Russian – American Romance
and sleep the whole night in a similar way.
It lightens your land and it lightens mine.
there’s the sunrise for you and the sunset for me.
it’s neither your fault nor mine, anyway.
there is pain and love for our Motherlands.
we’d put all idiots out of the way.
translated by Alec Vagapov
Andrei Voznesensky was a Soviet poet of the Cold War era. During the post-Stalin “thaw’ he became more widely known outside of the Soviet union and at home he began to acquire a rock star like status. His poetry readings filled football stadiums in Moscow.
The mural on the side of a restaurant in Lithuania that showed Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin kissing went viral last year. It was created by artist Mindaugas Bonanu at the barbecue restaurant Keule Ruke. The restaurant’s co-owner, Dominykas Čečkauskas said, “We see many similarities between these two ‘heroes’. They both have huge egos, and it’s amusing to see they are getting along well. It seems we have a new Cold War, and America may have a president who seeks friendship with Russia.”
I discovered Voznesensky’s work via school poetry anthologies that included First Ice – presumably on the grounds that it might have an appeal to those in the throes of teenage heartbreak and romantic angst.
A girl freezes in a telephone booth.
In her draughty overcoat she hides
A face all smeared
in lipstick and tears.
She breathes on her thin palms.
Her fingers are icicles. She wears ear-rings.
She’ll have to walk home alone,
Along the ice-bound street.
First ice. The very first time.
The first ice of telephone phrases.
Frozen tears glisten on her cheeks –
The first ice of human hurt.
Translated by George Reavey
It made good companion piece for John Clare’s First Love
W. H. Auden translated some of Voznesensky poems and was an admirer of his work. In the New York Review of Books in 1966 he wrote: “As a fellow maker, I am struck first and foremost by his craftsmanship. Here, at least, is a poet who knows that, whatever else it may be, a poem is a verbal artefact which must be as skillfully and solidly constructed as a table or a motor-bicycle.”
Voznesensky was unafraid to experiment and his poems are often striking with language and imagery that is both arresting and direct. Here’s an example from the anthology Nostalgia for the Present (1978):
With the open eyes of their dead fathers
Toward other worlds they gaze ahead –
Children who, wide-eyed, become
Periscopes of the buried dead
Voznesensky was allowed to travel and he quickly won admirers in Europe and the United States. The thaw did not last, however, and by 1960 the Cold War chill deepened again and Voznesensky was a target. In 1962 Khrushchev invited a group of young Russian intellectuals, including Voznesensky, to a Communist Party reception. This was not a celebration but a public berating in front of an approving party elite.
Khrushchev was neither sophisticated nor well-educated and he made the little effort to understand the cultural significance of Soviet art. He preferred to bully artists and threaten them with exile and persecution. He shouted at Voznesensky, berating him as a capitalist agent: “Just look at this new Pasternak! You want to get a [foreign] passport tomorrow? You want it? And then go away, go to the dogs! Go, go there.”
“I am a Russian,” Voznesensky said.
Later – in the era of Leonid Brezhnev – a chance meeting with the America artist Robert Rauschenberg in 1977 led to a collaborative project. Working side by side in Islip NY they created a series of prints for six poems by Voznesensky: “Darkness Mother,” “ECHO WHEN,” “Long Island Beach” (dedicated to Rauschenberg), “From a Diary,” “Seagull-Bikini of God,” and “Picture Gallery”. These were all all eventually published in Voznesensky’s Nostalgia for the Present.
At the beginning of his career, Pasternak wrote Voznesensky: “Your entrance into literature was swift and turbulent. I am glad I’ve lived to see it.” When Voznesensky died in 2010 Vladimir Putin sent a condolence telegram to his widow, Zoya: “His poetry and prose became a hymn to freedom, love, nobility and sincere feelings.”
Rauschenberg was also an international ambassador for cultural exchange and understanding. In 1989 he declared: “My goal is to open people’s eyes to the surrounding reality, to deepen mutual understanding between people and to aspire for peace.” He took his Rauschenberg Overseas Cultural Interchange (ROCI) to Moscow for an extraordinarily successful event that poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko remembered as: “… one of the symbols of a spiritual perestroika of our society.”
Rauschenberg opened the show with his print series Soviet/American Array, which he had printed at Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE) in West Islip, Long Island where he had previously collaborated with Voznesensky. The works interweaves and overlays images from Moscow and New York creating relationships and connections across borders. There are iconic New York construction workers with Moscow subway stations; St. Basil’s Cathedral in Red Square with the Empire State Building and the World Trade Center. Soviet/American Array VII (1988–91).
Images from the two cities blend and merge, bringing the two Cold War enemies together in intricate and intimate interconnection. Sometimes you cannot tell whether it is Moscow or New York. At other times the distinctive national iconography is strong.
Perhaps Rauschenberg had Voznesensky’s Russian-American Romance in mind when he created Soviet/American Array . He said “I’m looking forward to the day when we can declare that it’s not a Russian show, it’s not an American show, that all art is international.”
Vasily Sitnikov (1915-87) was a dissident Soviet artist imprisoned by Stalin. He was released right before the end of Word War II, emigrated to Austria in 1975 and in 1980 moved to New York.