Posted in Russia, scotland

Soviet Burns

I recently spent Hogmanay back in Scotland, and being there in January meant I witnessed the preparations for Burns’ Night. One thing that you can’t escape in the UK is the ruling class’s sycophantic fawning towards the USA. We’re led to believe that anything we produce only has value if the Americans approve. Robert Burns is no different, and so the BBC have commissioned a documentary about how much Americans love Burns. The subliminal message being that the Yanks like him so we can too, no Scottish cringe required.

Burns, however, had a massive impact all over the world. Its undoubtedly true that Burns did have a huge impact in the States – but he was also hugely influential in that other 20th Century superpower; the Soviet Union. Did you know that Burns was on the school curriculum in the USSR? I’ll admit that I didn’t know this until my Ukrainian mother-in-law told me. I’ll also admit to being quite annoyed – the BBC will spend a fortune to inform us of a tenuous link between Burns and Elvis Presley, but nobody thought it worthwhile to mention a very unambiguous fact about our national bard’s legacy? The political bigotry of the British ruling class becomes only too apparent under the microscope of facts.   

It’s not only a question of the classrooms of the old Soviet Union. Right across the region Burns’ influence is undeniable. Many of the soundtracks to iconic Soviet and post-Soviet movies use translations of his poems as lyrics, and many artists have had chart successes using his songs – from this punky effort in Moldova to this more folky sounding Russian artist.

Burns popularity in the region predates the Soviet Union of course. We know that the great Russian poet Pushkin admired Burns, but had found his poems extremely difficult to read because of the Scottish dialect. Other great Russians also professed their admiration for Burns, including celebrated novelists Lermontov and Turgenev. Why was Burns so popular among these pre-Soviet people? That is perhaps best answered by another poet, this time the Ukrainian Taras Shevchenko who when explaining Burns popularity remarked that, “to know people, you have to live with them – and to know their life, you need to be them.” What Shevchenko had realized in Burns was of the utmost importance – proximity to the people. That was the appeal of Burns, he spoke to the common man about the concerns of the common man. And in pre-Soviet Russia those concerns were revolutionary.

In the same period we find the first serious attempts to translate Burns into Russian, by the revolutionary critic and publicist Michael Mikhailov. Mikhailov was someone who translated many poems from English into Russian. He selected poems that were close to himself in spirit, and the revolutionary Russian saw in Burns the same rebel. In his translations Mikhailov gave Burns’ freedom-loving poetry a life affirming humanism and the spirit of struggle and action which is characteristic of his best works. Unfortunately Mikhailov only translated about a dozen of Burns poems: imprisonment and exile soon put an end to his translating and political activities.

As things moved towards the end of the 19th Century, and the 100th anniversary of Burns’ death, a new upsurge of interest in the poet was observed in Russia. In the pages of Russian magazines such as “Russian Wealth“, “Russian Thought“, “Education” and “Herald of Europe” there was a steady stream of articles about Burns and translations of his work. In one such article, from the journal “Idea”, the writer says of Burns: “The people will repeat his songs because in them they find the expression of their feelings, their thoughts, their life.” The article emphasizes that Burns, in his poems, expresses all the grief that has accumulated over the centuries in the hearts of people who exclaim, “We have a right to a better life!

However, at this time translations of Burns were known to be of poor quality – Burns was actually considered by many to be untranslatable, primarily because of his use of Scottish dialect. In the first half of the 20th Century the work of one man would change all of this and elevate Burns to new heights of popularity within the Russian speaking world – which by now was the Soviet Union.

Samuil Marshak was a successful poet in his own right, and was one of the few translators in the Soviet Union who had actually studied abroad. In the UK Marshak studied not only philosophy and English Language but also Scottish dialects. He actually travelled around the country collecting Scottish folk ballads and songs. This was key to the success of his translations – he understood Scots in way that all those who came before him, including the great Pushkin, could not. Marshak was to become a prolific translator on his return to the USSR, going on to translate not only Burns but also William Blake, Rudyard Kipling and William Shakespeare – but it was for his translations of Burns that he was to win most recognition with Soviet readers. “Marshak made Burns a Russian, leaving himself a Scot!”, wrote the poet Alexander Twardowski.

Beginning in 1930, Marshak would translate some 216 of Burns’ poems and songs, although lamented that his translation work remained unfinished. Marshak delivered Burns poetry in a foreign language with the same amazing freedom and engaging simplicity as the original. He smashed the myth of the supposedly untranslatable Burns. He expressed, with unusual strength for translations, all the features of Burns’ poetry. He managed to capture accurately the thought, the musicality of the verse and the combination of natural conversational speech with melodic power. He captured the satire and the jokes, as well as the deep intimacy of the works. The result is an illusion that Burns wrote in Russian.  

