Born in Moscow, he was the son of an educated Jewish couple — his father a lawyer, his mother a German-language teacher, and one of his grandfathers was a rabbi. Drafted as a private in July 1941, he fought in World War II before a serious injury led to his demobilization in 1943 as a second lieutenant. That same year, he joined the Communist Party; after the war he attended the Maxim Gorky Literary Institute, graduating in 1948. He translated poetry from Georgian and Lithuanian poets.
Mezhirov was a prominent figure in the Soviet literary establishment, although his allegiances and associations were varied. At some points he was close to fellow Jewish-RussianBoris Yampolsky, Kazakh writer Olzhas Suleimenov, and Russian cultural ultranationalist and critic Vadim Kozhinov. Mezhirov associated with younger writers Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Tatyana Glushkova (known for her nationalist views in the mid-1980s, according to Shrayer) and Evgeny Reyn, who was censored in the Soviet Union until the mid-1980s.
Although Mezhirov had publicly stated that his patriotism for Russia was so intense that, unlike other Russian Jews, he could not emigrate, he suddenly left Russia for the United States in 1992, settling first in New York, then in Portland, Oregon. As of 2007, according to anthologist Maxim D. Shrayer, he had not revisited Russia. In March2009Mezhirov published a collection of new poems, two months before his death. According to the ITAR/TASS news service, his body was to be cremated in the United States, with the ashes to be buried in Peredelkino near Moscow.
Mezhirov was among what has been called a “middle generation” of Soviet poets that ignored themes of communist “world revolution” and instead focused on Soviet and Russian patriotism. Many of them specialized in patriotic lyrics, particularly its military aspects. According to G. S. Smith, Mezhirov and a number of other “middle generation” poets “were genuine poets whose testimony, however well-laundered, to the tribulations of their times will endure at least as long as their generation.” Some of Mezhirov‘s lyrical poems based on his wartime experience belong with the best Russian poetical works created in the Soviet 1950s-1960s.
Laureate of the Vazha-PshavelaPrize of the Independent Joint Venture of Georgia (1999).
In 1994, the President of the United States of America Bill Clinton, at the White House presented him with an award for being “Imbued with the spirit of partnership and mutual assistance, a grateful Nation will never forget your incomparable personal contribution and sacrifice shown in World War II”.
Regarding the reference to Kolpino: With the onset of the Great Patriotic War, Kolpino factory workers formed the Izhora Battalion, part of the militia around 24 August – 4 September, 1941. The front line was held in the immediate vicinity of the plant, which was subjected to heavy enemy shelling. By 1944, only 327 of Kolpino’s 2183 houses remained intact. 140,939 shells and 436 aerial bombs fell in Kolpino’s neighborhoods and boulevards. According to incomplete data for the war, shelling and starvation in the Kolpino district killed 4,600 people, not counting the dead on the front. By 1 January, 1944 Kolpino had only 2196 inhabitants. After the lifting of the siege, people gradually came back from the evacuation and army. On 1 January, 1945 the population was 7404 and by the beginning of the next year numbered 8914 people.
Mezhirov is one of the finest poets of the World War II generation. His father, who was both a lawyer and physician, took great pains to ensure his son’s broad education. As a soldier in World War II, Mezhirov took part in the defense of Leningrad, where he was seriously wounded and discharged. He wrote poetry as a schoolboy and began to publish in 1941; from 1943 to 1948 he studied at the Gorky Literary Institute. His first collection, Doroga dalioka (The Road Is Long) (1947), spoke with youthful passion of the war and of the suffering and triumphs it entailed; the poetry was criticized for being “too personal.” His romantic poem “Kommunisty vperyod” (Forward Communists) was for several years the most widely read work in the Soviet Union, both from the stage and over the radio. However, the finest things he has written have always been emphatically independent and nonpartisan. Mezhirov’s poetry was criticized throughout his career, but he never bowed to the pressure; as a result of his steadfastness, the quality of his verse never suffered.
Mezhirov spent considerable time in Georgia and has translated much Georgian poetry. A highly sophisticated connoisseur of Russian poetry, his more recent work speaks out against the negative influences and lack of spirituality in the modern world, especially the tendencies to destruction and isolation he perceives in the young. Not only a great poet, Mezhirov is also the teacher of many younger poets, including the compiler of this anthology.
Biographical information about Mezhirov, p.721, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).
Artillery was burying us. At first it killed us. But, with blatant hypocrisy, Now swears that it loved us.
It broke open its muzzles, But with all the charred nerves In the overworked hands of the medics. We didn’t readily believe it.
We could trust only morphine, In the very last resort – bromide. But those of us who were dead Trusted the earth, and no one else.
Here everyone still crawls, laying mines And receiving counterattacks. But there – already illumining, They draft memoirs…
And there, away from the destruction zone, They scrape and polish parquet. The Bolshoi Theater lofted on a quadrangle Follows the celebration skyrocket.
Soldiers lay about. At night the mint showers Them with regalia from time to time. But machine guns belch them out With explosive vomit.
