December 02, 2015

Poetry, The Russian Riddle, and What Both Have to Do with International Politics

Poetry, The Russian Riddle, and What Both Have to Do with International Politics

What can we learn about Russia, now and throughout history, from its poetry? This month we try to find out, with help from The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry, to be released later this month, as reviewed in the November/December issue of Russian Life.

Excepting Winston Churchill’s evaluation of Russia as “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma,” perhaps the most famous description of Russia was penned by Fyodor Tyutchev (1803-1873) in 1866:

Умом Россию не понять,
Аршином общим не измерить:
У ней особенная стать —
В Россию можно только верить.

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry (PBRP) offers not one, but two translations of Tyutchev’s quatrain, the gist of which is that Russia cannot be understood cognitively, but one is obliged to believe in her nonetheless. The first translation is by Anatoly Liberman:

You will not grasp her with your mind
or cover with a common label,
for Russia is one of a kind –
believe in her, if you are able…

The second rendering is by Avril Pyman:

Russia is baffling to the mind,
not subject to the common measure;
her ways – of a peculiar kind…
One only can have faith in Russia.

The two interpretations take up Tyutchev’s central meditation on Russia, but may as well be distinct poems. In selecting different rhymes and different registers, not to mention altering the punctuation, they carry different connotations about what faith in Russia might actually mean. Does that evocative ellipsis after “if you are able” in Liberman’s translation suggest doubt about whether you are able? Should the italicized word “faith” and the finality of the period at the end of Pyman’s be taken as a direct command?

Penguin Book of Russian Poetry
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If the answers to these translators’ questions – not to mention to Tyutchev’s original puzzle of how Russia is to be understood – are elusive, well, that’s translation for you. As the volume’s editor Robert Chandler writes in the introduction,

“There is no single correct approach to translation; translation is an art, and there is more than one way to go about it.”

So, that’s all well and good. But what can poetry actually tell us about Russia?

For many English-readers, encounters with contemporary Russia these days consist of reports of the conflict in Ukraine, debate about whether the Kremlin is friend or foe where Syria is concerned, sympathy and worry over the November plane attack over Sinai, and, every once in awhile, a newsflash about President Putin’s workout regimen. And in many cases, the news about Russia boils it down to its stereotypes.

Indeed, reading about the banning of certain Wikipedia pages, alcohol-free villages in Siberia, and the on-again, off-again negotiations over Syria, you may well jump on board with Tyutchev in thinking “Russia is baffling to the mind.” Not to mention find cause to embrace the skepticism in that ellipsis after “believe in her, if you are able…”

But Tyutchev put Russia’s paradoxes to rhyme not because they are as simply solved as an abab rhyme scheme; his poem serves as a reminder that the country’s complexities are part of what makes Russia Russia. Sure, to Tyutchev that meant promoting a fervent Panslavism, with disavowal of the West as central to his ideals as the aim of uniting all of the Slavic peoples under Russia’s great banner.

In a sense, Tyutchev’s view parallels the often binary view of Russia-vs.-West that endures today. To believe in Russia, for him, was to believe in the great nation’s preeminence in forging the path to an exceptional tomorrow. Maybe that’s why his famous quatrain is carved onto the memory of many a Russian schoolchild even today.

This brings up a paradox. On the one hand, there is the urge to view Russian culture on its own merit, rather than through the lens of politics; on the other, cultural expression has great value in affording understanding to a political situation largely shaped by stereotype and incomprehension.

Tyutchev’s poem encapsulates this neatly, as its political implications can shed some light on the current international situation. Yet the poem, along with the other pieces in PBRP, should be read for its own artistic merit – both as the original was composed, and as a work showing great linguistic dexterity in its multiple translated forms.

Reading Russian poetry serves as a reminder of the wealth of cultural expression that scintillates throughout the country’s difficult history. Which, to return to the paradox, is key to understanding the country on a political level as well as an artistic one. Or, along the lines suggested by Tyutchev, can help readers see that even if Russia cannot fully be understood, its poetry, at least, is something to be believed in.

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