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International Reflective Writing


above Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago


Anna Akmatova

Akhmatova's work ranges from short lyric poems to universalized, ingeniously structured cycles, such as "Requiem" (1935-40), her tragic masterpiece about the Stalinist terror. Her work addresses a variety of themes including time and memory, the fate of creative women, and the difficulties of living and writing in the shadow of Stalinism. She has been widely translated into many languages and is one of the best-known Russian poets of 20th century.


Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected -
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us. 


During the frightening years of the Yezhov terror, I
spent seventeen months waiting in prison queues in
Leningrad. One day, somehow, someone 'picked me out'.
On that occasion there was a woman standing behind me,
her lips blue with cold, who, of course, had never in
her life heard my name. Jolted out of the torpor
characteristic of all of us, she said into my ear
(everyone whispered there) - 'Could one ever describe
this?' And I answered - 'I can.' It was then that
something like a smile slid across what had previously
been just a face.
[The 1st of April in the year 1957. Leningrad]


Mountains fall before this grief,
A mighty river stops its flow,
But prison doors stay firmly bolted
Shutting off the convict burrows
And an anguish close to death.
Fresh winds softly blow for someone,
Gentle sunsets warm them through; we don't know this,
We are everywhere the same, listening
To the scrape and turn of hateful keys
And the heavy tread of marching soldiers.
Waking early, as if for early mass,
Walking through the capital run wild, gone to seed,
We'd meet - the dead, lifeless; the sun, 
Lower every day; the Neva, mistier:
But hope still sings forever in the distance.
The verdict. Immediately a flood of tears,
Followed by a total isolation,
As if a beating heart is painfully ripped out, or,
Thumped, she lies there brutally laid out,
But she still manages to walk, hesitantly, alone.
Where are you, my unwilling friends,
Captives of my two satanic years?
What miracle do you see in a Siberian blizzard?
What shimmering mirage around the circle of the moon?
I send each one of you my salutation, and farewell.
[March 1940]


It happened like this when only the dead
Were smiling, glad of their release,
That Leningrad hung around its prisons
Like a worthless emblem, flapping its piece.
Shrill and sharp, the steam-whistles sang
Short songs of farewell
To the ranks of convicted, demented by suffering,
As they, in regiments, walked along -
Stars of death stood over us
As innocent Russia squirmed
Under the blood-spattered boots and tyres
Of the black marias.


You were taken away at dawn. I followed you 
As one does when a corpse is being removed. 
Children were crying in the darkened house. 
A candle flared, illuminating the Mother of God. . .
The cold of an icon was on your lips, a death-cold
On your brow - I will never forget this; I will gather

To wail with the wives of the murdered streltsy (1)
Inconsolably, beneath the Kremlin towers.
[1935. Autumn. Moscow]


Silent flows the river Don
A yellow moon looks quietly on
Swanking about, with cap askew
It sees through the window a shadow of you
Gravely ill, all alone
The moon sees a woman lying at home
Her son is in jail, her husband is dead 
Say a prayer for her instead.


It isn't me, someone else is suffering. I couldn't.
Not like this. Everything that has happened,
Cover it with a black cloth, 
Then let the torches be removed. . .


Giggling, poking fun, everyone's darling,
The carefree sinner of Tsarskoye Selo (2)
If only you could have foreseen
What life would do with you -
That you would stand, parcel in hand,
Beneath the Crosses (3), three hundredth in
Burning the new year's ice
With your hot tears.
Back and forth the prison poplar sways
With not a sound - how many innocent 
Blameless lives are being taken away. . .


For seventeen months I have been screaming,
Calling you home.
I've thrown myself at the feet of butchers
For you, my son and my horror.
Everything has become muddled forever -
I can no longer distinguish
Who is an animal, who a person, and how long
The wait can be for an execution.
There are now only dusty flowers,
The chinking of the thurible,
Tracks from somewhere into nowhere
And, staring me in the face
And threatening me with swift annihilation,
An enormous star.


Weeks fly lightly by. Even so,
I cannot understand what has arisen,
How, my son, into your prison
White nights stare so brilliantly.
Now once more they burn,
Eyes that focus like a hawk,
And, upon your cross, the talk
Is again of death.
[1939. Spring]



The word landed with a stony thud
Onto my still-beating breast.
Nevermind, I was prepared,
I will manage with the rest.

I have a lot of work to do today;
I need to slaughter memory,
Turn my living soul to stone
Then teach myself to live again. . .

But how. The hot summer rustles
Like a carnival outside my window;
I have long had this premonition
Of a bright day and a deserted house.
[22 June 1939. Summer. Fontannyi Dom (4)]



You will come anyway - so why not now?
I wait for you; things have become too hard.
I have turned out the lights and opened the door
For you, so simple and so wonderful. 
Assume whatever shape you wish. Burst in 
Like a shell of noxious gas. Creep up on me 
Like a practised bandit with a heavy weapon.
Poison me, if you want, with a typhoid exhalation,
Or, with a simple tale prepared by you
(And known by all to the point of nausea), take me 
Before the commander of the blue caps and let me
The house administrator's terrified white face.
I don't care anymore. The river Yenisey 
Swirls on. The Pole star blazes.
The blue sparks of those much-loved eyes
Close over and cover the final horror.
[19 August 1939. Fontannyi Dom]


Madness with its wings
Has covered half my soul
It feeds me fiery wine
And lures me into the abyss.

That's when I understood 
While listening to my alien delirium
That I must hand the victory
To it.

