Oriole

I have a confession to make. I am almost exactly the same age as the wonderful Soviet movie We’ll Live Till Monday (Dozhivem do ponedel’nika, Stanislav Rostotsky, dir., 1968), which was filmed during the fiftieth anniversary year of the 1917 Russian Revolution. It is simply the best movie I have ever seen in any language about the value of and balance between formal education and sentimental education, about the conflicts between teachers and pupils, and misunderstandings among generations. It also has plenty to say, mostly between the lines but fairly boldly, about the Soviet Union in its middle age, the teaching of history, the fading revolutionary legacy, and importance of solidarity and “foolish” resistance. And it does all of it in a way that is not trivial or boring or predictable even for a second, and performed by wonderful ensemble cast of mostly teenage actors led by the beloved Vyacheslav Tikhonov and Irina Pechernikova. Pechernikova never became as famous for a number of reasons, but is as wildly charming here as Audrey Hepburn during the same period. So do yourself a favor and treat yourself to one hundred minutes of heartfelt cinematic magic with lots of real, not made-up, lessons to teach audiences. In Russian, with English subtitles.

At the film’s bleakest moment, Vyacheslav Tikhonov’s character, a middle-aged bachelor history teacher and Second World War veteran who still lives with his mother, sings and plays the following song, “Oriole.”

The song’s lyrics are based on three stanzas (the first, third, and fifth) of a poem by the OBERIU poet Nikolai Zabolotsky, “In This Grove of Birch Trees.” Zabolotsky wrote the poem in 1946, the same year he returned to Moscow after eight years of imprisonment and exile in Siberia as a victim of the Stalinist Great Terror.

The full poem, which is considerably bleaker than the already gut-wrenching song lyrics suggest, reads as follows.

Nikolai Zabolotsky
In This Grove of Birch Trees

In this grove of birch trees so white,
Far from woe and misery,
Where the pink morning light
Unblinkingly shimmers,
Where, like a transparent rush,
Leaves shower down from tall limbs,
Sing to me, oriole, a song of anguish,
The song of my life.

Gliding over the forest glade
And eyeing people from a height,
You have selected a wooden,
Inconspicuous pipe.
So that, in morning’s bloom,
After visiting the dwellings of men,
You can greet my morn
With your chaste and humble matins.

But, after all, in life we are soldiers,
And at the limits of what the mind can stand,
Atoms quake and shudder,
Tossing up houses like a white whirlwind.
Like maddened windmills,
Warriors wave their wings around.
But where are you, forest hermit, oriole?
Why have you gone silent, my friend?

Ringed round by blasts,
Over abysses you fly,
Over the river, where the reeds turn black,
Over the ruins of death you glide.
A silent rover,
You guide me into the fray,
And the lethal cloud unfolds
Above you as you make your way.

Beyond the great rivers,
The sun shall rise, and in morning’s gloom,
My eyelids singed,
I shall fall dead to the ground.
Cawing like rabid ravens,
All trembling, the guns shall fall silent.
And then your voice shall sing
Inside my shattered heart.

And over the grove of birches,
Over my birch grove,
Where, an avalanche of pink,
The leaves shower from tall boughs,
Where, touched by a droplet divine,
Cold grows a bit of blossom,
The morning of solemn victory shall dawn
For centuries to come.

1946

You can find the original Russian text poem here or here, among other places. Petersburg critic, poet, and translator Valery Shubinsky has written an excellent critique of the poem, “The Last Battle,” which I hope to translate and publish under separate cover, when I find the time.

Photos and translation by the Russian Reader

No Poet Is Illegal, No Poem Is Extremist

Poet Alexander Byvshev. Photo courtesy of OVD Info
Poet Alexander Byvshev. Photo courtesy of OVD Info

New Criminal Charges Filed against Ex-Schoolteacher Alexander Byvshev
OVD Info
January 17, 2017

On January 17, 2017, police searched the house of ex-schoolteacher Alexander Byvshev in the village of Kromy, Oryol Region. During the search, law enforcement officers confiscated a computer and other information storage devices. After the search, the suspect was interrogated at the local office of the Russian Investigative Committee.

As Alexander Podrabinek wrote on his Facebook page, Byvshev has again been charged under Criminal Code Article 282 (inciting enmity or hostility, as well as humiliation of human dignity). The charges were filed in connection with Byvshev’s poem “On the Independence of Ukraine,” which was published in February 2015 in several Ukrainian periodicals. As Byvshev himself noted, the poem is a “polemical response” to Joseph Brodsky’s eponymous poem.

