1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution – edited by Boris Dralyuk

Boris Dralyuk (bdralyuk here on WordPress) has put together an amazing anthology of contemporaneous writing from the 1917 Russian Revolution and its immediate aftermath. It opens with the suspicious Marina Tsvetaeva’s post-February poem “You stepped from a stately cathedral”–the “you” is Freedom itself, and Tsvetaeva’s not sure she’s all she’s cracked up to be–and ends with Mikhail Bulgakov’s angry, despairing, yet overly optimistic Civil War-era essay “Future Prospects” (he predicts the British will aid the Whites and the Whites will win, but that it will take a long time to restore the standard of living and catch up with the recovering Western Europe). In between are poems and short stories and essays from all over the political spectrum. The quality of the poetry is generally higher than that of the prose (Bulgakov’s article is kind of a mess, and I wonder if it would have been included if not for his later work), but the prose introduces us a variety of lesser-known-in-the-West writers and gives voice to the defeated–as Dralyuk points out, the literature of the Red side really came into its own in the 20’s, outside the scope of this anthology (thus, no Babel, a writer Dralyuk has translated extensively elsewhere).

41khcvusayl-_sx324_bo1204203200_In the poetry section, the undoubted standout is Peter France and Jon Stallworthy’s translation “Spring Rain,” a beautiful poem from the hard-to-translate Boris Pasternak. It’s a lyric about the rain and the crowd going to the theater, but it’s also about the feelings evoked by the February Revolution, feelings of amazement, pride, and beauty. Stallworthy and France really unfolded the genius of Pasternak’s poetry for me, and even if I have a few quibbles here and there, I am in awe of their ability to make the translation a great poem in English in its own right. Their version of the poem ends:

“Not the night, not the rain, not the chorus
shouting “Hurrah, Kerensky!” but now
the blinding emergence into the forum
from catacombs thought to have no way out.

Not roses, not mouths, not the roar
of crowds, but here, in the forum, is felt
the surf of Europe’s wavering night
proud of itself on our asphalt.”

Alexander Blok is represented here by “The Twelve” and “The Scythians”, the latter in a rhyming translation by Alex Miller. Though it depends on the opposition of East and West which normally drives me crazy, and though its language is dated in places–the term “slit-eyed” recurs–it’s a powerful piece, a plea for peace and a threat all in one, calling on war-torn Europe to “hear the summons of the barbarian lyre” which is simultaneously “the ritual feast and fire/of peace and brotherhood!”

“You have forgotten there’s a love on Earth
that burns like fire, and like all fire, destroys…

…We love raw flesh, its colour and its stench.
We love to taste it in our hungry maws.
Are we to blame, then, if your ribs should crunch,
fragile between our massive, gentle paws?”

The prose section is, as I said, more mixed. Privshin’s “The Blue Banner”, mentioned in the Wuthering Expectations review of the anthology and translated by Lisa Hayden of Lizok’s Bookshelf, was definitely a discovery. Though I was initially frustrated with its folksiness and slice-of-life style, it soon shaped up into an interesting allegory as the hapless main character travels to revolutionary Petrograd, winds up jailed by the Bolsheviks on transparently false charges of “marauding”, hears of a plan to recruit “godly” thugs to save Russia, and later becomes a marauder in truth (albeit that his gang consists of his delusional self and one drunk guy). The author was a nature writer and he represents the city itself as a deadly place full of traps both physical and moral.

I also enjoyed the humorous stories of Teffi–I couldn’t help but do so, even when the humor was really not my sort of thing. “The Guillotine” was translated by Rose France, and satirizes the middle class, obsessed with trivialities and minor inconveniences but seemingly indifferent to their own doom. At the end, the guillotine victims, distressed by the lack of orderly queuing, think about forming a union–“Why should it only be other people who enjoy the perks of being guillotine operators?” It’s a dark commentary on human nature, but very  funny. “A Few Words About Lenin” was also translated by Rose France, and it’s a very cutting portrait of a party and a politician who are unscrupulous and also incompetent–failing to anticipate events or spot agents provocateurs, unable to deal with situations not described by Marx and Engels. She also goes after their taking advantage of their supporters’ illiteracy, describing a soldier who, hearing the slogan “Down with annexations!” believes it refers to a woman named Anne Exations. I have no doubt that something like this anecdote must have happened (unlike the joke about soldiers in 1825 thinking that the Constitution they were demanding was the wife of Constantine) but, much like that joke, it’s not actually funny when you think about it. Anyway, my personal gripe about political and actual illiteracy not being funny aside, Teffi’s wit and powers of observation are wonderful.

