I Will Live and Survive

I will live and survive and be asked:
How they slammed my head against a trestle,
How I had to freeze at nights,
How my hair started to turn grey …
But I’ll smile. And will crack some joke
And brush away the encroaching shadow.
And I will render homage to the dry September
That became my second birth.
And I’ll be asked: “Doesn’t it hurt you to remember?”
Not being deceived by my outward flippancy.
But the former names will detonate my memory —
Magnificent as old cannon.
And I will tell of the best people in all the earth,
The most tender, but also the most invincible,
How they said farewell, how they went to be tortured,
How they waited for letters from their loved ones.
And I’ll be asked: what helped us to live
When there were neither letters nor any news – only walls,
And the cold of the cell, and the blather of official lies,
And the sickening promises made in exchange for betrayal.
And I will tell of the first beauty
I saw in captivity.
A frost-covered window! No spy-holes, nor walls,
Nor cell-bars, nor the long endured pain —
Only a blue radiance on a tiny pane of glass,
A cast pattern- none more beautiful could be dreamt!
The more clearly you looked the more powerfully blossomed
Those brigand forests, campfires and birds!
And how many times there was bitter cold weather
And how many windows sparkled after that one —
But never was it repeated,
That upheaval of rainbow ice!
And anyway, what good would it be to me now,
And what would be the pretext for the festival?
Such a gift can only be received once,
And perhaps is only needed once.

— Irina Ratushinskaya

Irina Ratushinskaya was sentenced to seven years in a Soviet labor camp and 5 years of internal exile for “agitation carried on for the purpose of subverting or weakening the Soviet regime.”

[Research note: Irina Ratushinskaya arrives in the U.S. New York Times (March 24, 1987); Interview with Irinia Ratushinskaya Christian Science Monitor (March 27, 1987); Irina Ratushinskaya’s return to Russia Independent (June 5, 1999)]

On the Question of Freedom

Dachau’s ashes burn my feet
The asphalt smokes under me
Warheads & bayonets stuck
under my nails

I’ll stroke a stray strand of my beloved’s hair
And I myself shall smoke
crucified Christ-like on wings of bombers
flying through this night to kill Christ’s kids

My skin trembles with explosions
as if it were Vietnam
and breaking my back and ribs
the Berlin Wall runs through me

You talk to me of freedom? Empty question
under umbrellas of bombs in the sky
It’s a disgrace to be free of your own age
A hundred times more shameful than to be its slave

Yes I’m enslaved to Tashkent women
and to Dallas bullets and Peking slogans
and Vietnam widows and Russian women
with picks beside the tracks and kerchiefs over their eyes

Yes I’m not free of Pushkin and Blok
Not free of the State of Maryland and Zima Station
Not free of the Devil and God
Not free of earth’s beauty and its shit

Yes I’m enslaved to a thirst for taking a wet-mop
to the heads of all the bickerers & butchers of the world
Yes I’m enslaved to the honor of busting the mugs
of all the bastards on earth

And maybe I’ll be loved by the people for this
For spending my life
(not without precedent in this iron age)
glorifying unfreedom from
the true struggle for freedom

— Yevgeny Yevtushenko
(Trans. by Lawrence Ferlinghetti with Anthony Kahn)

President Richard Nixon meets with Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, 1972.
Credit: U.S. National Archives and Records Administration

It’s arguable as to whether Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko was better known internationally for his denouncement of Stalin or his poetry that described anti-Semitism in the Soviet Union. He alternately earned praise and fell out of favor with other Russian dissidents, both celebrated for his bravery (bravado?) in criticizing the political and social heirs of Stalin the sly and dismissed as a toady for his often more moderate criticism of the state. Yevtushenko died on Saturday in Oklahoma, where he taught at the University of Tulsa.

