Russian Poetry

Saint Basil’s Cathedral Cathedral, Moscow


I would like to thank Belinda Cooke for editing this supplement of Russian poetry for which she has provided all the translations. For many years now, Belinda’s translations and her own poems have been published widely in magazines. Most recently, she has published  an edition of Kulager, an epic poem by the Kazakh poet Ilias Jansugurov (Kazakh N.T. A., 2018) and Forms of Exile: Selected Poems of Marina Tsvetaeva (The High Window Press, 2019). She also played  a major role in co-ordinating and contributing translations to  Contemporary Kazakh Poetry (C.U.P, 2019). Her own poetry includes Stem (The High Window Press, 2019) and Days of the Shorthanded Shovelists forthcoming (Salmon Poetry).


The Silver Age of Russian Poetry

Western readers will already be familiar with giants of Russia’s Golden Age of Prose: Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev, but, perhaps, less so with respect to the Golden Age of Poetry: Alexander Pushkin, Mikhail Lermontov, and Fyodor Tyutchev. This is largely due to the difficulty of translating Pushkin’s regular metres into anything other than a sing-a-long beat unpalatable to modern readers, making it hard to grasp why he is so central to Russians. The Silver Age of poetry is a twentieth century complement to that earlier era. Here we see a fin de siècle flowering of poetry and poetic theory that includes early and late Symbolists, as well as the later Acmeism, and Futurism, two movements that reacted against the otherworldly, often artificial language of Symbolism, bringing it back down to earth, with more concrete language . The Symbolists’ importance was more in laying the theoretic groundwork, focusing on poetic theory, influenced by French Symbolists, such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud, as well as the Decadence associated with the poetry and gothic fiction of Edgar Allan Poe. But it is the younger generation: Mayakovsky, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak and Akhmatova who were to create poetry that achieved international renown, as well as suffering the realities of attempting to maintain their art within the apocalyptic events of the Russian Revolution, Civil War and Stalin’s Purges of the thirties.

This small gathering of Silver Age poets, which includes some poems by these well-known along with the greats, is just a sharing of my personal encounter with poets of that era. (BC)


The Poets

Zinaida GippiusViacheslav IvanovAlexander BlokLev GumilyovNikolai Gumilyov •  Anna AkhmatovaBoris PasternakOsip MandelstamMarina TsvetaevaVladimir Mayakovsky •  Maria PetrovykhBoris PoplavskyVadim AndreyevDaniil Andreyev

 The Translator: Belinda Cooke


Previous Translations

THW 21: April 15, 2021  THW20: December 18, 2020 THW19: September 19, 2020 THW 18: May 4, 2020 THW 17: March 18, 2020 THW 16: December 9, 2019 THW15: September 20, 2019 THW 14: June 17, 2019 THW 13 March 20, 2019
THW 12 December 10, 2018 THW 11 September 5, 2018 THW 10: May 21, 2018 THW 9: March 7, 2018 THW 8: December 6, 2017 THW 7: September 10, 2017  THW6: June 3, 2017 THW5: March 7, 2017 THW4: December 6, 2016 THW3: September 1, 2016 THW2: June 1, 2016 THW1: March 1, 2016

Previous Translations

 THW 21: Austrian • THW 20: Macedonian • THW 19:  Swiss-German • THW 19: Spanish • THW 17: Franco-Canadian  • THW 16: Modern Greek  • THW 15: Kazakh • THW 14: Hungarian • THW 13: Polish  • THW 12: Classics • THW 11: Catalan • THW10: Hispanic • THW 9: Hebrew • THW 8: Bulgarian • THW 7:  Japanese  • THW 6: Dutch  • THW 5: Portuguese  • THW 4: French  THW 3: Italian • THW 2: German • THW 1: Italian


Zinaida Gippius: Four Poems


The heavens are low and weary
but I know, my spirit is high.
you and I are strangely close,
and each of us is alone.

My road is merciless,
it leads me to death,
but I love myself like God.
Love will save my soul.

If I halt on the road,
start faint-heartedly to grumble,
if I rise against myself
and dare to desire happiness –

do not abandon me irretrievably
in the misty difficult days.
I entreat you, as a weak brother
console, pity and deceive me.

You and I are singularly close,
we both are heading east.
The heavens are malicious and mean,
but I believe our spirit is high.


My friend, I am not troubled by doubts,
I have felt myself close to death for a long time.
In the grave where they will lay me
I know it is stifling, damp, and dark.

But I shall not be in the earth – I shall be with you,
in the breath of the wind, in the sunny rays.
I shall be the pale waves in the sea,
the cloudy shadows in the heavens.

And earth’s sweetness will be strange to me,
strange too, the heart’s loved sadness,
as happiness will be alien to the stars,
but I shall not pity my consciousness.

I wait for peace, my soul is weary,
mother nature calls me to her,
and how easily the heaviness of life fades…
O dear friend it is a pleasure to die.


Just before dawn the crescent moon hangs in the sky.
I travel to the moon to the scrape of the snow.

I gaze tirelessly on his arrogant face,
while he responds with a strange smile.

And I recall the strange word,
repeating it continually in the silence.

The moon’s light is steadier, the horses
speed on more quickly and tirelessly.

My sled slides along easily leaving no trace,
and all the time I mutter, ‘Never, never …’

Is it this very familiar word I fear?
No, it’s something else that terrifies me …

It’s not the moon’s dead light I fear.
There is no fear in my soul.

Only the cold that knows no sorrow caresses my heart,
but the moon bows down, and dies.


My window is tall above the earth,
tall above the earth.
I see only the sky with the evening sunset,
the evening sunset.

The sky seems empty and pale,
so empty and pale.
It does not take pity on the poor heart,
my poor heart.

Sad, that in such wretched sadness I should die,
that I should die.
I strain towards that which I do not know,
I do not know.

This desire, I’ve no idea from where it came,
from where it came
but my heart wants and ask for a miracle,
it asks for a miracle.

O let that which never happens,
To me the pale sky promises a miracle,
it promises.

But I weep without tears at the false promise,
at the false promise.
I am calling on that which doesn’t exist,
which doesn’t exist.

