Aims of these Russian Pages

Russian poetry is becoming better known, thanks very largely to the Internet and to the many translations by Russian speakers domiciled in the west. Most readers will know something of Pushkin and Pasternak, and will probably have heard of several others  Blok, Mayakovsky, Evtushenko and Brodsky, etc. Why my interest here, and what further can be done?

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My main hope is to make the translations of Russian verse more acceptable English poems. This is not a comment on previous or contemporary translations, many of which are excellent, but a shift of emphasis. Most existing translations are rather simple: they scan and they rhyme — which is a considerable achievement given the very different languages, especially where the feminine rhyme is concerned.

But in both languages, Russian and English, poetry needs a great deal more than these basics to come alive. Different traditions are involved, and indeed different sensibilities. From the nineteenth century onwards, Russian poetry has been very susceptible to European influences, but they have been given a very Russian flavour. In all the arts indeed in painting, novels, short stories, poetry — and possibly music, though the argument becomes somewhat nebulous — Russia has divined a more universal man, a basic humanity that works, loves, hopes and suffers, an intuited morality called ‘the Russian soul.

That is a feature of the arts generally in Russia, and I shall try to include notes to these parallel developments, so that the poetry is not seen in isolation, but as one strand in many that made up the contemporary literary scene.I shall translate Russian verse into English verse, and have nothing to do with the contemporary fad for 'free verse', which is generally prose, and often an unlovely prose at that. Russian poems usually rhyme, and it was this and their musicality that kept them memorized through the Stalinist years of repression, when it was dangerous to write poetry or even possess written versions. The feminine rhymes I shall translate as appropriate, when they add something positive to the translation, and not as a matter of unyielding principal. The feminine rhyme places great restrictions on poems of any length, tending to make them un-English and contrived, as translations of Eugene Onegin have rather shown.

I shall make extensive use of previous translations where they exist, though more to see what's possible and what should be avoided, than to copy. Nonetheless, I certainly shan't twist my renderings into odd shapes simply to avoid repeating a happy phrase a previous translator has found. Translation is a cooperative venture, not a competition, and I frankly do not understand those who refuse to look at previous translations in case it influences their own work. It should influence their work, not unduly, but in the sense that each rendering opens up new avenues of thought, new ways of using the resources of English verse to achieve a certain objective - which in my case is a living English poem rather than what is obviously a translation.

The larger intention is that outlined in the Prologue to Tony Kevin's book Return to Moscow {1}: a desire to understand a nation still demonized in the west:  His 'book is dedicated to the unique resilience and courage of the Russian people, who have triumphed over unimaginable cruelties at the hands of both invaders and their own past rulers, to create a society that is today worthy of admiration; to the beauties of Russia’s landscape, history and culture; and to the grace of Russia’s women, who continue to inspire me, in life as in art.'

A nation's literature cannot be understood without knowing something of its history — its cultural traditions, the make-up of its classes, institutions and social aspirations, and why these differ from country to country. Russia began in the city states of the Ukraine — Kiev, Novgorod and Vladimir, with their complex religious and cultural inheritance from Byzantium —  but these were overrun in the 13th century by the Mongols, who plunged the country into centuries of backwardness. The Grand Duchy of Moscow began its preeminence by acting as tax collectors for the Golden Horde, but a succession of strong-willed, indeed tyrannical, tsars gradually expanded the state and gained increasing independence from their Muslim rulers, though the threat remained. Russia's turn towards the west began with Peter I, who imported ideas, technologies and experts from Europe. Autocratic and centralising tsars — Anna and particularly Catherine the Great — continued those westernising trends, and pushed Russian control eastwards over the fraying medieval Muslim states of central Asia. By the mid-19th century, Russian rule stretched unbroken to the Pacific, but control was still tenuous and sometimes contested. Also imported from the west were European notions of democracy, wildly repugnant to the paternalistic Russian state. {2}

Alexander I (1796-1825), who suffered Napoleon's invasion but made Russia a force on the European stage, was succeeded by his brother Nicholas I (1825-55). The Decembrist uprising, which tried to demote him into a constitutional monarchy, only made the new tsar even more autocratic and suspicious of new ideas. Alerted by the Crimean War and other disasters, Alexander II (1855-81) did finally introduce many much-needed reforms, most importantly the abolition of serfdom, but was assasinated by anarchists, just as ministers had warned. Alexander III (1881-94) was a throwback to the tsars of old, and those outmoded beliefs he passed to his son, Nicholas II (1894-1917), who unfortunately lacked the acumen and iron will needed to survive the disasters of W.W.I.{3}

The Romanov dynasty, founded in 1613 after the explusion of the Poles, ruled through families they ennobled, and from whom they took advice, but such a system of government required the tsar to be far-sighted, politically astute, sensitive to social and economic concerns, and of strong personality. Such was Peter the Great, but the last tsar was far happier acting as paterfamilias than ruling a vast and vexing empire, about which there was still much strange and medieval outside the cities and new industrial zones. Nicholas II came to the throne when his father died prematurely in October 1894, married Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt (Alexandra) within the month, and became in due course the amiable father of five children. {4} Only social banalities feature in his diary entries, and indeed in no matters of an economic and/or political nature did Nicholas show much interest or understanding.

