Russian – American Romance

Russian – American Romance

In my land and yours they do hit the hay
and sleep the whole night in a similar way.
There’s the golden Moon with a double shine.
It lightens your land and it lightens mine.
At the same low price, that is for free,
there’s the sunrise for you and the sunset for me.
The wind is cool at the break of day,
it’s neither your fault nor mine, anyway.
Behind your lies and behind my lies
there is pain and love for our Motherlands.
I wish in your land and mine some day
we’d put all idiots out of the way.
     by Andrei Voznesensky
     translated by Alec Vagapov
This poem is part of the libretto Voznesensky wrote for a the Soviet rock opera Juno and Avos in 1981. The title is of course irresistible for our times when we know that Russia interfered with the 2016 election and we are curious about what the NYTimes editorial  calls Mr. Trump’s Dangerous Indifference to Russia. This is the latest episode in the long and complicated love-hate relationship between the two countries that predates American independence.

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.

Mural by Mindaugas Bonanu 2016

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.

First Ice

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.

Andrei Voznesensky
Translated by  George Reavey

It made good companion piece for John Clare’s First Love

                                         First Love

I ne’er was struck before that hour
   With love so sudden and so sweet,
Her face it bloomed like a sweet flower
   And stole my heart away complete.
My face turned pale as deadly pale,
   My legs refused to walk away,
And when she looked, what could I ail?
   My life and all seemed turned to clay.
And then my blood rushed to my face
   And took my eyesight quite away,
The trees and bushes round the place
   Seemed midnight at noonday.
I could not see a single thing,
   Words from my eyes did start—
They spoke as chords do from the string,
   And blood burnt round my heart.
Are flowers the winter’s choice?
   Is love’s bed always snow?
She seemed to hear my silent voice,
   Not love’s appeals to know.
I never saw so sweet a face
   As that I stood before.
My heart has left its dwelling-place
   And can return no more.
     – John Clare

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):

War

With the open eyes of their dead fathers
Toward other worlds they gaze ahead –
Children who, wide-eyed, become
Periscopes of the buried dead

During the Kruschev “thaw” and after, Voznesensky travelled widely and served as a kind of exchange ambassador for Soviet culture. For many he was a symbol of reason and hope. As a young man, he once said, “We are born not to survive but to put our foot on the accelerator!” And in one of his last interviews, he said: “Poetry is the only hope. Even if you don’t believe it, you have to go on working.”
In spite of his popular acclaim, or perhaps because of it, Voznesensky endured periods of official disfavor and disgrace.
After the death of Stalin in 1953 Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev signaled a new era. He released hundreds of thousands of political prisoners from the gulags and in1956 he denounced Stalin’s personality cult during a party congress. Voznesensky – together with many other talented writers, poets and painters – were released from the immediate existential threat. After three decades of Stalin’s brutal and heavy-handed rule there was a taste of freedom.

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.”

The Stroll, Marc Chagall.             Voznesensky helped organize the first major exhibition of Chagall’s work in Moscow in 1987.

“Dreaming” Signed by Robert Rauschenberg and Andrei Voznesensky), 1978 Lithograph

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.”

Robert Rauschenberg, Soviet/American Array VII, 1988–91. Photogravure on paper.

Robert Rauschenberg
Soviet/American Array V
1988-90

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, Russian Monastery, 1971

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.

2 Comments

  1. Dennis:

    This. Is. Astonishing!

    War
    With the open eyes of their dead fathers
    Toward other worlds they gaze ahead –
    Children who, wide-eyed, become
    Periscopes of the buried dead

    It’s like a scene from a horror movie. Which is what of course is what war actually is.

  2. Very fond of Voznesensky. Coincidentally a musical friend who also draws showed me his portrait of Yevtushenko and a poem by that great if flawed man I hadn’t seen before. Must ask him for a copy, since it was very striking. Fine connections here as ever.
    David Nice´s last blog post ..Ramadan at the Fatih Mosque

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