“Good-bye, Dear Europe”: Vladimir Nabokov and Alexander Voloshin Say “Prash-chai”

Alexander Voloshin in The World and the Flesh (1932),
playing a peasant breaking into a ritzy restaurant
during the Russian Revolution.

In 1941, a year after he and his family escaped Europe by the skin of their teeth, Nabokov began his Anglophone career in earnest at Wellesley College and published one of his best known poems, “Softest of Tongues,” in The Atlantic. A farewell to Russian, the language in which Nabokov first proved his mastery, the poem also demonstrates, with characteristic irony, the speaker’s mastery of the new language’s “clumsy tools of stone.”

To many things I’ve said the word that cheats
the lips and leaves them parted (thus: prash-chai
which means “good-bye”) — to furnished flats, to streets,
to milk-white letters melting in the sky;
to drab designs that habit seldom sees,
to novels interrupted by the din
of tunnels, annotated by quick trees,
abandoned with a squashed banana skin;
to a dim waiter in a dimmer town,
to cuts that healed and to a thumbless glove;
also to things of lyrical renown
perhaps more universal, such as love.
Thus life has been an endless line of land
receding endlessly … And so that’s that,
you say under your breath, and wave your hand,
and then your handkerchief, and then your hat.
To all these things I’ve said the fatal word,
using a tongue I had so tuned and tamed
that — like some ancient sonneteer — I heard
its echoes by posterity acclaimed.
But now thou too must go; just here we part,
softest of tongues, my true one, all my own …
And I am left to grope for heart and art
and start anew with clumsy tools of stone.

There’s a minor but significant macaronic touch to “Softest of Tongues,” which underscores the fact that, for Nabokov, the poem marks a moment of transition. In it he introduces into English the Russian word “прощай” — which he spells phonetically, “prash-chai” — suggesting that, to him, it means more than its Anglophone counterpart, “good-bye.” Ironically, at around the same time, another Russophone émigré, the White Army officer-turned-Hollywood extra Alexander Voloshin, used the same device in the brief first “chapter” of the second part of his mock epic, On the Track and at Crossroads. He too rejects the English “good bye,” which he introduces in Latin script, in favor of the Russian “прощай.”

There the similarities end. Whereas Nabokov’s poem is, despite its author’s distaste for sentimentality, a rather sentimental affair, Voloshin’s is light and buoyant, though also — in its broader context — ironic. Unlike Nabokov, Voloshin readily cottons to the unsophisticated materialism and rampant consumerism of Yankee life. And why shouldn’t he? Isn’t there some truth in the proposition that we all want a bit of comfort, even if that’s not all we want? The rest of Voloshin’s epic will show that the equal treatment he celebrates at the end of this chapter is in some very crucial ways illusory. And yet, although he’s painfully aware of the human imperfection and of the terrors all around, he remains at least half-convinced that we live in the best of all possible worlds. He’s not quite Pangloss or Leibniz, our Voloshin, but neither is he Adorno and Horkheimer, his LA neighbors in the early 1940s. So, are you with Nabokov or with Voloshin? Heck, why choose?

Thus ended our nomadic days.
“Good-bye,” dear Europe: we part ways …
In fact, this is no mere “good bye” —
that’s right, dear Europe, it’s “prash-chai” …
Enough of wandering round and round.
We’ve finally found solid ground.
For in the end, our fondest wish is
to settle down, acquire dishes
of different kinds, and forks, and knives —
in other words, live bourgeois lives
the way the Yankees seem to do.
Oh, there’s hard work ahead, that’s true,
but our past grief is out of sight:
the sky is blue, the sun shines bright.
And also — most importantly —
here we’re all treated equally! …

Итак — окончены скитанья!
Good bye, Европа! … До свиданья! …
А впрочем, даже не good bye
Европе скажем, а — прощай! …
Довольно по миру мотаться,
Поря уже обосноваться,
У каждого желанье есть,
Как говоря — “на землю сесть”! …
Обзавестись посудой разной
И образ жизни буржуазный
Вести, как “янки” здесь ведут …
Пусть впереди тяжёлый труд,
Но в прошлом горести отныне, —
Нам светит солнце, небо сине,
А главное — Руси Сыны
Со всеми здесь уравнены! …