However much I nag
However much I beg
It will not let me take
One single thing away:

Not my son's frightening eyes -
A suffering set in stone,
Or prison visiting hours
Or days that end in storms

Nor the sweet coolness of a hand
The anxious shade of lime trees
Nor the light distant sound
Of final comforting words.
[14 May 1940. Fontannyi Dom]



Weep not for me, mother.
I am alive in my grave.

A choir of angels glorified the greatest hour,
The heavens melted into flames.
To his father he said, 'Why hast thou forsaken me!'
But to his mother, 'Weep not for me. . .'
[1940. Fontannyi Dom]

Magdalena smote herself and wept,
The favourite disciple turned to stone,
But there, where the mother stood silent,
Not one person dared to look.
[1943. Tashkent]


I have learned how faces fall,
How terror can escape from lowered eyes,
How suffering can etch cruel pages 
Of cuneiform-like marks upon the cheeks.
I know how dark or ash-blond strands of hair
Can suddenly turn white. I've learned to recognise
The fading smiles upon submissive lips,
The trembling fear inside a hollow laugh.
That's why I pray not for myself
But all of you who stood there with me
Through fiercest cold and scorching July heat
Under a towering, completely blind red wall.

The hour has come to remember the dead.
I see you, I hear you, I feel you:
The one who resisted the long drag to the open window;
The one who could no longer feel the kick of familiar
soil beneath her feet;
The one who, with a sudden flick of her head, replied,

'I arrive here as if I've come home!'
I'd like to name you all by name, but the list
Has been removed and there is nowhere else to look.
I have woven you this wide shroud out of the humble
I overheard you use. Everywhere, forever and always,
I will never forget one single thing. Even in new
Even if they clamp shut my tormented mouth
Through which one hundred million people scream;
That's how I wish them to remember me when I am dead
On the eve of my remembrance day.
If someone someday in this country 
Decides to raise a memorial to me,
I give my consent to this festivity
But only on this condition - do not build it
By the sea where I was born,
I have severed my last ties with the sea;
Nor in the Tsar's Park by the hallowed stump
Where an inconsolable shadow looks for me;
Build it here where I stood for three hundred hours
And no-one slid open the bolt.
Listen, even in blissful death I fear
That I will forget the Black Marias,
Forget how hatefully the door slammed and an old woman
Howled like a wounded beast.
Let the thawing ice flow like tears
From my immovable bronze eyelids
And let the prison dove coo in the distance
While ships sail quietly along the river.
[March 1940. Fontannyi Dom]


1 An elite guard which rose up in rebellion
against Peter the Great in 1698. Most were either
executed or exiled.
2 The imperial summer residence outside St
Petersburg where Ahmatova spent her early years.
3 A prison complex in central Leningrad near the
Finland Station, called The Crosses because of the
shape of two of the buildings.
4 The Leningrad house in which Ahmatova lived. Not under foreign skies
Nor under foreign wings protected -
I shared all this with my own people
There, where misfortune had abandoned us. 


We know what trembles on the scales,

And what we must stell ourselves to face.

The bravest hour strikes on our clocks:

My courage not abandon us!

Let bullets kill us--we are not afraid,

nor are we bitter, though our hosetops fall.

We will preserve you, Russian speech,

from servitude in foreign chains,

keep you alive, great Russian word,

fit for the songs of our children's children,

pure on their tones, an free.

Marc Chagall (Russian/French)



Portrait of Chagall by Yehuda (Yuri) Pen,
his first art teacher in Vitebsk

Marc Chagall


War, 1964 by Marc Chagall


Aram Khachaturian: Spartacus

Aram Khachaturian was one of the few Soviet composers of the Stalin regime to overcome his public demotion in 1948. Even though he was removed from his job and his works disappeared from the theatres, Khachaturian moved to the world of film music and waited for the storm to blow over.

Early in 1950, he was allowed to travel to Italy with a Soviet delegation, where he was inspired by the Roman Coliseum to compose a ballet on the life of Spartacus. Working with the author and critic Nikolai D. Volkov (1894-1965), Khachaturian assisted in the construction of a libretto that was based on two main sources, which had also been consulted by Karl Marx: the Roman civil war history by the Alexandrian civil servant and barrister Appian (2 A.D.), and the biography of Crassus by Plutarch (1 A.D.). These two sources described the story of a Thracian prisoner of war who led an uprising out of a gladiator school in 73 B.C., raised an army of peasants and other marginal societal groups, and defeated nine Roman legions and generals before finally being defeated by Roman general Crassus. Volkov gave Spartacus a fictional lover named Phrygia, and Crassus a fictional lover named Aegina. Aegina embodies the moral depravity of the Roman Empire, while Phrygia stands for the freedom and good of the common people. Khachaturian finished the score in 1954, but the original has never been performed. At its premiere in 1956 in the Kirov Theatre, the choreographer Leonid Jacobson (1904-1975) cut the work into a series of friezes, using a pantomime-like style of movement similar to the Isadora Duncan school. The production staged by Igor Moiseyev in 1958 with a huge ballet corps and three extra scenes won Khachaturian the Lenin Prize in 1959. The staging most often used for performances today is the one by Yuri Grigorovich in 1968, and it is the one performed on this DVD.

The ballet is divided into three major acts. The first act has 20 scenes, and centers around the introduction of Crassus, Spartacus, Phrygia, and Aegina as the main characters. The plot focuses on the slave market, where Phrygia and Spartacus are separated and sold. Act 1 ends with Spartacus initiating the revolt in the gladiator’s barracks, and the oath they all take to fight the Romans. Act 2 centers around one of the two major battle scenes in the ballet, where Crassus and Spartacus fight each other, but both survive the encounter. Spartacus’s election as the revolt leader, and Aegina’s depravity towards the revolution, are also depicted. Act 3 is the huge final battle scene between Spartacus and Crassus, where Aegina is able to seduce some of Spartacus’s lieutenants and discover his battle plans. At the end of the ballet, Spartacus is killed and there is a huge victory celebration for Crassus in Rome.