Marshak thought that what was most important was to convey the true image of the translated poet, to faithfully reflect his era and the national identity of his works. Marshak believed that the poet translator should be like the reincarnation of the author – he should fall in love with him, with his manner and with his language. It is heartbreaking, therefore, to see Marshak so maligned by the liberal intelligentsia as they attempt to remove from Burns any notion of his revolutionary character in order to “sanitise” him and make him safe for their own consumption.

Anti-Soviet scholars, such as Natalia Vid, have deliberately misinterpreted Marshak and his work in order to reject the notion of a “Soviet Burns”. Vid ties herself up in knots trying to slander Marshak through a combination of lies and her own obvious ignorance of the subject. She actually accuses Marshak of changing the title of “A man’s a man for a’ that” to “An Honest poverty” – allegedly Marshak did this for sinister ideological reasons as part of the Soviet dictatorship of the arts! Clearly Vid is unaware that the original title of the poem, as given to it by Burns himself, was “Is There an Honest Poverty”. In other words, Marshak’s translation of the title is actually closer to the intentions of Burns than the more common title that most of us use and are familiar with. Similarly, she claims that the Soviets banned all translations of Burns other than Marshak’s, which ignores basic checkable facts such as the 1963 publication of Burns poetry by the publishing house “Soviet Russia”, in which all the poems were translated by Fedotov.

Burns, through the great work of Marshak, became the people’s poet of Russia. As they did with McLean, the Soviets honoured Burns with a commemorative stamp. It is believed that there are more celebrations of Burns night in Russia than any other country outside Scotland – with evenings from 22nd to 25th January being taken up with music, dancing, poetry, whisky tasting and traditional Scottish meals. But to really grasp the importance of Burns in Russia I would like to leave you with the words of Marshak, who could answer that question better than anyone:
The poetry of Robert Burns is part of [Russian] daily life. Our young people quote him in their love letters. Our best composers have set his lyrics to music and these songs come over the radio intermingling with the hum of our work-days and the merry-making of our holidays. Volumes of his poetry are found in the studies of our intellectuals, the cottages of our farmers, the apartments of our workers and the tables of our students. Burns creates links between people in defiance of all who would keep our nations apart. And it must not be forgotten that it is in human hearts, not museums or monuments, that his poems will be preserved.

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Posted in Russia

The True Character of the Russian People

A number of years ago I made my first of many visits to Russia. At the time my ability to speak Russian was limited, but after landing in St Petersburg I had managed to negotiate customs and find my way to the nearest Metro station. I was heading to a city called Petrozavodsk, a city I now call home for six months of every year, which is about eight hours north of St Petersburg when travelling by train. It was getting late and my train wouldn’t leave until the early hours of the morning. I had decided just to head straight to the train station and rough it for the rest of the night, being Scottish I guess I grudged the idea of paying for a hotel bed that I would only get a few hours use from.

Unfortunately I managed to get off the Metro at the wrong station. I had wandered about for a bit trying to find the train station before I realised my mistake, and by now the Metro was closed for the night. Having checked the station guide I realised I had got off one station early and so opted just to walk to the next one. This I soon found out wasn’t as straightforward as I had imagined. The first obstacle was that unlike in Glasgow or London where underground stations are relatively close together making it easy to walk between successive ones, in St Petersburg it can be literally miles to the next one. A more substantial obstacle however was the Neva, the great river on which St Petersburg is built. The station I had disembarked at was, by Sod’s Law, on the opposite side of the Neva from where I was headed. In a large and modern city like St Petersburg this wouldn’t normally pose a problem, bridges are a normal part of the infrastructure. It is a nightly occurrence in the old imperial capital, however, for the bridges to be raised in order for ships to travel up and down the river. I had managed to reach the Neva just as the bridge was being raised. With no way round it I found a nearby bench and settled down with my suitcase for a cold wait, it was March and temperatures were still below zero.

And so belatedly I’m reaching the point of my story. While shivering away on that bench I attracted the attention of a rough looking local. Between his broken English and my pidgin Russian we managed to exchange the following personal details: that I was from Scotland and was visiting Russia for the first time, that he was homeless but in Soviet times had lived in a “Khrushchyovka”. I later found out that “Khrushchyovka” is the name given to a kind of apartment block, one which tends to be long and thin and generally not as tall as other Soviet housing blocks, and which were built when the Soviet Union was led by the Ukrainian Nikita Khrushchev. During the conversation he had offered me a can of beer which I had tried to refuse but he insisted until I accepted it. It was all he had with him so I had been reluctant to take it from him. It had occurred to me that it probably wasn’t just his last beer, there was a very good chance that, apart from the clothes he was wearing, it was his only possession in the whole world. The beer was an extra strong variety of some Russian brand, probably their equivalent of a “can of super”. It tasted like nothing else I’ve ever tasted, and I don’t mean that in a good way, but after drinking it I didn’t notice the cold anymore. His reasons for acting this way were simple, he gave me his can because he saw me shivering and because I was a visitor to his country and he wanted me to feel welcome. When the bridges finally came down again he walked with me to ensure I found my way this time, we made what conversation we could and said goodbye at the train station.