Yefim Zozulya’s “The Story of Ak and Humanity” is a great satire on dictators, their arbitrariness, sentimentality, illogic, and ultimate insignificance (“But the people, among whom there were some good men, some of indifferent quality and some very poor human material–they continue to live to this day as if Ak had never existed and there had never been any perplexing problem about the Right to Life.”). The name “Council of Public Welfare” in the story is clearly a mix between the Soviets, or more literally Councils, of 1917 and the Committee of Public Welfare from the French Revolution. The translation was done by Emma Goldman’s partner, the anarchist Alexander Berkman.

In “The Dragon”, Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of We, which I recently reviewed here, showcases his imaginative powers but doesn’t really tell a complete story–there’s something ultimately unsatisfying about his sketch of a city beset by dragons of the void, who speak in the Bolsheviks’ slangy, casually violent idiom. This piece is translated by Mirra Ginsburg.

Mikhail Zoshchenko’s “A Wonderful Audacity”, translated by Rose France, is built around a simple idea–the country wanted a “strong” government, and in the Bolshevik dictatorship, it got it. Be careful what you wish for. Punchy one and two sentence paragraphs and simple yet vivid rhetoric make his point.

“They were weak; and you cried, “Stronger!”
And now your wish is granted. Kiss the whip that is raised above you.
It’s cruel, you say? Yes, but, on the other hand, it is powerful?
There is a lot of blood, you say?
Perhaps there is. Perhaps there is.
But then again, not so much that we shall drown in it….”

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Report from the Gallows- Julius Fučík

This book has an interesting history, a history perhaps more interesting than the book itself. When Communist journalist and Czech resistance member Julius Fučík was arrested by the Gestapo, a friendly jailer (who had in fact joined up for the purpose of subverting the organization from the inside, iirc) gave him some paper and smuggled out his writings. They were later published in a cut form, censored by the postwar Communist government to excise one of the most interesting parts of the story– that Fučík was pretending to cooperate and feeding false information to the Nazis. This is revealed in the final pages of the uncut edition of the book. The author did not survive the war; he was executed by the Nazis.

The book is somewhat episodic, as can be imagined from the circumstances under which it was written. It tells the story of his arrest and torture (not too graphically), and contains little character sketches of his cell-mates and guards, a will, and an “intermezzo” or two–one describing May Day in prison.

I noticed that in addition to censoring out the big twist, the postwar authorities, who heavily promoted the book, censored out passages that expressed sympathy for the Sudeten Germans or for Germans generally, showing that Fučík was able to distinguish between the Nazis and the German people generally and even thought the German minority in Czechoslovakia had some valid grievances even though many of them turned to Nazism.

It’s a very moralistic book (he’s explicit about wanting to hold up the heroes of the resistance as an example), and also very propagandistic for the author’s political viewpoint. Although thinking back on it, since it is set in a section of the prison that specifically held Communists, it’s not surprising that almost all the good guys are Communists, and antifascists of other viewpoints are not even mentioned for the most part. However, the political stuff gets old quickly.

Fučík is very clear that he considers giving way under torture to be a choice and a moral flaw–this seems harsh, but considering he had gone through the same experience himself, it was probably a necessary viewpoint to hold in order to not give in.

This quote was very powerful:
“One of these days the present will be the past, and people will speak of “the great epoch” and of the nameless heroes who shaped history. I should like it to be known that there were no nameless heroes, that these were men, men who had names, faces, desires, and hopes…”

 

 

 

American Gypsy – Oksana Marafioti

This is a Soviet immigrant memoir with a twist– the author is half-Romani. The daughter of traveling professional musicians, she studies piano, is bullied at her Moscow school for her heritage, and hopes things will get better when her family moves to America. Right after a more-serious-than-usual teenage heartbreak– her boyfriend, who had traveled to Romania to fight for Romani rights, is murdered– her family finally gets the chance to move. Almost immediately on arrival, however, her parents split up, with her Armenian mom descending into alcoholism and her Romani father marrying a much younger woman and diving into the occult.

However, Oksana embraces the opportunities of her new country, learning English through romance novels and attending a performing arts magnet school. When she falls in love with a non-Romani boy, tensions with her father build to an unsustainable level.

This is a very funny memoir, with her stepmother’s occult antics providing much of the humor. One night, she forces Oksana to help her steal graveyard dirt for a spell, and they get stopped for speeding. The officer doesn’t believe them when they tell him the suspicious bag in the car is dirt!

There are the usual immigrant tensions between tradition and the new culture. Oksana’s stepmother is eager to marry her off, and her father views her as insufficiently free-spirited when she gets into the performing arts school (which he equates with the Soviet arts system), believing that she should learn from her family instead. The problem is that he doesn’t take her seriously enough as a musician to teach her, because she’s a girl. However, Oksana finds a balance between rebelling against sexist traditions and valuing her cultures.

