Russia: Bringing the World Not Only Military Interventions, But Also Poetry

ASTRAKHAN REGION, RUSSIA. MARCH 31, 2016. Mikoyan MiG-29 jet fighter aircraft during a joint military drill by the 14th Air A
ASTRAKHAN REGION, RUSSIA. MARCH 31, 2016. Mikoyan MiG-29 jet fighter aircraft during a joint military drill by the 14th Air Army of the Russian Air Force and Air Defence Force units of Russia's Central Military District, at Privolzhsky airfield. Donat Sorokin/TASS (Photo by Donat Sorokin\TASS via Getty Images)

Russia is a land of great literature -- of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Chekhov and Akhmatova. This truth, that we all learned in high school, has recently been reconfirmed in a startling and compelling manner. For it is only in Russia that a highly-placed political figure can address the public with a lyric poem, as did Ms. Maria Zakharova, the official spokeswoman of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, on March 30.

As a scholar trained in literary studies and a translator of contemporary Russian poetry, I dedicate this post to a translation (below) of Zakharova's historic and startling achievement in politico-poetical communication. But first, a bit of background is in order to explain what brought Ms. Zakharova to this new peak of literary creativity and public relations.

In 2011-2012, as urban and educated Russians were pouring out into the streets in mass protests against the electoral abuses of President Putin's United Russia Party, music, literature and the arts became central modes of political expression in Russia. Everyone has heard of Pussy Riot, of course. Yet other creative voices also came to the fore that year, including that of poet, critic and novelist Dmitry Bykov, whose rabble-rousing satirical poems on political topics, performed by the prominent and beloved actor Mikhail Yefremov in live and televised performances, became a mainstay of opposition cultural life.

Bykov's output of poetic commentary on politics continues to the present day. And as Ms. Zakharova's recent emergence as a new poetic voice of Russia demonstrates, Bykov's creations are having the unexpected effect of inspiring not only oppositional sentiment, but the finer sensibilities of the political establishment itself. The immediate stimulus for Ms. Zakharova's newfound gift of tongues was a poem in which Bykov reacts to Minister of Defense Sergey Shoygu's and Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov's participation in the launching of a new Russian amateur soccer league in anticipation of the World Cup, planned for Moscow in 2018. Bykov ties this event to recent Russian nervousness that the tournament might be moved to a different location to punish Russia for geopolitical transgressions in Ukraine and elsewhere:

I can't restrain my wild emotions This rapture verging on concussion Lavrov and Shoigu have discovered The national idea of Russia!

It's better than Brazil's by far. Play, o Nation, move your feet! We'll yank the people from their couches Inspiring them with football leagues!

They say they'll take away the World Cup (They really can't, but issue threats) But we'll be ready, we're not sorry We shall never have regrets!

For we are perfectly protected From all your sanctions, vile and mean. We will stage within our country A tournament of alley teams.

And so the wheel of history turns: Farewell to glamour superstars Now to the alleys! Alleys rule: In culture, war, and Foreign Ministers.

As a translator, I must admit that my rendition of Bykov's poem pales by comparison to the original. But I like to think that I've managed to capture, more or less, the author's meaning and ebullient style.

I can make no such claims with regard to my translation of Ms. Zakharova's response to Bykov, however, which she posted on Facebook in a moment of desperation and lyrical uplift:

It was you who gave us the alley style "And us? We have no zip, no bang." But for the sake of comprehension We, too, will speak in alley slang.

Who needs that Hesse's turns of phrase? Who is left to play glass beads? So now, for all you forest keepers, We, too, will write poetic screeds.

We have derived from all the blogs So many commonplace refrains We animate the ore of words We speak with piety, "light the flame!"

And at the sound of words familiar, All those who can have flocked together. And packs of flies stick raging feet Deep into our linguistic lectures.

And so... This deeply wondrous picture Is every day to be confronted. You're too shagged out for this world's essence; For talk of style you've got the gumption.

You have no need of trans-sense style. We use it speaking with the nation. A back-alley fusion's at the ready. Requiring no ratiocination.

Truly brilliant poetry presents a challenge to the translator: as is the case here, a work of genius is often impossible to understand, even in the original. And therefore, all I can really say about this translation is that it appears to my highly trained scholarly eye to convey more or less the same significance as the Russian version-an obscure and no doubt profound significance, to be sure. As Bykov himself remarked concerning Zakharova's poem: it is "written in the genre of suggestive lyric poetry, for which the reader must guess as to the meaning." A generous critic, Bykov also recalls Joseph Brodsky's explanation of the task of poetry-to bring a little more harmony into the world: "And if I have brought Maria Zakharova a little more harmony, provoking her to speak in poetic form,... this demonstrates that I have ennobled our reality once again."

Zakharova's achievement is not to be underestimated, for it does, one suspects, tell us something profound concerning the essence of Russian political life at present. As Winston Churchill famously said, Russia is "a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma." A more apt explanation of Zakharova's poem and of Russian foreign policy is not to be found.