Reflecting on this encounter, I would come to realise that this stranger whom I met on the banks of the Neva was the personification of two lessons I have learned gradually over the course of my life. The first is that if you ever need to ask someone for help, ask the poor people. They are the ones who will help you. The rich don’t care about us or our problems. The second is that the Russian people are among the friendliest and most hospitable on the planet. Far from the xenophobic racist thuggish backward people that the Western media portrays them as, most Russian’s are literally delighted to meet foreigners and are proud to have any foreigners living in their community. My employers in Petrozavodsk even use the fact that they have a Scottish person working for them in their advertisements for the company!

This second lesson seems important now given the current situation in Ukraine, which is why I wanted to share it with you. The USA, having used oligarchs friendly to them, have successfully staged a coup in Kiev and inserted a puppet government with notions of joining the EU and NATO.  When the current crisis started in the east of Ukraine early last year the Western media barely touched it, any coverage was sparse and half interested. It was like they thought it would all just go away and they could get on with celebrating the USA’s victory of regime change in Kiev.  They simply had no idea of the extent to which the events in Kiev shook and traumatised the east of the country.

The media’s interest was aroused though when the self defence militias (as they were called at the time) started occupying government buildings and then whole towns and cities, but their focus lacked any real depth. They never spoke about the demographic make-up of Ukraine, the two countries in one scenario, the history of the current borders. There was no examination conducted of the background to the occupations, no reasons were offered. Even when referendums were called and massive voter turnouts displayed overwhelming support for ending Kiev rule, the western media still failed to give any in-depth analysis of what was happening in Novorossiya.  That this was a grassroots and thoroughly local (at least to begin with) movement which arose spontaneously in reaction to the Kiev coup was never mentioned.

And it had to be like this. The West couldn’t admit that the militias were locals. To give recognition to the fact that there was massive public support for the militias in Eastern Ukraine would have weakened the case for Western support to Kiev, support we were told which was to “protect the territorial integrity” of Ukraine. (Never mind that the West has never really gave a toss about territorial integrity before, remember what they’ve done to Palestine? Or Yugoslavia? Or Ireland?) So what could they do? A familiar response, they lied.

The lie of “It’s the Russians!” has been used ever since. Of course, it is verging on inconceivable that Russia hasn’t found itself involved in this mess somehow, and they almost certainly are providing help of some degree or another to the militants in the east. But that has never been the real issue for those on the ground in Eastern Ukraine. They saw their government overthrown with the help of a foreign country, they saw an openly Fascist regime come to power, they saw their political parties banned, they saw themselves relegated to second class citizens in the eyes of the law (sub-human according to some of the new regime). So they did what any self respecting people would do; they rose up, threw off the oppressive regime and demanded self determination.

Our media will never tell this side of the story. The “Russia factor” is hard at work; it is a believable lie, one that is very effective on Western audiences who have been primed to see Russia as the enemy.  That is why my encounter with the Russian on the banks of the Neva is so important to me. It is symbolic of the Russian character, the true Russian character of warmth, friendship and generosity. It is far removed from the image of Russians we are bombarded with through our TV screens and in our media. If everyone could see Russians this way I firmly believe there would be no appetite in the West for our governments’ reckless support of Kiev.

By portraying Russians as the evil enemy it deflects attention, and when attention is elsewhere those who would do evil will quite happily get on with doing it. That evil, as I write this, is killing innocent people in a long drawn out conflict which should never had happened in the first place. The Geneva Convention sets out in law a peoples’ right to self-determination. Referenda in the disputed regions made evident that there was an overwhelming demand for self determination. Kiev and the West cried that the referenda were not legitimate. That may be the case, but what is the correct response to illegitimate referenda? For me, the answer is to at the earliest possible opportunity conduct “legitimate” ones. Kiev’s response, which has been fully supported by the West, was to drop bombs on the civilian population of Eastern Ukraine and they continue to do so. They can do so because we are primed to see ethnic Russians as a backward savage people, and no one ever challenges their governments for punishing savage backward people.

There is an old Russian proverb, последнюю рубаху отдаст, which translates roughly as “will give you the last shirt one has”. It captures perfectly the character of the stranger I met on my first night in Russia, but it also captures the wider Russian spirit of generosity, their willingness to give help where required whatever the circumstances. Perhaps we could show the same generosity, by refusing to accept the image of Russians fed to us by the media, by seeing the ethnic Russians in eastern Ukraine as real people in need of support, and by demanding that our governments cease enabling Kiev’s vindictive and bloody assault on these regions.