Translating Vasiliev's Natalya: Coy Tone and Other Troubles

Pavel Vasiliev was one of many writers, artists and intellectuals who disappeared in the Great Purges of the 1930s. His boisterous love of life, not to mention his rowdy hooliganism and outspoken contempt of Stalin and Stalinism, made him a marked man. He was arrested briefly in 1932, expelled from the Union of Soviet Writers and then barred from publishing in 1934. In February 1937 he was arrested once more, convicted of treason, and shot at Moscow's Lefortovo Prison on July 16, his ashes being buried in an unmarked mass grave at the Donskoi Cemetery. {1}

translating vasiliev natalya

Vasiliev was born in the city of Zaisan (now in Votochnyi Kazakhstan oblast) to a Cossack family and had his first poem published at the age of 16. Abandoning studies at Novosibirsk University, he  spent two years as a sailor and gold miner, experiences he later described in two books of essays, Gold Exploration and People of the Taiga (both 1930).


In 1928 he moved moved to Moscow, where his promise was immediately recognised. Publications followed rapidly: an epic poem Song About the Death of the Cossack Army (1928 to 1932), Troika (c. 1933), Fists (1934), The Salt Rebellion (1934), and the lyric cycle Poems for Natalya (1934). Vasiliev was one of the last great exponents of "peasant poetry", a movement in 20th Century Russian and early Soviet Literature, epitomized by Sergei Yesenin. Vasiliev himself used folkloric elements, musical rhythms and violent, colorful imagery in describing the Siberian countryside and its rapid transformation under communism. {2}

Soviet Russia

Russia was slow to industrialize, but on the eve of revolution had 71,000 km of railway track, smelters producing 4 million tons of pig iron per year and mills processing almost as much cotton (from Uzbekistan) as Germany. Almost half the population was literate. Private banking was rudimentary, however, and the country relied on foreign capital, funding the railways, for example, by selling securities overseas. The share of heavy industry in Russia's GDP rose from 2% in 1885 to 8% in 1913, but agriculture still took the lion's share. The 1917 Revolution was followed by four years of civil war, in which the Bolsheviks had to accept the peasants' demand for ownership and equal division of the land. {3-7}

The Soviet 'big push' began in 1928 with the first Five Year Plan. Investment was channelled into heavy industry and machinery production. Targets were set, and bank credit extended where necessary. Mass education was enforced and adult education encouraged. The fourth pillar was collectivisation, and a disaster: farm output fell, and millions died of starvation in 1933. In other respects the plan succeeded. Pig iron production had expanded to 15 million tons by 1940. Electric power generation had increased from 5 to 42 billion kilowatt-hours. The investment rate rose to 19% of GDP in 1939. In the same year, the USSR processed 900,000 tons of ginned cotton, 50% more than Britain's, though only 52% of America's figure. {3-7}

Always brutal in his methods, transporting millions to new territories, to slave labour in the gulags, or to their deaths on murderous projects like the White Sea Canal, Stalin strengthened his hold on power through party appointments, informers, an efficient secret police force, swift removal of potential opposition and the 1937-8 reign of terror. Hundreds of thousands perished as the tortured 'named' their fellow conspirators. Illustrious Bolsheviks, fellow colleagues who had made the Revolution, 'confessed' to treasonous crimes in show trials and were executed. The army was purged of its experienced men — 80,000 officers were shot — and therefore seriously weakened when Germany broke its 1939 Non-Aggression Treaty. Horrific battle losses were slowly reversed, however, and Stalin gradually left the command to professional soldiers. German supply lines were over-extended, and all combatants had then to face the Russian winter. Stalingrad proved a turning point, and by 1944 Soviet armies were recapturing enemy ground and advancing on Germany allies. {3-7}

Verses in Praise of Natalya

First the Russian: {8}


В наши окна, щурясь, смотрит лето,  5A
Только жалко - занавесок нету,         5A
Ветреных, веселых, кружевных.         5b
Как бы они весело летали                  5C
 В окнах приоткрытых у Натальи,        5C
В окнах незатворенных твоих!             5b

И еще прошеньем прибалую-              5d
Сшей ты, ради бога, продувную          5d
 Кофту с рукавом по локоток,              5e
Чтобы твое яростное тело                   5F
 С ядрами грудей позолотело,              5F
Чтобы наглядеться я не мог.                5e

