Фрагмент (Fragment) by Anna Akhmatova

And it seemed to me that there were fires

Flying till dawn without number,

And I never found out things – those

Strange eyes of his – that colour?

 

Everything trembling and singing and

Were you my enemy or my friend,

Winter was it or summer?

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1959)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

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In Memory of Sergey Yesenin by Anna Akhmatova

There are such easy ways

to leave this life,

to burn to an end

without pain or thought,

but a Russian poet

has no such luck.

A bullet is more likely

to show his winged soul

the way to Heaven;

or else the shaggy paw

of voiceless terror will squeeze

the life out of his heart

as if it were a sponge.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1925)

translation by Robert Chandler


Not so fun facts about the poem’s subject: On 28 of December in 1925 Yesenin was found dead in the room in the Hotel Angleterre in St Petersburg. His last poem Goodbye my friend, goodbye (До свиданья, друг мой, до свиданья) according to Wolf Ehrlich was written by him the day before he died. Yesenin complained that there was no ink in the room, and he was forced to write with his blood. According to the consensus among academic researchers of Yesenin’s life, the poet was in a state of depression a week after he escaped from a mental clinic and committed suicide by hanging. A theory exists that Yesenin’s death was actually a murder by OGPU agents who staged it to look like suicide.

‘June Would Be Clammy, January Crisp’ by Boris Slutsky

June would be clammy, January crisp;

and concrete solid, sand unstable.

For there was order. Real order.

 

People got up and went to work.

And then they watched The Happy Fellas

at cinemas. For there was order.

 

In pedigrees and in parades,

political police, and apparatus,

even in parodies – there was order.

 

People made fun, and were afraid,

only of those they were supposed to,

for there was order, real order.

 

An order of the bent and bashed.

In hours, in minutes, and in seconds,

in years as well, there was real order.

 

It would have gone on without end,

but then a certain person fell,

and all this order went to hell.

 

by Борис Абрамович Слуцкий (Boris Abramovich Slutsky)

(early 1960s)

translated by G. S. Smith


Fun facts: Obviously the ‘certain person’ was Stalin and his era of terror where indeed there was order, compared to the era of thaw, but I was surprised to find actually ‘The Happy Fellas’ actually does exist! It is the 1934 film Веселые ребята a.k.a. ‘Jolly Fellows’ or ‘Funny Boys’ depending on how you choose to translate the title.

Jolly Fellows (Russian: Весёлые ребята Vesyolye rebyata), also translated as Happy-Go-Lucky Guys, Moscow Laughs and Jazz Comedy, is a 1934 Soviet musical film, directed by Grigori Aleksandrov and starring his wife Lyubov Orlova, a gifted singer and the first recognized star of Soviet cinema.

The script was written by Aleksandrov, Vladimir Mass, and Nikolai Erdman (whose father briefly appears on screen as a German music teacher). It features several songs which instantly became classics across the Soviet Union. The most famous song — “Kak mnogo devushek khoroshikh” (Such a lot of nice girls) — enjoyed international fame, covered as “Serdtse” (Heart) by Pyotr Leshchenko. Music was by Isaak Dunayevsky, the lyrics were written by the Soviet poet Vasily Lebedev-Kumach.

Both Orlova and her co-star, the jazz singer and comic actor Leonid Utyosov, were propelled to stardom after this movie.

Slutsky, of course, is mocking how the film is sacchrine, state sanctioned, sanitised humorous entertainment with no challenging elements or anything that might make the audience think about their social hardships they are living through during Stalin’s era of non-conforming people being made to ‘disappear’ for speaking or acting out, gulags and starvation. Everything is fine citizen, watch the film and feel good about life… everything is in order. No one deviates, no one transgresses, no one thinks or acts differently. There is order – or else!

‘I Spent All Day At The Meeting’ by Olga Berggolts

I spent all day at the meeting,

either lying or voting.