The performance on the DVD was magnificent. The costumes, staging, scenery and dancing were wonderful to watch. Given that most people remember the excellent movie version of this story which starred Kirk Douglas, this ballet version is also a visual experience and adventure. The four main dancers/characters kept the attention and focus of the drama, supported by the supporting cast of dancers. It is a dramatic retelling of an actual historical event, recreated by a Soviet composer which attempts to depict the continual trials and repression of the common people by bureaucratic and depraved governments.

Dr. Brad Eden
University of Nevada, Las Vegas

Source: Opera Today:

Matthew Cameron Performs the Adagio from Khachaturian's Spartacus:


Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn: The Gulag Archipelago

It is necessary that people know what has happened in our country by the time they finish school,” said Natalya Solzhenitsyna.

The Gulag Archipelago, banned in the Soviet Union until 1989, is now compulsory reading in Russian high schools.

Human rights ombudsman Vladimir Lukin described the Solzhenitsyns as a “factory producing truth, erasing meanness and cowardice from our souls”.

The Gulag Archipelago (Russian: Архипелаг ГУЛАГ, Arkhipelag GULAG) is a book by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn based on the Soviet forced labor and concentration camp system. The three-volume book is a massive narrative relying on eyewitness testimony and primary research material, as well as the author's own experiences as a prisoner in a Gulag labor camp. Written between 1958 and 1968 (dates given at the end of the book), it was published in the West in 1973, thereafter circulating in samizdat (underground publication) form in the Soviet Union until its official publication in 1989.

GULag or Gulág is an acronym for the Russian term Glavnoye Upravleniye ispravitelno-trudovyh Lagerey (Главное Управление Исправительно-трудовых Лагерей), or "Chief Administration of Corrective Labour Camps", the bureaucratic name of the Soviet concentration camp main governing board, and by metonymy, the camp system itself. The original Russian title of the book is Arkhipelag GULag, the rhyme supporting the underlying metaphor deployed throughout the work. The word archipelago compares the system of labor camps spread across the Soviet Union with a vast "chain of islands", known only to those who were fated to visit them.

Since the Soviet Union's collapse and the formation of the Russian Federation, The Gulag Archipelago is included in the high school program in Russia as mandatory reading.

Source: Wikipedia:

The first Soviet forced labor camp of the GULAG was set up in 1923 to confine non-communist politicians, priests, monks, and other political opponents.  In the early 1930s, other camps were established to receive millions of Kulaks (wealthy, successful peasants) and placed under the control of the secret police (NKVD).  During the Great Purge (1936-39) the GULAG employed millions as laborers to mine gold, build roads, cut lumber, construct canals, or manufacture consumer goods.  From 1936-1956 an estimated eight million people were imprisoned in the GULAG system, which stretched across the entire country.  As late as 1985, the GULAG continued to house thousands of prisoners.  In his novel The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, a former prisoner of the GULAG, described the conditions that existed in the forced labor camps.

The Gulag Archipelago: An Excerpt  

According to the recollections of Ivan Semyonovich Karpunich-Braven (former commander of the 40thDivision and of the XII Corps, who recently died with his notes incomplete and scattered), a most dreadfully cruel system of food, work and punishment was established in the Kolyma [forced labour camps in the Soviet Far East].  The prisoners were so famished that at Zarosshy Spring they ate the corpse of a horse which had been lying dead for more than a week and which not only stank but was covered with flies and maggots.  At Utiny Goldfields the zeks [political prisoners; an abbreviation of z/k meaning in Russian zakliuchenny] ate half a barrel of lubricating grease, brought there to grease the wheelbarrows.  At Mylga they ate Iceland moss, like the deer.  And when the [mountain] passes were shut by snowdrifts, they used to issue three and a half ounces of bread a day at the distant gold fields, without ever making up for previous deficiencies.  Multitudes of ‘goner’, unable to walk by themselves were dragged to work on sledges by other ‘goners’ who had not yet become quite so weak.  Those who lagged behind were beaten with clubs and torn by dogs.  Working in 50o below zero Fahrenheit [-45 o C], they were forbidden to build fires and warm themselves. (Thieves were allowed this).  Karpunich himself also tried ‘cold drilling by hand’ with a steel drill six and a half feet [two meters] long, and hauling so-=called ‘peat’ )soil with broken stone and boulders) at 60 o  below zero [-50 oC] on sledges to which four men were hitched (the sledges were made of raw lumber, and the boxes on top were made of raw slab); a fifth accompanied them, a thief-expediter, “responsible for the fulfillment of the plan”, who kept beating them with a stave.  Those who did not fulfil the norm )and what does it mean – those who do not fulfill – because after all, the production of the 58’s [people convicted under the Criminal Code for ‘crimes against the state’] was always ‘stolen’ by the thieves)  [They} were punished by the chief of the camp, Zeldin, in this way:  In winter he ordered them to strip naked in the mine shaft. Poured cold water over them, and in this state they had to run to the compound; in summer they were forced to strip naked, their hands tied behind them to a common pole and they were left out, tied there, under a cloud of mosquitoes.  (The guard was covered by a mosquito net.)  Then, finally, they were simply beaten with a rifle butt and tossed into an isolator….

At Mygla (a subordinate camp of Elgen), under Chief Gavrik, the punishments for women who failed to fulfill the norm were lighter; simply an unheated tent in winter (but one was allowed to go outside and run around it), and at haying time under the mosquitoes – an unprotected wattle shack ….