[Research note: “Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Russian poet who memorialised Babi Yar, dies aged 84,” Guardian (April 1, 2017)]

Rug Hydrangea

I regret that I’m not a beast,
running along a blue path,
telling myself to believe,
and my other self to wait a little,
I’ll go out with myself to the forest
to examine the insignificant leaves.
I regret that I’m not a star,
running along the vaults of the sky,
in search of the perfect nest
it finds itself and earth’s empty water,
no one has ever heard of a star giving out a squeak,
its purpose is to encourage the fish with its silence.
And then there’s this grudge that I bear,
that I’m not a rug, nor a hydrangea.
I regret I’m not a roof,
falling apart little by little,
which the rain soaks and softens,
whose death is not sudden.
I don’t like the fact that I’m mortal,
I regret that I am not perfect.
Much much better, believe me,
is a particle of day a unit of night.
I regret that I’m not an eagle,
flying over peak after peak,
to whom comes to mind
a man observing the acres.
I regret I am not an eagle,
flying over lengthy peaks,
to whom comes to mind
a man observing the acres.
You and I, wind, will sit down together
on this pebble of death.
It’s a pity I’m not a grail
I don’t like that I am not pity.

I regret not being a grove,
which arms itself with leaves.
I find it hard to be with minutes,
they have completely confused me.
It really upsets me terribly
that I can be seen in reality.
And then there’s this grudge that I bear,
that I’m not a rug, nor a hydrangea.
What scares me is that I move
not the way that do bugs that are beetles,
or butterflies and babystrollers
and not the way that do bugs that are spiders.
What scares me is that I move
very unlike a worm,
a worm burrows holes in the earth
making small talk with her.
Earth, where are things with you,
says the cold worm to the earth,
and the earth, governing those that have passed,
perhaps keeps silent in reply,
it knows that it’s all wrong.
I find it hard to be with minutes,
they have completely confused me.
I’m frightened that I’m not the grass that is grass,
I’m frightened that I’m not a candle.
I’m frightened that I’m not the candle that is grass,
to this I have answered,
and the trees sway back and forth in an instant.
I’m frightened by the fact that when my glance
falls upon two of the same thing
I don’t notice that they are different,
that each lives only once.
I’m frightened by the fact that when my glance
falls upon two of the same thing
I don’t see how hard they are trying
to resemble each other.
I see the world askew
and hear the whispers of muffled lyres,
and having by their tips the letters grasped
I lift up the word wardrobe,
and now I put it in its place,
it is the thick dough of substance.
I don’t like the fact that I’m mortal,
I regret that I am not perfect,
much much better, believe me,
is a particle of day a unit of night.
And then there’s this grudge that I bear
that I’m not a rug, nor a hydrangea.
I’ll go out with myself to the woods
for the examination of insignificant leaves,
I regret that upon these leaves
I will not see the imperceptible words,
which are called accident, which are called immortality,
which are called a kind of roots.
I regret that I’m not an eagle
flying over peak after peak,
to whom came to mind
a man observing the acres.
I’m frightened by the fact that everything becomes dilapidated,
and in comparison I’m not a rarity.
You and I, wind, will sit down together
on this pebble of death.
Like a candle the grass grows up all around,
and the trees sway back and forth in an instant.
I regret that I am not a seed,
I am frightened I’m not fertility.
The worm crawls along behind us all,
he carries monotony with him.
I’m scared to be an uncertainty,
I regret that I am not fire.

— Alexander Vvedensky

Alexander Vvedensky

Early in his career, Futurist poet Alexander Vvedensky worked in children’s publishing. In 1931, he was arrested and charged with belonging to a group of “anti-Soviet” children’s writers. He was exiled to Kursk. In the mid-1930s he moved to Kharkov, where he was arrested in 1941 for “counter-revolutionary agitation.” He was transported to a labor camp in Kazan, but died of pleuritis on the way. Most of his work has been lost.

A Sad State of Freedom

You waste the attention of your eyes,
the glittering labour of your hands,
and knead the dough enough for dozens of loaves
of which you’ll taste not a morsel;
you are free to slave for others —
you are free to make the rich richer.
The moment you’re born
they plant around you
mills that grind lies
lies to last you a lifetime.
You keep thinking in your great freedom
a finger on your temple
free to have a free conscience.
Your head bent as if half-cut from the nape,
your arms long, hanging,
your saunter about in your great freedom:
you’re free
with the freedom of being unemployed.
You love your country
as the nearest, most precious thing to you.
But one day, for example,
they may endorse it over to America,
and you, too, with your great freedom —
you have the freedom to become an air-base.
You may proclaim that one must live
not as a tool, a number or a link
but as a human being —
then at once they handcuff your wrists.
You are free to be arrested, imprisoned
and even hanged.
There’s neither an iron, wooden
nor a tulle curtain
in your life;
there’s no need to choose freedom:
you are free.
But this kind of freedom
is a sad affair under the stars.