Zinaida Gippius (1869-1945), and her husband the writer and religious thinker Dmitry Merezhkovsky were seminal figures of early Symbolism, their home, Muruzi House, a central gathering place. People were shocked by her poetry’s exploration of the dark side and its sexual ambiguity, which she played up be promoting an androgynous image. As a harsh literary critic, and having rejected the October Revolution wholesale, she fell out with many, including an earlier protégé Alexander Blok. She and Merezhkovsky also ran religious and philosophical meetings. They initially emigrated to Poland and ultimately Paris. Though, clearly inseparable soulmates, their marriage was, supposedly, never consummated and they experimented with various versions of ménage à trois, ‘the three’ at different times, all within the framework of their shared religious ideas.

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Viacheslav Ivanov: Four Poems



As a faithful pilgrim of these ancient arches,
I greet you again with the evening ‘Ave Roma’.
In my twilight hours I return to you, as if to
my own home: travellers’ rest, ever eternal Rome.

We offer the Troy of our forefathers to the flames,
while you smash chariot axles to a pulp, amid
the thunder and fury of your world hippodrome:
O, ruler of the road, watch how we burn.

And you rose from the ashes in a blaze;
yet the all enduring blueness
of your deep heavens was not dazzled.

And your gatekeeper cypress remembers,
in the tenderness of a golden dream, how Troy
strengthened, even as she lay in flames.


Holding the stubborn horses by the bridle,
powerful with the dust of shining bravery
and naked – with an Olympian nakedness –
out step the twin brothers.

Sagas tell us how they came, god-like strangers,
companions in arms of Quirite, and messengers
from the field of victory – by the waters of Juturna –
to appear unknown, on the mounds of Rome.

There they were to remain to the end of the world.
And these great youths are two idols
who have not moved for a thousand years from their place.

And there they stand, where they became
from the beginning: six hills, surrounded in blue,
to shine like a star from the heights of Quirinal.



Winter of the soul. From far off
the bright sun warms it with oblique rays,
yet still winter freezes in the silent snowdrifts
and longing sings to it through snow storms.

After dumping an armful of wood by the fireplace,
cook some food, the hour is sufficient.
Then fall sleep, as everything stagnates with drowsiness…
Ah, the grave of eternity is deep.

The spring of life-giving water has frozen,
as has the spring which was flowing with light.
O, do not look for me beneath the shroud.

My double, my obedient slave, drags his coffin,
while my true self is betraying its flesh,
I still create my spiritual temple in the distance.


Roving magician, fierce thief, grey wolf,
in your praise I compose these winter lines.
I hear your hungry howl. The earth is more
hospitable to me, human understanding is kinder.

But you are hateful. The master’s dog
knows his place, but you are more magical,
Delphic animal, closer to the prophets of Polyhymnia,
you are theirs until their voice has been silenced.

Close to the place where I was given over to fate
and the boat of my soul arrived from remote shores,
the voracious leader Igor stands on guard.

There your regiment gave the drawn-out howl of the shaman –
and from childhood the despondent call is familiar to me,
of that homeless flame in the freezing steppes.

Viacheslav Ivanov (1866-1949), the most erudite of all the Russian symbolists, with his regular ‘Wednesday’ meetings in his flat ‘The Tower’ (1905-1911), established him as leader of the St Petersburg group. Though rich in archaisms and classical allusion, in essence, his is a religious poetry, drawing on Nietzsche’s Dionysus in his The Birth of Tragedy, to cure Christianity’s contemporary disintegration. Ivanov was thus able to unite his love of classical scholarship with the intense religious faith he had inherited from his mother. These selections from two key sequences, show, that, at its best Ivanov’s poetry manages to avoid some of the excesses of Symbolism’s otherworldly imagery to provide poetry very firmly placed in the physical world.

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Alexander Blok: Two Poems


Evenings above the restaurants
the hot air wild and listless,
drunken shouts are triggered
by spring and foul breath.

Further off above the dusty side streets,
and lazy out of town dachas,
the baker’s pretzel shop-sign glows
and a child’s crying can be heard.

Every evening beyond the turnpikes,
fellows tip their hats, strolling the lanes
with ladies, sophisticated wits
with dazzling repartee.

Across the lake there’s screeching oars,
and women’s squeals, in the sky,
the nonchalant moon
stares down somewhat askance.

Every evening I see my only friend
look back at me from my glass:
like me he’s dulled and humbled
by this mysterious, bitter liquid.

At one of the neighbouring tables
drowsy waiters lounge about,
and drunks with glazed eyes:
‘In vino veritas! ’ they shout.

Every evening at the appointed hour
(or did I dream this?)
a girlish figure, rustling silk,
moves past the steamed-up window.

Always alone, with measured step
she winds her way among these drunks,
exuding perfume and the outside air
till she sits down at the window.

Her flowing silks, her slender
ring-decked hand, her hat
with mourning feathers, stir up
ancient superstitions in the wind.

Strange how her nearness imprisons me
as I watch beyond the dark veil,
and see an enchanted distance
and an enchanted shore.

Entrusted with obscure secrets,
and the gift of someone’s sun,
the strong wine has penetrated
every part of my lit-up soul.

The ostrich feather is now
rocking in my brain,
the bottomless blue eyes
flowering on a distant shore.

In my soul lies treasure
and only I have the key.
Yes, it’s true, you drunken monster,
I know: there is truth in wine.



Black evening. White snow.
Wind, wind – a man cannot keep on his feet.
Wind, wind across the whole of God’s world.

The wind sweeps up the light snow.
Beneath the snow – ice.
Slippery. Each step treacherous.
She slips – poor thing.

Across the buildings there is a rope,
stretched out to hold a banner:
‘All power to the Constituent Assembly!’
The old woman grieves, she weeps.

No way can she grasp what it means.
What use is it? Such an enormous cloth
would be better used for warm leggings
for these children, naked and barefoot.

Darting like a chicken, somehow
she manages to wind through the
snowstorm. O, mother of mercy
drive these Bolsheviks into the grave!

The wind lashes fiercely.
It doesn’t manage to melt the frost.
The bourgeois at the crossroads
hides his nose in his collar.

And who is this long-haired lout,
speaking in a whisper?
Traitors. Russia is dead.
Must be a writer…

And off to the side, beyond the
snowstorm there with his long robe?
You don’t look so happy these days,
Tovarisch priest?

Remember how it was? Your
paunch parading at the front
with its gleaming cross
shining down on the people?


So they all walk
with a sovereign step –
behind is a hungry dog
There, with a bloody flag,
invisible behind the blizzard
unharmed by the bullet,
his gentle tread, snowy pearl,
in a white halo of roses –
ahead walks Jesus Christ.