The country was his to rule without laws or parliaments, guided only his conscience before God. Indeed officialdom barely reached into the countryside, where the Church and local communes retained their inveterate and often barbaric customs: wife-beating, drunkenness and floggings for trivial offences. The court, city life, the professions and industry were a world apart from the countryside, and even the aristocracy owed their lands and position to the military and administrative services they provided the tsar, making them an ineffective counterweight to autocratic rule. The educated class that had grown up in the later nineteenth century could see what was needed, but censorship was strict and political change stifled. Well-read in European thought and literature through social mobility and ready access to university education for both sexes, they lovingly depicted the countryside in paintings, novels and short stories, but attempts by such Populists to idolize and reform communities were fiercely resented by all parties. {3, 5}

The nobles wanted their large estate kept unchanged. The peasants trusted only themselves. They had been emancipated from serfdom, but were still their backward, superstitious and unruly selves, forced to rent the better agrarian land from the gentry class or find work in the expanding mines and factories towns, from which they sent money home, or returned themselves at harvest time, but where they also picked up ideas made ever more extreme and subversive by government repression. {5}

Factory life was hard and dangerous, and more so in the many small workshops, which had even fewer safeguards. Strikes were legion, and often flared into riots, pogroms and machine-breaking rampages. Trade unions were banned until 1905, blocking democratic expression through moderate socialist parties. An intelligentsia, themselves newly emancipated from rural servitude, joined an exploited working class, and revolutionary movements smouldered beneath the surface, ready to break out with dangerous violence when disasters struck. {5}

And disasters came from all sides. The great famine of 1891 and the death of half a million from cholera and typhus a year later had polarized opinion badly, but Nicholas did not accede to political demands for change on his accession to the throne: quite the contrary: rule akin to his father's was his solemn duty, though he lacked Alexander's domineering personality. Relief was organized by district councils, which slowly added political influence to their philanthropic aims. Government prestige was further damaged by defeat in the 1904-5 Russo-Japanese War. When St. Petersburg crowds peacefully demonstrating for food in January 1905 were mowed down by cavalry and rifle fire the mood hardened. The middle classes were horrified. There were protests, strikes and mutinies across the country, even a mutiny of the Black Sea fleet, made famous by Eisenstein's 'Battleship Potemkin'. The more educated demanded some form of representative government, the Duma, which Nicholas had to accept, though it was largely consultative and repeatedly dissolved. {5}

Russia was ill-prepared for W.W.I, though Nicholas could not keep his throne without respecting his treaty obligations to Serbia. The court was rumoured to be too pro-German anyway, and the unwholesome influence of Rasputin on his wife, and through her to Nicholas himself, provided yet more scandal. The war was the turning point. After some Russian successes, the Germans rolled back the huge but ill-supplied and misdirected Russian armies, and the heavy losses were difficult to make good. Factories fell behind in supplying clothing or armaments, and many divisions had find their weapons on the battlefield. Heavy conscription led to food shortages in cities, and to long queues and mutinies when troops refused to fire on rioting crowds. In a move that damaged his prestige further, Nicholas assumed command of the army, though his previous title of colonel was largely honorary. Food queues grew longer and more threatening. Rather than quell disorder, troops fired on the police. When in February 1917 his ministers admitted that they could no longer implement his measures, or even count on the loyalty of the army, Nicholas was obliged to abdicate, which he did calmly, as though finally released from a distasteful duty. {5}

A Provisional Government was formed, and then a more progressive one under Alexander Kerensky. But with opportunity after opportunity for sensible dialogue and compromise wasted, the time for distant promises was over. Only immediate power would satisfy peoples brutalized by war, hunger and exploitation. Peasants had seized gentry lands, and workers had taken over factories — aided by the Red Guard, which the Bolsheviks controlled. Lenin, who had arrived at the Petrograd Finland Station in April 1917, announced his terms: an immediate peace, all power to the Soviets, and no cooperation with other parties. Many thought him unrealistic, or mad even, but the Bolsheviks gained a good showing in subsequent elections, and promptly took over Petrograd in a coup d'état. Russia broke into warring factions. Nicholas and family, already irrelevant to the country and denied exile in Britain, were executed by the Bolsheviks at Yekaterinburg in July 1918. Ahead lay vast and often catastrophic social experiments: collectivisation and the elimination of the kulak small-holding class, rapid industrialization under Stalin's ambitious five year plans and always political repression: the purges, gulags and the great terror. All could have been avoided had Nicholas risen to the occasion, but what the tsar lacked in vision and determination the Bolsheviks had in plenty. {5}

