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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Forgotten Poet Tells It as It Was




This century, to an even greater extent than the last, will be remembered in Russian literature as the century of the outsider. Established greats such as Osip Mandelstam, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, Andrei Platonov and Joseph Brodsky wrote their best work in opposition and, often, exile, staking out the distance between the untouchable individual and a corrupting regime. Their achievements have been such that little room seems to have been left in the literary pantheon for the conformists. In Russia and abroad, most of the names that shaped the Soviet literary milieu seem to have been consigned to oblivion.


Boris Slutsky is one such example. Despite posthumous collections of his work in Russia, he remains unfashionable at home and generally ignored in the West. Now, with Things That Happened, an anthology in translation of Slutsky's poems and memoirs, Professor Gerald Smith and Glas publishers have brought to the public eye an insider who lived and chronicled the Soviet experience in all its tragic and comic aspects, from euphoria as a student in '30s Kharkov to the disillusionment of Brezhnev's reign, which coincided with Slutsky's own tormented old age. Along the way, he recorded the "things that happened" with a self-awareness and acuity made all the more astonishing when we consider how much he sacrificed for the regime he eventually came to distrust.


A Ukrainian Jew, Slutsky had two disadvantages by birth when it came to making it as a civic poet in Stalin's Russia. He overcame them by sheer persistence and a genuine belief in the Leninist ideal. A member of two "unholy organizations" - the Communist Party from 1943 and the Union of Writers from 1957 - Slutsky served in the war as a political commissar, exhorting the troops from behind the front lines. It was as a war poet that Slutsky made his name and a couple of his ballads, while being, as Smith says, "immaculately orthodox," are masterpieces of their kind. The abuse of the Russians by the Germans is powerfully rendered in "The Pit at Cologne," while "The Hospital" shows a dying Russian soldier demand that a German lying next to him not befoul his death with his presence. Happily, not all the war-related poems are vitriolically nationalistic, and the pursuit westwards leads to some interesting episodes, particularly in Romanian brothels where "syphilis moved out of the category of moral misfortune into that of financial difficulty."


Slutsky served the party faithfully, if ultimately reticently, until his death in 1986. Although more than half his poems and nearly all his prose memoirs r emained unpublished in his lifetime, he never dabbled in samizdat, challenged the censor or sought publishers abroad. At the 1958 meeting called by the Union of Writers to censure Boris Pasternak after he had won the Nobel Prize, Slutsky spoke out against the writer and the prize "given out of hatred for us," an action he later wrote of as unforgivable, but which Smith sees as consistent and honest.


The same paradoxical honesty shaped Slutsky's complex attitude to Stalin. The chapter titled "Following the Leader" thoughtfully appraises the common citizen's relationship with Stalin and is probably far more representative of popular opinion of the time than the understandably hyperbolic political poems of writers like Mandelstam. Slutsky observes the Stalin cult from a broad perspective, both historical and personal, and as the result of a historical process to which an entire society contributed.


"Did I love Stalin at that time?" he writes in a prose recollection. "Do people love fate? Destiny and necessity - do people actually love them?" In the poems the rhetoric is upped but the sentiments are no less tangible. Stalin was a "God," "a lighthouse and a harbor" - and, Slutsky admits, a refuge from thought for the thinking man.


Besides politics, "Things That Happened" gives an unusually far-ranging overview of Soviet life over the entire pre-glasnost period. Alongside often witty commentaries on anti-Semitic prejudices, Slutsky explores themes that never touched him personally, among them soccer and alcohol, which, twisting Marx, he calls two of the "world's three opiates" - the other one being religion. Some of his most moving verses deal with the plight of women and specifically old women left bereft after war, while the evident difficulty of Slutsky's relationship with his wife Tatyana Dashkovskaya emerges strongly in the poems dedicated to her slow death from cancer. He brings to them the same apparent artlessness and sincerity as to all his other writings, alternating between passionate confessions of love and childish rebukes ("You should not have left the way you did. That was wrong").


Slutsky describes his own poetic style as "plain as porridge," which helps make this kind of work in translation more straightforward and readable. Smith's renderings are similarly and deliberately plain, although alive to the few idiosyncrasies in Slutsky's poetics, especially wordplay. His commentaries interspersing Slutsky's texts are witty, informative and unobtrusive, helping to make the book accessible to the non-specialist.


Hopefully, with the appearance of "Things That Happened," which precedes any critical monograph on the poet, Slutsky's worst and frequently-articulated fears about being forgotten along with his contemporaries will prove unfounded.


"Things That Happened" by Boris Slutsky. Glas. $13. The book is on sale at Anglia bookstore for 325 rubles, 2/3 Khlebny Pereulok. Tel. 203-5802.