Alexander Blok (1880-1921), Symbolist poet par excellence, was the Russian poets’ poet idolised second to Pushkin, above all for his musicality. Like many fin de siècle writers, his marriage to Lyubov Mendeleev, was unconventional, seeing her as the divine untouchable muse while he became immersed in alcoholism and various affairs. Early poetry focused on such mysticism, while later work switched to the brutal realities of the impending Revolution, with which he quickly became disillusioned, clear from ‘The Twelve’ where the significance of Christ’s ambiguous appearance at the poem’s end has been much debated. Many believed such political disaffection speeded up his untimely death.

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Nikolai Gumilyov: Four Poems


In the sky, clouds appear, heavy and grey.
The moon filters through, crimson, like a deathly wound,
Powerful Cuchulain of the green, warring Erin,
falls beneath the sword of Svaran, king of the ocean.

Waves whisper the sybils’ grey of incantation.
Woods shake from the songs of that powerful wave.
Frenzied in the triumphant storm, Svaran meets
our hero of heroes, Fingal, the ruler of emptiness.

In the mutual grip of their iron embrace,
armour gleaming, they begin a mad, wild dance –
the wind hails the battle with its cynical laughter,
the sea roars its everlasting tale.

When I grow weary of human affection, of
everyday thoughts and words, I listen in close
to rumblings of the air’s cursed anger, for sightings
on the hill of its heroes, powerful and wrathful.



A gloomy rider rushed in on a black horse,
wrapped in a velvet cloak,
his gaze terrible, like a town in flames,
and, like the flash of lightning at night.

Curls like snakes on his shoulders,
his voice of songs, flames and earth.
He sings a ballad, to the young kings,
which the kings heed in confusion.

‘Lucifer gave to me five powerful horses,
and with them, one golden, ruby ring.
I saw the bottomless underground caves
and the young face of luxurious valleys.

The mountain fairy and the gnome in ruling purple,
brought me wine, streaming like fire,
I saw that the sun had flamed up for me,
lit up like the ruby on the golden ring.

I understood the delight of nurturing days,
the blossoming hymn of the peaceful priest.
I laughed at the excitement of the powerful horses
and at the play of my golden ring.

At the heights of consciousness lie madness and snow,
my delight burned a hole in the blue sky,
I headed off to these conscious heights,
and there saw a maid, sick like a dream.

Her voice was quiet, a quivering stream.
Her looks were a mixture of question and answer.
I gave the ring to this moon maiden
for the imperfect colour of her straggling braids.

Laughing at me and despising me,
Lucifer covered up my gaze in half darkness,
He then gave to me a sixth horse –
his name was Despair.


The voice of painful sadness
resounded in the high hall,
with this song of grief and the earth
there where the kings were standing.

The stillness of
the cold columns
heightened the confused look,
of these sullen kings.

They cried out together,
their sick hearts suddenly lightened:
‘The path to the mysterious bride
is our only true path.

Our bowls are full of drink,
we shall drain them to the dregs.
The Maid of the World will be ours.
It is certain this will be so.

From this, our joyful table
we will pull this grey, deathly cloth,
and the vast expanses we cover
will reveal the truth of words.

It is the true road.
What is the world if not for us?
Truth we take from God
with the strength of flaming swords’.


Along heights for none but the brave
they met the Earth Maiden,
but she did not want to love them,
even though they were kings.

Madly as they entreated her
she was not able to love them,
and the young kings were damned
for ever, with a grievous joy.

The sick, weeping ivy
wrapped them up in its shadow,
in that hopeless, happy country
without delight, dreams or light.

Mermaids wove garlands
out of violets and sea lilies
and, laughing used the violets
to dress their bowed heads.

Not one returned from the battle….
The ancestral home was tumbling down,
where so often the hunchback major
had recited them sacred prayers.


When the evening sunset
goes out in the dark sky
and on the steps of the altar
the last scarlet ray is cast,

before him bends one,
one having wished a melody
or a sad wife
or a deceived maiden

Who knows the darkness of the human soul
its delights and sadness?
With blue enamel
she has covered up the Ten Commandments.

Who can explain to us, why
that woman is always sad
her eyes shown half-dark,
though they cover the distant reflection?

Or why her tall brow
is wrinkled up with doubt,
while beneath her eyebrows lie
eyelids of heavy sorrow.

Why her lips smile
mysteriously and unsteadily,
while the dream passionately insists
that this wasn’t a smile.

Why does she possess such soft charms?
Why are the flames of a fire in her eyes?
For us she is a morbid nightmare,
or the truth of a mournful nightmare.

Why in a dream’s despair
does she bend down over the steps?
What does she need from the heights
and from the airy-white shadow?

We do not know. The night-time dark is deep,
the dream – is a fire, the moment groaning;
when will the east begin to light up
with the renewed rays of life?

Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921), was more important as leader of the literary movement, Acmeism, than for his poetry. He is the, often non-committal, interlocutor of Anna Akhmatova’s early love poems. He was married to her from 1910-1918, though they separated after a year. He travelled widely, particularly in Africa, as evidenced in many of his poems. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he was an avid supporter of World War One, where he courted, rather than avoided danger, and was commended for bravery. This was enough to place him under suspicion with the young Bolshevik authorities after the Civil War. He was arrested and shot August 1921 for supposed counterrevolutionary activities. Later in her life Akhmatova visited the mass grave where Gumilyov had been buried.

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Anna Akhmatova: Four Poems


The bays cut the low coast.
All the sails were fleeing to the sea,
while I dried my salty hair
a mile from land on a flat stone.
A green fish swam towards me,
a white seagull flew towards me,
and I was arrogant, angry and cheerful,
yet I did not know this was happiness.
I buried my yellow dress in the sand,
so the wind wouldn’t blow it away,
or for a beggar to steal it,
аnd floated far away into the sea
resting on the dark, warm waves.
When I returned, a lighthouse from the east
already shone with it flashing light,
And at the gates of Chersonesos a monk
Said: ‘Why are you wandering at night?’


She wrung her hands under the dark veil:
‘Why are you so pale today?’
Because I made him drunk
with such bitter sadness.

How can I forget? He went off,
his face in a torment ….
I ran after him without touching the banister,
I followed all the way to the gate.