“All Ran South, If They Could Manage”: Alexander Voloshin on the Civil War in Ukraine

Kaiser Wilhelm II and Pavlo Skoropadskyi

As I continue work on Andrey Kurkov’s Samson and Nadezhda, which is set in Kyiv the spring of 1919, when the city was (briefly) under Bolshevik control, I try to imagine what it was like for Ukrainian citizens to see, in the span of a couple of years, no fewer than fourteen changes of government. That estimate is Mikhail Bulgakov’s, and it isn’t entirely inaccurate. One of Kurkov’s challenges in this work of historical fiction is to give readers enough particulars to sink into the era, but not so many that they would get bogged down. He rises to it with aplomb, naturally working in references to the Central Rada, as well as to its 1918 dissolution under German occupation and to the installation of the anti-Bolshevik former tsarist military officer Pavlo Skoropadskyi as Hetman of Ukraine by Kaiser Wilhelm II. We also learn about Symon Petliura, President of the Ukrainian People’s Republic, and the behavior of his Cossack troops.

Yet one can never have too much background. One of the liveliest, most colorful, and most humane literary treatments of this period in Ukrainian history — when long-suppressed dreams of independent nationhood were realized, however imperfectly, only to be suppressed again — can be found in Teffi’s Memories, translated by Robert Chandler and Elizabeth Chandler, Irina Steinberg, and Anne Marie Jackson. And another, equally lively but more concise treatment can be found in — you guessed it — Alexander Voloshin’s mock-epic On the Tracks and at Crossroads.  Here are three brief Chapters from the first part, in which the Ukrainian-born Voloshin chronicles his escape from the advancing Red Army.

Chapter Two

All ran South, if they could manage,
seeking peace. To our advantage,
Germans came just at that hour
and successfully seized power…

Sweetening the bitter pill,
that old thoughtful Kaiser Wil’,
a “hero” glorious and great,
established a “Ukrainian State.”

This corporal in a German crown
rewarded those whose minds were sound:
He gave the Rada the heave-ho
and put a Hetman on the throne…

Chapter Three

Every ancient church bell rings —
Germans look on from the wings
as, surrounded by elites,
Skoropadskyi takes his seat…

This operetta, plain to see,
had been composed in Germany…
Yet we, who feared the darkening tide
of bloody Red, swallowed our pride.
We had suffered so much pain
that we didn’t dare complain…

Besides, the Hetman, we all knew,
had been in the Retinue…
Sure, this matter had been “fixed” —
still, he hated communists.
We were hoping, as his guests,
we might finally get some rest…

Chapter Four

There was music in the air,
Ukraine feasted without care —
none of us could comprehend
that our feast would someday end.
Misery was drawing near
and in only half a year,
Bolsheviks would come and flank
both the Dnipro River’s banks…
We were desperate to forget…
But the worst was coming yet…
Everyone was acting brave…
Blue and yellow flags would wave…
We all danced and drank, had fun,
tried to speak our mova-tongue…

Conquering our nasty spleen,
that year we could sing — and mean —
words that we’d all come to cherish:
“Our Ukraine has not yet perished”…

Глава вторая

Всяк кто мог — на Юг стремился,
Там — порядок сохранился,
Ибо немцы в этот час —
Оккупировали нас…

Подсластить дабы лекарство, —
Здесь «Украинское Царство»
Основал войны «герой» —
Кайзер, Рекс, Вильгельм Второй …

Благомыслящим в награду, —
Разогнав «Державну Раду», —
Сам нам Гетмана избрал —
Коронованный Капрал …

Глава третья

Окруженный «сердюками»
И немецкими полками,
Под церквей старинных звон, —
Скоропадский сел на трон!…

Правда — не было секрета
В том, что это — оперетта
Made in Germany… Но мы
Так боялись Красной Тьмы,
Так за этот год устали,
Что и спорить уж не стали…

Да, к тому-же, — всяки знал:
Гетман — Свитский Генерал!
Пусть избрание — «не чисто»,
Все-же — враг он коммунистов,
И мечтали мы — «при нем, —
Бог поможет, — отдохнем!» …