The Soviet Union did not become repressive by industrializing: the Bolshevik state was repressive from the first. Lenin seized power in a coup d'état, and added forced labour camps, terror, torture and wholesale murder to the autocratic system he inherited. Perhaps a million people disappeared in these early years of communism: there is little way of knowing for sure. But then few democratic counterweights had existed to government in tsarist Russia. Books and newspapers were strictly censored, and even the educated classes had limited contacts with the common people. The serfs had become land-owning peasants, but were driven just the same by rural backwardness and poverty to the new cities and factories where, denied political expression, they supported a socialist intelligentsia with extremist policies.

Worse appeared under Stalin: the 1937-8 Great Terror, the labour camps or gulags whose output became essential to the Soviet state, and collectivisation that led to starvation and destruction of the peasant's way of life, seen by many historians as a catastrophe from which the system never fully recovered. And if desperate measures were born out of the miseries of WWI, they were only intensified in WW II. Troops were stiffened with commissars to prevent desertion, and victories achieved with horrific loss of life. Yet even this truly heroic period — credited to Stalin and unyielding communist principles — was unmasked by Khrushchev's 1956 speech when the reality of Stalin's despotic rule was disclosed, only partially, but sufficient for disillusion to set in. The young turned away from the stern principles and suffering that characterized their parent's and grandparent's lives, and looked to the west for alternatives. The great social experiment was over, and, though the Union was kept together by political and military force for several decades more, its end was inevitable when Gorbachev relaxed that force. {3,5}

Vladimir Putin is a controversial figure but remains popular in Russia by rescuing the country from Yeltsin, whose election was financed by western institutions, and whose government proved more destructive than the Great Depression in America. {6} Putin ended the war in Chechnia, turned the economy around, and made Russia a respected player again on the world stage. {7} The annexation of the Crimea, the war in Syria, the shooting down of MH17 and now the Ukraine invasion are all seen differently by the Russian press, as indeed by independent media outlets. We need informed and balanced views when reading Russian literature.

The Living Poem

'Living' does not mean 'a free rendering' but one that understands how the Russian poem works in the Russian tradition, and renders it, as faithfully as possible, in something that belongs to the English tradition. In doing so I shall look closely at details of Russian poems and suggest parallels in English. More than that cannot be claimed. Russian is only a moderately difficult language, nothing like Arabic or Chinese, for example, but does use sounds that have no equivalent in English, and employ a slightly more taxing grammar. That means that lines can only occasionally be rendered word for word, and that the special ways that Russian poetry employs language will not necessarily have counterparts in the English poetry. But I shall do my best. If the Russian poem is humorous, colloquial, sly or whatever, I shall try to make its English equivalent comparable. {6-7} The translations are not generally given a final polish, which I hope will allow readers to suggest improvements or corrections before I think about collecting the pieces in ebook form.

Finally, please note that I don't generally give the literal sense of the Russian in the longer poems, but readers can copy and paste the Russian text into one of the many online translation services to see what changes I have made to arrive at the rhymed version. I have also added 'recordings' made with text-to-speech software to give a general idea of how the poems sound. Live recordings are obviously better, and many can be found by googling audio, poet, poem title and/or first lines, all in Russian.


Evening Bells by Isaac Levitan.
(87 x 107.6) 1892. Tretyakov, Moscow. Levitan (1860-1900) was influenced by Impressionism, but his paintings are more subdued, with a melancholy poetry that is distinctly Russian. Behind his paintings there was usually some trace of narrative, if only an intimation of man's place in the universe, usually a rather somber place.

Levitan saw his mission as combining atmospheric effects with poetry in the lives of Russian peasants, and beyond them, the larger spiritualizing aspects of poverty. Epic panoramas had already appeared alongside intimate motifs in Savrasov’s work, and the difference between a study and a finished painting became merged in Polenov’s work. Levitan brought to these trends a formal clarity, broadening their scope and unifying their disparate elements, in a markedly romantic style. Some of outdoor paintings indeed surpassed those of the French Impressionists, whose work he studied at first hand when he travelled through Europe in the 1890s.

References and Resources

References can now be found in a free pdf compilation of Ocaso Press's Russian pages.