1917, Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution, various translators
The Russian Revolution was a bloody and extraordinary period. Looking back we know what followed: Stalin’s purges, totalitarianism, the subjugation of much of Europe under Soviet military occupation. It’s easy to find supporters of the ideals of the revolution still today, but there’s not so many now who’ll defend the execution of it (possibly as there were so very many executions).
We of course have hindsight, but that lends a certainty to the past which never existed. We’ll never know how Russia would have fared had the “Whites” won, nor how the implementation of the revolution might have differed with a slightly different outcome to the power struggles following the victory of the “Reds”. It’s incredibly complex, made simple by distance and ignorance of the details.
1917 asks a very clever question: instead of looking at the Russian revolution with the benefit of hindsight, why not look to it as it appeared to the artists of the time? Russia’s poets and writers took part in the revolutionary struggle, both for it and against. They wrote their praise, their condemnation, their fears and doubts. They didn’t know what would follow.
That uncertainty gives this collection of poems and prose, all selected by editor and translator Boris Dralyuk, an extraordinary immediacy. Every work in this collection was written between 1917 and 1919. Here’s the first in the book:
Marina Tsvetaeva, 26 May 1917, translated by Boris Dralyuk
You stepped from a stately cathedral
Onto the blare of the plazas…
-Freedom!-The Beautiful Lady
Of Russian grand dukes and marquises.
A fateful choir’s rehearsing-
the liturgy still lies before us!
-Freedom!-A street-walking floozy
on the foolhardy breast of a soldier
Dralyuk divides the book into sections. That one above is from one titled ‘Stolen Wine’. It’s a neat way of bringing out common themes and concerns, in this case imagery of Bolshevik soldiery careening through the streets drunk on victory and plunder.
It’s an ambiguous poem. Like much of her work too ambiguous for Tsvetaeva’s good. Dralyuk precedes each section with an introduction to the writers featured in it – their history, the artistic movements they were part of or helped inspire, their fate. The fates are often bleak. Tsvetaeva hanged herself in 1941 after charges of espionage resulted in her husband’s execution and her daughter being sentenced to eight years in prison.
This next poem was for me the standout of the collection (and possibly for some of the Pushkin team too given they quoted it on the back of the book). It’s from a section titled Purifying Fire and captures an electrifying vision of the revolution as bloody and brutal but necessary and liberating. It’s powerful stuff.
Alexander Blok, January 1918, translated by Boris Dralyuk and Robert Chandler
A bourgeois’s standing at the crossroads,
nose buried in his collar.
And near him, tail between its legs,
a mangy mongrel cowers.
The bourgeois stands, a hungry cur,
a question mark, a question begged,
behind him crouches the old world –
a mongrel, tail between its legs.
“Get lost, you mangy cur-
or we’ll tickle you with our bayonets.
This is the last of you, old world-
soon we’ll smash you to bits.”
The full poem is several pages long. Blok introduces religious elements into the poem which alienated those he supported, Trotsky observing that “To be sure, Blok is not one of ours, but he reached towards us. And in doing so, he broke down. But the result of his impulse is the most significant work of our epoch. His poem, The Twelve, will remain for ever.”
I agree with Trotsky. The poem is a masterpiece. The religious elements don’t quite work (which Dralyuk notes Blok himself later agreed with though he could never think of an alternative). It does break down in that sense. But nonetheless it’s remarkable. I’ve already read it several times.
In what becomes a theme, the revolution didn’t treat Blok kindly. He found the new bureaucracy stultifying and was arrested in 1919 for ‘suspicion of plotting against the state.’ He died in 1921, just 41 years old.
Other poets here include Mandelstam, Pasternak, Bely, Mayakovsky and many more. The pieces are mostly short, chosen in part I suspect for breadth and context as well as for their quality. If there were nothing here but the roughly 70 pages of poetry this would still be a thrilling collection.
The prose sections can’t have quite the same immediacy of the poetry, but are equally well chosen. Here we have Kuprin, Teffi, Zamyatin, Bulgakov and many others some more significant than those I’ve listed (I’ve quoted the names I recognised rather than the most influential).