Глава четвертая

«Украина» пировала,
И того не знали мы,
Что пируем — в дни чумы,
Что опять близка невзгода,
Что пройдет всего пол-года
И — вокруг Днепра-реки —
Сядут вновь большевики…
Мы забыть спешили горе…
По колена было море…
Все держали хвост трубой…
«Прапор» — желто-голубой —
На флагштоках развевался,
Всяк, по мере сил, старался —
Веселиться, пить, гулять
И — на «мове» размовлять…

Сбросив иго злого сплина, —
«Ще не вмерла Украина»
Пели, громко и вразброд, —
Киевляне в этот год …

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! …

“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…

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!..

“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.


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! …

Victor Mall: A Suprematist in Southern California

It stands to reason that the most visually striking collections of Russian LA poetry in my possession contain the work of a professional painter, Victor Mall (whose surname is spelled “Moll” in Russian, and was originally Malakhov). Born in Odessa on April 30, 1901, where his musician father was on tour, Mall was raised in Omsk. According to the letters and brief autobiographical sketches included in these posthumous volumes prepared by his widow, Mall’s talent for drawing inspired his father to find him a tutor, who eventually recommended that the boy continue his studies with Kazimir Malevich. And so, in 1919, he found himself in Vitebsk, Belarus, the most unlikely of artistic capitals, taking classes with Malevich and observing Chagall and El Lissitzky. His experience there was short but formative, though it would be a long time before he felt its full impact not only on his art but also on his spiritual worldview, which finds expression in his verse.

In one of his letters from the mid-1980s, he writes: “On most days, as he entered the classroom, Malevich would raise his arms over his head and cross his palms. When we asked what this meant, he replied: ‘It’s a sign — a symbol of the fourth dimension.’ I couldn’t understand it, like much of what he said. It took me many years to make sense of his philosophy. Now I realize that he was more of a philosopher than a painter. His approach and his system were completely different from those of other art instructors. He spoke of things that I couldn’t grasp at all, but the seeds of his philosophy remained inside me and sprouted later in life.” Here Mall mimics Malevich’s gesture of greeting.

In 1920 Mall was back in Omsk with his father, mother, and twin brother, Nikolay. After the confiscation of the family’s property — including Mall’s art, which was lost forever — they fled to Vladivostok, where Mall met another important avant-gardist, David Burliuk. From there the family emigrated to Harbin, where the American consul took a special interest in Mall’s work and secured him a visa for the United States. He left for Seattle in 1923, never to see his parents or his brother again. All three would return to the Soviet Union, where Nikolay would be swept up in the Stalinist purges, accused of spying for Japan, and executed in 1937.

Mall would not learn of any of this until the 1970s, when his wife managed to make contact with Nikolay’s daughter. By that time the couple had been living in Los Angeles for decades, where Mall had worked as a designer and art director for ad agencies, including one headquartered on the Sunset Strip. It’s pleasantly odd to imagine the seeds of Suprematism sprouting in Southern California advertising art.

Mall’s poems, which he began to write in the 1950s, reveal a deeply spiritual sensibility and a view of art as a repository of living energy and thought. The lyrics below were written just a few years before Mall’s death on June 5, 1989. His eyesight was failing, but his memories of Malevich were as vivid as ever.

Homage to Malevich

I write this for the sake of truth —
I’m in my past, newly arisen,
youthful, arrayed in rainbow hues,
my hands upon Suprematism.
Back then we shared a love for peace
and Kazimir’s philosophies.
So I believe…
                           No, so it was!
Our thoughts in sync, harmonious —
it seemed to me I could divine
his consciousness, could read his mind.
I stood beside him, demonstrating
what lay within me, growing, waiting.
Later I fabricated, lied:
my punishment is loss of sight.

