four demeaning
days, he worked (at seven fifty
per) — oh, that was heavy lifting…
The set was hot, stuffy, and stale.
Swallowing lukewarm ginger ale,
he sat behind the bar each day,
landed one closeup… flew away.
Others had paychecks for three weeks!
Just think — some folks get all the breaks…

Alas, there is more pain to follow…
Watching the screen at the Apollo,
he finds he’s nowhere to be found!
They’ve cut him out of it, the clowns…
He didn’t count on such a blow —
they didn’t even let him know…
It’s all right there — just not the bar:
the “fist fight” and the “tearful star,”
the “scandal” and the “intrigue” too,
but for a hundred smackeroos
you wouldn’t spot a sign of him! 
Another victim of fate’s whim…
How rude! You suffer for your art
and in the end they scrap your part…

He trudges home… There, at the door,
a telegram awaits! What more
could he have hoped for! Not too wordy:
“At Fox in tailcoat seven-thirty,”
signed “Casting.” Yes, an urgent “call”!

He nearly dances up the wall!
A tender yearning warms his heart!
Indolence flees! Sad thoughts depart!
A “tailcoat” means fifteen a day!
A ten-day shoot? Then they will pay
one hundred fifty! That may climb
to two, if they run overtime!

He gets in bed, sets the alarm…
Sleep settles on him like a charm…
Tonight, joy sheds its radiant beams
over our Russian extra’s dreams!

Скажу вам тут-же — для примера, —
Чем дышит наша «атмосфера», —
Взгляните на «рабочий день»:
Семь тридцать… Утро… Скука… Лень
Вставать, есть «брекфест», одеваться…
Не знает он куда деваться,
А время нужно-бы убить…
И вот плетется кофе пить…
Жует вчерашние котлеты
И — просмотревши две газеты —
Он — в курсе иностранных дел!…
Узнал, что «Линдберг — улетел»,
Что «миссис Симпсон — улыбнулась»,
Что «сила Блюма — пошатнулась,
И, получив большой афронт, —
Притих теперь Народный Фронт»,
Что «тщетно просят у Европы
Суда и Правды — эфиопы»,
Что «Фюрер — шесть речей сказал»,
Что «в Лиге Наций был скандал»,
Что «Эдуард уехал в Ниццу»…
Потом он просмотрел страницу
«Театр, Искусство и Кино»…
Прочел рекламы: про вино,
Про мыло «Локс», про джин и виски…
Узнал, что «венские сосиски
Распродает со скидкой Смитт»…

Т-о-с-к-а… Печально он глядит,
Сосет от скуки папиросы
И лезут в голову вопросы:
«Где-б это денег подзанять,
Чтоб сразу все долги отдать?!»…
За телефон — четыре двадцать,
За газ (со старым) — шесть пятнадцать,
За свет — два восемьдесят пять,
И скоро нужно ожидать
Письма со счетом за квартиру!…
А, главное, не крикнешь миру,
Что здесь — мол — русская душа, —
Страдает мрачно — без гроша!…

Вздохнул… Помылся… Вставил зубы…
Гадает — «позвонить кому-бы?»…
Снимает трубку… Крутанул,
Но слышит только мерный гул —
«Нет дома… вечно на работе»…
И хрустнув челюстью в зевоте, —
Заводит «радио» и ждет, —
«Быть может — кто-нибудь зайдет»…
Почистил фрак … Помыл собаку…
«Как время тянется однако!»…

Двенадцать бьет… Ну — стало быть —
Пора уж в «кастинг» позвонить…
«Джи-Эй» для «Гарфилд» (ну и слово!),
Три… семь… о-д-и-н-н-а-д-ц-а-т-ь … готово!…
«Алло!»… И, погасивши стон, —
«Звоните позже!» — слышит он…

Подходит вечер… Не позвали
И позовут теперь — едва-ли…
«Печально… Завтра, может быть…»
Теперь-же можно уходить, —
Все «кастинги» — уже закрыты…
Разочарованный, сердитый,
Он — пообедал, пьет вино
И собирается в «кино»…