— Nâzim Hikmet

Turkish poet Nâzim Hikmet was a dedicated leftist and a member of the Communist Party of Turkey. He spent much of World War I in Russia. When he returned to Turkey in 1924, he was a regular contributor to the Communist magazine Aydinlik. His poems and articles earned him a fifteen-year prison sentence, but he fled to Moscow before he could be jailed. He returned to Turkey in 1928, but in 1932 was sentenced to four years in prison for his work on the magazine Resimli Ay (Illustrated Monthly), a cosmopolitan literary magazine. He was pardoned in 1933, but arrested again in 1938 and given a 28-year sentence. He was eventually moved to house arrest, out which he escaped to Moscow. His Turkey citizenship was revoked in 1951.

Weep, sky, weep . . .

Weep, sky, weep and weep! Wash the unabated sea
Of thin-voiced waters and dampen the heart.
It seems it was just now, just yesterday
That a deathly shiver buried you alive.
Weep, sky, weep and weep! The past cannot be returned.
Today has been reduced to naught, the future will not come.
Something weighs on the mind that can never
Be torn from the heart. This prison is a prison for prisons!
Weep, sky, weep and weep! Still over your horizons
And let the stars fall from darkened skies!
Is there in this world a trumpet that will sound
A final blast to keep me from my resurrection?
Flow, water, flaw and sweep me away from my weariness,
For eternities of bondage have crushed me.
High upland thunder, girdle the earth!
Pitch-winged cloud, bless me!
Lightning, send a message!
Hallowed be the world. The night is its companion.
So, water. Flow forth! And you, misfortune, rage!

— Vasyl Stus
(Trans. by Marco Carynnyk)


Photo taken after Stus’ 1980 arrest.

Ukrainian poet Vasyl Stus was arrested in 1972 during a Soviet campaign to silence Ukrainian dissidents. He was subsequently charged with “anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda” and sentenced to five years of hard labor and three years of internal exile in Kolyma. He returned to Kiev after he completed his sentence in 1972, but was re-arrested in 1980. He was charged again with anti-Soviet activities and given a ten-year sentence in the hard-labor prison Perm-36, to be followed by an additional five years of internal exile. Stus died of emaciation on September 4, 1985, during his fifth year in prison. Soviet authorities destroyed an estimated 600 poems written by Stus; a handful of verses were smuggled out of the prison camps.


I leave nothing behind,
I burn the boats,
I burn, burn, I do not cool.
Cool, I say, do not burn!

Towards the steppe wastes I shall turn,
the yellow sands,
I shall leave no sign that I have ever been,
no, nor lines of verse.

— Natalya Gorbanevskaya (1965)
(Trans. by Daniel Weissbort)

Poet Natalya Gorbanevskaya was arrested in December 1969 for her dissident activities — particularly her protests against the Warsaw Pact nations’ 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia. After her arrest, she was committed indefinitely to a prison psychiatric institution. She was still incarcerated in 1972 when Daniel Weissbort prepared a volume containing this poem and a transcript of her trial. She was released from prison on February 22, 1972, two weeks after Weissbort’s book was published in London. Gorbanevskaya went into exile and was stateless until Poland granted her citizenship in 2005.

The Stalin Epigram

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on top of his lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half men.

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one for the forehead, temple, eye .

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friend back home.

— Osip Mandelstam, November 1933
(Trans. by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлевского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
И слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются глазища
И сияют его голенища.

А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.
Как подкову, дари’т за указом указ —
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
Что ни казнь у него — то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.

Police photo of Mandelstam, taken after his arrest in May 1938.

Police photograph of Osip Mandelstam taken after his arrest in May 1938.

Osip Mandelstam was arrested in 1934 after reading The Stalin Epigram for a group of friends. He was exiled first to Cherdyn in Siberia and then to Voronezh. In 1938, he was arrested again and charged with “counter-revolutionary activities.” He was sentenced to five years of hard labor. Mandelstam died at a transit camp near Vladivostok later that same year.


[Research note: Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, Osip Mandelstam Selected Poems (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004), p. 69.]


A lonely flute is singing,
The elegy’s blown off the road.
And yet, it is you I am seeking,
Oh, Mary — the Mother of God!