August 8, 1986

* * *

I thicken music’s
colors on the canvas.
The olive underpainting
comes to life with ochre,
while cinnabar
shines on the nose,
remembering Rublev.
The drying oil
stiffens upon the icon
and music’s colors
now will never cease —
like a crown’s glow,
or love’s resounding

July 5, 1987

Дань Малевичу

Пишу теперь я правды ради , —
Я будто юношей проснулся:
Я в прошлом, в радужном наряде,
K супрематизму прикоснулся.
Была любовь к идее мира
И к философьи Казимира.
Как будто было…
                     Это факт!
Ведь с ним я думал в звучный такт.
Казалось — что читаю мысли
Малевича — сознанья числа.
Как будто рядом с ним стоял,
Непроявлённость проявлял.
А за обман и вымышленья
Потерей я наказан зренья.

8 августа 1986

* * *

Я краски музыки
Метаю по холсту.
Оливковый санкирь
От охры оживает.
А киноварь сияет
На носу,
Рублёва вспоминает.
Олифой покроется
Ковчег иконы,
И краски музыки
Не остановятся —
Как блеск короны,
Набат любви,
И звоны.

5 июля 1987

“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.


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».

“There’s No Free Lunch in Hollywood”: Alexander Voloshin and the Plight of Russian Extras

Back by popular demand is Alexander Voloshin! Today’s excerpt from his mock epic of Russian Hollywood, On the Tracks and at Crossroads, introduces us to the crowds of émigrés who sought, if not stardom, then at least a little pocket money on the sets of Paramount, Universal, and other studios around town. Among them was Voloshin himself, and the tale he has to tell is a cautionary one. Reading this passage, I can’t help but think of the opening scenes of Josef von Sternberg’s The Last Command (1928), in which Emil Jannings appears as an exiled White General on his uppers, scraping together a living as an extra in films.

Jannings’s character is based loosely on a real Hollywood émigré, Theodore Lodijensky (1876-1947), who appeared in films under the name Theodore Lodi. You can learn more about Lodi — as well as his Russian Eagle café — in an old essay of mine. But you’ll get a good sense of the texture of his days from the lines below.

Just about half the émigrés
are in the movies, where they “play”
jigits and knights, both noblemen
and jolly serfs who work the land,
soldiers and officers and sailors,
both men of means and simple tailors,
both courtly ladies and their maids…
Early each morning, at the gates
of studios, “our crowd” amasses —
mothers and fathers, lads and lasses —
a proper family affair…

Friends, I won’t lie: you’ll find me there —
not very often, no, but still…
Why be ashamed? What’s the big deal?
I earn a little “pocket money,”
which keeps my disposition sunny…

Not many Russians “break through,” though.
Believe me, it’s a thorny road
that leads up to the starry skies…
You’ll need some “pull” here, otherwise
you’ll have to squirm and beg and wail,
hold on to someone else’s tail,
keep beating down producers’ doors,
give gifts on holidays, and more…
You’ll have to “sweeten” every pot
or you won’t even have a shot.
Those who don’t give, who play it straight,
are asked to wait… and wait… and wait…
The sad thing is, they’ll never get it,
poor fools — they might as well forget it…

Reader, it’s time you understood:
there’s no free lunch in Hollywood!…

Ну а примерно половина
Колонии – «играет» в кино:
Джигитов, рыцарей, дворян,
Весёлых русских поселян,
Солдат, матросов, офицеров,
Галантных, светских кавалеров,
Торговок, баб, придворных дам…
И ежедневно, по утрам,
У студий можно видеть «наших», –
Тут и мамаши и папаши,
И дети – словом – вся семья…
Бываю там, друзья, и я.

Не очень часто, но – бываю …
А впрочем – я не унываю:
Хватает «мелочи» прожить,
Так значит – нечего тужить!…

Из русских «выплыло» немного, –
Весьма тернистая дорога
Ведёт на «звёздные пути»…
Необходимо «пул» найти,
Просить, канючить, унижаться,
За хвостик чей-нибудь держаться,
Пороги студий обивать,
Подарки к праздникам давать…
«Борзых щенков» здесь очень любят,
Без них – безжалостно погубят,
И если кто не хочет «дать»,
Так будет «ждать»… и «ждать»… и «ждать»…
И драма в том, что – не дождётся, –
Напрасно мучится и бьётся…

Да… Не легко, читатель, тут, –
Жестокий город Холливуд!…