Я люблю телесный твой избыток,         5G
От бровей широких и сердитых             5G
 До ступни, до ноготков люблю,            5h
За ночь обескрылевшие плечи,             5i
Взор, и рассудительные речи,               5i
И походку важную твою.                       5h

А улыбка - ведь какая малость!-          5J
Но хочу, чтоб вечно улыбалась-           5J
До чего тогда ты хороша!                     5k
До чего доступна, недотрога,               5L
Губ углы приподняты немного:              5L
Вот где помещается душа.                   5k

Прогуляться ль выйдешь, дорогая,
Все в тебе ценя и прославляя,
Смотрит долго умный наш народ,
Называет "прелестью" и "павой"
И шумит вослед за величавой:
 "По стране красавица идет".

Так идет, что ветви зеленеют,
Так идет, что соловьи чумеют,
Так идет, что облака стоят.
Так идет, пшеничная от света,
Больше всех любовью разогрета,
В солнце вся от макушки до пят.

Так идет, земли едва касаясь,
И дают дорогу, расступаясь,
Шлюхи из фокстротных табунов,
У которых кудлы пахнут псиной,
Бедра крыты кожею гусиной,
На ногах мозоли от обнов.

Лето пьет в глазах ее из брашен,
Нам пока Вертинский ваш не страшен-
Чертова рогулька, волчья сыть.
Мы еще Некрасова знавали,
Мы еще "Калинушку" певали,
Мы еще не начинали жить.

И в июне в первые недели
 По стране веселое веселье,
И стране нет дела до трухи.
Слышишь, звон прекрасный возникает?
Это петь невеста начинает,
Пробуют гитары женихи.

А гитары под вечер речисты,
Чем не парни наши трактористы?
Мыты, бриты, кепки набекрень.
Слава, слава счастью, жизни слава.
Ты кольцо из рук моих, забава,
Вместо обручального надень.

Восславляю светлую Наталью,
Славлю жизнь с улыбкой и печалью,
Убегаю от сомнений прочь,
Славлю все цветы на одеяле,
Долгий стон, короткий сон Натальи,
Восславляю свадебную ночь.

A TTS (text to speech) recording is:

The Penguin Book of Russian Verse has a good prose translation, {9} but the machine code translation of the above is:

In our windows, squinting, looking at the summer,
Only sorry - no curtains,
Windy, cheerful, lacy.
How they would fly happily
In the windows ajar in Natalia,
In the windows of your uncircumcised ones!

And even the passing of a long,
You are, for God's sake, sensible
A jacket with a sleeve over the elbows,
To your furious body
With the cores of the breasts gilded,
To look at it, I could not.

I love the flesh of your excess,
From the brows of broad and angry
Up to the feet, I love marigolds,
During the night, the drained shoulders,
Look, and judicious speeches,
And your gait is important.

A smile - because what a small! -
But I want to smile forever,
Up to what then are you good!
To what is accessible, touchy,
Lips corners raised slightly:
This is where the soul is placed.

Walk around, dear,
All of you appreciating and glorifying,
Our intelligent people are watching for a long time,
He calls "charm" and "pava"
And he makes a noise after the majestic:
"The country is beautiful in the country."

So it goes that the branches are green,
So it goes that nightingales chumyut,
So it goes that the clouds are standing.
So it goes, wheaten from the light,
Most of all, love is warmed up,
In the sun everything from the top to the toe

So it goes, barely touching the ground,
And they give way, parting,
Whores from foxtrot herds,
In which the curls smell of dog,
The hips are covered with goosebumps,
On the feet of callus from updates.

Summer drinks in her eyes from the braches,
To us while Vertinsky your is not terrible-
The devil's a flyer, a wolf syat.
We still knew Nekrasov,
We also sang the "Kalinushka"
We have not yet begun to live.

And in June in the first weeks
A cheerful fun in the country,
And the country does not care about the trash.
Do you hear a beautiful ringing?
This is the bride's singing begins,
Try the guitars of the grooms.

And guitars in the evening speechers,
What are not the guys our tractor drivers?
Mitya, shaved, caps on the head.
Glory, thankfully, life is glory.
You're a ring from my hands, fun,
Instead of engagement put on.

I glorify the bright Natalya,
I praise life with a smile and sadness,
I run away from doubt,
I praise all the flowers on the blanket,
A long groan, a brief dream of Natalia,
I glorify the wedding night.