Breathless I cried: ‘It was all
just a joke. I will die if you go.’
He smiled so calmly, so terrifying,
and said, ‘Don’t stand in the wind’.


Something lies hidden in human intimacy,
that cannot be crossed, by love or passion,
though lips may merge in a terrible silence,
and the heart be torn apart from love.

And friendship is powerless here, in spite of
the years of a high and flaming happiness,
where the soul stands free and apart, ¬with
its slow, and wearying voluptuousness.

Those who strive for it are insane, while
Those reaching it are amazed with melancholy …
Now you understand why my heart
does not beat beneath your hand.


No, not under an alien firmament,
And not under the protection of alien wings, –
I was then with my people,
Where my people, unfortunately, were


During the terrible years of the Yezhov Terror, I spent seventeen months in prison lines in Leningrad. Someone once identified me. Then the woman with blue lips standing behind me, who, of course, had never heard my name in her life, woke up from the numbness that we all had in common and whispered to me (there everyone spoke in a whisper):
‘Can you describe this?’
And I said:
‘I Can’.
Then something like a smile slipped over what had once been her face.

April 1, 1957, Leningrad


Mountains bend before this grief,
The great river does not flow
But the prison locks are strong,
and behind them ‘convict holes’
and deathly melancholy.
For some, a fresh wind blows.
For some, the sunset is shining.
We don’t know, we’re the same everywhere
We hear only the hateful grinding of the locks,
and the heavy tread of the soldiers.
They rose as if to early mass.
They walked wildly through the capital.
They met there, more lifeless than the dead,
the sun lower and the Neva foggier,
and hope singing in the distance.
The verdict … And immediately tears pour,
already she is set apart from everyone,
as if life was taken out of her heart with pain,
as if she had been thrown brutally on her back,
she staggers off…along….
Where are the involuntary friends now
of these my two frantic years?
What does it feel like for them in the Siberian blizzard,
What do they see in the lunar circle?
I send them my farewell greetings.

March 1940


This was a time when only the dead
could smile, glad to be at peace.
And Leningrad hung around its prisons
like as an unnecessary appendage.
And where, mad from torment,
The regiments, already condemned,
were on the move…
The stars of death were already over us,
and innocent Russia writhed
under bloody boots
and under the tyres of black marias.


They took you away at dawn
I followed you, as if on a bier.
Children were crying in the dark room,
at the goddess, the candle swam.
On your lips the coldness of the icon,
Death sweat on his brow … Do not forget!
I will be like the Streltsy women,
howling under the Kremlin towers.

[November] 1935, Moscow


The quiet Don is flowing quietly.
The yellow moon enters the house.
Enters with a hat on one side.
The yellow moon sees a shadow.
This woman is sick.
This woman is alone.
Husband in the grave, son in prison
Pray for me.



No, it’s not me, it’s someone else who’s suffering,
I couldn’t endure it, but all that happened,
let the black cloth cover it
and let them carry the lanterns away …

Anna Akhmatova (1889-1966) gained early fame with the winning formula of extreme personal beauty and crystalline lyrics, initially on her troubled relationship with her first husband the poet Lev Gumilyov and later on more public themes. Apart from the war period, when Stalin found her poetry useful for raising the people’s spirits with radio readings, she was, like Pasternak, sustainedly victimised, both being expelled from the Writers’ Union at various times. During Stalin’s purges her only son was imprisoned to keep her in line. The extracts here from her long poem ‘Requiem’ writes of the experience of women during that time, like her, queuing in line to bring parcels for husbands and sons,

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Boris Pasternak: Five Poems


He used to arrive at night
in the blue ice from Tamara,
he made a mark with his pair of wings,
where to buzz, where the nightmare ends.

Naked, flogged and scarred,
he did not weep or flinch beneath the lash.
The slab has survived,
behind the fence of the Georgian temple.

The shadow didn’t grimace beneath the grating
like some ugly hunchback.
The zurna, scarcely breathing,
did not ask the lamp about the princess.

But a flashing burst forth,
into strands of hair that crackled like phosphorous.
The colossus did not hear
how the Caucasus turned grey from sadness.

Two feet from the window
the strands of wool burn intensely,
he vowed along with the icy heights:
‘Sleep beloved, I will return with the avalanche’.


How terrible it is – it drips and listens closely,
all alone in the world, believing
the small branch in the window to be
a lace-maker or a witness.

Consciously pressing down on itself with
the power of its swellings – the earth seeps,
and far off, as in August, you can hear
how midnight ripens in the fields.

Not a sound. No spies.
Making sure in the emptiness,
it appears as before – sliding down
along the roof and beyond the gutters.

I will bring it up to my lips and listen closely –
perhaps I am all alone in the world,
ready to sob before the event,
or perhaps to be a witness.

But it’s quiet. And the tiny leaf doesn’t stir.
It’s pitch-black, apart from the terrifying
gulps and splashes and shuffling of slippers,
and sighs and tears and pauses.


A touchy person, demure in everyday life,
you now are all flame, all burning.
Let me lock up your beauty
in the dark tower of poetry.

Look, how in this simple place, the edge
of the wall and window, our shadows
and shapes have been transformed
by the light of the lamp’s shade

You sit on the ottoman,
with your legs tucked under you like a Turk.
All the same, in the light, in the dark,
you always reason like a child.

Dreamily, you thread on a cord
a handful of beads that have fallen on your dress,
your expression is too sad,
your conversation too direct and artless.

You are right, love is a banal word.
I shall think up something new.
For you I shall rename
the whole world, all words.

Do you really think your sullen look can express
the ore-bearing deposit of your feelings,
the secretly shining layer of the heart?
So why do your eyes look so sad?


Autumn. Fairytale mansion.
View open to all.
Cuttings of forest roads,
having stared into the lakes.

Like at a picture exhibition:
halls upon halls
of elms, ash, and aspens
gilded as never before.

The golden hoop of limes
like the wreathe of a newly-wed,
the face of the birch – as though
beneath a transparent wedding veil.

The buried earth,
under leaves, in ditches and holes,
outhouses encased in yellow maples
as if in gilded frames.

Where the trees in September
stand in pairs at dawn,
and the sunset on their bark
leaves an amber trail.

Where one cannot step into the ravine,
without everyone knowing about it,
beneath your feet the leaves so loud
with every step you make.

