‘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!

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‘What’s War? What’s Plague…’ by Anna Akhmatova

What’s war? What’s plague? We know that they will pass,

Judgement is passed, we see an end to them.

But which of us can cope with this fear, this –

The terror that is named the flight of time?

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova)

Komarovo, 9 September (1964)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

‘So Again We Triumph…’ by Anna Akhmatova

So again we triumph!

Again we do not come!

Our speeches silent,

Our words, dumb.

Our eyes that have not met

Again, are lost;

And only tears forget

The grip of frost.

A wild-rose bush near Moscow

Knows something of

This pain that will be called

Immortal love.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1956)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

In Dream by Anna Akhmatova

Black and enduring seperation

I share equally with you.

Why weep? Give me your hand,

Promise me you will come again.

You and I are like high

Mountains and we can’t move closer.

Just send me word

At midnight sometime through the stars.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1946)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas

‘It Is Your Lynx Eyes, Asia…’ by Anna Akhmatova

It is your lynx eyes, Asia,

That spied something in me,

Teased it out, occult

And born of stillness,

Oppessive and difficult

Like the noon heat in Termez.

As though pre-memory’s years

Flowed like lava into the mind…

As if I were drinking my own tears

From a stranger’s cupped hands.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1945)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun fact: Termez (Uzbek: Termiz/Термиз; Russian: Термез; Tajik: Тирмиз; Persian: ترمذTermez, Tirmiz; Arabic: ترمذTirmidh) is a city in the southernmost part of Uzbekistan near the Hairatan border crossing of Afghanistan. It is the hottest point of Uzbekistan hence Akhmatova’s referencing it in regards to this poem’s themes when referencing the noon heat there.

In January 1893 the emirate of Bukhara gave the land of the village Pattakesar to the Russian government to build a Russian fortress and garrison and a military border fortification, where the Amu Darya river port was built.

In 1928 as part of the Soviet Union, Pattakesar was renamed and took the city’s ancient name Termez. In 1929, the village became a town. During the years of Soviet rule industrial enterprises were built and a Pedagogical Institute and a theatre were opened.

‘The Fifth Act Of The Drama…’ by Anna Akhmatova

The fifth act of the drama

Blows in the wind of autumn,

Each flower-bed in the park seems

A fresh grave, we have finished

The funeral-feast, and there’s nothing

To do. Why then do I linger

As if I am expecting

A miracle? It’s the way a feeble

Hand can hold fast to a heavy

Boat for a long time by the pier

As one is saying goodbye

To the person who’s left standing.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1921?)

from Седьмая книга (The Seventh Book)

translation by D. M. Thomas


Fun fact: Though the poem is dated as being written in the 1940s it is more likely it was written just after, her husband Nikolay Stepanovich Gumilyov‘s execution in 1921.

Воронеж (Voronzh) by Anna Akhmatova

for Osip Mandelstam

All the town’s gripped in an icy fist.

Trees and walls and snow are set in glass.

I pick my timid way across the crystal.

Unsteadily the painted sledges pass.

Flocks of crows above St Peter’s, wheeling.

The dome amongst the poplars, green and pale in

subdued and dusty winter sunlight, and

echoes of ancient battles that come stealing

out across the proud, victorious land.

All of a sudden, overhead, the poplars

rattle, like glasses ringing in a toast,

as if a thousand guests were raising tumblers

to celebrate the marriage of their host.

 

But in the exiled poet’s hideaway

the muse and terror fight their endless fight

throughout the night.

So dark a night will never see the day.

 

by Анна Ахматова (Anna Akhmatova) (1936)

from Тростник (Reed) / Из шести книг (From the Sixth Book)

translation by Peter Oram


A different translation of the Воронеж (Voronzh) poem. The alternative on this site is translated by D. M Thomas and is also titled Воронеж (Voronzh).

The poet Osip Mandelstam who was living in the city of Voronezh when Akhmatova visited him in February 1936. Peter the Great built a flotilla here and the Field of Kulikovo, where the Tartars were defeated in 1380 isn’t far away.