В «Аполло», кстати, — та картина,
В которой он по семь с полтиной
«Играл» в толпе четыре дня,
Себя и всех кругом — кляня…
На «сэте» было жарко, давка, 
Сидел он в «баре» у прилавка,
Глотая теплый «джинджирэл»,
Попал в «клозап» и… улетел!…
Другие-ж были три недели!…
Подумать только — в самом деле —
Ну, как нарочно, как на зло, —
Ему тогда не повезло…

В «Аполло» — снова боль и мука…
В картины этой — вот так штука —
Он так себя и не нашел!…
Зачем-же он в театр пришел?!…
Такого он не ждал удара…
Все увидал он — кроме бара, —
Того, в котором так страдал!…
Он видел «драку» и «скандал»,
«Интриги», «слёзы героини»,
Но за сто долларов в картине —
Вы не смогли-б его найти!!…
Судьбы неведомы пути…
Вот хамство!… Mучиться, сниматься,
А в результате оказаться
В корзине для негодных лент!…
Ну показали-б на момент!…
Так нет — всё вырезали!… Звери!…

Идет домой … И там — у двери, —
Находит телеграмму он!…
Как радостный, пасхальный звон,
Звучит коротенькая строчка:
«В семь тридцать Фокс во фраке точка»!…
И подпись «Кастинг»!… Срочный «кол»!…

Как жизнерадостный козёл
Он сделал два-три пируэта!…
Душа надеждами согрета!…
Ушла тоска!… Исчезла лень!…
Ведь «фрак» — пятнадцать «дубов» в день!…
И коль деньков продержат с десять —
Сто пятьдесят!… извольте взвесить!…
А с «овертаймами» (как знать!)
И двести может набежать!…

Завел будильник… Спать ложится…
Забыто горе… Сладко спится…
И светлой радости полны
Сегодня русской «экстры» сны!…

“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.


“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…
Beginnings fade into the past,
ends weave themselves into beginnings…
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 had all dreamt of 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…

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!..

“All of Me Won’t Die”: Sergei Skarupo’s “Angel”

Every now and again this little website brings me pleasant surprises in the form of comments and letters from readers. In March, it brought me a shock. The letter from Charlotte Buchen Khadra was lovely, but the news it bore knocked me off balance. “I had a dear dear friend in Berkeley,” she wrote, “who was a Ukrainian Jew from Kyiv, and a poet, engineer, and musician. Unfortunately he died from a brain tumor in September. I wonder if by chance you two were ever in touch? His name was Sergei Skarupo (or sometimes spelled Shkarupo).”

I responded that I had indeed been in touch with Sergei. I didn’t know him at all well, but I had published a story of his in the 2020 volume of Cardinal Points. The last time we’d corresponded was in late June 2021, when he sent me another short story — a novella, actually — that he had just finished, and asked whether I might want it for the next volume of the journal. I told him that, unfortunately, the 2021 volume was already in layout, and that I would be happy to consider the piece in 2022. He responded kindly and wittily: “By that time the novella will be even more finished.”

After I received Charlotte’s note, I searched the internet for details. Sergei passed away on September 9, 2021, at the age of 47, and a service was held at the Chapel of the Chimes in Oakland a few days later. The tributes on the Chapel’s page filled me with regret. I wish I had had the chance to speak to him, even once, and to hear him play his guitar. I’ll quote one friend’s comment in full:

My husband was a coworker of Sergei’s and for a short but memorable span of months we lived within walking distance of his Berkeley apartment. Sergei quickly became a good friend and a fixture in our social life. I was always a little bit in awe of him — he was so brilliant, a serious person, a complete person, but he was also fun to be around, especially when there was music involved. He was also one of the most gracious hosts I’ve ever met — if you visited his apartment, he couldn’t relax until he’d served you tea and food. I remember eating ice cream in his living room just to satisfy this requirement, and that memory makes me smile. 