We should note that Vertinsky was a well-known Russian cabaret singer, and Kalinushka is a folk-song. {9} Nekrasov is the nineteenth-century Russian poet who spoke most eloquently of the country's poor.


The poem is in iambic pentameters, rhymed a a b c c b. There is no particular pattern to the masculine and feminine rhyme pairs, however, and I suggest we stick to masculine rhymes where possible.

There are several points of interest. First is the tone. How do we translate the first two lines, where жалко means 'sorry'? As: At the windows summer looks uncertain: / that seem, please pardon me, to lack a curtain? Probably not: the uncertain / curtain rhyme is too glib, and introduces a feminine rhyme in this translation that otherwise avoids them. The please pardon me also seems somewhat arch or ruefully condescending. It may be best leave the жалко  only implied: The windows squinting through the summer air, / are stupified to find no curtain there. It's really a question of taste, of how colloquial we want to make the diction. Lines 11 and 12 are translated by Obolensky as: with the cannon-balls of breasts, may become golden and that I may never tire of gazing at you. Strictly speaking, the Russian doesn't quite say that, and it may be better to have a jocular and knowing admonition: let's have no golden cannon balls for breasts: / no: just to look at them, I sure could not. By stanza three the coyness is lost, and the poem moves to straightforward declaration.

Final Translation

The windows, squinting through the summer air,
are stupefied to find no curtain there.
No lace to hide behind and have its fun
but, startling, to the looker-on proclaim
they have Natalya in their yielding frame:
how bold at windows our unwedded one.

I've just the one request to make,
that you be sensible, for Heaven's sake.
I’m talking of that short-sleeved top you’ve got,
in which your long, ferocious body nests:
let's have no golden cannon balls for breasts:
no: just to look at them, I sure could not.

The sturdy flesh, I love, its wholesome zest,
and then the widespread eyebrows broadly vexed
to feet, the soles of them, and all the nails.
The night will see your shoulders shed their wings,
and look: your lips disclose judicious things,
while, over all that movement, sense prevails.

Your smile, how faint it is, how small and far
that I would have you as the smiling are:
for then how beautiful you’d be, and graced
with all that’s giving, and your ‘touch me not’
be like the upturned touch your mouth has got
at its two ends, and where your soul is placed.

And when you walk, my love, all look at you,
and praise and magnify the things you do,
the most intelligent, at every hand,
and in the wake of your great moving say,
'A peach she is, she has a swan-like sway:
a wondrous beauty is abroad this land.'

'She walks and trees are green in every shoot.
She walks and nightingales are mad and mute,
She walks and motionless the great clouds grow.
She walks and harvest corn reflects her hue.
In her is love awoken, warm and true,
as sunlight blesses her from top to toe.'

'She walks and then so lightly it behoves
the tarts like trotting foxes in their droves
to stop and have their startled hair prefer
the smell of dogs or wide, goose-pimpled hips,
or feet so calloused when a new shoe slips:
all pause and falter and make way for her.’

'In her eyes the summer eats and drinks,
and, unafraid of what Vertinsky thinks,
or what the wolves will eat, or devil give
who knew old Nekrasov, his tales of wrong,
but at the Kalinushka sang along,
are we who haven’t yet begun to live.'

The first fine weeks of June are in the air:
our land sees merry-making everywhere.
There is no trash about such great events
but great delight appears in everything:
a bride that’s only starting out to sing:
the grooms are tuning up their instruments.

Guitars at evening, an infernal noise,
but aren’t the tractor-drivers splendid boys —
washed, clean-shaven, with their caps askew?
Life is happiness, so do not linger,
take this ring, my love, from off my finger:
my wedding ring it is, and wrought for you.

I praise Natalya of the good tomorrow,
that life has joys and sadness, smiles and sorrow.
Let any doubt of that be gone from sight,
and have the flowering of her blanket keep
Natalya long in moans and short in sleep:
I sing the praises of the wedding night.


On the Don by Boris Sporykhin (87 x 107.6) 1892. Tretyakov, Moscow. {1} Boris Sporykhin was born in Rostov on Don in 1928, studied at Art Studio in Rostov on Don 1939-1941, and graduated from Rostov Don Art College in 1950. He then graduated from Surikov Art Institute in Moscow in 1956, and has been a Member of the Union of the artists since 1956. Important shows include ‘Soviet Russia’, Moscow in 1960 and solo exhibitions in Rostov on Don 1968, 1978 and 1989.

References and Resources

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

Russian poem translations on this site: listing.