Occasionally in my reading I come across mentions of people who seem significant beyond the sparse traces they’ve left in the historical record, and when they have a connection with literature I sometimes try to memorialize them here. Such a case is the couple Valentin Osipovich (or Iosifovich) Stenich (a pseudonym—his birth name was Smetanich) and his wife Lyubov Davydovna (née Faynberg or Feinberg). Valentin was born in 1897 and was probably shot in 1938; Lyuba is given the dates 1908-1983 here, but (according to the Russian Wikipedia linked to her husband’s name) the KGB said she was 33 in 1937, which probably is more realistic. They were both translators, as were so many writers not in favor with the Bolsheviks; he (after writing poetry praised by Blok) translated both Dos Passos’s The 42nd Parallel and parts of Joyce’s Ulysses (according to Geert Lernout’s The Reception of James Joyce in Europe, “There are rumours that he had translated the whole novel, but his archive was confiscated when he was arrested”), and she translated Maeterlinck, Sartre, and Brecht, among others. But more important is their humanity. In her second book of memoirs (translated as Hope Abandoned) Nadezhda Mandelstam writes “I can count on my fingers the people who kept their heads and thought the same as M. The main ones were Stenich, Margolis, and Oleinikov […] All three perished—two in the dungeons, and one in a labor camp.” In the first volume, Hope Against Hope, she devotes most of Chapter 67 to a description of the couple, calling Stenich “a man with a great feeling for language and literature and an acute sense of the modern age” and saying “he might have become a brilliant essayist or critic, but the times were not auspicious”; when the Mandelstams said they needed money, Lyuba “put on a stylish hat and set off,” returning with “a little money and some clothing.” At this time the Steniches were living in terror, waiting for Valentin to be arrested (friends of theirs had been arrested, and they knew it was only a matter of time), but “nothing happened that evening, and Stenich was not arrested until the following winter.” This was his final arrest, after which he was quickly shot; before that he had spent some years in internal exile, and it was during such a period that Cummings visited Moscow and met Lyuba, whom he calls “eyes.” He reports his last encounter with her thus:

(eyes’ eyes open,understanding; she laughs softly)”drôle homme!”(then with a,to myself,completely new part of herself;a secret a luminous — and scarcely which might dare to recognize its own existence — tenderness unadventured,lonely;not with ideas not through ideals nor by comrades by a million or a billion or innumerable or humanity explored)”comme mon mari”

After Stenich’s death she married the screenwriter and director Manuel Vladimirovich Bolshintsov (1902-1954). She was also a friend of Anna Akhmatova, who often stayed with her when visiting Moscow.

It enrages me that good people like this, utterly harmless to any state, were ground casually underfoot by the Soviet regime, simply because it needed an endless supply of enemies and victims and the name Stenich wound up on their list. It’s easy to talk about “millions of victims” and feel an abstract horror, but it’s important as well to remind oneself of the lived reality of that victimization for all those real people, people much like you or me. And this is why I urge you all to read Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs if you haven’t already.


  1. Как-то Федин рассказал мне про поэта и переводчика Валентина Стенича, славившегося среди писательской братии остроумием и необыкновенной смелостью (вроде Рязанова, но у Рязанова был большой партийный стаж, а у Стенича — ничего). “Один раз, — говорил Федин, — идем мы компанией из Госиздата. Остановились на Невском у книжного магазина, среди книг выставлен большой бюст Сталина. И вдруг, схватившись за голову, Стенич кричит: “И этот идиот с узким лбом правит нами! Правит всей Россией!” Конечно, вмиг вокруг Стенича образовалась пустота, все шарахнулись кто куда. Но это обошлось. Только мы поняли, что со Стеничем ходить по улицам небезопасно. В другой раз Стенич отколол такую штуку. Были мы, несколько писателей-ленинградцев, приглашены в Кремль к Ольге Давыдовне Каменевой (сестра Троцкого)… Ну, пришли, собралось довольно большое общество — сам Каменев, конечно, он из себя изображал радушного хозяина, говорил жене, чтобы она подала какие-то там котлетки, все поглаживал бородку, кто-то говорил, что с этой бородкой он похож на Николая II, и правда, что-то отдаленно общее было, пожалуй. Был Радек со своим вечным остроумием, других “вождей” не было, но писателей набилось много, времена были не особенно сытные, и поесть у Каменева котлетки было приятно. Выступали, читали стихи, какие-то отрывки… И кто-то поддразнил Стенича, вот ты, говорят, смелый, а ведь не прочтешь здесь свои стихи о Совнарком&#
    1077;… Стенич вскинулся и говорит: “Конечно, прочту!” — “Ой ли?” — И Стенич взял и прочел свою невероятную “контру”, где была такая строфа:
    Дождусь ли я счастливейшего года,
    Когда падет жидовский сей Содом.
    Увижу ль я в Бутырках наркомпрода
    И на фонариках российский Совнарком?
    Воцарилась зловещая тишина и страшная неловкость. Кстати, Стенич еврей, настоящая его фамилия Сметанич. Тишину прервал Радек, резко сказав, что стихи, во-первых, пошлые, во-вторых, черносотенные, и он советует автору о них забыть навсегда. За ним то же самое сказал и Каменев. Стенич сидел молча, и все “перешли к очередным делам” — то есть к еде, питью и “разговорам, для которых приехали”.
    От себя скажу, что Стенич, конечно, не уберегся. Острый язык и злой ум его все-таки подвели: сначала он посидел в тюрьме ОГПУ, его выпустили с “наставлением”, а потом — в ежовщину — расстреляли.