One of them, accidentally surviving, Came to Moscow in autumn. He shuffled along the boulevard like a drunk, And passed among the living like an echo.
With his artificial leg He got in someone’s way in the trolley. By a string of petty absurdities He approached the Mausoleum.
He recalled the eroded hillocks, Scraps of plywood along the roadways, The soldier’s eyes, opened forever, Shown in calm reproach.
Pilots fell down on them from the sky, Bogged down in clouds of bones. But courage does not grow scarce, As sky doesn’t let one grow obsolete.
And the soldier knew that, for the Motherland, Those who were swallowed by the war, Are the equals of those who lie here buried In the wall itself or beneath the wall.
by Константин Ильич Левин (Konstantin Illyich Levin) (1946) translated by Albert C. Todd
Нас хоронила артиллерия…
Нас хоронила артиллерия. Сначала нас она убила, Но, не гнушаясь лицемерия, Теперь клялась, что нас любила.
Она выламывалась жерлами, Но мы не верили ей дружно Всеми обрубленными нервами В натруженных руках медслужбы.
Мы доверяли только морфию, По самой крайней мере — брому. А те из нас, что были мертвыми, — Земле, и никому другому.
Тут всё ещё ползут, минируют И принимают контрудары. А там — уже иллюминируют, Набрасывают мемуары…
И там, вдали от зоны гибельной, Циклюют и вощат паркеты. Большой театр квадригой вздыбленной Следит салютную ракету.
И там, по мановенью Файеров, Взлетают стаи Лепешинских, И фары плавят плечи фраеров И шубки женские в пушинках.
Бойцы лежат. Им льет регалии Монетный двор порой ночною. Но пулеметы обрыгали их Блевотиною разрывною!
Но тех, кто получил полсажени, Кого отпели суховеи, Не надо путать с персонажами Ремарка и Хемингуэя.
Один из них, случайно выживший, В Москву осеннюю приехал. Он по бульвару брел как выпивший И средь живых прошел как эхо.
Кому-то он мешал в троллейбусе Искусственной ногой своею. Сквозь эти мелкие нелепости Он приближался к Мавзолею.
Он вспомнил холмики размытые, Куски фанеры по дорогам, Глаза солдат, навек открытые, Спокойным светятся упреком.
На них пилоты с неба рушатся, Костями в тучах застревают… Но не оскудевает мужество, Как небо не устаревает.
И знал солдат, равны для Родины Те, что заглотаны войною, И те, что тут лежат, схоронены В самой стене и под стеною.
Included in the recital there is the following passage, as the third stanza, which is omitted from other versions I have sourced. Possibly it is due to the ‘improved’ version Yevtushenko states he requested be made by Levin briefly prior to his passing.
За нас молились леди Англии И маркитантки полковые. Нас интервьюировали б ангелы, Когда бы были таковые.
Translated it reads as:
Ladies of England prayed for us. And regimental vivandieres. We’d be interviewed by angels If they existed.
Additional information: It goes without saying but if you look up Konstanin Levin‘s name, for further information, in English you will probably come across page after page about the character of Konstantin ‘Kostya’ Levin from Lev Tolstoy’s novel Anna Karenina. For those who can read Russian or are willing to use Google translate there is the poetLevin‘s Wikipedia page but for everyone else I will share this biography from the Yad Vashem page about the poet and his wartime service they compiled as part of their ‘Jews in the Red Army, 1941–1945′ research project:
Konstantin Levin was born in 1924 in Ekaterinoslav (now Dnipro), Ukraine to a medical family. In 1941, following the family tradition, he entered a medical institute (medical university). A short time later, his institute was evacuated to Western Siberia. Having finished the first semester, Levin was drafted into the Red Army and sent to the Rostov School of Artillery (RSA), which specialized in anti-tank artillery. In 1942 the RSA was located not in Rostov-on-Don, which at this time was occupied by the enemy, but in the Urals. In the fall of 1943 Levin graduated from the RSA as a second lieutenant and was appointed the commander of a platoon of 45-mm cannons. These cannons were the most dangerous kind of artillery to operate: being ineffective against enemy tanks, after their first shot they became a good target for the enemy. Levin succeeded in surviving at the front for less than half a year.
In February 1944, while fighting in Ukraine, Levin was wounded for the first time, in the head. On April 29, 1944, participating in the battle of Târgu Frumos, in eastern Romania, Levin was hit by an enemy shell and he lost a leg. His former RSA comrade and a participant in the same operation Moisei Dorman noted: “At the end of April 1944, near Iaşi, a German tank crushed his cannon. A shell fragment cut Kostia’s leg right at the knee. The leg was hanging on by the tendons. Levin tried to cut it off with a penknife, but he was bleeding and did not have enough strength…. Almost fainting, he managed to get to his own side by crawling.” After this battle, Levin was awarded the Order of Patriotic War, 2nd Class. After his release from the Red Army, he was recommended for the Order of Patriotic War, 1st Class – for his fighting in Ukraine.