Where the echo of the steep descent
resounds in the end of the alley,
and the cherry resin of dawn
thickens and congeals.

Autumn. Ancient nook
of old books, clothes and weapons,
where the hard frost leafs through
a catalogue of treasures.


The air is full of the recent storm.
Everything has come to life, breathes like in heaven.
With all the outpouring of its lilac clusters
the lilac inhales the stream of freshness.

Everything is alive with the changing of the weather.
Roof gutters flood with rain,
and brighter and brighter is the change of the sky
and the height beyond the storm clouds is blue.

The artist’s hands are still all-powerful –
he washes off dust and dirt from everything.
Transformed by his dyes
reality and past events continue to grow.

Memory of the half century,
like a passing storm departed backwards.
A century went out from his guardianship,
time to give space to the future.

It’s not upheavals and revolutions
which clean the path to a new life,
but the revelations, storms and munificence
of someone’s inflamed soul.

Boris Pasternak (1890 – 1960), adored for his poetry in the Soviet Union only became known abroad after he was forced to refuse the Nobel Prize in 1958 for his novel Doctor Zhivago – a novel which amazed the literary world in the West as the first awareness of a culture almost completely closed to them during the Stalin era of the Iron Curtain. Only published at home in 1988, he was more known for his early poetry expressing a pantheistic merging of the self and nature, very difficult to convey in translation, given its free association and rich reliance of onomatopoeia. His later poems are more direct and accessible. Like Akhmatova, he opted not to emigrate but, also like her, had thus to suffer the vagaries of Stalin’s exploitation of writers as ‘engineers of the soul’.

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Osip Mandelstam: Five Poems


My age, my beast, who is able
to look into your pupils and
with his blood glue together
our two centuries-old vertebrae?
The one who creates, bursts forth
with the blood of earthly things,
while our backbone can only tremble
on the threshold of new days.

For as long as you can, you must
carry this backbone to the end,
while, invisible, a wave plays along
the length of your spine. Your
cartilage, delicate as a child’s,
has once more become the
sacrificial lamb – again, the
crown of life has been bought.

To save the age from captivity,
to attempt to begin a new world,
we must connect the bones of our
days with a flute. All the while
our age is rocking the wave
with human longing, while only
the viper in the grass breathes
the golden measure of the age.

The buds will swell once more,
the green shoots will reappear,
but your spine has been broken
my beautiful pitiful age,
as, with a meaningless smile
you look back, cruel and weak,
like a living, breathing beast,
on the tracks of your own paws.

The one who creates, bursts forth
with the blood of earthly things,
and the live fish darts about in
the warm cartilage of the oceans.
Down from the sky’s vast net of birds,
from your immense and wondrous
cloud forms, it pours with endless
indifference, onto your fatal injury.


Let us praise, brothers, the twilight of freedom,
this great darkening year.
Into these seething night waters
an unwieldy forest of snares has been lowered.
You are rising in such hollow times
O sun, judge and people.

Let us praise this fateful burden,
which in tears the people’s leader has taken on.
Let us praise the gloomy weight of power,
its unbearable burden,
for time, anyone with a heart must hear
how your boat sinks to the bottom.

We have bound the swallows into battle legions,
and can no longer see the sun,
yet all the elements are moving,
stirring and twittering,
dense twilight through the snares.
We can no longer see the sun…, but the earth is afloat…

So come on, let’s give it one last try:
one great, clumsy creaking pull of the oar.
The earth is afloat. Let’s give our all
as the plough cleaves through the ocean.
We will remember, even in the cold of lethe
that for us the earth was worth ten heavens.


I have learned the science of parting
amidst the night laments when hair flows free.
Oxen chew, as a drawn out waiting lingers –
this the final hour of our city vigils,
and I honour the ritual of that rooster night
having lifted the road’s sorrowful load,
as tear-stained eyes looked into the distance,
and women’s tears merge with the singing of the muses.

Who can know at the word parting
what separation lies before us?
what the cock’s cry augurs us,
when the fire in the Acropolis burns
and at the dawn of some new life
when the ox chews lazily in the shed,
why the rooster, herald of new life,
flaps on the city wall?

I love the tradition of spinning: the
shuttle takes off, the spindle hums.
Look how, like swan’s down, Delia
flies barefoot, this our life so meagre
at its heart, how poor the language of joy.
Everything has happened before,
and will happen again and only the
moment of recognition is sweet to us.

Let it be so: a transparent figure
on a clean clay dish lies like a
flat squirrel skin, the girl is
leaning over the wax. It is not
for us to guess about Greek Erebus,
what for women is wax is like copper for men.
Our lot is to go forth and fight battles,
their fate just to die by wondering.


We shall meet again in St Petersburg,
as though we had buried the sun there.
And, for the first time we shall utter
the blessed and meaningless word.

In the black velvet of the Soviet night,
in the universal, velvet emptiness,
always there are the native eyes of blessed women,
still they will blossom with eternal flowers.

The capital is hunched like a wild cat.
On the bridge the patrol stands.
Only an angry motor flashes past in the dark,
crying out like a cuckoo.

I don’t need a night pass.
I don’t fear the night patrol.
For the blessed and meaningless word,
I will pray in the Soviet night.

I hear the light theatre rustle
and a women’s ‘Ah…..’
And a great bunch of eternal roses
in the arms of Cypress.

We warm ourselves at the fire from boredom,
perhaps the centuries will pass,
and the native arms of blessed women
will gather light ashes.

Somewhere there the red rows of the gallery,
boxes decked out in luxurious silk…the
officer’s clock-work doll, not for
blackened souls or the sanctimonious….

Well then, let’s light our candles.
In the black velvet emptiness.
The slender shoulders of the blessed women still sing,
and you won’t notice the night sun.


I have returned to my city, familiar to tears,
as veins, as a child’s swollen glands.

You came back here, so swallow
the fish oil of the Leningrad’s river lamps.

Seek out the December day,
Where egg yolk mixes with sinister tar.

Petersburg – I don’t want to die yet.
You still hold all my phone numbers.

Petersburg – I still have the addresses,
of the voices of the dead.

I live on a black staircase, my brow
struck by a bell, torn out by flesh.

All night I wait for the dear guests,
shaking the shackles of door chains.