At that point , they abolished the remaining days off for the 58’s and lengthened the summer workday to 14 hours, came to consider 50 o and 60 o below zero Fahrenheit suitable for work; and allowed work to be cancelled only on those days when the temperature was lower than 65 o below zero Fahrenheit. (And because of the caprices of individual chiefs, some took the prisoners out for work even at 75 obelow.)  At the Gorny Goldfields … those who refused to go out to work were tied to the sledges and hauled thus to the mine face.  It was also accepted in Kolyma that the convoy was not only present to guard the prisoners but answerable to their fulfillment of the plan, and therefore had to avoid dozing and continue slave-driving them eternally. 

Views from Samizdat

Most contributors writing in the samizdat literature did not advocate the overthrow of the Soviet system.  Their views were meant to remind their leaders that the task of building socialism was far from finished.  Many Soviet writers contributed to both the official press and to samizdat.  The following viewpoints are taken from two samizdat publications, Political Diary, which appeared in the 1960s, and Chronicle of Current Events, which circulated in the 1970s and 1980s.

Political Diary 

#25 Oct. 1966

The experience of the years since our revolution has shown that the chief danger in a young socialist society is the rise of ‘strong-willed’ leaders who aspire to one-man rule and are intolerant of any criticism.  Under a one-party system, with extremely strict party discipline, such leaders can easily eliminate those who get in their way and can become unlimited dictators.  That’s how it was not only with Stalin but also with Khrushchev.  Shouldn’t we draw the conclusion from this that more democratic procedures should be introduced in the countries where socialism has been victorious?  I do not mean the introduction of a multi-party system but the democratization of the Communist Party itself, free and public discussion and debate, and the chance to criticize any Party leader openly, either in print or orally.  There is no need for harsh, semi-military disciple in the present circumstances; it is even harmful.  The Soviet people have changed greatly, and we do not have any internal class enemies within the country – neither the bourgeoisie, the landlords, the kulaks, nor the aristocracy – against whom a bitter struggle has still to be waged. 

#66 March  1970

Our country has made great strides in the development of production, in the fields of education and culture, in the basic improvements of the living conditions of th working class, and in the development of new socialist human relationships.  Our achievements have universal historical significance.  They have deeply affected events throughout the world and have laid a firm foundation for the further development of the cause of Communism.  However, serious difficulties and shortcomings are also evident ….

…Defects in the system of planning, accounting, and incentives often cause contradictions between local and departmental interests and those of the state and nation.  As a result, new means of developing production potential are not being discovered or properly put to use, and technological progress has slowed down abruptly.  For these very reasons, the natural wealth of the country is often destroyed with impunity and without any supervision or controls; forests are leveled, reservoirs polluted, valuable agricultural land flooded, soil eroded or salinized, and so on.

Chronicle of Current Events

#26 July 5, 1972

Our society is infected by apathy, hypocrisy, petit-bourgeois egoism, and hidden cruelty.  The majority of representatives of its upper stratum cling tenaciously to their open and concealed privileges and are profoundly indifferent to violations of human rights to the security and the future of mankind.  Others, although deeply concerned in their hearts, cannot permit themselves any ‘freedom of thought’ and are condemned to the torment of internal conflict.

…The basic class, social, and ideological features of the regime did not undergo any essential changes.  With pain and alarm I have to note that after a period of largely illusionary liberalism there is once again an increase in restrictions n ideological freedom, efforts to suppress information which is not controlled by the state, persecution of people for political and ideological reasons, and a deliberate aggravation of the nationalities problem.

#42 Oct. 8, 1976

In general. We must remember that the fight against religion leads only to the moral degradation of society, an increase in crime, and the reinforcement of anti-cultural tendencies among the people.

#56 April 30, 1980

I consider it my duty as a human being and a citizen to appeal to all Communists; defend our rights, demand that the CPSU must genuinely – not just in words -- reestablish democratic institutions, and demand the annulment of the administrative exile … imposed on [Andrei] Sakharov … and the immediate release of the editors of the journal Searches who have been arrested.

I do not intend to request readmission to the ranks of the CPSU.  Until the shameful persecution of free thinking cease in my Motherland, I do not wish to remain in a party which sanctions this persecution.


Leo Tolstoy: Advice to a Draftee

Leo Tolstoy, a Russian nobleman born in 1828, began to write fiction while serving as an artillery officer in the Crimean war. He became one of Russia's greatest novelists as well as an important religious thinker. His religious beliefs caused him to renounce his material possessions and to live a life of a Christian ascetic until his death in 1910. 

The following letter was written to a young Hessian named Ernst Schramm in 1899, when the Hessian army was a peacetime army and the penalty for evading conscription was death. The letter was forwarded from Darmstadt to Bavaria, a fact which suggests that Schramm left the country rather than be conscripted.

In my last letter I answered your question as well as I could. It is not only Christians but all just people who must refuse to become soldiers--that is, to be ready on another's command (for this is what a soldier's duty actually consists of) to kill all those one is ordered to kill. The question as you state it--which is more useful, to become a good teacher or to suffer for rejecting conscription--is falsely stated. The question is falsely stated because it is wrong for us to determine our actions according to their results, to view actions merely as useful or destructive. In the choice of our actions we can be led by their advantages or disadvantages only when the actions themselves are not opposed to the demands of morality.