As Sergei’s cancer progressed, he told us that his experience of music changed dramatically. Music, which had always been a source of pleasure, became ineffably more beautiful, complex, and absorbing. I hope that wherever Sergei is now, he’s close to that music.

I share her hope. Charlotte was good enough to mail me a copy of Sergei’s collection of poems, written in Russian and titled Fire (Ogon’). Published in the last year of his life, it contains 32 lively, imaginative lyrics, beautifully illustrated by the Kharkiv-born artist Asya Livshits. Below is my own tribute to Sergei — a translation of the last poem in the book, with Livshits’s drawing.


My angel floats on high, hidden behind the clouds, 
and gazes at the earth just like a cosmonaut.
He sends me messages — some cryptic and profound,
some simple as can be — yet I can’t make them out.

My star burns bright on high, hidden behind the clouds, 
yet it’s so very hard to bid this world goodbye.
As sunshine dries me up and breezes leave me bowed,
I whisper to myself that all of me won’t die:

that I’ll sprout up as grass, come drizzling down as rain,
and, as a furious bee, will give some nose a sting —
will fall as fluffy snow upon a wintry plain
to thaw and overflow as water in the spring.


Вдали за облаками летает ангел мой,
Подобно космонавту, глядит на шар земной.
Он шлёт мне сообщенья, но я не слышу их,
Загадочных и важных, понятных и простых.

Вдали за облаками горит моя звезда,
Но с этим миром сложно расстаться навсегда.
На солнце высыхая, сгибаясь на ветру,
Шепчу себе чуть слышно, что весь я не умру:

Я прорасту травой и дождиком прольюсь,
Рассерженной пчелой в случайный нос вопьюсь,
Пушистым белым снегом просыплюсь на луга
И вешнем водою заполню берега.

“What a Violent Muddle You’ve Made of Death”: On Alexander Esenin-Volpin

Today is the birthday of Alexander Esenin-Volpin (1924-2016), a major leader of the Soviet civil rights movement, a renowned mathematician, and, like his father Sergei Yesenin, a poet with a distinct vision and voice. His mother, Nadezhda Volpin, was herself a poet and translator from an accomplished Jewish family. Her relationship with Yesenin was brief and stormy, and the couple separated before their son was born, a year before Yesenin’s suicide.

Esenin-Volpin showed a talent for mathematics early on and earned his doctorate from Moscow State University in 1949. Later that year he was arrested for “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” for reading his poems to a circle of friends, one of whom denounced him to the authorities. This was the first in a long series of arrests and forced psychiatric hospitalizations — a practice Soviet authorities frequently employed when dealing with dissidents, and the subject of Rebecca Reich’s thorough and penetrating study, State of Madness, which I reviewed for the TLS in 2018.

Esenin-Volpin’s most dramatic act of resistance, which attracted international attention, was the “glasnost meeting” that took place at Pushkin Square in Moscow on December 5, 1965, in response to the trial of Andrei Sinyavsky and Yuli Daniel for publishing their satirical work abroad. Esenin-Volpin and the roughly 200 other participants in the rally were arrested. Three years later, in February 1968, Esenin-Volpin was again arrested at a protest in response to the so-called “Trial of the Four” and forcibly hospitalized; that same year he composed and circulated a guide for his fellow dissidents, “Memorandum for Those Who Expect to Be Interrogated.”

After emigrating to the United States in May 1972, he continued to antagonize Soviet authorities by threatening to sue them for violations of human rights. He died on March 16, 2016. A few months earlier my friend Irina Mashinski sent me a copy of his little book of poems, inscribed in a shaky hand. It is one of my prized possessions.

Below is a poem Esenin-Volpin wrote in the final year of the Second World War, in which he was not allowed to serve due to psychiatric illness. A good poem is no indication of the poet’s mental health, but this one certainly represents what I would consider a healthy response to the horrors of war, which pervert death itself.