Osip Mandelstam (1890-1938) A highly intellectual poet, and the least prepared to compromise his art of all those who hit against Stalin’s attempts to corral writers into to becoming ‘engineers of the soul’. His poetry is striking both for its craft and its powerful emotion. He described his own poetics as ‘A longing for world culture’ which, along with pointing to his interest in the Classics, was for him a complex theory of the Word inspired by Dante which aligned him with the Acmeists in reaction to the earlier Symbolists. Mandelstam and his wife Nadezdha were forced initially into exile and ultimately Mandelstam’s was to damn himself by writing a poem against Stalin. He died in desperate circumstances while in transit to a camp.

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Marina Tsvetaeva: Four Poems 


He who is created from stone, who is created from clay –
I become silvery and glitter.
My business is treachery, my name is Marina.
I am the fleeting sea foam.

He who is created from clay, who is created from flesh –
with that the grave and the funeral slabs.
Christened in the sea font – and in flight
with it – incessantly jaded.

Through each heart, through all the nets
my wilfulness breaks through.
Do you see me – my dissolute curls?
You won’t make the earth salt.

Breaking about your granite legs.
with every wave – I rise.
Yes, the foams greet us – the happy foam.
The high sea foam.


I shall reclaim you from all lands, from all the heavens,
because the forest is both my cradle and grave,
because I stand on the earth – with only one foot,
because I am bound to you – like no one else.

I shall reclaim you from all times, from all nights,
all golden banners, all swords.
I shall throw away the keys and drive the dogs from the porch
because in the earthly night I am the most faithful dog.

I shall reclaim you from all others – you, alone.
You will be nobody’s husband, I shall be no one’s wife,
and in the final struggle you’ll be silent as I seize you
from him who stood with Jacob in the night.

But until I cross your fingers on your breast
I’m cursed to see you remain as you, wrapped up in yourself
your two wings aiming at the ether:
because the world is your cradle and your grave.


So what’s it like
living with some other woman?
Simpler is it? With just one stroke of the oar
can the memory of me, an island
floating in the sky not on the water,

have so quickly faded like
a receding shoreline…?
Oh souls, souls.
We should be sisters –
never lovers.

What’s it like living
with an ordinary woman,
one who lacks the divine,
since, like you, your queen
has come down from her throne?

What’s it like?
How do you eat, get up,
get about? Being so
ordinary, and banal
how do you cope, poor man?

‘I’ve had it up to here with all this!
I must get my own place’—.
What’s it like living with
any old person
you my chosen one?

Is the food more edible?
Does it suit you better?
You can’t complain if it makes you sick.
What’s it like living with a mere semblance—
you who have walked on Sinai?

What’s it like living with
a stranger to these parts?
Tell me straight, do you love her?
Or does Zeus’s shame
hang upon your brow?

What’s it like?
Can you possibly be in good health?
How do you sing?
With all that festering guilt on your conscience
how do you cope poor man?

What’s it like living
with trash from the market?
Are you paying the price?
After Carrara marble
What’s it like living with crumbling plaster?

(God was carved out of a block
and has been completely destroyed.)
What’s it like living with some
run-of-the mill woman,
you who have known Lilith?

Have you had enough of the latest
from the market? Has the novelty worn off?
What’s it like living with
some earthly woman
without six senses?

Now, in all honesty are you happy?
No. No? What’s it like living in
your bottomless pit my love?
Is it worse or the same
as my life with someone else?


What tears in our eyes now.
Tears of anger and love.
O Czechoslovakia in tears.
Spain in blood.

O black mountain –
you’ve eclipsed all the light.
It’s time, its time, to return –
the ticket to the creator.

I refuse to live
in this inhuman bedlam.
I refuse to howl
with the wolves of the square.

I refuse to swim
with the sharks of the plains,
below with their backs to the current –
I refuse to be.

I need neither hearing
nor prophetic eyes.
To your mad world, there’s only
one response – refusal.

Marina Tsvetaeva (1892-1941 is now considered one of the greatest twentieth century Russian poets. She lived through and wrote of the Russian Revolution and the Moscow famine that followed. She left Russia in 1922 living in increasing poverty In Berlin, Prague and Paris, before returning to Moscow in 1939. Her husband Sergei Efron and her daughter Ariadna were arrested on espionage charges in 1941. Efron was executed and Alya imprisoned. Desperately isolated in the new Soviet regime and in a state of extreme depression, Tsvetaeva committed suicide in 1941 survived only by her son, who died in a penal battalion shortly after.

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Vladimir Mayakovsky: Two Poems 


A Room filled with tobacco smoke.
Like a chapter in
Kruchyonykh’s hell.
Remember –
outside this window
for the first time
out of my mind,
I stroked your hand.

Today you sit here.
Heart of ice.
In a day
you’ll drive me out,
perhaps, with bitter words.
In the darkened hall
for a long time
I can’t get my trembling arm in my sleeve.
I will run out.
Fling myself into the street.
In a frenzy.
Driven mad,
consumed by despair.
No need my love –
my dear one
let’s just say goodbye now.
All the same,
my love
it’s a heavy burden
you must bear,
where ever you fly.
Let me give a final cry
of the wound that you have caused m.
If a bull gets worn out from labour
he will depart and rest in cold waters.
Apart from your love,
for me
there is no sea,
yet tears give me no relief from your love.
When a tired elephant wants to rest
it lies down majestically in the scorched sand.
Apart from your love
for me
there is no sun,
but I don’t even know where you are and with whom.
If you tortured a poet like that,
he would exchange his beloved for money,
but for me
there isn’t one joyful sound
except for the ringing of your loved name.
And I won’t rush into the flight
and I won’t drink poison,
and I can’t put a gun to my head.
Apart from your look
there is no knife blade with power over me.
You will forget tomorrow
that I crowned you,
that a soul burned with blossoming love,
and a whirlwind carnival of hectic days
will ruffle the pages of my books ….
Can the dry leaves of my words
stop you
gasping for air?
Let at least, some last
tenderness cover up
your departing step.


So, if the stars are lit-up –
Does it mean – somebody needs them?
Does it mean – someone wants them to be there?
Does it mean – someone calls this spit

a pearl?
And, straining
in blizzards of midday dust
he rushes to God,
afraid he is late,
kisses his sinewy hand,
demands –
that there absolutely must be a star.
Swears –
he will not bear this starless torment.
And then
walks trembling,
though outwardly calm.
Says to someone or other:
‘Doesn’t this matter to you now?
Isn’t it terrible?
If the stars
light up –
Does it mean – somebody needs them?
Does it mean– it’s absolutely necessary
that every evening
over the rooftops
at least one star is lit up?