We can stay home, go abroad, or concern ourselves with farming or science according to what we find useful for ourselves or others; for neither in domestic life, foreign travel, farming, nor science is there anything immoral. But under no circumstances can we inflict violence on people, torture or kill them because we think such acts could be of use to us or to others. We cannot and may not do such things, especially because we can never be sure of the results of our actions. Often actions which seem the most advantageous of all turn out in fact to be destructive; and the reverse is also true.

The question should not be stated: which is more useful, to be a good teacher or to go to jail for refusing conscription? but rather: what should a man do who has been called upon for military service--that is, called upon to kill or to prepare himself to kill?

And to this question, for a person who understands the true meaning of military service and who wants to be moral, there is only one clear and incontrovertible answer: such a person must refuse to take part in military service no matter what consequences this refusal may have. It may seem to us that this refusal could be futile or even harmful, and that it would be a far more useful thing, after serving one's time, to become a good village teacher. But in the same way, Christ could have judged it more useful for himself to be a good carpenter and submit to all the principles of the Pharisees than to die in obscurity as he did, repudiated and forgotten by everyone.

Moral acts are distinguished from all other acts by the fact that they operate independently of any predictable advantage to ourselves or to others. No matter how dangerous the situation may be of a man who finds himself in the power of robbers who demand that he take part in plundering, murder, and rape, a moral person cannot take part. Is not military service the same thing? Is one not required to agree to the deaths of all those one is commanded to kill?

But how can one refuse to do what everyone does, what everyone finds unavoidable and necessary? Or, must one do what no one does and what everyone considers unnecessary or even stupid and bad? No matter how strange it sounds, this strange argument is the main one offered against those moral acts which in our times face you and every other person called up for military service. But this argument is even more incorrect than the one which would make a moral action dependent upon considerations of advantage.

If I, finding myself in a crowd of running people, run with the crowd without knowing where, it is obvious that I have given myself up to mass hysteria; but if by chance I should push my way to the front, or be gifted with sharper sight than the others, or receive information that this crowd was racing to attack human beings and toward its own corruption, would I really not stop and tell the people what might rescue them? Would I go on running and do these things which I knew to be bad and corrupt? This is the situation of every individual called up for military service, if he knows what military service means.

I can well understand that you, a young man full of life, loving and loved by your mother, friends, perhaps a young woman, think with a natural terror about what awaits you if you refuse conscription; and perhaps you will not feel strong enough to bear the consequences of refusal, and knowing your weakness, will submit and become a soldier. I understand completely, and I do not for a moment allow myself to blame you, knowing very well that in your place I might perhaps do the same thing. Only do not say that you did it because it was useful or because everyone does it. If you did it, know that you did wrong.

In every person's life there are moments in which he can know himself, tell himself who he is, whether he is a man who values his human dignity above his life or a weak creature who does not know his dignity and is concerned merely with being useful (chiefly to himself). This is the situation of a man who goes out to defend his honor in a duel or a soldier who goes into battle (although here the concepts of life are wrong). It is the situation of a doctor or a priest called to someone sick with plague, of a man in a burning house or a sinking ship who must decide whether to let the weaker go
first or shove them aside and save himself. It is the situation of a man in poverty who accepts or rejects a bribe. And in our times, it is the situation of a man called to military service. For a man who knows its significance, the call to the army is perhaps the only opportunity for him to behave as a morally free creature and fulfill the highest requirement of
his life--or else merely to keep his advantage in sight like an animal and thus remain slavishly submissive and servile until humanity becomes degraded and stupid.

For these reasons I answered your question whether one has to refuse to do military service with a categorical "yes"--if you understand the meaning of military service (and if you did not understand it then, you do now) and if you want to behave as a moral person living in our times must.

Please excuse me if these words are harsh. The subject is so important that one cannot be careful enough in expressing oneself so as to avoid false interpretation.

April 7, 1899

Marina Tsvetaeva

Marina Tsvetaeva was born in Moscow. Her father, Ivan Tsvetayev, was a professor of art history and the founder of the Museum of Fine Arts. Her mother Mariya, née Meyn, was a talented concert pianist. The family travelled a great deal and Tsvetaeva attended schools in Switzerland, Germany, and at the Sorbonne, Paris. Tsvetaeva started to write verse in her early childhood. She made her debut as a poet at the age of 18 with the collection Evening Album, a tribute to her childhood.  

In 1912 Tsvetaeva married Sergei Efron, they had two daughters and one son. Magic Lantern showed her technical mastery and was followed in 1913 by a selection of poems from her first collections. Tsvetaeva's affair with the poet and opera librettist Sofiia Parnok inspired her cycle of poems called "Girlfriend." Parnok's career stopped in the late 1920s when she was no longer allowed to publish. The poems composed between 1917 and 1921 appeared in 1957 under the title The Demesne of the Swans. Inspired by her relationship with Konstantin Rodzevich, an ex-Red Army officer she wrote "Poem of the Mountain" and "Poem of the End."

After 1917 Revolution Tsvetaeva was trapped in Moscow for five years. During the famine one of her own daughters died of starvation. Tsvetaeva's poetry reveal her growing interest in folk song and the techniques of the major symbolist and poets, such as Aleksander Blok and Anna Akhmatova. In 1922 Tsvetaeva emigrated with her family to Berlin, where she rejoined her husband, and then to Prague. This was a highly productive period in her life - she published five collections of verse and a number of narrative poems, plays, and essays.  

During her years in Paris Tsvetaeva wrote two parts of the planned dramatic trilogy. The last collection published during her lifetime, After Russia, appeared in 1928. Its print, 100 numbered copies, were sold by special subscription. In Paris the family lived in poverty, the income came almost entirely from Tsvetaeva's writings. When her husband started to work for the Soviet security service, the Russian community of Paris turned against Tsvetaeva. Her limited publishing ways for poetry were blocked and she turned to prose. In 1937 appeared Moy Pushkin, one of Tsvetaeva's best prose works. To earn extra income, she also produced short stories, memoirs and critical articles.  

