Working Within the System

Time Magazine Cover Story on Yevgeny Yevtushenko

There are two Yevtushenkos. Coming to light in the early 1960s was the young Siberian poet who gave poetry readings to huge crowds in the Soviet Union, like some kind of rock star. He was critical of Stalin, of Russian anti-Semitism, and the “blue envelopes” with extra pay given to writers who toed the official line. Yet he clearly worked within the system, considered himself a loyal Communist, and was allowed to visit foreign countries without fear of his escaping.

I have just finished reading the poet’s A Precocious Autobiography, published in 1963, at the height of his fame—at a time when the Western press was touting him as a Communist they admired. It was a book that was at the same time critical of the government and eager to please it. According to an article in The Guardian:

Mr. Yevtushenko did so working mostly within the system, however, taking care not to join the ranks of outright literary dissidents. By stopping short of the line between defiance and resistance, he enjoyed a measure of official approval that more daring dissidents came to resent.

While they were subjected to exile or labor camps, Mr. Yevtushenko was given state awards, his books were regularly published, and he was allowed to travel abroad, becoming an international literary superstar.

As the exiled Russian poet Joseph Brodsky said about Yevtushenko: “He throws stones only in directions that are officially sanctioned and approved.” Here we have the second Yevtushenko, a figure of controversy.

Where do I stand on the poet? I have read his poems, but don’t care for them. But then, I don’t know Russian, and he could be badly translated—or else he might be one of those poets whose works don’t translate well into other languages.

When the Soviet Union blinked out of existence around 1989-1990, the the poet moved to the United States, where he taught courses at colleges in New York and Tulsa, Oklahoma. He died in Tulsa in 2017.

 

Mad About Travel

Crescent Lake Oasis Near Dunhuang, China

Immanuel Kant was a great philosopher, but I have no desire to emulate him. According to an editorial in Philosophy Now:

A curious case, this Kant. They say that travel broadens the mind, but Kant never in his whole life travelled more than ten miles from his home city of Königsberg (now Kaliningrad). He scraped a living for years as a private tutor before eventually becoming a hardworking professor at the university. He lived a life of disciplined regularity, taking the same walk around Königsberg at the same time each day, with such regularity that it was said that the inhabitants set their watches by him.

Living in Cleveland in the 1950s and 1960s, I desired more than anything else to travel. Even when I came out to California and got a job, it was a full seven years before I could afford to go anywhere but Cleveland. And when I did, my parents were appalled. “Why don’t you come to Cleveland?” Mom wheedled. “I’ll cook my favorite dishes for you.” That’s all I needed—to get even fatter.

I started out with baby steps, going to Mexico and traveling all around the country by bus and train (back when there were trains). I went to England and Scotland, too, and even joined my parents in 1977 to visit Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

In 2001, I went to Iceland; and, in 2006, I discovered South America. Now my desire for travel is insatiable. On the left corner of my kitchen table is a collection of travel guides from Lonely Planet and moon. While waiting for my morning paper to be delivered, I can read about the Trans-Siberian Railroad (2 guides), Iceland, Bolivia, Ecuador, and New Mexico while sipping a cup of hot tea.

December 29 is the last day of my working career, so I may not be able to afford some more distant locations; but Mexico and Guatemala continue to beckon. If I should win the lottery (hah!) I will try for the Trans-Siberian Railroad between Moscow and Vladivostok, though maybe diverting through Mongolia to Beijing. I can always dream, can’t I?

 

 

 

 

To the Barricades?

Vladimir Putin: A Man’s Man?

We have been enemies with Russia for a century now. What happens sometimes during these long sieges of enmity, we lose sight of who we are and who the Russians are. We have gone from the benign presidency of Obama to what looks to us like a would-be Tsar, the narcissistic Trumpf. Russia, in the meantime, traveled a much longer route: From Communism where there was some attempt to help the common people, to the kleptocracy under Yeltsin, to the quasi-dictatorship of Vladimir Putin, former KGB Chieftain. And this Putin had the nerve to try to influence our election!

There is no doubt that Russia under Putin is an amalgam of discipline and targeted cruelty. Enemies of Putin, such as  journalist Anna Politkovskaya, were ruthlessly murdered; and friends of Putin shared in the billionaires’ bounty of their leader. Do we want Russia to become a democracy like ours? Like ours under Trumpf?

According to Russian novelist Mikhail Shishkin:

To call people to the barricades in Russia is beautiful, but senseless…. We lived through all this already in the early ’90s. All revolutions take place in the same way—the best people rise up to fight for honor and dignity, and they die. On their corpses, thieves and bandits come to power, and everything comes full circle. The same thing happened during the Orange Revolution in Kiev. The same thing is happening right before our eyes in the Arab world. Apparently, in Russia a new generation has grown up who want to experience the barricades. All right. They will experience them. And they will be disappointed.

There is, to my mind, very little difference between Trumpf and Putin—except the difference in the two cultures. Trumpf would do the same things as Putin if he could. There still seem to be checks and balances in the United States, but for how long?

 

 

Looking Past Devastation to Hope

Nathan Altman Portrait of Soviet Poet Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966)

I love this poem. Its first stanza is like the United States under Trumpf, or Russia under Stalin—take your pick! Then, in the second and third stanzas, the devastation turns to hope. The poem’s name? “Everything.”

Everything’s looted, betrayed and traded,
black death’s wing’s overhead.
Everything’s eaten by hunger, unsated,
so why does a light shine ahead?

By day, a mysterious wood, near the town,
breathes out cherry, a cherry perfume.
By night, on July’s sky, deep, and transparent,
new constellations are thrown.