  2. Thanks! For non-Russophones, Vit quoted an excerpt from the exile Roman Gul‘s memoirs (available, like so much else, at this site), in which Gul recalls Stenich’s fatally malicious wit, citing two examples: once on Nevsky Prospect he saw a bust of Stalin in a bookstore window and cried out “And this idiot with his narrow forehead rules us! He rules all Russia!” (people scurried away from him as fast as they could), and at a dinner at Kamenev’s apartment in the Kremlin to which a number of writers had been invited to enjoy a nice dinner (the times were hungry) someone jokingly said to Stenich “Oh, you’re supposed to be so daring, but I see you’re not reciting your anti-government poem here,” and Stenich immediately got up and recited it (bringing quick rebukes from Radek and Kamenev and a pall to the table).

  3. J. W. Brewer says

    Certainly “utterly harmless” to any state governed by sensible people in a civilized manner (and maybe even to Russia at times less awful than the Stalin era but that might still fall well short of the sensible/civilized criteria). But perhaps the Bolsheviks knew that their power rested on surprisingly flimsy foundations, and the perverse compliment implied in treating such people as actually posing a threat to the regime by simply living as they did should be taken seriously? If a tyrant thinks his rule cannot survive jokes being made about him, maybe he’s onto something. (There was obviously much randomness in the terror, so I certainly don’t mean to imply that the fact of having survived is as such affirmative evidence of having collaborated or otherwise behaved shamefully, nor to question that those who lived under extreme pressures we cannot fathom should be given considerable slack in terms of how much they may have quite forgivably bent.)

  4. What’s witty about a narrow forehead? I take it, it loses in translation.
    I guess you’ve rediscovered that one death is a tragedy.

  5. I guess you’ve rediscovered that one death is a tragedy.
    Gee, thanks for your charitable assumption.

  6. Thank you Language Hat for this beautiful memorial. I came across it by looking up Stenich , as mentioned in Hope Against Hope – which I am finally getting around to reading. Little gems like yours- keep hope alive.

  7. And thank you for finding and reviving this thread! I’m glad you’re reading Hope Against Hope, and I’m glad you took away the bad taste left by what used to be the end of the thread.

  8. PlasticPaddy says

    Когда заснет усталый город
    и сырость встанет от реки,
    сойдясь у старого собора,
    ведут внимательные споры
    столетних боен знатоки.

    Принц Боарнэ молчит понуро,
    разбрасывая шпагой сор.
    О диспозициях Петлюры
    течет медлительный и хмурый,
    слегка бессвязный разговор.

    Стучит по мостовой бесстрастной
    кривая Блюхера клюка:
    «Вацетис сделал ход прекрасный
    во фланг ударив Колчака».

    «Но флот… В преддверии Херсона
    на рейде крейсеры стоят»
    бормочет Нельсон монотонно
    в Макарова вперяя взгляд.

    Осенний ветер в трубах воет,
    полночный сумрак все темней,
    рыжеволосой головою
    качает старый маршал Ней:

    «Да, Гверильясы были лучше,
    чем ваш Григорьев и Махно…
    Капрал, ты помнишь Санта-Круче
    — сто с лишним лет — не так давно».

    И вот уже к трамвайным рельсам
    глухая никнет тишина,
    но все ведет упрямый Нельсон
    спор с горбоносым Массена.

  9. That’s a 1919 poem by Stenich, and a very nice one — thanks!

    в Макарова вперяя взгляд

    I’ve always had a soft spot for Makarov because he has the same имя-отчество I would if I were Russian (not to mention a very impressive beard).

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