Disbelief: 100 Russian Anti-War Poems by Julia Nemirovskaya (ed) - review by Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler

Poets Against Putin

Disbelief: 100 Russian Anti-War Poems


Smokestack Books 220pp £9.99

The day after Putin invaded Ukraine, a Russian friend wrote to me that she was feeling something she had never felt, or expected to feel, in her life. She was, she said, feeling the fear, horror, guilt and shame that a decent German would have felt in September 1939.

There is nothing new about the brutality of war. Nevertheless, there are respects in which Putin’s invasion of Ukraine is unusual. One is the near-unanimity with which Russia’s best writers have spoken out against it. Just as Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union saw a flowering of Russophone poetry supporting the Soviet war effort, so Putin’s ‘special military operation’ has inspired a flowering of poetry opposing his warmongering. The contrast between these two wars is central to several poems in this remarkable anthology. Tatiana Voltskaya writes bitterly, ‘We’ll get what we deserve, and more./Unholy war/Has tarnished grandad’s medals.’ And Vita Shtivelman writes:

My grandpa David was killed in ’42.
He had a hellish job – a sapper in the field.
There is no grave, the house is gone.
He fought a year, then he was felled.
His wife and daughter made it, with God’s
Though faith in God was beyond grandpa’s
He fell as he defended East from West –
death came from the west back then.

This bilingual collection is an offshoot of the Kopilka Project, an online repository of anti-war poetry from Russophone poets now living in Russia, Ukraine, America, Israel and other countries. Kopilka means ‘coin bank’, and the Russian-American poet Julia Nemirovskaya, the project’s initiator, has described it as ‘throwing a tiny copper coin into a bigger kopilka: the collective effort to defeat Putin’.

The Kopilka Project’s website features the work of over two hundred poets; this selection includes the poems of seventy of these, presenting a range of perspectives. Some, like Voltskaya and Shtivelman, evoke the experiences of grandparents who fought in the Second World War. Others, like Nina Kossman, recall murdered Jewish relatives:

I am that ‘little man’. I don’t want to be
    more than I am.
And although I live far away and only my
    dead connect me to Ukraine
(there are more than thirty of them – my
    dead in her land,
But I have only seen pictures of my great-
    grandparents and their grandchildren,
who, for over eighty years, have lain in
    execution pits
near Lutsk, Nikopol, Krivoy Rog, Rovno
    and Chudnov –
my dead roots in the soil of Ukraine from
    which nothing grows),
I don’t blame the Ukrainians living today
    for the death of my family.
They lived in their time and we live in ours.
Each time has its own misfortune,
and those living today are not to blame for
    the deaths of my ancestors.

The tone of these poems varies from seeming childishness to adult level-headedness, from the surreal to the impeccably rational. A poem by Maria Remizova begins, ‘This is the house/that Jack wrecked’ and ends, ‘She clings to the steps in an odd embrace,/A meat fly crawling across her face.’ Here we sense an adult’s bewilderment in the face of great evil. A poem by Olga Andreeva shows us the helplessness felt by an adult trying to talk about the war to a child:

Zmei the Dragon has three heads
For breathing fire at children’s beds.
See his flaming mane fly free.
Ask him nicely: please, not me.
Close your eyes and seal your dreams
From the evil wood-sprites’ schemes.

One of the most heartbreaking poems is ‘War is a Train’ by Galina Itskovich, a Ukrainian-born psychotherapist now living in New York:

Every morning, starting with Thursday,
I’d tell my mom that war has broken out.
Each time, she’d be surprised –
war belonged back in her childhood,
there was no such thing as war for adults.
This wasn’t Russian propaganda, it was
    merely dementia –
a blessed forgetting of anything too big
and too frightening.
It sank in by Sunday. She began to search for her own mother,
to cry with terror,
to plead and fumble about in a blind panic.

Please, don’t grow up, mom,
don’t continue this saga into Monday,
don’t live in fear of Tuesday,
stop and stay in that ’41 of yours,
so that I’ll never have to be born
to encounter your own terror,
that persistent mortal dread
on the faces of the kids just brought out
    of Bucha.
a blessed forgetting of anything too big
and too frightening.

The helplessness of a child in 1941, of an old woman suffering from dementia, of a daughter struggling to help her mother, of child witnesses of who knows what horrors, of a psychotherapist trying to help those who have been through unimaginable suffering – the poet shows us all these with delicacy and precision.

Other poets write with stern adult control. Gali Dana-Singer in ‘The Time of the Last Honesty’ confronts issues of growing importance affecting not only Russia but the rest of the world too:

Lie doesn’t try anymore
to masquerade as truth

I’m a lie
it says
it speaks out loud
its voice is deafening
so nothing but itself
can be heard
I’m your lie
you have nothing
but me

and now you can choose
I offer you a choice
if you want
you are allowed
to call me truth.

Disbelief is proof that the Russian language can still carry an antidote to the poisons disseminated by the Kremlin. We should also remember that Ukrainian writers differ in their attitudes to the Russian language. Some have abandoned Russian, even if it was their first language; others continue to write in Russian. One bilingual poet has said defiantly, ‘I refuse to abandon the language to the Putinites!’

The anthology is no less remarkable for the quality of the translations. The translators involved – Maria Bloshteyn, Andrei Burago, Richard Coombes, Anna Krushelnitskaya and Dmitri Manin – show themselves capable of commanding a wide range of styles and forms. Andrei Burago translates Vera Pavlova with classical simplicity:

Don’t say that you shoot in the air.
The bullet will find its purpose.
Aim high and you murder a cherub,
Aim low and you slaughter a corpse.
A bird, a rabbit, a mole.
The bullet will find its prey.
Listen to mama, hide in a hole,
Toss your rifle away. 

Maria Bloshteyn translates a long poem by Vladimir Gandelsman with unfaltering virtuosity, keeping up the bitter wordplay across several pages:

I ask you,
highfaluting intel lackshells,
to apply some understanding
to this order:
we must teach a lesson
to those ukraiminal-collaborators,
surround them all,
let the plague fell
a million or two
for the sake of the whirled
as a whole

turn ukraiminalia into ukruines –

All five translators have produced versions that read as clearly, naturally and compellingly as the originals. They deserve our gratitude – as does Smokestack Books, the publisher both of this anthology and of Russia is Burning, an almost encyclopedic bilingual collection of Second World War Russian poetry that came out in 2020.

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