Nekrasov: Who Can Be Happy In Russia?

'Who Can Be Happy and Free In Russia' is an epic (8,862-line) four-part poem by Nikolai Nekrasov (1821-78). The first sections were published in the Sovremennik and Otechestvennye Zapiski in 1866, but its fourth part, 'The Feast for All the World' (1876–1877) was delayed by censorship problems (as was the whole poem), and Nekrasov's declining health. The work was never quite finished, but the poem as written, albeit with Nekrasov's obliging cuts, first appeared in 1881.

The poem is a celebration of Russian life. Seven peasants take a long journey across Russia united in the hope of finding at least one happy person, a hope that remains unfulfilled as they encounter only suffering and injustice. That surprises the travellers as the Emancipation of the serfs had supposedly left them masters of the land. In the Prologue, the wanderers find a self-assembled tablecloth, and, so fortified, continue in their search. Chapter titles give some indication of what they get up to: village fair, drunken night, happy ones, the die-hard, Klim the elder, peasant woman, wedding, governor's lady, feast for the whole village, bitter time, pilgrims and wanderers, old and new.

translating nekrasov's silence

They meet with various representatives of society — peasant, squire, parson, etc. — and are given marvellous accounts of of moral achievements, heroism and crime, which they happily accept. The poem, against the odds, ends in joyful optimism at a future guided by a democratic intelligentsia.

'Who Can Be Happy in Russia' is one of most remarkable poems in Russian, and though, like all Nekrasov's work, it has its unsuccessful passages, the work remains a tribute to his countryman's good humour, verbal expressiveness and keen wit. To judge by Gutenberg downloads, it is not much read in the west, but the poem has become in Russia something of a national classic.

Russian Text

Глава I. Поп

Широкая дороженька,
Березками обставлена,
Далеко протянулася,
Песчана и глуха.
По сторонам дороженьки
Идут холмы пологие
С полями, с сенокосами,
А чаще с неудобною,
Заброшенной землей;
10. Стоят деревни старые,
Стоят деревни новые,
У речек, у прудов...
Леса, луга поемные,
Ручьи и реки русские
Весною хороши.
Но вы, поля весенние!
На ваши всходы бедные
Невесело глядеть!

«Недаром в зиму долгую
20. (Толкуют наши странники)
Снег каждый день валил.
Пришла весна — сказался снег!
Он смирен до поры:
Летит — молчит, лежит — молчит,
Когда умрет, тогда ревет.
Вода — куда ни глянь!
Поля совсем затоплены,
Навоз возить — дороги нет,
А время уж не раннее —
30. Подходит месяц май!»
Нелюбо и на старые,
Больней того на новые
Деревни им глядеть.
Ой избы, избы новые!
Нарядны вы, да строит вас
Не лишняя копеечка,
А кровная беда!..
С утра встречались странникам
Все больше люди малые:
40. Свой брат крестьянин — лапотник,
Мастеровые, нищие,
Солдаты, ямщики.
У нищих, у солдатиков
Не спрашивали странники,
Как им — легко ли, трудно ли
46. Живется на Руси?

Previous Translations

Gutenberg have an excellent translation by Juliet M. Soskice, exceptionally readable and the only complete English translation in existence:

Part One

The broad sandy high-road
With borders of birch-trees
Winds sadly and drearily
Into the distance;
On either hand running
Low hills and young cornfields,
Green pastures, and often—
More often than any—
Lands sterile and barren.
10. And near to the rivers
And ponds are the hamlets
And villages standing—
The old and the new ones.
The forests and meadows
And rivers of Russia
Are lovely in springtime,
But O you spring cornfields,
Your growth thin and scanty
Is painful to see

20. "'Twas not without meaning
That daily the snow fell
Throughout the long winter,"
Said one to another
The journeying peasants:—
"The spring has now come
And the snow tells its story:
At first it is silent—
'Tis silent in falling,
Lies silently sleeping,
30. But when it is dying
Its voice is uplifted:
The fields are all covered
With loud, rushing waters,
No roads can be traversed
For bringing manure
To the aid of the cornfields;
The season is late
For the sweet month of May
Is already approaching."
40. The peasant is saddened
At sight of the dirty
And squalid old village;
But sadder the new ones:
The new huts are pretty,
But they are the token
Of heartbreaking ruin.

As morning sets in
They begin to meet people,
But mostly small people:
50. Their brethren, the peasants,
And soldiers and waggoners,
Workmen and beggars.
The soldiers and beggars
They pass without speaking.
Not asking if happy
Or grievous their lot:

This was written a hundred years ago, and has aged remarkably well. But it does take some liberties with the Russian and original line numbering. Single lines can be expanded to doubles to encompass the sense properly. Lines can be rearranged a little: Soskice's opening 'The broad sandy high-road / With borders of birch-trees / Winds sadly and drearily / Into the distance' is literally, in the Russian, 'Wide path / Furnished with birches / Stretched far / Sandy and deaf'. Soskine also uses an amphibrachic dimeter with feminine endings, i.e. u - u u - u, rather than an iambic trimeter that in the Russian has a natural stateliness when ending with dactyls. {5}


The lines have eight and six syllables, which Eric McDonald {5} reads as an unrhymed iambic trimeter, usually with a dactylic ending:

1. Широ́кая доро́женька,     (8) u - u - u - u u
Берёзками обста́влена,    (8) u - u - u - u u
Далеко́ протянулася,    (8) u u - u - u - u
Песча́на и глуха́.   (6) u - u - u -
5. По сторона́м доро́женьки (8)    u - u - u - u u
Иду́т холмы́ поло́гие    (8) u - u - u - u u
С поля́ми, с сеноко́сами,    (8) u - u - u - u u

Eric McDonald has some further good sense in another article {6} on the Soskice rendering, namely that a metre common in one language may be rare in another, and, more particularly, bring very different connotations to mind. {7}

The TTS (text to speech) recording is:


We'd want to at least try for a trimeter in our rendering of 'Who Can Be Happy and Free In Russia?':

How wide the path is here
that, furnished with its birches,
stretches on ahead
through sandy ways and quiet.
5. Spread on every side
extend the gentle hills
with fields and with hayfields,
and more the dispiriting
tracts of ill lapsed land.
10. There are villages old
and the villages new
by rivers and by ponds. . .
In forests and in meadows,
and in her streams and rivers:
15. Russia's blessed by spring.
But you, the springtime fields,
display but scanty shoots,
that's never good to see.

