JUNE 6, 2021
WAIT FOR ME and I’ll come back!
Wait with all your might!
Wait when dreary yellow rains
Tell you nothing’s right;
Wait when snow is falling fast;
Wait when summer’s hot;
When no one waits for other men
And all the past’s forgot!
Konstantin Simonov was working as a war correspondent in World War II when he wrote these lines for his beloved, the actress Valentina Serova. The poem (here translated by Mike Munford) was quickly adopted by Soviet soldiers as an encapsulation of their personal and emotional sacrifices, as well as those of their loved ones on the home front. Yet — as Maria Bloshteyn shows in her expansive bilingual anthology, Russia is Burning — the poetry penned for private or public consumption during the “Great Patriotic War” is far from unified in its ideology. While some of the poems exemplify the kind of patriotic sentiment that would boost Soviet spirits, others are deeply painful, even bitter accounts of the trauma, unfairness, and loneliness of war.
World War II, which decimated the Soviet male population, is remembered in Russia as both a horrific collective tragedy and a defining moment of victory, which continues to shape the successor state’s identity. Bloshteyn has assembled over 200 poems, with subjects ranging from the Leningrad Blockade to life in evacuation to postwar memorials. Some of the poets in Russia is Burning are canonical, like Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, Boris Pasternak, Arseny Tarkovsky, and the dissident songwriter Alexander Galich. Others are less well known, like Vsevolod Bagritsky (son of the more famous but also seldom translated Eduard Bagritsky), who was killed while serving in the press corps on the front, and Natalia Krandievskaya, whose poetic diary of wartime Leningrad was published posthumously.
It’s no surprise that the Soviet Union, a country that took poetry so seriously that an irreverent line could lead to execution, also organized poets for the war effort, fostering an enormous body of work. But what makes this edition striking isn’t only Bloshteyn’s extraordinarily complete archiving and skillful translations (most of the renditions are her own) of officially sanctioned Russian words about World War II — rather, it’s her exposure of the surprisingly vast range of attitudes toward the conflict that makes Burning an important intellectual contribution to literary history. Konstantin Levin, a Jewish soldier-poet who returned from the front disabled, only to be expelled from the Moscow Literary Institute in an antisemitic purge, writes:
Our own artillery buried us.
At first, it wiped us out,
then, stooping to hypocrisy,
it swore that we were loved.
The British Peers applauded us,
as did their waxen misses,
the angels would’ve talked to us
had only they existed.
The poems of Yan Satunovsky, also Jewish, remained almost completely unpublished until the late Soviet period. In a piece from 1942, he writes:
How I love them all
(they’ll all be killed).
All of them —
the company commanders:
‘Company chaaarge! For the Motherla-a..’
(their mouths go dry.)
The verse of expatriates who spent the war years in Western Europe and East Asia is included in these pages. More controversially, Bloshteyn translates poets who “switched sides and either supported the German invaders or ended up aligned with them through various circumstances.” Boris Filippov, who had been sent to the Gulag as a member of a philosophical-religious circle before the war, joined the Nazi administration in occupied Novgorod before emigrating to the United States, where he edited and published important editions of poets completely or partially banned in the USSR — Osip Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and Nikolay Gumilyov. In a poem penned while retreating with the German army, he writes,
Town after town after town,
Just houses of cards bunched together.
There’s nothing I want out of life …
No one … Nowhere … Never …
Bloshteyn doesn’t for a moment suggest that there were “good people on both sides.” Instead, her careful selection of anti-Soviet voices helps us appreciate the messiness of war, which is often lost in the mythologizing rhetoric of the modern Russian state.
The book is also cleverly designed and highly approachable, with brief and engaging English-language notes offering biographical information and historical detail above each poem. Bloshteyn’s wonderful conclusion to the volume is a study of the importance of World War II in the development of the Soviet literary tradition. She explores not only how this body of poems commemorated various realities of the war and comforted the Russian people, but also how Stalin’s regime used and suppressed Soviet poets at will. Writers who were essential to the war effort, like Akhmatova and many Jewish poets and correspondents, were often discarded or repressed once their job was done.
An especially welcome intervention is Bloshteyn’s inclusion of neglected women poets. These voices capture the horrors of life under the blockade, as well as at the front. In her long 1942 poem “The Siege,” Zinaida Shishova writes:
This path to water would fit right into
the tenth circle of Dante’s hell …
But you are pleading for water, so I’m going out again
to bring some, even if it’s only a half-a-bucket …
I’m hoping I won’t slip, like yesterday!
Water — that’s not near at all.
Water — poisoned by cadaveric poison.
It must be boiled, but there’s not a splinter of wood
with which to make a fire …
In a poem titled “Loneliness,” written in 1945, Anna Alekseeva, who lost her husband to hunger and her son to the front, writes:
I have to begin everything afresh
Seek out new friends.
There is my old dance dress
To patch up and mend.
She would die in Leningrad that year.
In a final section of the volume, Bloshteyn includes retrospective considerations of the war. The writers here remember the past with mixed emotions. Vitaly Pukhanov, born in 1966, writes about his grandparents’ deportation from Crimea, while Vera Pavlova, born in 1963, describes, in a hauntingly terse poem about winners and losers, her two grandfathers who return from the war. Grandpa Matvey rode home on “a trophy German bike,” whereas “Grandpa Fedya brought back nothing — / a loser even then!”
One minor shortcoming of the volume is the lack of an alphabetical index of the poets, which would have made the contents more navigable. In her own translations and in those she selects, Bloshteyn favors rhyme and rhythm, which may surprise an ear accustomed to English-language free verse, but the decision gives a sense of the genre of many of the originals, which straddle the blurry boundary between poem and song. And if these translations sometimes sacrifice elements of the literal meaning, the choice to include the original Russian more than makes up for the translators’ license.
The collection arrives 80 years after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR, at a time when scholars are revisiting the Soviet experience of World War II. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky recently published their translation of Svetlana Alexievich’s Last Witnesses, an oral history of the children of that era. For their musical revival project “Yiddish Glory: The Lost Songs of World War II,” Anna Shternshis, Psoy Korolenko, and their collaborators unearthed lost and suppressed Jewish songs and poems of the war, many of which were deemed by the Soviet government to be dangerous expressions of Jewish nationalism. In her study Besieged Leningrad, the poet and scholar Polina Barskova examines the literary aesthetics employed to describe the city at the time of the Blockade. These works have troubled the patriotic story that subsumed the war into a nation-building project. A great many of the poets featured in Bloshteyn’s anthology were suppressed, at least partially, before, during, or after the 1940s. Even Simonov’s “Wait for Me” was, we learn from Bloshteyn, at first deemed “insufficiently patriotic” for publication, and was rejected by the army daily Red Star before Pravda decided to run it.
The stories behind these poems are, as Bloshteyn demonstrates in her notes and introductions, very much worth telling in detail. As if by way of example, Smokestack Books has simultaneously published a slim volume, introduced and translated by Mike Munford, which gives us a fuller view of Simonov’s life and work — a view that doesn’t exactly fit the traditional Soviet narrative. For Simonov, war and love were intimately bound up. In a 1948 poem, he writes:
I buried love and doomed myself to be
Its monument. Above the recent grave
Upon myself I carved a dozen lines,
Beyond my strength and posthumously brave.
He would eventually marry Valentina Serova, the dedicatee of “Wait for Me.” The couple had a child, but became, over time, estranged and split up. War is not always purely patriotic. And lovers do not always wait. And what is the good of poetry if it can’t also convey something of this loss and disillusionment?