Wednesday, March 8, 2017

1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution - looted wine and revolutionary ostriches

In the versions of Alexander Blok’s “The Twelve” that are not rock operas, the marauding Reds do some looting:

Open up the cellars –
treat the thirsty fellas!

Those lines, from the Dralyuk and Chandler translation found in 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution (Pushkin Press, 2016), have a little jolt now because of the highly instructive way this anthology is organized.

The book is a collection of poems, fiction, and whatnots addressing the 1917 revolution.  The pieces are organized thematically – and what themes!  The first section titled “Stolen Wine,” is about the looting and destruction, by smashing or glugging, of wine cellars, some of them massively valuable.  A narrow concern, I first thought, but it was a live political issue, an action filled with symbolic meaning – what is the Revolution doing; what is it for?

And it produced poems, like this terrific fantasy of wine-flooded streets by Marina Tsvetaeva:

The moon in a cloud of wine. – Who’s that? Stop!
Be my comrade, sweetheart: drink up!
Merry stories go round:
Deep in wine – a couple has drowned.  (tr. Dralyuk)

In a Tsvetaeva or Mandelstam collection, I doubt the wine would stand out, but six poems in a row make the point.  And then the image, the issue, recurs throughout the book, as in the Blok poem.  Clever; useful.

These interconnections run through the anthology.  The banner that opens “The Twelve” reappears in Mikhail Prishvin’s “The Blue Banner” – they were published on the same day! – as does the looting theme.  A merchant buys a crate of tea at a bad time to be carrying goods around Petersburg.  The wine cellar theme appears, too, as the merchant dreams himself towards death, marching first “to the wine cellars where the Red Guards are shooting off the drunkards for the third day straight” (194).

The loose, almost conversational Prishvin story is translated by Lisa Hayden, better known here as Lizok.  I know nothing more about Prishvin than is contained in the introductory material.  One of the many benefits of a good anthology – new writers.  Only one piece seemed of purely historical interest, the six pages of apocalyptic religious ranting by Vasily Rozanov.  Good to know such things existed, but six pages was plenty.

Everyone has been reading Teffi lately.  Her pieces are highlights.  “Every bit of him is tightly stuffed, like a leather football, squealing and cracking at the seams, but unable to fly into the air unless it is kicked” (126) – that’s Lenin.

Newspaper boys were nipping about among the queues, together with vendors of sbiten and fried pies.  Michel wanted to try one, but I talked him out of it – such filthy things, smelling of tallow candles.  (134)

The characters are in line, waiting to be guillotined.  Satire so brutal no one wanted to publish it.  But given the circumstances, I am amazed anyone was publishing anything.

Vladimir Mayakovsky, from “To Russia”:

Here I come,
an ostrich from a distant land,
wearing these feathers: stanzas, metres, rhymes.
I foolishly try to bury my head,
dig it into my clinking plumes…
Exotic, outlandish,
I might as well vanish
under the fury of all Decembers.  (tr. James Womack)

I guess I will take the next couple of days off.


  1. I think it's a wonderful collection - so well put together and it really captures what must have been the atmosphere of the times.


  2. Thank you for this post about 1917, Amateur Reader (Tom), I'm glad you enjoyed the book and appreciate your description of the Prishvin story. The conversational aspect of the story made it very difficult to translate, though challenges like that are also tremendous fun, particularly when you're working with an editor like Boris. Enjoy your days off!

  3. A couple of pages into the Prishvin story, I thought, "Oh, this one took some work." Some decisions. They were good ones.

  4. That is very kind of you to write, Amateur Reader (Tom). That story did require a lot of decisions, many of them made (fortunately, I think?) on an intuitive level. And many were made with the help of Boris and my colleague Liza, who goes through a draft of each of my translations: I was close to despondence when writing my first draft but Liza's answers to my questions about the quirky conversational language and odd words made it much easier (relatively speaking!) to find the story's voice.

  5. Despondence! Funny, in retrospect. Translation is art.