On July 13, 2015, the Kromy District Court found Byvshev guilty of inciting ethnic hatred (Criminal Code Article 282.1) and sentenced him to 300 hours of compulsory labor for writing poems supporting Ukraine. He was also forbidden to work as a schoolteacher for two years. In autumn 2014, after one of Byvshev’s poems was declared extremist, Rosfinmonitoring placed Byvshev on its list of terrorists and extremists, and his bank accounts were blocked.

Translated by the Russian Reader

Osip Mandelstam: The Egg

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
“Something is always born in the silence.” Graffiti in central Petrograd, May 2016. Photo by Russian Reader

Osip Mandelstam
The Egg

The egg was telling off the hen.
You hatched me crooked and askew,
The way you laid me was wrong.
The days you brooded me were few.
I was still cold, but you up and left.
Why were you utterly shameless?

1924

Translated by the Russian Reader

Original

The End of the World

Czeslaw Milosz
A Song on the End of the World

On the day the world ends
A bee circles a clover,
A fisherman mends a glimmering net.
Happy porpoises jump in the sea,
By the rainspout young sparrows are playing
And the snake is gold-skinned as it should always be.

On the day the world ends
Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,
A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,
Vegetable peddlers shout in the street
And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,
The voice of a violin lasts in the air
And leads into a starry night.

And those who expected lightning and thunder
Are disappointed.
And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps
Do not believe it is happening now.
As long as the sun and the moon are above,
As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,
As long as rosy infants are born
No one believes it is happening now.

Only a white-haired old man, who would be a prophet
Yet is not a prophet, for he’s much too busy,
Repeats while he binds his tomatoes:
There will be no other end of the world,
There will be no other end of the world.

Warsaw, 1944

Translated, from the Polish, by Anthony Milosz

Source


Photographs by the Russian Reader

Invitation to the Voyage

border guards-1
Action figure of a Russian border guard and seal of the Russian Border Guard Service

Boris Vishnevsky
Facebook
May 13, 2016

I have sent this to the Echo website. I hope they will post it soon.

I ask you to repost it.

Friday the thirteenth is a black day in the calendar.

It is no coincidence that on the same day the editorial staff of RBC, one of the best and most professional Russian media outlets, was gutted, the latest paranoid law bill authored by Irina Yarovaya was passed by the Duma.

First, if the bill is passed into law, the Federal Security Service (FSB) will have the right, after issuing a so-called official warning, to ban any citizen from traveling abroad for five years.

For your information, according to FSB Order No. 544, dated November 2, 2010, this “warning” can be given “to an individual in the absence of grounds for criminal prosecution in order to prevent the commission of crimes.” Only “pre-confirmed information” about the “outwardly (verbally, written or otherwise) manifested intent to commit a specific offense in the absence of signs of preparation to commit a crime or an attempt to commit a crime” has to exist.

Let’s translate this from legalese into Russian. There are no signs a crime is being prepped, there are no signs of an attempt to commit a crime, and there are no grounds for criminal prosecution. There is only “information” about the “intent to commit a crime,” information that has appeared out of nowhere and has been obtained god knows how.

Under such rules any undesirable or dissenter can be subject to a “warning,” including people shopped by informers to our beloved secret police for “verbally” or “otherwise” (say, by the look on their face) expressing the intention to commit a crime.

Second, criminal liability will be introduced for “failing to report a crime,” meaning for failing to shop someone to the secret police. As Igor Yakovenko has aptly put it, this will turn “squealing into a civic duty.”

Third, revocation of citizenship would be stipulated for crimes of a “terrorist and extremist tenor,” despite the fact that opposing the authorities is easily classifiable as “extremism.”

All three provisions are blatantly unconstitutional, but they were confidently passed in the first reading, with opposition from an overwhelming minority consisting of Dmitry Gudkov, Sergei Petrov, and Ilya Ponomaryov’s voting card.

You can bet your boots there will be a second and third reading, and the president will sign the bill into law.

I would like to say the Constitutional Court would be bound to quash the law, but considering how it has behaved in recent years there are no grounds for such political optimism.

The darkness is deepening.

However, that always happens before the dawn.

Boris Vishnevsky (Yabloko Party) is a member of the Saint Petersburg Legislative Assembly. Translated by the Russian Reader. Thanks to Comrade Nastya for the heads-up.