Vladimir Mayakovsky (1893-1930), leading poet of the Russian Revolution and of the group of poets known as Futurists, who rejected the traditional for innovation. He earned his revolutionary credentials by being imprisoned for subversive activity and became a very public spokesperson for the Communist Party. However, much of his very public imagery provides a hyperbole that conceals a personal, vulnerable love poet, his most public expressions of which are to his muse, the married Lilya Brik. A mixture of a later unrequited love, conflict with the increasingly repressive Soviet authorities, and being blocked from travelling abroad, may have contributed to his suicide, famously leaving a poetic note where he describes himself as; ‘setting my heel / on the throat / of my own song.’

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Maria Petrovykh: Three Poems 


The night threatens cold and suffering,
as it tightly wraps up in darkness.
It throws you a tender look, embracing you
as you drown in exhaustion.

The snow is dotted about with evil sparks.
Creaking and groaning it melts into itself.
The distance is out of reach. Just audible: from the cold
of the stars there is the crunch of blue gravel.


You think, that as in former times
my life is torn by conflicting harmonies.
Don’t think that, don’t worry, don’t worry –
I am not possessed by them, I am alone as in the grave.

You think – I am deluded,
in some thick obscurity, full of despair.
Don’t think that, don’t worry, don’t worry –
your star, is visible to me.

You think – an empty, insignificant event
unites our names.
Don’t think that, don’t worry, don’t worry –
I am your blood and you need me.

You think of the bitter, inevitable
empty fate, that has been decided for me.
Don’t think that: dust flies about in confusion,
but in the depths of the heavens secretly it’s clear.


I thought hatred was a fire,
a dry, quickly blowing flame,
and that the mad horse runs through me
almost flying, almost beneath the clouds…
but hatred is a desert. In the intense heat,
I walk and walk, there is neither end, nor border,
neither wind, nor water, but such days
only sands, and harder and harder
I walk and walk, and, perhaps, the second
or third life changed into a walk.
The end is not visible. Perhaps, I walk
no longer myself. I walk, without dying…

Maria Petrovyh (1908-1979) friend and editor to Anna Akhmatova, was highly regarded by Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, She translated from Armenian, Polish, and Yiddish along with her own poems, A Distant Tree (1968). Two works were published posthumously: Predestination (1983) and The Line on the Horizon: Poems and Translations, Reminiscences of Maria Petrovykh (1986).

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Boris Poplavsky: Four Poems


The grey day darkens, everything goes out,
slowly the rainy year fades.
Everything now is meaningless and clear:
be at peace, there is nothing more.

It means that the prophesies of this
terrible evening sunset will be fulfilled.
Only, you didn’t want to believe it at first,
blocking out your first childish fears.

There seems to be so many exhausted lives
falling on the ice in the snowy wind.
But none of this need concern you,
someone will love and save you.

No, my friend. This dear one is already known
however terrible or fragile the ice,
and no-one apart from God will hear
how the approaching day sings in the snow.

The grey garden is shut up and uncared for.
Snow lies above the dried-up grass.
Let your hearts be strong and unfathomable.
Wait peacefully for your early evening.


The night is weary, and the moon wanes.
Somewhere a morning train sings.
It’s terrible to think how time passes,
you can neither think nor live.

Endlessly we try to forget, to sink
into oblivion, walking, joking or playing cards.
Why not now appear before the secret judge,
and get rid of fear through emptiness?

Or by taking drugs suddenly
to see the pale and terrible night –
like dying from a restaurant window,
where all have lost the strength to help.

No, better where the moon glows
to remember in the field of fate,
or listen to the far-off howling in the mist,
and grieve for the nearby evil.

Better to open one’s heart to
the scepticism, the meaningless dark,
to condemn oneself to humility,
and turn defencelessly towards Him.


The Chinese evening is indifferently quiet.
It mutters what sounds like the lines of a poem.
It touches you but you hardly notice:
this is how a hare touches a traveller with his paw.

Smoke rises above the world once more,
as heavy mist floats above the alley.
The damp stones glimmer like silk,
like milk that is endlessly flowing.

I don’t believe in God or myself,
but I see, how fragile we both are,
and how the river crawls icily,
carrying its soul down from the heights.

How endlessly touching is the evening,
when the unclear lines curl in it,
and like a coat thrown over the shoulders,
a murderous peace overtakes you.


Ancient history is full of blue and pink stars,
of towers from which the dawn is visible,
of butterflies dreamily flying on the bridge.

Morning rises quietly above Rome,
and the shivering soldier walks along.
The polar ice glitters in the sea,
while high above the earth the nightingale sings.

So high, so deep, so far from the earth,
the white boat floats slowly in the mourning sky;
it carries the dead sun – ¬we hear the spectre sing:

‘The icy air has warmed up, and spring
has arrived. Be happy, anyone who
dies on earth today, who does not see
how the lilac blooms in the park’.

How penetrating, deep, and far from the earth,
black pipes sing on the bridge, white flags
are raised high as The Roman forces walk.

Butterflies fly quietly above them,
and beyond that every iron raincloud.
The sun rises quietly over the statues.
New days will come.

‘Praise to him, who does not wait for the spring,
to the rose that doesn’t want to live’, sings the
moon-dressed snake-nightingale in the pink park:

‘Sleep and wait, you children of the tsars,
midnight, leave us, morning return.
Everything will be just like we dreamed in the sea.
Everything will be just like we asked in grief.’

Eternity sings at dawn.
Nazareth prays in the roses.

Boris Poplavsky (1903-1935) was born in Moscow but settled in Paris after the Revolution. He belongs to the younger generation of the first emigration of Russian poets. He was regarded as one of the most talented of these younger poets when his life was cut tragically cut short. A fellow drug addict intent on suicide managed to poison both himself and Poplavsky. During his life he published only one book Flags, (1931). His posthumous collections include Snowy Hour (1936), From a Garland of Wax (1938) and Airship of an Unknown Direction (1965). He also completed one novel, Apollo Unformed and started another, Home from the Heavens, along with writing extensive journals.