As tree leaves are carried asunder,
They lose the color they’ve got.
My singing heart does flounder,
Oh, Mary — the Mother of God!

The battered Soul is breaking,
Like tree leaves on Golgotha’s road.
As a prayer, a lone flute is singing,
Oh, Mary — the Mother of God!

— Constantin Oprişan
(Trans. by Constantin Roman)

Constantin Oprişan, date unknown.

Constantin Oprişan, date unknown.

Constantin (Costache) Oprișan opposed the Soviet occupation of Romania after World War II. In 1951, his resistance earned him an arrest and a sentence to 25 years of hard labor. He was incarcerated in the Pitești prison and subjected to “re-education” by torture. From Pitești he was transferred to Gherla prison, where he contracted tuberculosis. In 1958, he was transferred Jilava prison. He died at Jilava in June 1959. His poems exist only because his fellow prisoners memorized them. Oprișan’s work was published for the first time in 2009.

[Research note: English-language sources are scarce, but see the Centre for Romanian Studies.]

Letter to an Archaeologist

Citizen, enemy, mama’s boy, sucker, utter
garbage, panhandler, swine, refujew, verrucht;
a scalp so often scalded with boiling water
that the puny brain feels completely cooked.
Yes, we have dwelt here: in this concrete, brick, wooden
rubble which you now arrive to sift.
All our wires were crossed, barbed, tangled, or interwoven.
Also: we didn’t love our women, but they conceived.
Sharp is the sound of pickax that hurts dead iron;
still, it’s gentler that what we’ve been told or have said ourselves.
Stranger! move carefully through our carrion:
what seems carrion to you is freedom to our cells.
Leave our names alone. Don’t reconstruct those vowels,
consonants, and so forth: they won’t resemble larks
but a demented bloodhound whose maw devours
its own traces, feces, and barks, and barks.

— Joseph Brodsky, 1985

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan.Image: 1973 University of Michigan Yearbook, Michiganesian

Joseph Brodsky teaching at the University of Michigan.
Image: 1973 University of Michigan Yearbook, Michiganesian

Joseph Brodsky gave his first public poetry reading at the Gorky Palace of Culture in 1960. In January 1961, he was arrested by the KGB for the first time. In the early 1960s, he was twice imprisoned in a mental institution for producing “pornographic and anti-Soviet” poetry. In 1964, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor for “parasitism” (not holding a State-approved job). The Soviet state commuted his sentence to 18 months in response to international protests. Brodksy was forced onto a plane and into exile in June 1972. He became a U.S. citizen in 1977.

[Research note: Alexandra Berlina, “Afterlife Beyond Translation: Joseph Brodsky,” Canadian Review of Comparative Literature (December 2013): 370-383.]

The Heroes of Our Times

Our time has its own heroes,
Not twenty, not thirty years old.
Such could not bear this burden,
We’re the heroes, born with the century,
Walking in step with the years;
We are victims, we’re prophets and heralds,
Allies and enemies.
We cast spells with Blok the magician,
We fought the noble fight,
We treasured one blond curl as keepsake,
And slunk to brothels at night.
We struck off our chains with “the people,”
And proclaimed ourselves in their debt;
Like Gorky, we wandered with beggars;
Like Tolstoy, we wore peasant shirts.
The troops of Old Belief Cossacks
Bruised our backs with their flails,
And we gnawed at the meager portions
Served to us in Bolshevik jails.
We shook when we saw diamond emblems
or collars of raspberry hue:
We sheltered from German bombardment
And answered our inquisitors, “No!”
We’ve seen everything, and survived it,
We were shot, beaten, tempered like steel;
The embittered sons, angry daughters,
Of a country embittered, brought low.

— Anna Barkova, 1952
(Translated by Catriona Kelly)

In December 1934, Anna Alexandrovna Barkova was arrested and sentenced to five years in prison for criticizing the Soviet state. After her release in 1939, she was sent into internal exile. In 1947, she was re-arrested and sentenced to 10 years in a hard labor camp. She was released in 1956, but arrested again the next year, accused of slandering the Soviet press. She was given another 10-year sentence. Most of her poetry has been lost.

[Research note: Vilensky, Simeon. Till my Tale is Told: Women’s Memoirs of the Gulag. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999): 212-218.]