Dralyuk’s 1917.

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.

Comments

  1. Oh, and anyone interested in that year of revolution should be following Project1917, a Facebook-style You Are There immersion in what was going on day by day: English, Russian.

  2. Alexandra Feodorovna
    Tsarskoye Selo, Russian Empire

    -9°C. I had lunch upstairs with Lily. Horrible things are happening in St Petersburg. Revolution.

  3. J.W. Brewer says:

    Should I be optimistic that the people doing the site are competent enough to avoid all of the old-calendar/new-calendar opportunities for confusion? (Throwing in the odd non-Russian, as they seem to be, seems a particular risk there, not to mention the risk that a published versions of different historical figures’ diaries will probably vary in whether they have or haven’t silently new-calendared dates as an intended convenience for the reader.)

  4. As in the dark of winter’s night
    Our eyes seek dawn,
    As in the bonds of bitter cold
    The heart craves sun,
    So blinded and so bound, the soul
    Cries out to thee:
    Be our light, our fire, our life,
    Liberty!

  5. Should I be optimistic that the people doing the site are competent enough to avoid all of the old-calendar/new-calendar opportunities for confusion?

    Yes.

  6. Jeffry House says:

    I’ll buy the Dralyuk book anyway, it sounds great, but does it include the Russian originals? I find my enjoyment of the translation is enhanced when I can refer to the original. While my Russian isn’t Hat-level, I find side-by-side reading improves even the very best translation.

  7. Afraid not, but they’re easy to find (thankfully, Russians are Stakhanovites when it comes to putting their literature online). Hit me up if you want a particular piece.

  8. Ксёнѕ Фаўст says:

    В поле дождик бродил живой
    Ковылял по щекам ледяным
    Поднимал в последний неравный бой
    Тех, кто погиб молодым.
    Вырывал из несбыточных снов
    Вырывал из некошенных трав
    Поднимал горемычных своих сынов
    Весел, печален и прав.

    Дождик по миру брёл живой
    За собой вёл свои войска
    Вёл сквозь годы, снега и зной
    Верил — победа близка.
    Горизонты теснились в груди
    Утопали в кровавых слезах
    И сияли звёзды в земной грязи
    И пьянила полынь в небесах.

  9. Boris D. says:

    LH, I’m deeply honored! The least I can do is save you some work. Jeffry, I’ve uploaded the Russian texts of the poems (but not the prose), to my site (third row beneath the cover image).

  10. Jeffry House says:

    Thank you.

  11. J.W. Brewer says:

    Unrelated except to my old-v-new-calendar concern raised and allayed above: I am amused to learn that the wikipedia biography of Ivan the Terrible currently says he was born “3 September [O.S. 25 August] 1530.” Which is sort of wacky since Gregorian dating wasn’t yet a thing anywhere in the world as of 1530.

  12. January First-of-May says:

    Unrelated except to my old-v-new-calendar concern raised and allayed above: I am amused to learn that the wikipedia biography of Ivan the Terrible currently says he was born “3 September [O.S. 25 August] 1530.” Which is sort of wacky since Gregorian dating wasn’t yet a thing anywhere in the world as of 1530.

    Well, from the perspective of his local contemporaries, he was born in 7038 (a few days before the start of 7039), and once you need to convert this to Anno Domini anyway you might as well use proleptic Gregorian instead of Julian.
    It does look a bit silly, however.

    (I note, incidentally, that the Wikipedia pages for the dates include Ivan IV in the “born on” list for 25 August but not for 3 September.)

  13. Well, from the perspective of his local contemporaries, he was born in 7038

    Beat me to it! See this ancient LH post for more.

  14. The really annoying thing is that when you see the date of a historical event, you don’t know if it’s proleptic Gregorian or if it’s whatever calendar was in effect at the place of the event. Every U.S. schoolchild knows, or used to know, that Washington was born on February 22, but in fact his birth date was February 11, 1731 Julian. When the calendar changed in the proleptic U.S. in 1752, he changed his birthday officially to February 22, 1732, thus preserving the actual day of his birth at the expense of its date. (In recent years, Washington’s Birthday has been celebrated under a variety of names on the third Monday in February.) Similarly, Thomas Jefferson’s birthday is observed on April 13 rather than April 2.

  15. I would love to read a similar Dralyuk-led book from – maybe not each year – but say 1920.

  16. Yes, me too!

  17. Tom, first, let me thank you for the wonderfully insightful review at Wuthering Expectations! The effect you describe (recurrent jolts) is exactly what I was aiming for – very reassuring indeed. As for another anthology, I’m already gathering material.

  18. Wow, what good news!

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