In exile Tsvetaeva felt more and more isolated. Friendless and almost destitute she returned to the Soviet Union in 1938, where her son and husband already lived. Next year her husband was executed and her daughter was sent to a labor camp. Tsvetaeva was officially ostracized and unable to publish. After the USSR was invaded by German Army in 1941, Tsvetaeva was evacuated to the small provincial town of Elabuga with her son. In despair, she hanged herself ten days later on August 31, 1941.

Source: Famous Poets and Poems:

The Poems

I know the truth

I know the truth – give up  all other truths!
No need for people anywhere on earth to struggle.
Look – it is evening, look , it is nearly night:
What do you speak of, poets, lovers, generals? 
The  wind is level now, the earth is wet with dew,
the storm of stars in the sky will turn to quiet.
And soon all of us will sleep under the earth, we 
who never let each other sleep above it.

translated by Elaine Feinstein 


Christ and the Lord! I thirst for marvel
Now, here, as the day would start!
The life is like a book to me,
So let me die. Let me depart.

You're wise, and sternly "Now be patient,
Your time's not ripe" you will not say.
Yourself you gave me - too much now!
I thirst at once - for every way!

I want it all: with soul of gypsy
To run to plunder with a song,
To suffer for all near an organ,
To run to war, an Amazon;

To divine stars in a black tower
The kids through shadows to lead...
That yesterday would be a legend,
That each and every day be mad!

I love the cross, the silk, the helmet,
The minute's trace of soul of mine..
You gave me childhood - better than fiction
Now let me die at seventeen!

Little World 

Children - are staring of eyes so frightful, 
Mischievous legs on a wooden floor, 
Children - is sun in the gloomy motives, 
Hypotheses' of happy sciences world. 

Eternal disorder in the ring's gold, 
Tender word's whispers in semi-sleep, 
On the wall in a cozy child's room, the dreaming 
Peaceful pictures of birds and sheep. 

Children - is evening, evening on the couch, 
In the fog, through the window, glimmer street lamps, 
A measured voice of the tale of King Saltan, 
Mermaid-sisters of seas from tales. 

Children - is rest, brief moment of respite, 
A trembling vow before God's eyes, 
Children - are the world's tender riddles, 
Where in the riddle the answer hides!

Our sweet companions-sharing your bunk and your bed

Our sweet companions—sharing your bunk and your bed

The versts and the versts and the versts and a hunk of your bread

The wheels' endless round

The rivers, streaming to ground   

The road. . .

Oh the heavenly the Gypsy the early dawn light

Remember the breeze in the morning, the steppe silver-bright

Wisps of blue smoke from the rise

And the song of the wise   

Gypsy czar. . .

In the dark midnight, under the ancient trees' shroud

We gave you sons as perfect as night, sons

As poor as the night

And the nightingale chirred   

Your might. . .

We never stopped you, companions for marvelous hours

Poverty's passions, the impoverished meals we shared

The fierce bonfire's glow

And there, on the carpet below,   

Fell stars. . .

translated by Sasha Dugdale

 A white low sun

A white low sun, low thunderclouds' and back

behind the kitchen-garden's white wall, graves.

On the sand, serried ranks of straw-studded forms

as large as men, hang from some cross-beam.

Through the staked fence, moving about, I see

a scattering: of soldiers, trees, and roads;

and an old woman standing by her gate

who chews on a black hunk of bread with salt.

What have these grey huts done to anger you,

my God? and why must so many be killed?

A train passed, wailing, and the soldiers wailed

as its retreating path got trailed with dust.

Better to die, or not to have been born,

than hear that plaining, piteous convict wail

about these beautiful dark eyebrowed women.

It's soldiers who sing these days. O Lord God.

Better to die, or not to have been born,

than hear that plaining, piteous convict wail

about these beautiful dark eyebrowed women.

It's soldiers who sing these days, O Lord God.

Translated by David McDuff and Jon Silkin

from Poems to Czechoslovakia 

-- VI

They took quickly, they took hugely,

took the mountains and their entrails.

They took our coal, and took our steel

from us, lead they took also and crystal.

They took the sugar, and they took the clover

they took the North and took the West.

They took the hive, and took the haystack

they took the South from us, and took the East.

Vary they took and Tatras they took

they took the near at hand and far away.

But worse than taking paradise on earth from us

they won the battle for our native land.

Bullets they took from us, they took our rifles

minerals they took , and comrades too:

But while our mouths have spittle in them

The whole country is still armed.

Translated by Elaine Feinstein


What tears in eyes now

weeping with anger and love

Czechoslovakia's tears

Spain in its own blood

And what a black mountain

Has blocked the world from the light.

It's time--It's time--It's time

to give back to God his ticket.

I refuse to be. In

the madhouse of the inhuman

I refuse to live.

With the wolves of the market place

I refuse to howl.

Among the sharks of the plain

I refuse to swim down

where moving backs make a current.

I have no need of holes

for ears, nor prophetic eyes:

to your mad world there is

one answer: to refuse!


Translated by Elaine Feinstein

You, walking past me 

You, walking past me,

not toward my dubious witchcraft --

if you only knew how much fire,

how much life, was wasted

and what heroic passion there was

in a chance shadow, a rustle...

and how my heart was incinerated

expended for nothing.

O train flying in the night,

carrying away sleep at the station...

though I know that even then

you wouldn't know -- if you knew --

that's why my speeches are abrupt

in the perpetual smoke of my cigarettes --

in my lighthaired head--

how much dark and menacing need!

