We had lodgers at our house, we did, John and George and Mick and Sid. John was old with balding head Pleased he’d managed not to wed. Like to sit on the old sea wall, Got so drunk once he had a fall. They fished him out and he did say, Not a drop I’ll touch from this day. George as a lad went to sea, On a training ship, so it be. On a training ship, so it be. Stole a pair of boots when he was eight. That was the punishment at that date. Mick was Irish like his name, Singing in the pubs was his fame. Courted a girl who went into the church, Became a Nun, he was left in the lurch. Last but not least we come to Sid, Always caused trouble, was what he did, The Police would be ’round knocking the door, As Grannie would pick him up from the floor. You’re not staying here any more, she would say ‘I’ll be glad when they come to take you away.’
They died of course, one by one For Mick a wake was good fun, George in a sack went to sea, John said a whiskey case for me. Sid the worst was the last Fighting to the end as was his past. Of course Grannie outlived them all They were happy times I do recall.
Once we all used to abide together with God, side by side, He didn't dwell in the sky, we'd see him from time to time alive, on the mausoleum. He was much more clever and evil than that other God, the old one, known to the world as Jehovah, whom he overthrew with a crash and reduced to a heap of ash, then subsequently restored and recruited to serve the cause. For once we all used to abide together with God, side by side.
One day as I wandered around in the Arbat, I met God on parade with five limousines and surrounded by guards wearing mousy grey overcoats, hunched in dread. It was early and late – overhead the grey light of morning was showing as he grazed with his cruel, all-knowing eyes through the hearts of men, unmasking deviants and traitors.
For we lived in an era when God himself was our neighbour.
by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky) (1955) translated by Stephen Capus
Here is the poem in the original Cyrillic Russian.
Мы все ходили под богом. У бога под самым боком. Он жил не в небесной дали, Его иногда видали Живого. На мавзолее. Он был умнее и злее Того — иного, другого, По имени Иегова, Которого он низринул, Извел, пережег на уголь, А после из бездны вынул И дал ему стол и угол.
Мы все ходили под богом. У бога под самым боком. Однажды я шел Арбатом. Бог ехал в пяти машинах. От страха почти горбата, В своих пальтишках мышиных Рядом дрожала охрана. Было поздно и рано. Серело. Брезжило утро. Он глянул жестоко, мудро Своим всевидящим оком, Всепроницающим взглядом.
Мы все ходили под богом. С богом почти что рядом.
Additional information: Slutsky was an atheist but he didn’t forget his Jewish cultural roots regarding not only Yiddish but also the Hebrew he had learned as a child which remained important to him even if only as deeply felt absences. This poem can be read as Slutsky reflecting on how the cult of persona arose in the Soviet era. Communist iconography of Lenin replaced Imperial Russia’s religious iconography in the day to day lives of Russian citizens in Moscow’s historical Arbat street and the surrounding area. Then he reflects, in the second part of the poem, how imagery of Stalin eventually replaced Lenin’s image and he was even worse than him.
by Георгий Владимирович Иванов (Georgii Vladimirovich Ivanov)
translated by Robert Chandler
Fun Fact: Gumilyov of course refers to the poet Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov (Николай Степанович Гумилёв) who was executed by the Petrograd Cheka in 1921. Neva to the river Neva which runs through St Petersburg (also known as Petrograd or Leningrad) while Lethe is one of the five rivers running through Hades, the underworld populated by the dead, in Greek mythology.