I’m surprised I didn’t go grey

or die of shame.

I wandered about the streets,

where I could be myself again.

I had a smoke with a yardman –

then a drink in a cheap kiosk

along with two amputees,

who had fought at Krasny Bor.

Their complaints were something else –

their conversation was real.

One memory led to abother,

as we stirred the ash in our hearts:

penal battalions sent on reconnaissance

straight across minefields.

One man would return bemedalled;

others would lie down for ever,

their trumped-up sins now redeemed

with daredevil blood.

And I said in a drunken rage,

barely able to string thoughts together,

‘Oh how I hate our righteous ones,

Oh how I love our sinners!’

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(1948-9)

translated by Robert Chandler


Fun fact: The reference to Kransy Bor refers to the military action during the Seige of Leningrad of the Second World War (or ‘Great Patriotic War’ to Russians): “The Battle of Krasny Bor was part of the Soviet offensive Operation Polyarnaya Zvezda. It called for a pincer attack near Leningrad, to build on the success of Operation Iskra and completely lift the Siege of Leningrad, encircling a substantial part of the German 18th Army. The offensive near Krasny Bor, formed the western arm of the pincer. The Soviet offensive began on Wednesday, 10 February 1943. It produced noticeable gains on the first day, but rapidly turned into a stalemate. The strong defense of the 250th (Spanish) Infantry Division led by General Emilio Esteban Infantes and the 4th SS Police Division gave the German forces time to reinforce their positions. By February 13, the Soviet forces had stopped their offensive in this sector. In Spain, February 10 became known as “Black Wednesday”, due to the heavy losses of the Spanish Division, which lost over 70% of the men engaged in the action. It was the most costly battle for the Spanish volunteers during their time on the Eastern Front.”

To put the poem in context: remember that the men served in a penal battallion during the Stalinist era and therefore were probably falsely accussed of something or other by the authorities of the time. As the two men were in a penal battallion they were made to take part in more risky military manoeuvres in, what we would call, a suicide squad. Hence Olga’s reaction, after attending a Party meeting, where she had to lie about her real opinions or voted the entire time, drunkenly decrying the ‘righteous’, who were corrupt bureaucrats and staunch members of the Party, abusing their authoritive power to crush anything but complete compliance to their will, instead of practising any humanity towards their fellow man and those left behind broken by their leadership.

‘Could Beatrice Write With Dante’s Passion’ by Anna Akhmatova

Could Beatrice write with Dante’s passion,

Or Laura have glorified love’s pain?

Women poets – I set the fashion…

Lord, how to shut them up again!

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1960)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

‘Еще раз, еще раз’ (‘Once More, Once More’) by Velimir Khlebnikov

Once more, once more,

I am

your star.

Woe to the sailor who takes

a wrong bearing

between his boat and a star.

He will smash against rock

or sandbar.

Woe to you all, who take

a wrong bearing

between your heart and me.

You will smash against rock

and be rock-mocked

as you

once

mocked me.

 

by Велимир Хлебников (Velimir Khlebnikov)

a.k.a. Виктор Владимирович Хлебников

(Viktor Vladimirovich Khlebnikov)

(May 1922)

translated by Robert Chandler


Russian reading of the poem:

Original Russian text:

Еше раз, еще раз,
Я для вас
Звезда.
Горе моряку, взявшему
Неверный угол своей ладьи
И звезды:
Он разобьется о камни,
О подводные мели.
Горе и Вам, взявшим
Неверный угол сердца ко мне:
Вы разобьетесь о камни,
И камни будут надсмехаться
Над Вами,
Как вы надсмехались
Надо мной.

‘Cautious, Toneless Sound’ by Osip Mandelstam

Cautious, toneless sound

of fruit from a tree

to the constant

melody of forest silence…

 

by Осип Эмильевич Мандельштам (Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam. His surname is commonly latinised as Mandelstam)

(1908)

translated by John Riley