A soldier’s corpse lies in a ditch
beside the road.
His naked feet no longer twitch,
as still as wood —
a warped beam in a violet puddle,
soggy and stiff …
… Cruel soldiers, what a violent muddle
you’ve made of death.
The horses race to distant lands.
They’d run all day,
but they are sickened by the stench
just versts away —
earth rotting underneath the dead,
wet crimson stones.
Jackals will get those left behind,
gnaw at their bones …
… A radiant fear from childhood days:
Church lamps glowed dim —
ringed round by flowers, a girl lay 
beneath the dome …
A crowd was waiting for the priest
to sing the dirge,
while I stood staring at her face,
watching it change —
it seemed her heart had given out,
her flesh fought on …
A voice, so patient and and so warm,
began its song.
And, calmly, death shone in the girl —
agate’s dark gleam …
… A soldier in a fetid pool —
a bare warped beam.

January 20, 1945

Лежит неубранный солдат
В канаве у дороги,
Как деревянные торчат
Его босые ноги.
Лежит, как вымокшая жердь,
Он в луже лиловатой …
… Во что вы превратили смерть,
Жестокие солдаты!
… Стремглав за тридевять земель
Толпой несутся кони;
Но и за тридцать вёрст отсель
Коней мутит от вони,
Гниёт под мёртвыми земля,
Сырые камни алы,
И всех не сложат в штабеля —
Иных съедят шакалы …
… Я вспомнил светлый детский страх.
В тиши лампады меркли.
Лежала девочка в цветах
Среди высокой церкви…
И все стояли у крыльца
И ждали отпеванья, —
А я смотрел, как у лица
Менялись очертанья,
Как будто сердце умерло,
А ткань ещё боролась …
И терпеливо и тепло
Запел протяжный голос,
И тихо в ней светила смерть,
Как тёмный блеск агата …
… В гнилой воде лежит, как жердь,
Разутый труп солдата …

20 января 1945

“Symbol of Pain and Hope”: On Pyotr Buturlin’s “The Grave of Shevchenko”

Pyotr Buturlin (1859-1895), little read today, may be the most cosmopolitan Russophone poet of the 19th century. The son of a Russian count and a Portuguese noblewoman, Buturlin was born and raised in Florence and educated at St. Mary’s College, Oscott. It was in England that he began to write — and in English. Unfortunately, his 1878 Anglophone debut, First Trials, which was published in Florence, is lost to history. I was, however, able to find a poem he published in the September 13, 1884, issue of the (London) Academy, under the pseudonym Francis Earle.

After completing his education, he returned to the Russian Empire and settled at his family estate at Tahancha in central Ukraine, not far from Kaniv, where Ukraine’s greatest poet, Taras Shevchenko, lies buried.

Buturlin died young, of tuberculosis, but he left behind a number of accomplished poems, especially sonnets, which won the admiration of the formally dextrous Yevgeny Yevtushenko. A Parnassian at heart, Buturlin translated José-Maria de Heredia, and seems to have seen it as his mission to bring the sonnet firmly into the Russophone literary tradition. It is bitterly sad to revisit what is perhaps his best-known Russian-language sonnet, “The Grave of Shevchenko,” which celebrates the indomitable, deathless spirit of freedom embodied by Ukraine’s bard, who overcame serfdom, survived exile, and continues to inspire his people, more than two months after Russia launched its full-scale invasion. I think of the bust of Shevchenko in Borodyanka, near Bucha, with a Russian bullet in the poet’s head.

The Grave of Shevchenko

A mountain-tomb rises above the steppe —
earth merges with the earthly, dust with dust —
and only in its ever-quiet depths
has a tormented strength found peace at last.

But song has broken free from death’s grim cage.
Enflamed with passion, like a southern gust,
it bears those precious words into the ages
with which it once breathed life into the past.

Come closer, stranger — bow your head and pray.
Unfettered joy will make your soul feel light,
though in your eyes the heavy tears well up.

Around you, shining blue, is vast Ukraine,
below the Dnipro flows with measured might,
and here, a cross — symbol of pain and hope.