Translated by Mary Maddock


Osip Mandelstam

Born in January, 1891, in Warsaw, Poland, Osip Emilievich Mandelstam was raised in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg, Russia. His father was a prominent leather merchant and his mother a teacher of music. Mandelstam attended the renowned Tenishev School and later studied at the Sorbonne, the University of Heidelberg, and the University of St. Petersburg, though he left off his studies to pursue writing. He published his first collection, Kamen,or Stone (1913), when Russian Symbolism was the dominant persuasion. Like Mayakovsky and Khlebnikov, who cleared the ground for Russian Futurism, Mandelstam departed from this old mode of expression in favor of a more direct treatment of thoughts, feelings, and observations under the aegis of Acmeism, a program that included Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. As translator Clarence Brown observes, Mandelstam's variant of Acmeism was a mixture of poetics and moral doctrine, the former based on an "intuitive and purely verbal logic of inner association" and the latter on a kind of "democratic humanism." His second book, Tristia (1922), secured his reputation, and both it and Stone were released a year later in new editions.

Yet the Bolsheviks had begun to exert an ever increasing amount of control over Russian artists, and Mandelstam, though he had initially supported the Revolution, was absolutely unwilling to yield to the political doctrine of a regime that had executed Gumilev in 1921. The poet published three more books in 1928—Poems, a collection of criticism entitled On Poetry, and The Egyptian Stamp, a book of prose—as the state closed in on him. Mandelstam spent his later years in exile, serving sentences for counter-revolutionary activities in various work camps, until his death on December 27, 1938, in the Gulag Archipelago.


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 his top 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 meows, 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 the forehead, temple, eye.

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

translated by W. S. Merwin

A flame is in my blood

A flame is in my blood
burning dry life, to the bone.
I do not sing of stone,
now, I sing of wood.

It is light and coarse:
made of a single spar,
the oak’s deep heart,
and the fisherman’s oar.

Drive them deep, the piles:
hammer them in tight,
around wooden Paradise,
where everything is light

Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight 

Brothers, let us glorify freedom’s twilight –
the great, darkening year.
Into the seething waters of the night
heavy forests of nets disappear.
O Sun, judge, people, your light 
is rising over sombre years 

Let us glorify the deadly weight
the people’s leader lifts with tears.
Let us glorify the dark burden of fate,
power’s unbearable yoke of fears.
How your ship is sinking, straight,
he who has a heart, Time, hears.

We have bound swallows
into battle legions - and we,
we cannot see the sun: nature’s boughs
are living, twittering, moving, totally:
through the nets –the thick twilight - now
we cannot see the sun, and Earth floats free.

Let’s try: a huge, clumsy, turn then
of the creaking helm, and, see - 
Earth floats free. Take heart, O men.
Slicing like a plough through the sea,
Earth, to us, we know, even in Lethe’s icy fen,
has been worth a dozen heavens’ eternity. 


Andrei Voznesensky

Andrei Andreyevich Voznesensky born May 12, 1933, Moscow, died June 3, 2010.  Voznesensky was a Russian poet and writer who has been referred to by Robert Lowell as "one of the greatest living poets in any language." He lived and worked in Moscow. 

Early in his life, Andrei was fascinated with painting and architecture, in 1957 graduating from the Moscow Architectural Institute. His enthusiasm for poetry, though, proved to be stronger. While still a teenager, he sent his poems to Boris Pasternak; the friendship between the two had a strong influence on the young poet. 

His first poems were published in 1958 and immediately reflected his unique style. His lyrics are characterized by his tendency "to measure" the contemporary person by modern categories and images, by the eccentricity of metaphors, by the complex rhythmical system and audio effects. Vladimir Mayakovsky and Pablo Neruda have been cited among the poets who influenced him most. 

In 1960s, during the so-called Thaw, Voznesensky frequently traveled abroad: to the U.S., France, Germany, Italy and other countries. Popularity of Voznesensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko and Bella Akhmadulina were marked by performances in front of the adoring thousands at the stadiums, in the concert halls and universities. One collection of his poems, "Antimiry" ("Anti-worlds") served as the basis for a famous performance at the Taganka Theater in 1965.  

Voznesensky's friendship with many contemporary writers, artists and other intellectuals is reflected in his novels and articles. He is known to wider audiences for the superhit Million of Scarlet Roses that he penned for Alla Pugacheva in 1984 and for the hugely successful rock opera Juno and Avos (1979), based on the life and death of Nikolay Rezanov. 

In 1978 Voznesensky was awarded the USSR State Prize. He is an honorable member of ten academies, including Russian Academy of Learning (1993), the American Academy of Arts and Letters, Parisian Académie Goncourt and others. 


I am Goya

I am Goya
of the bare field, by the enemy’s beak gouged
till the craters of my eyes gape
I am grief

I am the tongue
of war, the embers of cities
on the snows of the year 1941
I am hunger

I am the gullet
of a woman hanged whose body like a bell
tolled over a blank square
I am Goya

O grapes of wrath!
I have hurled westward
the ashes of the uninvited guest!
and hammered stars into the unforgetting sky - like nails
I am Goya

Rubber Souls

I hate you, rubber souls, you seem 
to stretch to fit any regime. 

They'll give a yawning smile, stretched wide, 
and, like an octopus, they'll draw you tight. 

A rubber man is an elusive rogue: 
a fist gets sucked into the bog. 

The rubber editor is scared of script, 
the author is bogged down in it. 

A rubber office I used to know 
where "yes" was stretched to courteous "no". 
I pity you, elastic crank, 
as if erased, your past is blank. 

