I’ll be finished, if I’ll survive – what kind of grass will grow over the gap? On Prince Igor’s battlefield the grass faded. The school corridors are quiet, not ringing… Eat your red tomatoes, eat ’em without me.
How did I survive to such prose with my bitter beaten head? Each evening a convoy leads me to interrogation. Stairways, corridors, cunning prison graffiti… Eat your red tomatoes, eat ’em without me.
By Борис Алексеевич Чичибабин (Boris Alekseyevich Chichibabin) Born: Полушин (Polushin) (1946) translated by Albert C. Todd and Yevgeny Yevtushenko
Кончусь, останусь жив ли…
Кончусь, останусь жив ли, – чем зарастёт провал? В Игоревом Путивле выгорела трава.
Школьные коридоры – тихие, не звенят… Красные помидоры кушайте без меня.
Как я дожил до прозы с горькою головой? Вечером на допросы водит меня конвой.
Лестницы, коридоры, хитрые письмена… Красные помидоры кушайте без меня.
He lived in Kharkiv, and in the course of three decades became one of the most famous and best-loved members of the artistic intelligentsia of the city, i.e., from the 1950s to 1980s. From the end of the 1950s, his poetry was widely distributed throughout the Soviet Union as samizdat. Official recognition came only at the end of his life in the time of perestroika.
Chichibabin was imprisoned during Stalin’s time. Though released and rehabilitated he was “daring” enough in the Brexhnev era of stagnation to write a poem in 1971 in memory of Aleksandr Tvardovsky, who had been attacked by literary rivals until his death; the poem resulted in his expulsion from the Writers Union. He was not published for fifteen years and worked as a bookkeeper in a tram park. As time passed, the growing significance of his work became apparent.
Chichibabin’s character is very Russian, but at the same time he is blessed with the quality of compassion for the world. His poetry is filled with astonishing penetration into the pain of other nations and peoples, whether Tartar or Jews.
In 1990 the unheard-of happened: the State Prize for literature was awarded to a book of his poetry which he had published privately. He was reinstated into the Writers Union in 1986, a very shy, humble man who never dealt with politics, but with a humane conscience in the midst of moral degradation – a de facto political dissident.
Biographical information about Chichibabin, p.719, ‘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).
Filled with the final weariness Seized with the exhaustion before dying His big hands limply spread A soldier lies. He could lie differently – Could lie beside his wife, in his own bed, Not tearing at the mosses drenched with blood. But could he? Could he? No, he could not. The Ministry sent him his call-up notice, Officers were with him, marched beside him. The court-martial’s typewriters clattered in the rear. But even without them, could he? Hardly. Without a call-up, he’d have gone himself. And not from fear: from conscience, and for honor. Weltering in his blood, the soldier lying Has no complaint, and no thought of complaining.
by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky) translated by J. R. Rowland
Последнею усталостью устав
Последнею усталостью устав, Предсмертным умиранием охвачен, Большие руки вяло распластав, Лежит солдат. Он мог лежать иначе, Он мог лежать с женой в своей постели, Он мог не рвать намокший кровью мох, Он мог… Да мог ли? Будто? Неужели? Нет, он не мог. Ему военкомат повестки слал. С ним рядом офицеры шли, шагали. В тылу стучал машинкой трибунал. А если б не стучал, он мог? Едва ли. Он без повесток, он бы сам пошел. И не за страх — за совесть и за почесть. Лежит солдат — в крови лежит, в большой, А жаловаться ни на что не хочет.
Slutsky’s father was a white-collar worker and his mother a teacher. He went to school in Kharkov and from 1937 he studied in Moscow, first in law school and then at the Gorky Literary Institute. During World War II he made friends with many of the poets who were to die in the war and was himself severely wounded. Though he published some poetry in 1941, he did not publish again until after Stalin’s death in 1953. Ilya Ehrenburg wrote an article in 1956 adovicating that a collection of Slutsky’s work be published. He created a sensation by quoting many unknown poems. Discussings Slutsky’s poetry, Mikhail Svetlov said, “Of one thing I am sure – here is a poet who writes better than we all do.”
Slutsky’s first collection, Pamiat’ (Memory) (1957), immediately established his reputation as a poet. His most celebrated poems are “Kelnskaia iama” (The Pit of Cologne) and “Loshadi v okeane” (Horses in the Sea). His poems “Bog” (God) and “Khozain” (The Boss) sharply criticized Stalin even before the Twentieth Party Congress in 1956.
