‘Oh Don’t Look Back’ but Olga Berggolts

Oh don’t look back

at that ice

at that dark;

there, waiting greedily

for you is a look

that will demand an answer.

 

I looked back today. And suddenly,

I saw him – alive and with living eyes,

looking at me out of the ice,

my one and only, for all time.

 

I hadn’t known it was like that;

I’d thought I lived and breathed another.

But Oh, my joy, my dream, my death,

I only live beneath your gaze.

 

I have been faithful to him alone;

in that alone I have done right:

to all the living, I’m his wife;

to you and me – your widow.

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1947)

translated by Robert Chandler


A Soviet poet, writer, playwright and journalist. She is most famous for her work on the Leningrad radio during the city’s blockade, when she became the symbol of city’s strength and determination.

Olga was married a number of times. In 1925 she joined a youth literature group ‘The Shift’ where she became acquainted with Boris Kornilov. In 1927 Boris and Olga entered the State Institute of Art History, and in 1928 they got married. In 1930 she graduated from the philological faculty and was sent to Kazakhstan to work as a journalist for the Soviet Steppe newspaper. During this period Olga divorced Kornilov and married her fellow student Nikolay Molchanov. Her former husband Boris Kornilov was arrested “for taking part in the anti-Soviet Trotskyist organization” and executed on February 1938. In January 1942 she survived another personal tragedy: her second husband Nikolay Molchanov died of hunger. Olga later dedicated a poem 29 January 1942 and her book The Knot (1965) to Nikolay. On March 1942 Olga, who suffered from a critical form of dystrophy, was forcefully sent by her friends to Moscow using the Road of Life, despite her protests. On 20 April she returned to Leningrad and continued her work at the Radio House. On her return she married Georgy Makogonenko, a literary critic, also a radio host during the siege.

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‘Farewell Forever, Unwashed Russia!’ by Mikhail Lermontov

Farewell forever, unwashed Russia!

O land of slaves, of masters cruel!

And you, blue-uniformed oppressors!

And you, meek nation whom they rule!

 

Beyond the Caucasus’ high ridges,

I may be safe from your viziers –

far from those eyes – unseen, all-seeing –

and far from their all-hearing ears.

 

by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)

(1841)

translated by Guy Daniels, revised by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: This poem wasn’t published until 1887 – over 40 years after Lermontov’s death (caused by being shot through the heart during a duel on 27 July 1841) during his second exile. It is possible he wrote this upon being told of his exile when he was ordered to leave St Petersburg within 48 hours. The ‘blue uniformed oppressors’ in the poem were the tsarist police of the time who wore distinctly coloured uniforms and would have played their part in ensuring he followed the exile order.

‘People, Years and Nations’ by Velimir Khlebnikov

People, years and nations

run away forever

like a flowing river.

In nature’s supple mirror

We’re the fish,

dark’s ghosts are gods,

and the constellations

knot night’s nets.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(1915)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: This was written shortly before the centenary of Derzhavin’s death, continuing the theme’s of his last poem.

Путем зерна (The Grain’s Path) by Vladislav Khodasevich

The sower walks down the even furrows;

his fathers all furrowed the path he follows.

 

The young seed glitters gold in his hand,

but it must fall into the black ground.

 

There, amid the tunnels of the blind worm,

it will die on its due day – and grow again.

 

So now my soul treads the path of the grain –

down into darkness – and spring’s return.

 

And you, my people, and you, my native land,

you will die and live, when the dark months end,

 

for we have been granted only this one truth:

whatever lives must follow the grain’s path.

 

by Владислав Фелицианович Ходасевич (Vladislav Felitsianovich Khodasevich)

(1917)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Led By What Is Shining…’ by Georgy Ivanov

Led by what is shining,

the sleepwalker looks into a blank,

black is the death beneath him

and there’s no knowing

where the moon’s thin ledge

will slide him.

 

The innocent are executed

in a universal night –

look the other way.

Look into cold nothing

and let its moonshine take you

beyond all understanding.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1948)

translated by Robert Chandler

‘Where Can I Look, Where Can I Go…’ by Georgy Ivanov

Where can I look, where can I go,

to find that almost Alpine snow,

all sacrificed so life can grow,

all turned by May to splash and flow,

to breath of dandelion and rose,

to mighty wave or shining billow –

into that foolish question posed

by François Villon long ago?

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1951)

translated by Robert Chandler


 

Fun fact: François Villon was born in Paris in 1431, disappeared from view in 1463 and is the best known French poet of the late Middle Ages. A ne’er-do-well who was involved in criminal behavior, had multiple encounters with law enforcement authorities and so wrote about some of these experiences in his poems.

‘Nothing, Nothing Will Be Returned…’ by Georgy Ivanov

Nothing, nothing will be returned;

love, forgiveness – unearned, unlearned;

though we can never learn to forget.

 

Sweet is the sleep of an alien land.

We sense spring, hear the sea’s even sound

in this world of eternal torment.

 

by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)

(1949)

translated by Robert Chandler