September 5, 1885

Могила Шевченко

Над степью высится гора-могила.
С землёю в ней опять слилось земное,
И лишь в её незыблемом покое
Покой нашла измученная сила.

Но песнь законы смерти победила
И страстная, как ветер в южном зное,
Векам несёт то слово дорогое,
Которым прошлое она бодрила.

Склони чело, молись, пришлец случайный!
Душе легко от радости свободной,
Хотя от слёз здесь тяжелеют вежды.

Кругом — синеющий раздол Украйны,
Внизу — спокойный Днепр широководный,
Здесь — крест, здесь — знак страданья и надежды.

5 сентября 1885

“The God of Soviet Jews”: Lev Mak in Odessa and Los Angeles

Over the past month, as the Russian military has committed atrocity after atrocity in Ukraine, some commentators have expressed concern about the damage that might be done to Russian high culture in the West. To those who know or care about the centuries-long, brutal suppression of Ukrainian culture by Russia — suppression that has not so much been ignored as celebrated by the leading lights of Russian high culture, like Joseph Brodsky — this concern seems woefully misplaced. It’s unlikely that Russian literature will cease to appear in translation, though the publication of these translations should not be funded by blood money from the Russian state. I myself have been complacent about these matters, but I vow to be more diligent from now on. Of course, there’s only one living Russian author with whom I have a close working relationship, Maxim Osipov, and he is now in emigration.

Yet Russian is the language I’ve worked with most — the Russian of the Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov, of the émigré poets of Los Angeles, and of dozens of Odessan poets and prose writers. As readers of this blog know, the salty, sunny language of that last group isn’t exactly the Tsar’s Russian, marinated as it is in Yiddish and Ukrainian and sprinkled with French and Greek. I’ll go on translating Isaac Babel and Eduard Bagritsky, the early poems of Vera Inber and Zinaida Shishova without a twinge of guilt. To my mind, they have about as much to do with Putin’s “Russian World” as Heinrich Heine does with Hitler’s Third Reich. 

Add to that list a living link to Odessan greatness, Lev Mak, with whom I had the great pleasure of chatting and reading some poems at the Wende Museum yesterday afternoon. Lev, now 82, was once the weightlifting champion of Ukraine and is still no one you’d care to mess with. Just ask the head of the Odessan KGB in 1973. That was the year that an article was planted in the newspaper Evening Odessa calling Lev a parasite and blaming his father, a professor at the Odessa Polytechnic Institute, for raising such a son. Lev’s father was relieved of his duties, while Lev marched over to the newspaper office and spat in the editor’s face. It was this that led to his final arrest, imprisonment, and forced emigration in 1974. Earlier he had been fired from the Odessa Film Studio for surreptitiously recording the secret trial of a woman charged with making samizdat copies of Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. Between that and exile, when he found work as a clean-up man at sites of suicide, he got in trouble for photographing the notes left behind, in which those who had taken their lives almost invariably blamed the Soviet regime. And did I mention he’d also worked as a stevedore at the port? Can you get more Odessan than that? And if you’d like to know where Lev stands on the current war, let’s just say that, thanks to him, the defenders of Ukraine have a few more machine guns at their disposal.

In short, Lev is a character — a character straight out of Babel — but he also writes verse no less moving, no less invigorating than Bagritsky’s. And for the past few decades he’s made his home in Los Angeles, at a house so close to the beach that he can hear the waves lapping at the shore at night. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, LA is just Odessa on a different scale.

Below are my translations of two of Lev’s poems, the first a surreal evocation of Jewish Odessa, with all its glinting dangers and shimmering wonders, the second a sharp little satire, in the classical mode, of those who seek fame in our adopted home.

August in Odessa

Stars pour down on the town
like jewels into safes.
A streetlamp sways over
a thief who’s been knifed.
Hemmed in by the walls
of homes locked up tight,
the Milky Way glimmers
like a moat in moonlight.

From behind milky furrows
people burr, roll their r’s.
Up above Jewish courtyards
glow menorahs of stars:
on this night, old Jehovah
condemns those he chose
to suffer through hunger,
with the post office closed.