Some of the biographical detail is fascinating. I loved the story of Kuprin taking off in a frail biplane piloted by a circus wrestler. The plane crashed from the sky, happily without casualties. Among those watching was a young Kataev who went on to be a writer himself and whose rather good The Drum is also here.
This next quote is from the ‘Of Dragons and Men’ section. It could be read as a satire on bourgeois conformity, or as a critique of totalitarianism, or of course of both. Ambiguity is a common feature here. The context is a city where a revolutionary council has assumed government, led by the popular and wise Ak who is so well respected that no matter what the council proposes there are those who will defend it.
Yefim Zozulya, 1919, translated by Alexander Berkman
The story of Ak and humanity
It seemed a day like any other. The city looked the same as usual. Streets and houses had their ordinary appearance. The sky wore its customary blue. The pavements spread grey and indifferent, as always. Suddenly some men appeared carrying large buckets of paste. They began to put up posters on the walls, doing it quickly, with tears streaming into the buckets. The posters were tense and to the point:
THE COUNCIL OF PUBLIC WELFARE has decided to reorganize life on the basis of justice and progress. For this purpose the COUNCIL will pass on the Right to Life of every inhabitant of our city. Those whose existence is found to be superfluous will cease to exist within 24 hours. Appeals against the decision of the COUNCIL may be filed, in writing, within that time. All appeals will be decided by the COUNCIL before sunset of the same day.
The poster goes on to helpfully explain that friends and neighbours will carry out the sentence of termination where citizens lack the courage to do it themselves when ordered. Failing that a special military detachment is available.
There’s several points in that passage which I love. The self-important use of capitalisation for example. The exploitation of language of rights – the council will pass on the right to life which in fact means the council will decide who’s going to die. Governments and corporations both love that slipperiness of language where something terrible can be clothed in virtue.
The story moves on to the interview process under which it’s decided who lives and who dies, and includes case file excerpts from individuals who didn’t pass and so were found to be “superfluous” (a very meaningful word in the context of Russian literature) and so killed.
One is a mechanic fond of cream in his coffee who beats his children. ‘Daily life grey, prosaic.’ He’s for the chop. Another speaks eight languages but bores his friends in all of them. ‘Sweetly amiable with people, purely out of innate cowardice. … Rarely experiences joy’. He’s killed too.
It’s hard not to read the story and imagine how you’d fare, and the arbitrariness of the decisions makes it impossible to guess. Still, some people defend them, until the Council changes its mind and even then some hearken back to the good old days when the superfluous were terminated rather than indulged.
One final quote, this time from the story which the title to this piece comes from.
Mikhail Zoshchenko (writing as Mikhail Chirkov), 1918, translated by Rose France
The bloody scar on the back of the bourgeois is verily the mark of the strongest power, the mark of a wonderful audacity shown to the whole world.
Doesn’t sound so good now that audacity does it?
It would be hard to praise this collection too highly. Were it not for Pedro Paramo it would be my book of the year. It’s well compiled, well researched, interesting and ever-readable. It’s an introduction not to the past, but to the present as it was. Buy now, while capitalism lasts…
Lots, naturally. Some I bookmarked are from Wuthering Expectations here (different quotes to mine and excellent ones), Guy of His Futile Preoccupations here (including a full list of what’s in the book) and Kaggsy of Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings here. It’s a tribute to this collection that we all seem to have our own favourites, between us they comprise most of the book. I’m sure I’ve missed others so please let me know in the comments.
One final note, I received my copy of 1917 from Pushkin Press back in January as a review title. Life, as so often, intervened so that I didn’t get to read it as planned. So it goes and I apologise to Pushkin for the criminal delay (far from my worst). At the same time, it does mean I got to read it in October/November a 100 years after the revolution which does seem somehow fitting. Unusually for me since I tend to take care of books my copy has been battered with the back cover torn and scuffed. That too seems somehow fitting.