Russia is Burning:

Poems of the Great Patriotic War

The Second World War occupies a special place in Russian memory. Between the German invasion in June 1941 and the liberation of Berlin in May 1945, over 26 million Soviet civilians, servicemen and women were killed fighting the Nazis. The war also occupies a special place in the history of Russian poetry. For Anna Akhmatova the Red Army was defending the Russian language as well as Russian soil (‘we will defend you, Russian speech’). Poems written by Red Army soldiers were published in newspapers and broadcast on the radio. Alexei Surkov’s ‘In the Dugout’ and Konstantin Simonov’s ‘Wait for Me’ were turned into popular songs.

Published to mark the 75th anniversary of the end of the War, Russia is Burning brings together for the first time in any language poems written by Soviet soldiers and civilians, by émigré poets, prisoners of war and Gulag prisoners, by poets who wrote ‘for the drawer’ and by later writers who have tried to understand the war and its long-term effects on Russian society. Including poems by Boris Slutsky, Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Olga Berggoltz, Alexander Tvardovsky, Samuel Marshak, Irina Bem, Evgeny Vinokurov, Vsevolod Nekrasov, Bulat Okudzhava, Vladimir Vysotsky and Ilya Ehrenburg, Russia is Burning is stunning testimony to the power of poetry to resist Fascism and a reminder of the extraordinary heroism and endurance of the Soviet people in the war against Nazi Germany.

Sample Poems

ЕЛЕНА МИХАИЛОВНА ШИРМАН (1908-1942)

Shirman was the only woman at Ilya Selvinsky’s famed poetry seminar to enlist. She edited an army newspaper Direct Fire which was published in Rostov-on-Don. In 1942, she was captured by the Germans with issues of the paper, and was tortured and executed.


Приезд

Состав, задыхаясь, под арку влетит,
Навстречу рванутся и окна, и гомон,
И холод, и хохот. И кто-то навзрыд
Заплачет. И все это будет знакомо,
Как в детстве, в горячке.
Ведь так на роду
Написано мне по старинной примете -
И то, что тебя я опять не найду,
И то, что меня ты опять не встретишь.
И лица. И спины. И яркий перрон.
И кто-то толкает меня. Громогласен
Гудок паровозный. И это не сон,
Что нету тебя. И приезд мой напрасен.
Клубясь и вращаясь, прокатит вокзал,
Сверкание залов и темь коридоров.
И площадь пуста. И фонарь, как запал,
Мигнет, поджигая покинутый город.
И площадь взлетит, как граната, гремя,
И хлынут осколки разорванных улиц.
...Кто-то с панели поднимет меня
И спросит заботливо:
                ‘Вы не споткнулись?’

Февраль 1940, Москва

ELENA SHIRMAN (1908-1942)

This poem is addressed to Shirman’s great unrequited love, Valery Marchikhin, a poet turned soldier, killed in the early days of the war. Shirman never learned of his death. The poem describes their non-meeting during her visit to Rostov-on-Don. The image of the exploding train station eerily prefigures its destruction by the Germans in 1941.

The Visit

My panting train shoots through the archway,
met by a rush of cold, windows galore, 
loud laughter, a real ruckus.  Someone 
bursts into tears.  I felt like this before –
back in my childhood, struck with fever.  
This was my fate from birth
foretold by age-old omens –
that yet again I would not find you;
that you would fail to meet me yet again;
that there’d be all these faces, people’s backs, 
this bright platform.
That I’d be shoved. A whistle
blast. You aren’t there – 
this is no dream. I’ve come in vain.
The station passes by, churning and swirling,
with its glittering halls and its dark corridors.
The plaza’s empty. A streetlight turned fuse
flashes, and the abandoned town’s ablaze.
The plaza hurls up like a grenade. A boom – 
and shards of broken streets come tumbling.
…Someone will raise me from the pavement
and kindly say,
           ‘You must have stumbled.’

February 1940, Moscow

КОНСТАНТИН МИХАЙЛОВИЧ СИМОНОВ (1915-1979)

Убей его!

Simonov wrote this on the Bryansk Front. He later wrote, ‘this feeling… that either you’ll kill the enemy, or he’ll kill you, pushed me to the desk and literally forced me to write this poem.’ It was published on the second day of the Battle for Stalingrad.

Если дорог тебе твой дом,
Где ты русским выкормлен был,
Под бревенчатым потолком,
Где ты в люльке качаясь плыл,
Если дороги в доме том
Тебе стены, печь и углы,
Дедом, прадедом и отцом
В нем исхоженные полы,
Если мил тебе бедный сад
С майским цветом, с жужжанием пчел,
И под липой, сто лет назад,
В землю вкопанный дедом стол,
Если ты не хочешь, чтоб пол
В твоем доме немец топтал,
Чтоб он сел за дедовский стол
И деревья в саду сломал...

Если мать тебе дорога.
Тебя выкормившая грудь,
Где давно уж нет молока.
Только можно щекой прильнуть,
Если вынести нету сил.
Чтобы немец, ее застав,
По щекам морщинистым бил,
Косы на руку намотав,
Чтобы те же руки ее,
Что несли тебя в колыбель,
Немцу мыли его белье
И стелили ему постель...

Если ты отца не забыл.
Что качал тебя на руках.
Что хорошим солдатом был
И пропал в карпатских снегах,
Что погиб за Волгу, за Дон,
За отчизны твоей судьбу,
Если ты не хочешь, чтоб он
Перевертывался в гробу,
Чтоб солдатский портрет в крестах
Немец взял и на пол сорвал,
И у матери на глазах
На лицо ему наступал...