Life’s a lottery pouch:
stick your hand in the hole —
the God of Soviet Jews
will bend over your soul
like a doctor; far off
in the distance you’ll see
the slovenly earth,
the snow’s clemency.



That holy grove, wherein the Gorgon Fame,
a bandage covering her suppurating eyes,
lows shamefully, enticing mortals
to copulate with her.
                                 The waxen idols
of Madame Tussauds speak of the moment
when that bandage is torn off
and the insatiable beast’s fury
floods her intolerable pupils with white heat.


Август в Одессе

Звезды сыплются в город
Будто яхонты в ларь.
Над зарезанным вором
Раскачался фонарь.
Окруженный стеною
Неприступных домов,
Млечный путь над тобою,
Как светящийся ров.

Слышен говор картавый
Из-за млечных борозд.
Над еврейским кварталом —
Семисвечники звезд:
Свой народ Иегова
В августовскую ночь
Обрекает на голод
И закрытие почт,

Ибо жизнь — лотерея:
Сунешь руку в мешок —
Бог советских евреев
Над твоею душой
Наклонится, как лекарь, —
Замаячат вдали
Милосердие снега,
Неприбранность земли.



Святая роща, где Горгона-слава
С повязкой на гноящихся глазах
Мычит постыдно, призывая смертных
Совокупиться с нею.
мадам Тюссо расскажут о мгновеньи,
Когда повязка сорвана и ярость
Ненасытимой твари раскаляет
Ее невыносимые зрачки.


“Why Show Up Armed? What Did You Hope to Gain?”: Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s “An Afghan Ant”

Despite his Ukrainian surname, the Siberian-born Yevgeny Yevtushenko did not identify as Ukrainian. He did have Ukrainian ancestry — his great-grandmother was sent into Siberian exile with her Polish husband — but was also part Tatar, part Belarusian, and part Baltic German. In the 1970s, Yevtushenko’s readings in the United States were sometimes interrupted by Ukrainian-American protesters who demanded that he speak out against the repression and imprisonment of Ukrainian intellectuals in the Soviet Union, and after the Soviet Union’s collapse he showed no support for Ukrainian culture or Ukrainian independence — quite the opposite.

Neither, I assume, was Yevtushenko particularly interested in Afghan culture or independence. And yet in 1983 he wrote a poem that couldn’t be published for a number of years — a poem about the disastrous Soviet-Afghan War, which stretched from 1979 to 1989, cost Afghanistan up to 12% of its population, and expedited the fall of the USSR. The poem seems newly relevant now, in connection with both Putin’s monstrous, idiotic invasion of Ukraine and the ongoing humanitarian disaster in Afghanistan.

An Afghan Ant

A Russian lad lies dead on Afghan soil.
A Muslim ant climbs up his stubbly cheek —
an awful slog — and as he toils and toils
along the soldier’s face, he softly speaks:
“You don’t know where exactly you were slain.
You only know one thing — Iran’s next door.
Why show up armed? What did you hope to gain?
You’d never heard the word ‘Islam’ before…
What could you give our poor, our starving land,
when you queue up for sausages at home?
Weren’t enough of you killed off back then?
Why add more to the twenty million?”

On Afghan soil a Russian lad lies dead.
A Muslim ant climbs up and down his head;
he’d like to ask ants that are Orthodox
how he might resurrect him, mend this loss…
But all are orphaned, widowed, and bereft
of hope. Few wise and faithful ants are left.


Афганский муравей

Русский парень лежит на афганской земле.
Муравей-мусульманин ползёт по скуле.
Очень трудно ползти… Мёртвый слишком небрит,
и тихонько ему муравей говорит:
«Ты не знаешь, где точно скончался от ран.
Знаешь только одно — где-то рядом Иран.
Почему ты явился с оружием к нам,
здесь впервые услышавший слово «ислам»?
Что ты дашь нашей родине — нищей, босой,
если в собственной — очередь за колбасой?
Разве мало убитых вам, — чтобы опять
к двадцати миллионам ещё прибавлять?»