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Vadim Andreyev: Four Poems



We walked out together arm in arm,
see how this line unites us:

not just because of the rhythm, not just
because of the things that everyone understands;

but because the street lamps clambered
up onto the black bridge, and the night stood,

an immense giant resting against the big wall,
while Henri slept on the bronze horse;

because the town seemed bitter and simple
as though it could be no other way,

as though everything is just as we see it,
the night, the statue, the smooth tin-plate of the pool,

and because even our shadow – its twin monster –
lies just there, congealed on the pavement at the gate.


The Black Madonna screams wildly, and once more
the black, black wind blows out the street lamps.
Once more the entrance to the underworld burns,
sordid, and uncompromising in its half-light.

This is not the Metro, not the cellar of a wretched cafe,
but the yellow entrance where the blind man,
knocks on the hollow stones with a white stick,
until he finally disappears without trace.

The low walls of the corridors are covered
from top to bottom and end to end,
with the dead geometrical patterns
of those inhuman icy tiles.

And like the windows in hell, these squares blaze
and burn, among the shadows of advertisements.
Dear friend, where are you? Is there really no return…
Where are you, where are you dear brother?


I cannot imagine life without you.
Well, they say there are flowers on Mars.
What of that? Perhaps, I don’t know,
but you haven’t touched those flowers.

And if I cannot meet with you my love,
I would only want to touch that
which at times you had touched:
your eyes, you soul, your hand.

And if after death I moved to Mars,
there far off in the world’s outer sphere,
my hand would make a drawing
of your face on the unearthly clay.

In this way the clay would be changed,
so that daisies would grow like on earth;
Mars would float above us, an earthly globe
circling and melting in the haze.


Their voices rang out as they climbed the low hill.
Aiming their pistols downwards they fired at point-blank,
and the weapons resounded harshly in the night emptiness.
There where the flickering candle of the ancient cathedral stands.

The whole sky has been gripped with heat;
it has been filled with scarlet and black clouds.
The straight light of the searchlight
filters through helplessly and to no purpose.

The earth, worried to death with fighting,
has caused black fear to grow. It has taken the bodies
of heroes, it has taken the carcasses of cowards.

This earth of concentration camps and prisons.
This earth of torture and love and torment. No longer
will I screw up my eyes, entering that wretched circle.

Vadim Andreyev (1903-1976) left Russia shortly after the Revolution in 1917. His father was the well-known Russian playwright Leonid Andreyev and his brother Daniil Andreyev a poet and mystic who remained in Russia. He fought against the Reds during the Russian Civil War, subsequently living in France, where he was in the French Resistance during the Second World War. His main collections of poems are The Leaden Hour (1924), The Sickness of being (1928), Second Breath (1950) and a posthumous collection On the Border (1977). He also wrote two books of prose, Childhood (1963) and Story of one Journey (1974).

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Daniil Andreyev: Four Poems


The night appeared, edging
the nightingale’s song like a frame:
all the sky rocking the earth to sleep
delicately creating the dream of existence.

Green, almost like malachite,
The pale heaven barely shines;
while the Broom leaves cut into
the glass of the motionless waters.

She stops, happy. And glimpsed
in that transparent moment,
is so silent, so perfect,
like never seen before on earth.

Perfect, the wind caressing hair,
triumphant, floating, ringing,
her voice pours out with
a solitary note from the thickets.

She sings for the silent sky,
for the movement in a sleepy pond,
for this fine birch, for each
stem and stalk in the garden.

She sings complaining of nothing,
and asking nothing, only praising
the night that edges the dawn, over
all things and everyone, for all time.

And we flow together, listening
in a single silent choir,
so the voice over the old pear tree
will not fade before the sun.


What joy to walk the road barefoot,
to feel, in the early glow,
how the delicate pine needles
shift like sea-drenched sand.

An hour later – dry or damp
the leaves and clay will argue:
the brutal rock of the ravine
and the smooth, cool, grass.

If the morning meadow is dry
what compares with its golden dust?
Lighter than silk, softer than fur or down
in the warm layer of its wheel ruts.

Dizzy from the day’s great heat
you sling yourself from the bank;
the fine water begins to sing,
light cascades on your scorched body.

Filled with the words of the Eucharist,
you return to the sand once more,
each reed-like voice of your limbs
touches on a light happiness.

If the evening valleys lie weary
beneath the dampening dew,
and the joyful mist innocently
drowns the harvested land,

then a fresh breath flows along the road
causing the head to spin;
your body feels happiness like nature does:
its leaves, roots and grass.

But more intriguing in the dark
is to struggle along the narrow path,
with only ears and feet to capture
all of nature’s drowsy signs.

When blinded by darkness,
listen with touch to Mother Earth;
the stubborn sounds, the regular rhythm,
the motion of her life and love.

For the shore’s sweetbrier cannot harm
and the sly snake cannot sting,
if you, both friend and lover,
are filled with the power of being.


Now the wandering of my half-year
finishes in the snowy darkness
I cannot prevent the memory
of my wanderings on the earth.

Days when my skin met the earth
so keenly with every footprint,
it was only the beginning
like love at sixteen years old

And accustomed to the dewy coolness,
to the feverish first frosts and ice
I simply loaf about in the snow
and walk ice like glass.

Not like the bridegroom visiting his bride,
but a landlord in his own home,
I place my foot where I wish
because my home is everywhere.

If consciousness is created through me
it is for happiness and singing,
the harmony of the evolving universe
will flow, like sound and light

Many have been called to contain you,
simple as the dove and evil as the snake,
in order that your road be laid
in purity and love of the elements.


Drowsy rivers
windy pines.
O my country
mysterious soul.

Rustling feathers
of sleeping grasses
shroud protecting
the mounds of giants.

Heart of the road
an endless dream.
Living sounds
of ancient times.

Over the bogland,
ancient bones,
slender polars
of dewy glades.

Moon above the banks.
Meadow haws.
Mist moving slowly
over the haystacks.

Water flowing
away away.
Star falling slowly
in the motionless night.

Daniil Andreyev (1906-1959) was the son of the well-known playwright Leonid Andreyev, and brother of the poet Vadim Andreyev. A religious visionary, in 1947 he and his wife, (Alla Andreyeva Bruzhes, were both imprisoned for 25 years, for supposed anti-Soviet activities. While he was in prison he secretly completed his poetry, Russian Gods, along with his mystical novel The Rose of the World. He was not to live long after his release in 1956 under Kruschev. But his widow ensured that his works were eventually published, to great acclaim in Russia in the early nineties.

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