And something miraculous will come
close to the darkness and ruin,
something no-one, no-one, has known,
though we’ve longed for it since we were children.

There is something of the seer about the gaunt poet, who under her bangs sees into futures that might possibly, hopefully lie in wait for us.

 

Humor Under Duress, Soviet Style

In Trumplandia, Maybe We’d Better Get Used to Long Lines

In Trumplandia, Maybe We’d Better Get Used to Long Lines

The other day, I saw a great Futility Closet post on Soviet humor. What with Trumpf’s close ties to ex-KGB-head Vladimir Putin, we had better get used to Soviet style humor . So, here goes:

A man is walking along the road wearing only one boot. “Did you lose a boot?” a passerby asks sympathetically. “No, I found one,” the man answers happily.

What is it that doesn’t knock, growl or scratch the floor?
A machine made in the USSR for knocking, growling, and scratching the floor.

It is the middle of the night. There is a knock at the door. Everyone leaps out of bed. Papa goes shakily to the door. “It’s all right,” he says, coming back. “The building’s on fire.”

A shopper asks a food store clerk, “Are you all out of meat again?” “No, they’re out of meat in the store across the way. Here we’re out of fish.”

Why doesn’t the Soviet Union send people to the Moon?
They are afraid they won’t come back.

A man fell asleep on a bus. When someone stepped on his foot, he woke with a start and applauded. “What are you doing, citizen?” “I was dreaming I was at a meeting.”

“What is the difference between Pravda [Truth] and Izvestia [The News]?”
“There is no truth in The News, and no news in the Truth.”

“Bound for Hell”

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Poet Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941)

Yesterday, I posted an incident from Marina Tsvetaeva’s diary of how she was robbed in the streets of Moscow by a young Red Army soldier. Today, I would like to give you one of her most famous poems:

Bound for Hell

Hell, my ardent sisters, be assured,
Is where we’re bound; we’ll drink the pitch of hell—
We, who have sung the praises of the lord
With every fiber in us, every cell.

We, who did not manage to devote
Our nights to spinning, did not bend and sway
Above a cradle—in a flimsy boat,
Wrapped in a mantle, we’re now borne away.

Every morning, every day, we’d rise
And have the finest Chinese silks to wear;
And we’d strike up the songs of paradise
Around the campfire of a robbers’ lair,

We, careless seamstresses (our seams all ran,
Whether we sewed or not)—yet we have been
Such dancers, we have played the pipes of Pan:
The world was ours, each one of us a queen.

First, scarcely draped in tatters, and disheveled,
Then plaited with a starry diadem;
We’ve been in jails, at banquets we have reveled:
But the rewards of heaven, we’re lost to them,

Lost in nights of starlight, in the garden
Where apple trees from paradise are found.
No, be assured, my gentle girls, my ardent
And lovely sisters, hell is where we’re bound.

I’m still not finished writing about this incredible poet. Look for another post about her within a few days.

Marina Tsvetayeva Is Robbed

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

2005 Painting of Marina Tsvetayeva by Aida Lisenkova-Hanemaayer

I have just finished reading Marina Tsvetayeva’s Earthly Signs: Moscow Diaries, 1917-1922 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002). Virtually unknown in the United States, Tsvetayeva was one of the greatest Russian poets of the 20th Century. Here is one of her poems:

I Know the Truth (1915)

I know the truth – forget all other truths!
No need for anyone on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look, it is nearly night:
what will you say, poets, lovers, generals?

The wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep beneath the earth, we
who never let each other sleep above it.

The above translation is by Elaine Feinstein.

In her Moscow diary, she recounts the experience of being robbed as she leaves a friend’s house late at night:

“Who goes there?”

A young guy about eighteen years old, in uniform, a jaunty forelock peeking out from under his cap. Light brown hair. Freckles.

“Any weapons?”

“What kind of weapons do women have?”

“What is that there?”

”Please, take a look.”

I take out of my purse and hand him, one after the other: my new, favorite cigarette case with lions (yellow, English: Dieu et mon droit), a coin purse, matches.

“And there’s also a comb, a key … If you have any doubts, we can go see the yardkeeper; I’ve lived here for four years.”

“Any documents?”

At this point, remembering the parting words of my cautious friends, I conscientiously and meaninglessly parry:

“And do you have any documents?”

“Right here!”

The steel of a revolver, white in the moonlight. (“So it’s white, and for some reason I always thought it was black.I saw it as black. A revolver—is death. Blackness.”)

At the same instant, the chain from my lorgnette flies over my head, strangling me and catching on my hat. Only then do I realize what’s going on.

“Put down that revolver and take it off with both hands, you’re strangling me.”

“Don’t scream.”

“You can hear how I’m speaking.”

He lowers it, and, no longer strangling me, swiftly and deftly removes the doubled chain. The action with the chain is the last one. I hear “Comrades!” behind my back as my other foot steps through the gate.

(I forgot to say that the whole time we were talking (a minute plus) there were people walking back and forth on the other side of the street.)

The soldier left me: all my rings, the lion brooch, the purse itself, both bracelets, my watch, book, comb, key.

He took: the coin purse with an invalid check for 1000 rubles, the new wonderful cigarette case (there you have it, droit without Dieu!), the chain and lorgnette, the cigarettes.

All in all, if not a fair price—a fraternal one.

The next day, Marina hears the young robber was killed by a church custodian:

They offered to let me go pick out my things. I refused with a shudder. How could I—one of the living (that is—happy, that is—wealthy), go and take from him, the dead, his last loot?! I quake at the very thought of it. One way or the other, I was his last (maybe next to the last!) joy, which he took to the grave with him. You don’t rob the dead.

I will have more to say about Tsvetaeva in a future post.