Русский парень лежит на афганской земле.
Муравей-мусульманин ползёт по скуле,
и о том, как его бы поднять, воскресить,
муравьёв православных он хочет спросить,
но на северной родине сирот и вдов
маловато осталось таких муравьёв.


Jennifer Croft Makes News

Photograph by Magdalena Wosinska

Today the paper of record, the gray lady — yes, The New York Times — ran Alexandra Alter’s deep and wide-ranging profile of my beautiful wife, Jenny Croft. And how could one profile Jenny without ranging widely? She is equally accomplished as an author and translator, and her activism has helped change the face of publishing, (almost) literally:

Croft published an open letter with the novelist Mark Haddon, calling on publishers to credit translators on covers. The letter has drawn nearly 2,600 signatures, including from writers like Lauren Groff, Katie Kitamura, Philip Pullman, Sigrid Nunez and Neil Gaiman, as well as prominent translators, among them Robin Myers, Martin Aitken, Jen Calleja, Margaret Jull Costa and John Keene. Her campaign prompted some publishers, among them Pan Macmillan in Britain and the independent European press Lolli Editions, to begin naming all translators on book covers.

A significant part of the profile, of course, concerns Jenny’s latest feat, her heroic translation of Nobel laureate Olga Tokarczuk’s magnum opus, The Books of Jacob, which has received scores of glowing reviews and this week became a New York Times best seller — a rare achievement for any translation. In an email to Alter, Olga herself pointed to what makes Jenny the master that she is:

She is incredibly linguistically gifted[.] Jenny does not focus on language at all, but on what is underneath the language and what the language is trying to express. So she explains the author’s intention, not just the words standing in a row one by one. There is also a lot of empathy here, the ability to enter the whole idiolect of the writer.

This empathy, this preternatural sensitivity to what lies beneath words, is also evident in Jenny’s fiction, and the most exciting section of Alter’s piece for me personally announces a work-in-progress:

Croft, who lives between Los Angeles and Tulsa, is now working on a novel about translation, titled Amadou. The story takes place in the primeval forests of Poland, where a group of translators have gathered to work together on the latest opus from a celebrated female Polish novelist. The translators are stunned when the author undergoes an otherworldly transformation and disappears into the forest, leaving them alone to puzzle out what her new novel means.

Stay tuned, as they say in the news biz!

As I shameless pilfer bits and bobs from Alter’s well-shaped piece, I think of a passage from my man Alexander Voloshin’s epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, concerning the dreary quality and shoddy ethics of émigré newspapers in California.

Culture has only barely grazed us.
We have the local papers, yes,
but I regret to say our press
leaves quite a lot to be desired…
Its publishers have never tired
of cutting, pasting — what we get
is reprints; nothing new as yet.
Their job, they feel, is to serve food
that has been thoroughly pre-chewed.
These gentlemen take inventories
of other publications’ stories …

They steal from strangers as they please
and think it silly to pay fees
for every line … They’d rather buy
five or six pairs of scissors. Why
slave away when you can reap
what others sow — and do it cheap?

Kudos to Alexandra Alter and to all the journalists and editors who serve up fresh food — stories worth telling that have gone untold for far too long!

Культурой мы слегка задеты, —
Есть в Калифорнии газеты,
Однако очень много «но» —
С печатью нашей сплетено …
У «прессы» — странные повадки —
Из всех газет перепечатки
Нам здесь издатели дают,
И весь редакционный труд
Свели к тому, чтобы задаром
Нас пичкать «жёваным» товаром,
Черпая повизну вестей
Из сводки «старых новостей» …

Они сотрудников не знают
И предрассудками считают —
Платить построчный гонорар…
Купивши ножниц пять-шесть пар, —
Они садятся и — за дело:
Читают … режут … клеят смело
И … жнут чужое без стыда, —
Не сея — эти господа! …