Slutsky’s poetry is deliberately coarse, prosaic, and always distinctive. He evoked many imitators and much ridicule, but he also taught many of the postwar generation of poets. During the scandalous attacks on Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago in 1959, Slutsky unexpectedly came out against Pasternak. It was a crucial error. Many of his admirers turned their backs on him, but, more important, he never forgave himself. When he died, he left so much poetry unpublished that almost every month for several years new poems appeared in magazines and newspapers.
Biographical information about Slutsky, p.689, ‘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).
The reserve of weak, sensitive eyelashes protects your pupil in its heavenly rind, as it looks into the distance and down.
Let it be blessed and live long in its homeland – cast the surprise pool of your eye to catch me!
Already it looks willingly at the ephemeral ages – bright, rainbowed, fleshless, still pleading.
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam) (His surname is commonly Latinised as Mandelstam) (2 January 1937) from the second Voronezh Notebook translated by Richard and Elizabeth McKane
‘Твой зрачок в небесной корке’
Твой зрачок в небесной корке, Обращенный вдаль и ниц, Защищают оговорки Слабых, чующих ресниц.
Будет он обожествленный Долго жить в родной стране — Омут ока удивленный,— Кинь его вдогонку мне.
Он глядит уже охотно В мимолетные века — Светлый, радужный, бесплотный, Умоляющий пока.
Additional information: The translators chose to use the first line of the second stanza as a title for the unnamed piece rather than the first line of the first stanza as most would do with untitled poems for reference purposes. Hence the discrepancy in the title of this post between the Russian and English. Aside from this they numbered this poem as the seventeenth entry in the second of Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks but I don’t know if that is a officially recognised convention when referring to the unnamed pieces in the three notebooks (as you might use regarding, for example, Shakespeare’s sonnets).
The notebooks were written while he was in exile, accompanied by his wife Nadezhda in the southwestern Russian city of Voronezh, which was a reprieve of sorts after he had been arrested during the repression of the 1930s. Mandelstam and his wife chose Voronezh, possibly, partly, because the name appealed to him. In April 1935, he wrote a four line poem that included the pun – Voronezh – blazh‘, Voronezh – voron, nozh meaning ‘Voronezh is a whim, Voronezh – a raven, a knife.’
I returned to my city, familiar as tears, As veins, as mumps from childhood years.
You’ve returned here, so swallow as quick as you can The fish oil of Leningrad’s riverside lamps.
Recognize when you can December’s brief day, Egg yolk folded into its ominous tar.
Petersburg! I still don’t want to die: You have the numbers of my telephones.
Petersburg! I still have addresses, By which I can find the voices of the dead. I live on the back stairs and the doorbell buzz
And all night long I wait for the dear guests, Rattling, like manacles, the chains on the doors.
by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam.) His surname is commonly Latinised as Mandelstam) (December 1930) translated by Bernard Meares (revised)
Я вернулся в мой город, знакомый до слез, До прожилок, до детских припухлых желез.
Ты вернулся сюда, — так глотай же скорей Рыбий жир ленинградских речных фонарей.
Узнавай же скорее декабрьский денек, Где к зловещему дегтю подмешан желток.
Петербург, я еще не хочу умирать: У тебя телефонов моих номера.
Петербург, у меня еще есть адреса, По которым найду мертвецов голоса.
Я на лестнице черной живу, и в висок Ударяет мне вырванный с мясом звонок.
И всю ночь напролет жду гостей дорогих, Шевеля кандалами цепочек дверных.
Additional information: Leningrad was the name of St Petersburg during the Soviet era. The poem was written in 1930 when Mandelstam had just returned from the Caucasus to his hometown of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). ‘Dear guests‘ was a euphemism for the political police who now patrolled the city upon his return.
Basic breakdown of the poem: In the poem, the speaker happily announces his return home, but at the same time has a slight anxiety due to a new government having appeared in St. Petersburg. He compares the atmosphere of the city with tar but still tries to find something bright and pleasant in everything. He admits that Leningrad remains his hometown (where Mandelstam grew up when his family moved there soon after his birth) because of the addresses he has of friends and relatives there. A man very much wants to see his loved ones, so he lives on the stairs consumed with hope. However, despite all this each doorbell reminds him of a blow to the temple and the door chains remind him of heavy and unpleasant shackles.
The poem reads as an elegy in which Mandelstam mourns the changes he sees in the city he has returned to. He wants to show that it is not the best of times when a new government comes to the city. Also he reveals the anxiety felt by people during this period of change. He talks about how dear his hometown is to him but, despite his remaining connections, he does not feel safe there anymore.
The main theme is that he feels disaster is gradually approaching the city and, for him, St. Petersburg has already changed in his absence although he finds links to his past remain. Overall, the poem demonstrates Mandelstam’s pain and despair as if there is a tragic denouement regarding everything familiar he encounters but has grown hostile and anxiety inducing to him.