In 1945 after the war, Konstantin Levin entered the Literary Institute in Moscow. Although the admission committee found his poems depressing, he was admitted because he was a disabled veteran who had earned two military orders. He was a good student. Levin walked with a prosthesis, never using a cane or crutches. In 1946, after he wrote the poem “Artillery Buried Us,” he was almost expelled from the Institute. In the following year, he wrote a poem about himself, in which he let the reader know that he had been not simply a soldier, but a Jewish one. After that, poem Levin was, in fact, expelled from the Institute, and only the intervention of the Russian poet Aleksei Surkov helped him receive his diploma.
For the rest of his life Konstantin Levin earned his living by routine literary work. He died in 1984. The first collection of his poems was published posthumously in 1989.
The poem therefore appears to be autobiographical though Levin uses the third person when recounting the events of it when referring to himself as “one of them, accidentally surviving/…/with his artificial leg”.
Levin’s renowned poem “Artillery was burying us…” passed from hand to hand throughout literary Moscow in the years following World War II, along with Naum Korzhavin’s poems against Stalin. Levin worked as a literary consultant and never tried to publish his poetry. Just prior to his death the compiler of this anthology persuaded him to make a new, even better version of his masterpiece. Boris Slutsky considered him one of the finest poets in the front-line generation.
Biographical information about Levin, p.736, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).
So many times I’ve seen hand-to-hand combat. Once for real, and a thousand times in dreams. Whoever says that war is not horrible, Knows nothing about war.
By Юлия Владимировна Друнина (Yulia Vladimirovna Drunina) translated by Albert C. Todd
Я только раз видала рукопашный
Я только раз видала рукопашный, Раз наяву. И тысячу — во сне. Кто говорит, что на войне не страшно, Тот ничего не знает о войне.
Additional information: Yulia Vladimirovna Drunina (Ю́лия Влади́мировна Дру́нина) (May 10, 1924 – November 21, 1991) was a Soviet poet who wrote in the Russian language. She was a nurse and a combat medic during World War II and known for writing lyrics and poetry about women at war. Her works are characterized by moral clarity, sincere intonation and based on her real life experience, including participation in the war as a source of inspiration for her writings.
When she was just eighteen Yuliya Drunina went to the front lines of World War II as an instructor in hygiene. Her first collection of poetry, published in 1948, was an ingenious confession of the horrors of war as seen through the eyes of a young girl who had dragged wounded men on her frail back under fire. Yet her biography is not simple. During the campaign to “smash the cosmopolitans” beginning in 1948, she unexpectedly spoke out against her teacher Pavel Antokolsky. Just as unexpected was her marriage to the lover of Stalin’s daughter Svetlana Alilueva, the screenwriter Kapler, who had just been released from Stalin’s Gulag.
During the attacks by party ideologues on the younger generation for its supposed antipatriotism, Drunina defended the young people, saying; “We too were young twits, but when the time came we became soldiers.” She was elected a national deputy during the era of perestroika. She wrote several classic examples of front-line lyrics, among which is the tiny confessional gem included here that is known by heart by thousands of Russian readers. She committed suicide in apparent personal, social, and professional despair.
Biographical information about Drunina, p.738, ‘Twentieth Century Russian Poetry’ (1993), compiled by Yevgeny Yevtushenko (ed. Albert C. Todd and Max Hayward) , published by Fourth Estate Limited by arrangement with Doubleday of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group Inc. (transcribed as found in the original text).
Not waking, in my dreams, my dreams, I saw you – you were alive. You had endured all and come to me, crossing the last frontier.
You were earth already, ashes, you were my glory, my punishment. But, in spite of life, of death, you rose from your thousand graves.
You passed through war hell, concentration camp, through furnace, drunk with the flames, through your own death you entered Leningrad, came out of love for me.
You found my house, but I live now not in our house, in another; and a new husband shares my waking hours… O how could you not have known?!
Like the master of the house, proudly you crossed the threshold, stood there lovingly. And I murmured: ‘God will rise again’, and made the sign of the cross over you – the unbeliever’s cross, the cross of despair, as black as pitch, the cross that was made over each house that winter, that winter in which
you died. O my friend, forgive me as I sigh. How long have I not known where waking ends and the dream begins…
by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts) a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz (1946) translated by Daniel Weissbort
Не наяву, но во сне, во сне я увидала тебя: ты жив. Ты вынес все и пришел ко мне, пересек последние рубежи.
Ты был землею уже, золой, славой и казнью моею был. Но, смерти назло и жизни назло, ты встал из тысяч своих могил.
Ты шел сквозь битвы, Майданек, ад, сквозь печи, пьяные от огня, сквозь смерть свою ты шел в Ленинград, дошел, потому что любил меня.
Ты дом нашел мой, а я живу не в нашем доме теперь, в другом, и новый муж у меня — наяву… О, как ты не догадался о нем?!
Хозяином переступил порог, гордым и радостным встал, любя. А я бормочу: «Да воскреснет бог», а я закрещиваю тебя крестом неверующих, крестом отчаянья, где не видать ни зги, которым закрещен был каждый дом в ту зиму, в ту зиму, как ты погиб…
О друг,— прости мне невольный стон: давно не знаю, где явь, где сон …