You have erased many a passion, many a thought, 
but you were happy and excited, were you not?... 

Above the waist you are a cowardly man, 
an ace of spade, and an unlucky one... 

© Copyright Alec Vagapov's translation


Getting Dr. Zhivago Published

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak (1890-1960), born in Moscow, was the son of talented artists: his father a painter and illustrator of Tolstoy's works, his mother a well-known concert pianist. Pasternak's education began in a German Gymnasium in Moscow and was continued at the University of Moscow. Under the influence of the composer Scriabin, Pasternak took up the study of musical composition for six years from 1904 to 1910. By 1912 he had renounced music as his calling in life and went to the University of Marburg, Germany, to study philosophy. After four months there and a trip to Italy, he returned to Russia and decided to dedicate himself to literature.

Pasternak's first books of verse went unnoticed. With Sestra moya zhizn (My Sister Life), 1922, and Temy i variatsii(Themes and Variations), 1923, the latter marked by an extreme, though sober style, Pasternak first gained a place as a leading poet among his Russian contemporaries. In 1924 he published Vysokaya bolezn (Sublime Malady), which portrayed the 1905 revolt as he saw it, and Detstvo Lyuvers (The Childhood of Luvers), a lyrical and psychological depiction of a young girl on the threshold of womanhood. A collection of four short stories was published the following year under the title Vozdushnye puti (Aerial Ways). In 1927 Pasternak again returned to the revolution of 1905 as a subject for two long works:Leytenant Shmidt, a poem expressing threnodic sorrow for the fate of Lieutenant Schmidt, the leader of the mutiny at Sevastopol, and Devyatsot pyaty god (The Year 1905), a powerful but diffuse poem which concentrates on the events related to the revolution of 1905. Pasternak's reticent autobiography, Okhrannaya gramota (Safe Conduct), appeared in 1931, and was followed the next year by a collection of lyrics, Vtoroye rozhdenie (Second Birth), 1932. In 1935 he published translations of some Georgian poets and subsequently translated the major dramas of Shakespeare, several of the works of Goethe, Schiller, Kleist, and Ben Jonson, and poems by Petöfi, Verlaine, Swinburne, Shelley, and others. Na rannikh poyezdakh (In Early Trains), a collection of poems written since 1936, was published in 1943 and enlarged and reissued in 1945 as Zemnye prostory (Wide Spaces of the Earth). In 1957 Doktor Zhivago, Pasternak's only novel - except for the earlier "novel in verse", Spektorsky (1926) - first appeared in an Italian translation and has been acclaimed by some critics as a successful attempt at combining lyrical-descriptive and epic-dramatic styles. An autobiographical sketch,Biografichesky ocherk (An Essay in Autobiography), was published in 1959, first in Italian, and subsequently in English. Pasternak lived in Peredelkino, near Moscow, until his death in 1960.

From Nobel Lectures, Literature 1901-1967, Editor Horst Frenz, Elsevier Publishing Company, Amsterdam, 1969.

The Story of Getting Doctor Zhivago Published

Doctor Zhivago is set during the Russian Revolution and World War I, and it tells the story of Yuri Zhivago, a doctor and poet, and his love for a woman named Lara. Pasternak worked on his novel for decades, and finished it in 1956. He submitted the book for publication, but although Pasternak was a famous writer by then, his manuscript was rejected —the publishers explained that Doctor Zhivago was not in line with the spirit of the revolution, too concerned with individualism. An Italian journalist visited Pasternak at his country house and convinced the novelist to let him smuggle a copy of Doctor Zhivago out of the country to the leftist Italian publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli. Pasternak is said to have declared as he handed over the manuscript: "You are hereby invited to watch me face the firing squad!" He was not executed, but when the upcoming publication was announced in Italy, Soviet authorities were furious, and forced Pasternak to send Feltrinelli telegrams insisting that he halt publication of the novel. One of them said: "I have come to the profound conviction that what I wrote cannot be regarded as a finished work," and in another Pasternak called his novel "in need of serious improvement." But Feltrinelli was not fooled, and continued with publication. Soon enough, Feltrinelli received a private, scribbled note from Pasternak begging him to continue. Pasternak wrote: "I wrote the novel to be published and read. That remains my only wish."

Feltrinelli published Doctor Zhivago, and helped get it published all over the world. The Soviet Union's attempts to stop its publication only made it more interesting to readers. When it was first published in Italy in November of 1957, the first printing of 6,000 copies sold out within the first day. Doctor Zhivago was published in the United States Se[tember 5, 1958, and even though it wasn't published until  early September, it was the best-selling book of 1958. It quickly became a bestseller in 24 languages.Pasternak was awarded a Nobel Prize in 1958, and when he first head of the award, he sent a telegram to the Swedish Academy that said: "Immensely thankful, touched, proud, astonished, abashed." Two days later, Soviet authorities forced him to write again, this time to say he would refuse the prize. Pasternak died two years later, in 1960, and Doctor Zhivago was not published in the Soviet Union until 1988.

 Doctor Zhivago begins: "On they went, singing 'Rest Eternal,' and whenever they stopped, their feet, the horses, and the gusts of wind seemed to carry on their singing. Passers-by made way for the procession, counted the wreaths, and crossed themselves. Some joined in out of curiosity and asked: 'Who is being buried?'—'Zhivago,' they were told.—'Oh, I see. That's what it is.'—'It isn't him. It's his wife.'—'Well, it comes to the same thing. May her soul rest in peace. It's a fine funeral.'"

Source: Writers Almanac with Garrison Keillor, September 5, 2011


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