Border Guard Service veterans celebrating their professional holiday, May 28
Border Guard Service veterans celebrating their professional holiday, May 28

L’invitation au voyage

Mon enfant, ma soeur,
Songe à la douceur
D’aller là-bas vivre ensemble!
Aimer à loisir,
Aimer et mourir
Au pays qui te ressemble!
Les soleils mouillés
De ces ciels brouillés
Pour mon esprit ont les charmes
Si mystérieux
De tes traîtres yeux,
Brillant à travers leurs larmes.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
Des meubles luisants,
Polis par les ans,
Décoreraient notre chambre;
Les plus rares fleurs
Mêlant leurs odeurs
Aux vagues senteurs de l’ambre,
Les riches plafonds,
Les miroirs profonds,
La splendeur orientale,
Tout y parlerait
À l’âme en secret
Sa douce langue natale.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.
Vois sur ces canaux
Dormir ces vaisseaux
Dont l’humeur est vagabonde;
C’est pour assouvir
Ton moindre désir
Qu’ils viennent du bout du monde.
— Les soleils couchants
Revêtent les champs,
Les canaux, la ville entière,
D’hyacinthe et d’or;
Le monde s’endort
Dans une chaude lumière.

Là, tout n’est qu’ordre et beauté,
Luxe, calme et volupté.

Source

A special day for border guards was established by presidential decree in 1994
The special holiday for Russian border guards was established by presidential decree in 1994

Invitation to the Voyage

Let us leave this tiresome clime
And quit cities made of stone,
Where you are cold and bored,
And sometimes even scared.

The flowers are softer and stars brighter
In the land where the Southern Cross shines,
In the land rich as the dowry chest
Bestowed on enchanted brides.

We’ll build a house taller than a fir,
And face its corners with stone,
Mahogany will panel its walls,
And we’ll put down rosewood floors.

And among the scattered paths
In the vast rose garden
The speckled beetles’ backs
Shall flicker like the stars.

Let’s leave! Unless you do not need
In that hour when the sun has risen
To hear the terrible ballads,
The tales of Abyssinian roses.

Of ancient fairy queens,
Of lions in crowns of flowers,
Of black angels, and of birds
What weave their nests amid the clouds.

We shall find an ancient Arab,
Chanting in a singsong drone
A verse about Rostam and Sohrab
Or the virgins of Zanzibar.

And when we tire of fables,
Twelve slender little Negroes
Shall dance round us in a whirl
And never want to rest.

And magnificent chieftains,
Decked out in ivory gear,
Shall come to visit us
When in spring the rains begin.

In the mountains merry, where the winds
Cry and shout, I shall chop the trees,
Cedars, redolent of resin,
Plane trees spanning to the skies.

I will alter the streams
Of rivers flowing down the hills,
Teaching them now to please
Me according to my will.

And you, you shall have flowers,
And I will give you a gazelle
With such gentle eyes
That it seems as if a flute trills.

Or a bird of paradise, prettier
Than roses and summer lightning flares,
To flutter over your miraculous
Dark blond bonnet of hair.

And when Death comes, slightly sad,
Sliding along the fateful line,
To stand at our threshold,
We shall say to Death, “What, it’s time?”

And, neither longing nor dreaming,
We shall go to God’s highest paradise,
Clear smiles on our faces, recognizing
Everywhere familiar climes.

Original

The Border Guard Service, created in the 18th century, was a separate ministry until 2003, when it became a branch of Russia's Federal Security Service
The Border Guard Service, created in the 18th century, was a separate ministry until 2003, when it became a branch of Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB)

Invitation to the Voyage

Start by taking a brick and shattering the glass.
Go from the kitchen (mind the steps!) to the dining room.
Sweep Peter Ilyich and Beethoven from the baby grand,
Unscrew the third leg. That is where you’ll find the loot.

Don’t traipse into the bedroom, don’t rifle the chest of drawers,
Lest you start to masturbate. The bedroom and the wardrobe
Smell of perfume, but except for rags from Dior,
There’s nothing you can hustle in the Old World.

Two hours later, when they announce the flight,
Don’t bolt for the gate. Stretch your legs and feign boredom.
In any crowd of passengers you will usually spy
A Jew with forelocks, kiddies in tow. Join their hora.

The next morning, when Zizi pulls up the venetian blinds
And tells you the Louvre is closed, grab hold of her wet curls,
Bury her stupid mug in the pillow and, snarling, “Bite!”
Do to her the thing that deprives the soprano of her trills.

Original

border guards-5
Action figures of a modern Russian border guard (with dog) and an NKVD border guard

Images courtesy of the Telegraph (“Vodka and swimming at Russian Border Guards’ Day celebrations”) and One Sixth Warriors