You learn a lot reading this book without it being at all dry. The author offers a lot of detail about her cultures and her experience growing up in the USSR, though the book is mainly about what happened after they got to America. Some things I didn’t expect, such as the fact that though she and her family were discriminated against in the Soviet Union, they were also quite rich and connected. The author also indicates the diversity among the Romani themselves, explaining how Russian Romani were looked down on as sellouts by some Romani from other countries, and how her grandfather distrusted Hungarian Romani.

The only thing that bugged me was that at one point she talked about the negative stereotype of Ossetians in the USSR (as being gangsters), but then her only description of Ossetians in the book is of stereotypical gangsters complete with curved daggers.  This was understandable as the Ossetians were fighting with her father, but just seemed out of place in a book that was otherwise sensitive to these things.

Anyway, I both enjoyed and learned from this book.

The Russian Revolution 1917/Notes on the Revolution – N.N. Sukhanov

“Revolution!- highly improbable! Revolution! -everyone knew this was only a dream- a dream of generations and long laborious decades…I repeated after them mechanically:
‘Yes, the beginning of the revolution.'”

This is a very, very good book.

Sukhanov was a Marxist journalist in pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg, and when the revolution began, he became part of the Executive Committee of the Petrograd Soviet and spent several months at the heart of the revolution. This account is abridged from his over-two-thousand-page, as-yet-untranslated account, Notes on the Revolution. It still runs to 668 pages, and is consistently interesting through all of them. And consistently sarcastic, as he has a low opinion both of the liberals and their socialist allies like Kerensky (whom he really has it in for), and of the Bolsheviks. Even when he clearly admires a person, such as the Menshevik leader Martov, he still has an almost too keen eye for their weak points. This all makes him an excellent observer.

“Miliukov began to speak animatedly, and apparently with complete sincerity.

‘And for that matter- you surely don’t think we are really carrying on some kind of bourgeois class policy of our own, that we are taking a definite line of some kind! Nothing of the sort. We are simply compelled to see to it that everything doesn’t go to pieces once and for all…’

Miliukov, recognized by Europe as the head of Russian imperialism….one of the inspirers of the World War, the Russian Foreign Minister…Miliukov, a highly cultivated man, a great scholar and a professor- didn’t know he was speaking prose!”

[A reference to Moliere’s The Bourgeois Gentleman. “Good heavens! For more than forty years I have been speaking prose without knowing it.”]

On the other hand, he can be quite condescending toward a long list of people- women, soldiers, peasants, the liberal intelligentsia, the Socialist Revolutionaries (at the time, the largest political party in Russia). This is grating, and it is amusing in light of the general condescension toward women that his wife was letting the Bolsheviks hold important meetings in their flat without his knowledge.

He has a very keen eye for detail- are the trams running? What was the weather like? Who was trying to get hold of whom on the telephone? Where could a person snatch a few hours of sleep in the midst of momentous events? (Answer: in a gallery of the White Hall, on a fur coast laid out on the floor.) Reading his account, you feel as if you are living through the events, or at the very least receiving detailed letters from a regular correspondent as they go on.

It helped my enjoyment of the book that the main points of his analysis hold up quite well, though the book was written in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s – that World War One was a catastrophe and that those liberals and socialists who wanted to continue it were criminally irresponsible, and that the Bolsheviks, while right on the war, were lying about everything else and using the slogan “All power to the Soviets” to seize absolute power for their Central Committee. However, sometimes it is very hard to understand what he means by socialism or what kind of program he supported, as he tends to assume the reader knows what he means by “Marxist” and “anarchist” in reference to different policies.

There are a number of hilarious anecdotes in the book, whether in his descriptions of the hypocrisy and stupidity of various politicians, the habits of the local anarchist group, or the confusion that can occur in a revolution. For example, the story of how the Menshevik Dan convinces a pro-Bolshevik regiment to defend the Mensheviks and SR’s (then the majority in the Soviet) during the July Days, when the soldiers had come to overthrow these groups.

“The regiment, of its own free will, had performed a difficult march to defend the revolution? Splendid! The revolution, in the person of the central organ of the Soviet, was really in danger….And Dan personally, with the cooperation of the officers of the ‘insurrectionary’ regiment, posted some of these mutinous soldiers as sentries…for the defense of those against whom the insurrection was aimed. Yes, such things happen in history!”

My only regret about this book is that the rest of it is untranslated. It was really a fascinating and highly educational read. When it came out, even those who disagreed with its point of view (the Communists, for example, since it quite openly points out their dictatorial qualities) acknowledged its importance. If you’re interested in the Russian Revolution, it’s a must read. Otherwise, it’s a good guide to any author writing about a revolution, showing the day-by-day improvisation of the people who suddenly find themselves in charge, the machinations of politicians, and the shifting mood in the street. Absolutely full of telling details.

“‘Let’s sit down at the table,’ said the Ministers, and sat down, in order to look like busy statesmen.”