"Of course it's why through winter
20. (or so our wanderers think)
the snow fell every day.
But now it tells its tale:
that humble at the first,
to quietly fall and lie,
is noisy as it dies
in water far about!
All the fields are flooded,
road blocked that brings manure,
although it's still quite early
30. for May has yet to come."
We're pained to see the old
and more to see the new
in villages we pass:
ah, the huts, new huts!
Heartwarming is their building
but every penny spent
spells heartache from before.
Daybreak and our wanderers
meet other modest folk:
40. brother of bast-shoed peasant,
beggars and artisans,
soldiers and carriers,
beggars again and soldiers.
Our wanderers do not ask:
Is it easy or is it hard
to live in Russia now?

But this turns out to be rather heavy and flat, which is perhaps why Juliet Soskice didn't employ the trimeter in her version. The trimeter generally needs the shaping of rhyme to be effective in English.

The shortness of the line makes rhyming in trimeters extremely taxing, however, and no one would happily contemplate that task over 8,800 lines. (Nor is the Russian original rhymed, of course.) But suppose, drawing closer to the Russian form, we rewrote the above, ensuring that most lines had feminine endings:

The pathway here is ample
and, furnished with its birches,
goes on a distance faring
through sandy ways and quiet.
5. Each side the pathway borders
a land that, gently rising,
meets fields and then the hay-fields,
and more the uncomfortable
of lands that lie abandoned.
10. Some hamlets passed are older,
some hamlets passed are younger,
by streams, imponded places. . .
In forests and in meadows,
throughout her streams and rivers:
15. how springtime blesses Russia.
But you, our field in springtime,
have poorish shoots for tillage,
which no one wants to see.

"Because throughout the winter
20. (our wanderers are thinking)
snow fell each day that passes,
it now will tell its story:
how from the first and humble,
from quiet fall and lying,
it came to noise and rancour
with waters far extending!
How far the fields are flooded,
roads blocked that bring manure,
although it's still quite early
30. for May has not arrived."
We hate the pre-existing
and more the huts new-built
in villages we're passing.
What huts they are rebuilding!
Though gladdening that action
each penny as expended
comes down from days of ruin.
Daybreak and our wanderers
meet other modest folk:
40. brother of bast-shoed peasant,
beggars and artisans,
soldiers and carriers,
beggars again and soldiers.
Our wanderers do not question:
Is it easy or is it harder
to live in Russia now?

Yes, the feminine endings certainly alter the feel of the piece, which comes over more as shaped verse. But attractive verse? I feel suffocated by the details, and really wouldn't want to read thousands of lines like this.

And so, finally, perhaps we should try Soskine's amphibrachic dimeter (u - u u - u), which she will certainly have had years to test. So:

Here ample the pathway
through furnished birches,
far stretching ahead,
both sandy and quiet.
5. From each side extending,
lie welcoming prospects
of fields and of hayfields,
but less the dispiriting
poor wasteland abandoned.
10. Decrepit some hamlets
while some are rebuilding
by rivers and ponds. . .
In forests and meadows,
in streams and her rivers,
15. spring-lovely is Russia.
When field in the springtime,
with short shoots for tillage,
seems only more hurtful.

"Because all the winter
20. (our wanderers thinking)
snow each day it was snowing,
and therefore the story:
if first it was humble,
just falling and lying,
it noisily melted
with waters extending
far through fields flooded,
no bringing the manure,
though year is still early
30. and May's not in sight."
We hate the existing
and more huts new-built
in hamlets we're passing.
What huts are rebuilding!
Though gladdening that action
each penny laid down
betokens the bloodshed.
Daybreak and our wanderers
meet other such folk:
40. brothers of peasants,
beggars and artisans,
soldiers and carriers,
beggars and soldiers.
Our wanderers won't question:
Is life easier or harder
in Russia today?

Against expectations, this is an easy and flexible stanza form, lending itself to ready writing and polishing.

These are only my personal findings, of course, and readers are encouraged to try their own hand. But, as I say continually in these pages, translation is a communal effort, where we learn from earlier attempts.

Sources and References

1. Russian text. iLibrary.ru.

2. Juliet Soskice translation, with introduction and chapter headings. Gutenberg.

3. Bristol, E., A History of Russian Poetry (O.U.P.) 155-9.

4. Mirsky, D.S., A History of Russian Literature (Knopf 1926 / Vintage Books 1958) 238-43.

5. Mcdonald, Eric. 2013 Translation comparison: Who Can Be Happy in Russia? XIX Bek

6. Mcdonald, Eric. 2014 Translation comparison: Who Lives Happily in Russia?, again. XIX Bek

7. It's for this reason I haven't adopted Soskice or Dralyuk's ternary meter for my translation of Nekrasov's Red-Nosed Frost.

8. Nikolay Nekrasov. Altruistic World Online Library.

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.