Comment on Russian Poetry ( Translations )
Does someone who does not speak Russian have any authority to comment on Russian poetry? Given the difficulty of translations-- Vladimir Nabokov called it “the pathetic business of translating”-- the tide runs against it. On the other hand we can hardly do without translators-- or at least I cannot-- and so with some hesitation and apology, and with much appreciation to the great Russian writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn, I offer these introductions to some poems which seem to me to have too much striking power even in English to ignore. The poets are Osip Mandelstham, Mihail Lermontov and Yevgeny Yevtushenko.
Though disparaged in the West , Solzhenitsyn did more than any other writer to reveal the horrors of the Stalinist regime. From the “Gulog” where he too was a “zek” (prison inmate) he brought word of tortures such as… prisoners’ skulls squeezed within iron rings, being lowered into an acid bath, a red hot ramrod thrust up their anal canal, a man’s genitals slowly crushed beneath the toe of a jackboot . If these descriptions seem too terrible to read about, perhaps we have a small glimpse of the "zek” experience.
“These people,” Solzhenitsyn remarks, “ who had experienced on their own hides 24 years of Communist happiness, knew by 1941 what as yet no one else in the world knew: That nowhere on the planet , nowhere in history, was there a regime more vicious, more bloodthirsty, and at the same time more cunning and ingenious than the Bolshevik, the self-styled Soviet reg ime.”(Quoted by Algis Valiunos in “Starlight in Hell”, First Things,May 2009.)
But Solzhenitsyn of course is far from just a reporter; he is another of the great contributors to the art and soul of Russian literature which teaches us so much about our humanity and inhumanity. So too with these poets for whom he provides clear context.
The following poem by Osip Mandelstham was circulated by his friends through memory because the words could not be written down. Eventually they were traced and Mandelstham suffered the fate of millions of others in the “Kremlin mountaineer’s” (Stalin's) Russia. Sixteen devastating lines permanent to the memory of Stalin:
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant- slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders –
Fawning half-men for him to play with.
They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin .
And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.
Quopted in Robert Littell, The Stalin Epigram, 2009
Lermantov (1814—1841) was a romantic poet who rendered a prophetic image of Russia in this poem, “Prediction”, remarkable in view of its fulfillment a century later:
The day will come, for Russia that dark day
When the Tsar’s diadem will fall, and they,
Rabble who loved him once, will love no more,
And many will subsist on death and gore,
Downtrodden law no shelter will provide
For child or guiltless woman . Plague will ride
From stinking corpses through the grief -struck land
Where fluttering rags from cottages demand
Help none can give. And famine’s gnawing pangs
Will grip the countryside with ruthless fangs.
Dawn on the streams will shed a crimson light.
And then will be revealed the Man of might
Whom thou wilt know; and thou wilt understand
Wherefore a shining blade is in his hand.
Sorrow will be thy lot, grief melt thine eyes
And he will laugh at all thy tears and sighs.
Translated by R.M.French
Lermontov's poem is in Nicolas Berdyaev, The Origin of Russian Communism,1948.
Berdyaev, a Russian philosopher and historian, also gives us insight to the fanatical Bolshevik mind in his characterization of the revolutionary Nechaev ::
“the revolutionary is the doomed man. He has no personal interests, business, feelings, connections, property, or even name. Everything in him is in the grip of one exclusive interest, one thought, one passion, Revolution. The revolutionary has broken with the civil order, with the civilized world, and with the morals of the world. He lives in this world in order to destroy it. He must not even love the sciences of this world; he knows one science only, the science of destruction. To the revolutionary everything is moral which serves the revolution -- -- words which Lenin repeated later.”
Of a different style, perhaps because of a later generation,Yevgeny Yevtushenko was born in Siberia in 1933. He escaped persecution in his own country and came to America where he was a popular writer and lecturer at American universities. He nevertheless reveals that he has the Russian memory in his poem,Babi Yar (excerpt).Bab i Yar is a ravine in Kiev,capital of Ukraine, where over 33,000 Jews were taken and massacred during World War II by German Gestapo.
The wild grasses rustle over Babii Yar.
The trees look ominous,
Here all things scream silently,
and, baring my head,
slowly I feel myself
And I myself
am one massive, soundless scream
above the thousand thousand buried here.
each old man
here shot dead.
here shot dead.
Nothing in me
shall ever forget!
The 'Internationale', let it
A when the last antisemite on earth
is buried forever.
In my blood there is no Jewish blood.
In their callous rage, all antisemites
must hate me now as a Jew.
For that reason
I am a true Russian!
Translated by George Reavey
Another poem by Yevtushenko worth the while of any student or teacher: