The Poet Who Survived Stalin’s Poems
The Tale of Arsenii Tarkovsky and the Translation He Couldn't Refuse
One of the most important Russian poets of the second part of the twentieth century, Arsenii Tarkovsky (1907-1989)—father of the great film director Andrei Tarkovsky, and mentor of Ilya Kutik in the late 1970s—once told Kutik about the time he was given a crocodile-skin bag of Stalin’s poems to translate, and why he thought Stalin had spared fellow writer Boris Pasternak.
In the late 1940s, Tarkovsky—who lived on official commissions to translate literary works, because he was banned from publishing his own poems and would remain so until the 1960s—was awakened in the wee hours by a knocking at his apartment door in Moscow. Three men were outside the door, and they came in to tell Comrade Tarkovsky that he must go with them.
Every night he and his wife Tatyana Ozerskaya heard the sirens of the black cars, because they lived in an apartment building not far from the Lubyanka—the headquarters of the KGB and home to a notorious prison. All who lived nearby wondered if the black cars screaming away from the Lubyanka were coming for them, and knew that every screaming car they heard return was carrying a new prisoner.
The couple kept a little bag packed with a few necessities, as no one knew when the knock on the door might come and one might be taken; one might return soon, or much later, or never. When Tarkovsky’s wife handed him the bag, the men told him not to bring it.
In their black car, in the dead of night, Tarkovsky was driven around Lubyanka Square three times. Each time, he thought they would take him in. Then, instead of turning in at the building itself, the car continued on to the Kremlin. Tarkovsky then knew that their having called him “Comrade,” instead of “Citizen,” might mean that he would not be arrested.
He was taken into a hall where the Politburo—except for Stalin himself—were eating and drinking in a merry mood, enjoying the kind of meal that ordinary people could not purchase—red caviar, cognac, fine wines. He was invited to sit at the table with them. They asked a few friendly questions and then told him, “We brought you here to give you a supremely important task. You will translate the poems of Comrade Stalin, our great leader, from Georgian into Russian.”
Georgian was Stalin’s ethnicity and his mother tongue; he had spent his childhood and youth in Georgia; his Russianized birth name was Iosip Dzughashvili, but as an adult he had discarded the unmistakably Georgian surname in favor of the name by which he would be recognized forever as a super-inhuman tyrant of steel (Stalin, from Russian stal’—“made of steel”). But although Stalin’s public life was in the Russian language, he had written poems in Georgian.
Tarkovsky understood that he would not be permitted to refuse this commission, and that no task he might ever undertake as a translator could be more dangerous, whether he did it well or—at least by the standards of the Politburo and Stalin himself—ill. He answered his hosts that each word of Comrade Stalin is for the ages, and cannot be changed, and translation inevitably, inescapably, must produce words that are not those of Comrade Stalin, so…
“But you will try your best,” they said. Meaning: try not to make any changes that would be… mistaken in some way.
They asked him, “Do you have a drawer or cabinet that locks?”
Tarkovsky answered that he did. (He did not.)
He was then handed a large, beautiful, heavy bag made of crocodile skin, the likes of which he had never even imagined.
Only after returning home did he open the bag. It was heavy because it contained typescripts of Stalin’s poems, transliterations into Russian, word-for-word versions, and great quantities of what in Soviet literary culture was called “scientific” commentary. This would have been definitions of words, counts of words, explanations of place names, and so on. To Tarkovsky’s amazement, he also found in the bag poetic translations of a few of Stalin’s poems by Valery Briusov (1873-1924), a poet who had been among the founders of Russian Symbolism), and Boris Pasternak.“This time, Tarkovsky was certain he would be arrested. Again came men, and again he did not take the little suitcase with clothes and necessities.”
Like some other men who became dictators, Stalin had been “artistically inclined” and in his youth he had written a number of poems. Ilya Chavchavadze (1837-1907), who himself became a living classic of Georgian poetry, published a few of Iosip Dzughashvili’s poems. And for a brief time Chavchavadze briefly knew this young man who would become Stalin. According to Tarkovsky, perhaps it was in the late 1920s that Pasternak had been given word-for-word versions of some Georgian poems which Chavchavadze, many years earlier, had published in his comprehensive anthology of Georgian poetry. From these versions Pasternak would produce Russian translations of the many poems that he himself favored. Pasternak was already translating Georgian poets in this way; he published all of his translations of poems from Georgian—except for Stalin’s.
In the Soviet Union, translations were frequently made (as by Tarkovsky himself) from word-for-word draft versions prepared by others. A writer commissioned to produce such work could survive. Who could have predicted even in the late 1920s that within a few more years Stalin would consolidate his power in one way or another as he removed his rivals from the Communist government? He had already achieved the exile of Leon Trotsky by 1929; he would benefit from the assassination of Sergey Kirov in December 1934.
Perhaps Pasternak realized that the poem that he had translated but not published was Stalin’s, and he was reluctant to publish it; or he did not know that this poet Dzughashvili was now Stalin, and simply did not regard him as among the best Georgian poets whom he had translated; or Stalin himself discovered that his poem had been translated by Pasternak but did not wish it to be published. For a would-be “Chinese emperor”—that is, a man with a mystical aura of impersonality—who has created his own image, publishing the poem would have meant divulging a trace of being not mythological but merely human. Stalin would not show or even have such emotions. Almost nothing was known about his motives then, and little now.
What Stalin may later have appreciated about Pasternak was that among the several Georgian poems Pasternak himself chose to translate—some of them by very eminent poets—one was his own. A few years later, Pasternak’s choice of Stalin’s poem could only have meant to Stalin that Pasternak had admired the poem on its artistic merits.
