Epigram about Stalin [extract] by Osip Mandelstam

Horseshoe-heavy, he hurls his decrees low and high:

In the groin, in the forehead, the eyebrow, the eye.

Executions are what he likes best.

Broad is the highlander’s chest.

 

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

(Autumn, 1933)

translated by Alexandra Berlina


Interesting additon: In  the Autumn of 1933 Mandelstam composed an epigram about Stalin, which he performed at seven small gatherings in Moscow, which ends with the above lines. Mandelstam was arrested six months later but instead of being executed (by being shot) he was exiled to the Northern Urals. Why was this considering ‘executions’ are what [Stalin] loves best’? A cruel irony or possibly that this relative leniency was due to Stalin taking a personal interest in Mandelstam’s case and being concerned about his own place in Russian literary history? After Mandelstam’s attempted suicide the usual sentence was commuted to one of being banished from the largest cities in Russia. Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, settled in Voronezh where he went on to write the three Voronezh Notebooks. In May 1938 he was arrested again and sentenced to five years in the Gulag. He died in a transit camp near Vladivostok on 27 December 1938.

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Предсказание (A Prophecy) by Mikhail Lermontov

A year will come – of Russia’s blackest dread;

then will the crown fall from the royal head,

the throne of tsars will perish in the mud,

the food of many will be death and blood;

both wife and babe will vainly seek the law:

it will not shield the victims any more;

the putrid, rotting plague will mow and cut

and boldly walk the road from hut to hut;

in people’s sight its pallid face will float,

and hunger’s hand will clutch them by the throat;

a scarlet sea will send its bloody surge;

a mighty man will suddenly emerge:

you’ll recognize the man, you’ll feel

that he has come to use a knife of steel;

oh, dreadful day! Your call, your groan, your prayer

will only make him laugh at your despair;

and everything in his forbidding sight –

his brow, his cloak – will fill the land with fright.

 

by Михаил Юрьевич Лермонтов (Mikhail Yuryevich Lermontov)

(1830)

translated by Anatoly Liberman


Fun facts: He wrote this in 1830 and the irony hasn’t been lost on Russian people that less than a hundred years later Nikolai II would lose this throne and… well it’s hard not to immediately see Lermontov’s prophecy (though ‘prediction’ is the more direct translation of the Russian title) proved an all too accurate omen of events during the twentieth century during the Soviet era.

A recital of the poem in Russian:

Original Russian version:

Предсказание

Настанет год, России черный год,
Когда царей корона упадет;
Забудет чернь к ним прежнюю любовь,
И пища многих будет смерть и кровь;
Когда детей, когда невинных жен
Низвергнутый не защитит закон;
Когда чума от смрадных, мертвых тел
Начнет бродить среди печальных сел,
Чтобы платком из хижин вызывать,
И станет глад сей бедный край терзать;
И зарево окрасит волны рек:
В тот день явится мощный человек,
И ты его узнаешь — и поймешь,
Зачем в руке его булатный нож:
И горе для тебя! — твой плач, твой стон
Ему тогда покажется смешон;
И будет всё ужасно, мрачно в нем,
Как плащ его с возвышенным челом.

Imitation of the Armenian by Anna Akhmatova

I shall come to you in a dream,

a black ewe that can barely stand;

I’ll stagger up to you and I’ll bleat,

‘Shah of Shahs, have you dined well?

You are protected by Allah’s will,

the world is a bead in your hand…

And did my son’s flesh taste sweet?

Did your children enjoy their lamb?

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

(1937?)

from around the time of Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book) but left unpublished

translation by Robert Chandler


Fun facts: This poem refers to the arrest of Akhmatova’s son by the authorities during the Stalinist era.

An alternative translation of the same poem was done by D. M. Thomas.

‘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!

Black Cat by Bulat Okudzhava

There’s a courtyard in our building,

that’s where you’ll find the back door,

and behind it lives a Black Cat –

ensconced here like some lord.

 

There’s a smirk behind his whiskers,

darkness shields him like a wall,

and this Black Cat remains quiet

while all others caterwaul.

 

He keeps smirking in his whiskers,

hasn’t caught a mouse of late,

catches us on our loose lips,

on a bit of tempting bait.

 

He does not request or order –

when his yellow eye burns bright,

every one of us forks over,

thanking him with all our might.

 

He won’t meow and he won’t purr –

he just gorges, drinks and gloats.

And he paws at dirty floorboards

like he’s clawing at our throats.

 

This is why the place we live in

is so dark and dreary still,

we should really hang a light bulb –

but can’t seem to foot the bill.

 

by ბულატ ოკუჯავა

a.k.a. Булат Шалвович Окуджава

a.k.a. Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava

(1957 – 1959)

translated by Maria Bloshteyn


Here is the song, often believed to be about Stalin, being performed by Bulat Okudzhava:

 

Bulat Shalvovich Okudzhava (Russian: Булат Шалвович Окуджава; Georgian: ბულატ ოკუჯავა) (May 9, 1924 – June 12, 1997) was a Soviet and Russian poet, writer, musician, novelist, and singer-songwriter of Georgian-Armenian ancestry. He was one of the founders of the Soviet genre called “author song” (авторская песня), or “guitar song”, and the author of about 200 songs, set to his own poetry. His songs are a mixture of Russian poetic and folksong traditions and the French chansonnier style represented by such contemporaries of Okudzhava as Georges Brassens. Though his songs were never overtly political (in contrast to those of some of his fellow Soviet bards), the freshness and independence of Okudzhava‘s artistic voice presented a subtle challenge to Soviet cultural authorities, who were thus hesitant for many years to give official recognition to Okudzhava.

Ordeal [Extract] by Olga Berggolts

[…] And once again

you will have the strength

to see and recognize

how all you have ever loved

will begin to torment you.

And at once, like a werewolf,

a friend will appear

before you and slander you,

and another will push you away.

And the temptations will start:

‘Renounce! Disavow! Forswear!’

And your soul will writhe

in the grip of anguish and fear.

And you will have the strength,

once again, to repeat one thing:

‘I forswear nothing – nothing –

of all I have lived my life by.’

And once again, remembering

these days, you will have the strength

to cry out to all you have loved:

‘Come back! Come back to me!’

 

by Ольга Фёдоровна Берггольц (Olga Fyodorovna Berggolts)

a.k.a. Olga Fyodorovna Bergholz

(January 1939, Cell 33)

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.

In December 1938 she was imprisoned for several months and was only released after suffering a miscarriage from being beaten during interrogations. The above extract is from one of her prison poems.

Imitation From The Armenian by Anna Akhmatova

I shall come into your dream

As a black ewe, approach the throne

On withered and infirm

Legs, bleating: ‘Padishah,

Have you dined well? You who hold

The world like a bead, beloved

of Allah, was my little son

To your taste, was he fat enough’

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1930s)

from around the time of Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book) but left unpublished

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun facts: This poem refers to the arrest of Akhmatova’s son by the authorities during the Stalinist era.

Here is an alternative translation of the same poem by Robert Chandler.