It’s high time I spread the word about Boris Dralyuk’s brilliant compilation 1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution. Fortunately, I don’t have to expend a lot of effort explaining to you how brilliant it is, because Caryl Emerson has done it for me in this TLS review (happily available even to nonsubscribers). I’ll just quote a few paragraphs to whet your appetite and send you to the TLS link for the rest (and to Wuthering Expectations for another rave):
Dralyuk must put these lyrical-ecstatic glimpses into some historical context, however. He does this deftly, in substantial introductions to his writers, who are grouped around evocative motifs (stolen wine, iron flowers, apocalypse). Each contributor receives a biography, a political orientation, an identifying literary group, and a long-term fate to contrast with the immediate vision. This breaks the two-and-a-half-year rule. And the ghastly end of so many of these writers – arrested, shot, suicided, hanged – eclipses the ecstasy of their revolutionary moment. Still, Dralyuk proscribes these later perspectives and persists in concentrating time on the cusp. His table of contents lists themes, contributors, lifespans, but not the titles of the entries, not even the language they are translated from (important for the Russian-Yiddish writers) – as if their collected texts constitute one mega-text from some transcendental realm. The poems are strung together into a multi-authored entity called “The Revolution: A Poem Chronicle”. What consciousness, or energy, wrote it?
There are wonderful surprises. One is Alexander Kuprin’s “Sasha and Yasha” (1917), respectively a fighter pilot and a stuffed monkey, which appears to be a foundational text for the Socialist Realist cult of the missing leg that blossomed forth in the 1930s: the pilot or construction worker who loses a limb in line of duty but continues to fight or to build. Kuprin’s story is transcribed from testimony provided by the hero-pilot’s nine-year-old sister Nika. Equally invested in a child’s innocent perspective is “How He Died (A True Story)” (1917) by Alexander Serafimovich (1863–1949), born a Don Cossack, who knew Lenin’s elder brother at St Petersburg University and converted early to revolutionary violence. The story is a conventional martyrology of Tolstoyan simplicity. Ivan Naumenko, soldier and guard assigned to the Crimean imperial residence of Livadia, pining away for his family in the north of Russia, puts up with the abuse of his officers until one day, surprising himself, he punches one of them back. Naumenko turns himself in, fumbles with his belt as he strips naked (even his underclothes are recycled to the poorly stocked company storehouse), and his executioners tremble and turn away as they witness his preparations for the pit. One detail of the narration is striking: its portrait of the final Romanovs. It recalls Tolstoy’s screeds against the vices of the upper classes as well as Bolshevik poster art against the Old Regime (pot-bellied priests and cartoonish capitalists): “Inside the white palaces, awash with opulence, a drunken, dissolute life went on: the tsar drank, grand and not so grand dukes drank, barons, counts, priests, generals and officers drank – the whole pack of them crowding around him – and together they ate the Russian people out of house and home”. Serafimovich assigns the single most glorious peasant and Cossack vice to the reigning royal family, although the last two imperial households were overall of pious and abstemious habits. The reader now recalls the opening section of the anthology, “Stolen wine”, on the “wine riots” in major Russian cities that mingled alcohol and blood. From the town of Feodosia on the eastern coast of Crimea (October 1917) Marina Tsvetaeva writes of “Wine cellars raided – down every street, / every gutter – a flood, a precious flood . . . . Barracks and harbour drink, drink. / The World and its wine – ours!” And in her poem “Now” (November 1917), the fiercely anti-Bolshevik Zinaida Gippius laments from Petrograd: “The streets are slippery and vile – disgrace! . . . We all lie bound, bespattered, / on every street”.
[. . .]
Dralyuk has assembled a high-pressure book of crisis writings by authors caught strutting as actors on the world stage. His backstories and biographies permit the reader to relax in the interstices between texts, reassured that each witness had an entrance, an exit, and played many parts – even though this book is confined to showing only one of those parts in only one of each actor’s seven ages. Osip Mandelstam glimpsed the arc of these ages in May 1918, in the second of his two entries here: “Let’s praise, O brothers, liberty’s dim light, / the great and sombre year! . . . Let us praise power’s sombre burden, / a weight one can’t withstand. / Whoever has a heart, O time, must hear / your ship sink and descend”.
I’ve praised Dralyuk’s translations before, and that last snippet of Mandelstam will give you an idea; get the book for more, as well as what is surely the best available immersion into what Russia was thinking and feeling in that amazing period.