Tarkovsky found that most of Stalin’s poems in the crocodile bag were short, and most were poems of idyllic Georgian landscapes—mountains, meadows, forests, rivers, plains. But one poem—longer—was a narrative against social injustice, in which a poor young man and a wealthy girl fall in love. Tarkovsky made drafts of the shortest poem and the longest, and there he stopped.
A month after receiving his commission, and again well after midnight, the telephone rang, and Tarkovsky was told to put all his work into the bag, along with everything he had received from the Politburo. He would be picked up in a few minutes.
Because they wanted a different translator? Or…?
This time, Tarkovsky was certain he would be arrested. Again came men, and again he did not take the little suitcase with clothes and necessities, but only the crocodile-skin bag, and again the car went three times around Lyubyanka Square, and again it did not enter the prison but instead proceeded to the Kremlin.
The three men in black delivered him to a different room this time. There was no party in progress. A few lower officials were waiting in the deadly quiet. They offered him weak tea, cheese, bread. They took the bag from him and told him to stay in this room, and they went elsewhere in the vast building.
Alone, Tarkovsky waited. In a while one man returned, again with the crocodile-skin bag, and handed it back to him. “You should appreciate very much, Comrade Tarkovsky, the exceptional modesty of our Great Leader. He has refused to publish translations of his poems while he remains with us… In the briefcase is an honorarium for your work. You may go.”
Tarkovsky left the building. Outside on Red Square, the summer morning was already fully light, the air already hot. He was sweating. At a kiosk he bought and drank two liters of water. He went home, feeling conspicuous because of the extraordinary bag. Only after he had returned to his apartment did he open it. He had been spared. He was to be spared. The case was full of money. He had been paid as if he had translated Stalin’s complete poems, and at an unheard-of rate—three hundred rubles per line. For a year and a half, he and his family lived on this payment for work not done.
Ilya Ehrenburg says in his memoirs that Stalin might have given an order to his “punitive organs,” which had planned to arrest Pasternak, not to do so. The order said, “Don’t touch this holy fool.” And Stalin’s red pencil always struck out Pasternak’s name on the lists of candidates for either execution or the Gulag that the dictator received from the Cheka (which became the NKVD, and after Stalin’s death, the KGB).
Nothing like the crocodile-skin briefcase could ever have been purchased in the Soviet Union, and Tarkovsky kept it for many years, till he gave it to his son Andrei.
Three poems by Arsenii Tarkovsky
newly translated by Ilya Kutik and Reginald Gibbons
They turned the table toward the light of day—
And there I lay, head dangling, meat on a scale;
My soul, now hanging by the thinnest thread,
Was throbbing. I saw myself from outside
My body—no need for the smaller weights: my soul
Balanced the greasy market scale.
In the middle of the oval shield of a snow-field,
Battle-scarred along its western edge,
In the middle of bogs that never freeze
And a forest of trees with compound fractures,
Near a rail line, near sheds
With split skulls that were black
Under their white fur hats (and sometimes two,
And sometimes three).
That day, time stopped.
The clocks no longer moved. The souls of trains
Went flying down the rails no more, as they
Used to—with no lit lamps, propelled by grey
Flukes of steam; there were no crow weddings, no
Blizzards, no thaws in the limbo where I lay
In shame, in nakedness, in my own blood,
Beyond the gravitational force
Of the future.
But then the blinding snow-shield began to move,
It spun as fast as a coin,
And seven planes flew overhead
Low and veering in a turn,
And the bandages that swathed my body
Stiffened like bark, and alien blood began
To flow into my veins from a pickle jar
And I was gasping like a fish on the sand,
Swallowing hard, quartz-sparkling, earthly,
Freezing, blessèd air.
My lips were chapped with sores. What’s more,
Men fed me with a spoon; what’s more,
I couldn’t recall my name
Yet the vocabulary of King David
Was resurrected on my tongue.
The snow began to melt, and early spring
Rose to its feet and wrapped all the trees
In its green soft shawl.
(Note: set during World War II.)
Might of mine: my sight—two bright diamonds
In sparkling straight spear-flight—is growing dark.
My hearing—seashell filled with thunderings
Of long ago and the breathing out of my parents’ oven—
Is going deaf. My knotted muscles weaken
Like ash-gray oxen standing in ploughed furrows.
At night, behind my shoulders there’s no more
Of the light of gold from my two wings.
I was a candle; during the feast,
I expired. In the morning, please collect my wax.
For you, this very page will hint at how
To weep; and at what’s been of worth;
At how to bestow the last third of your breath
And pass away with ease;
And at how, in the shelter of some random roof
Posthumously to burn like the Word.
(Note: In a Russian reader, the “random roof” in line 15 would evoke the Astapovo railway station, in which Tolstoy died.)
(from Tarkovsky’s poem cycle to Marina Tsvetaeva, composed 1941-1963)
Friends, truth-trusters, master
Survivors of this death-wind era,
What did Tsvetaeva recite to you all
When she returned from her own funeral?
With clay in her hair, and her rhythmic right hand
Even more yellow than the clay—
The silence was so grave, so without noise,
That from so far away I couldn’t hear her voice.
Perhaps the one purpose of her voice, as if
Rising on tiptoes inch by inch,
Was to conquer—without even taking a breath—each
Rising stress of her verses, which never leveled off.
But which last words did come
To her mind at the bitter,
The burning end of that summer
Over the River Kama?
It was the end of that summer on this earth—
Which was bidding farewell to its soldiers,
Already herself a widowed mother, albeit one
Who didn’t look after her returning daughters.
All of you with your V-formation funerals, your nation-state—
You’re all there now. You’ve crossed the final line and date.
Everyone—the horrible and the holy, all the liars
And the righteous, all the killed and the killers.
(Note: a familiar poetic image in Russian poetry is that of dead soldiers as V-formations of flying cranes.)