Если ты не хочешь отдать
Ту, с которой вдвоем ходил,
Ту, что долго поцеловать
Ты не смел, так ее любил.
Чтобы немцы ее живьем
Взяли силой, зажав в углу,
И распяли ее втроем
Обнаженную на полу.
Чтоб досталось трем этим псам,
В стонах, в ненависти, в крови,
Все, что свято берег ты сам.
Всею силой мужской любви...

Если ты не хочешь отдать
Немцу, с черным его ружьем,
Дом, где жил ты, жену и мать,
Все, что Родиной мы зовем,
Знай –  никто ее не спасет,
Если ты ее не спасешь.
Знай –  никто его не убьет,
Если ты его не убьешь.
И пока его не убил.
То молчи о своей любви – 
Край, где рос ты, и дом, где жил,
Своей Родиной не зови.

Если немца убил твой брат,
Если немца убил сосед – 
Это брат и сосед твой мстят,
А тебе оправданья нет.

За чужой спиной не сидят,
Из чужой винтовки не мстят,
Если немца убил твой брат – 
Это он, а не ты, солдат.
Так убей же немца, чтоб он,
А не ты на земле лежал,
Не в твоем дому чтобы стон – 
А в его –  по мертвом стоял.
Так хотел он, его вина – 
Пусть горит его дом, а не твой,
И пускай не твоя жена,
А его – пусть будет вдовой.
Пусть исплачется не твоя,
А его родившая мать.
Не твоя, а его семья
Понапрасну пусть будет ждать.

Так убей же хоть одного!
Так убей же его скорей!
Сколько раз увидишь его,
Столько раз его и убей!
 
18 Июля 1942

KONSTANTIN SIMONOV (1915-1979)

Kill Him

The poem was reprinted, broadcast, and dropped from planes during the war. Mikhail Alekseev, who fought in the Battle for Stalingrad, said, ‘All I had to do [as a political instructor] was to read the soldiers Simonov’s poem ‘Kill Him!’ that appeared just around that time… it shook us to the core.’  

If your house means a thing to you
Where you first dreamed your Russian dreams
In your swinging cradle, afloat
Beneath the log ceiling beams.
If your house means a thing to you
With its stove, corners, walls and floors
Worn smooth by the footsteps of three
Generations of ancestors,
If your small garden means a thing:
With its May blooms and bees humming low,
With its table your grandfather built
Neath the linden – a century ago.
If you don’t want a German to tread
The floor in your house and chance
To sit in your ancestors’ place
And destroy your yard’s trees and plants…

If your mother is dear to you
And the breast that gave you suck
Which hasn’t had milk for years
But is now where you put your cheek;
If you cannot stand the thought
Of a German doing her harm,
Beating her furrowed face
With her braids wound round his arm.
And those hands which carried you
To your cradle – washing instead
A German’s dirty clothes
Or making him his bed…

If you haven’t forgotten your father
Who tossed you and teased your toes,
Who was a good soldier, who vanished
In the high Carpathian snows,
Who died for your Motherland’s fate,
For each Don and each Volga wave,
If you don’t want him in his sleeping
To turn over in his grave,
When a German tears his soldier picture
With crosses from its place
And before your own mother’s eyes
Stamps hobnailed boots on his face.

If you don’t want to give away
Her you walked with and didn’t touch,
Her you didn’t dare even to kiss
For a long time – you loved her so much,
And the Germans cornering her
And taking her alive by force,
Crucifying her – three of them
Naked on the floor; with coarse
Moans, hate, and blood, 
Those dogs taking advantage of 
All you sacredly preserved
With your strong, male love…

If you don’t want to give away
To a German with his black gun
Your house, your mother, your wife – 
All that’s yours as a native son – 
No:  No one will save your land
If you don’t save it from the worst.
No:  No one will kill this foe,
If you don’t kill him first.
And until you have killed him, don’t
Talk about your love – and
Call the house where you lived your home,
Or the land where you grew up your land.

If your brother killed a German, 
If your neighbour killed one too,
It’s your brother’s and neighbour’s vengeance,
And it’s no revenge for you.

You can’t sit behind another
Letting him fire your shot.
If your brother kills a German,
He’s a soldier; you are not.
So kill that German so he
Will lie on the ground’s backbone,
So the funeral wailing will be
In his house, not in your own.
He wanted it so – It’s his guilt – 
Let his house burn up, and his life.
Let his woman become a widow;
Don’t let it be your wife.
Don’t let your mother tire from tears;
Let the one bore him bear the pain,
Don’t let it be yours, but his
Family who will wait in vain.

So kill at least one of them
And as soon as you can.  Still
Each one you chance to see!
Kill him! Kill him! Kill!

18 July 1942

АЛЕКСЕЙ АЛЕКСАНДРОВИЧ СУРКОВ (1899-1983)

Surkov, poet and war correspondent, wrote this love poem for his wife after breaking through an encirclement in 1941. In 1942, the composer Konstantin Listov put it to music. It was published, picked up by the soldiers, and became one of the most popular songs of the War. 

В землянке

Софье Кревс

Бьется в тесной печурке огонь,
На поленьях смола, как слеза.
И поет мне в землянке гармонь
Про улыбку твою и глаза.

Про тебя мне шептали кусты
В белоснежных полях под Москвой.
Я хочу, чтобы слышала ты,
Как тоскует мой голос живой.

Ты сейчас далеко, далеко,
Между нами снега и снега...
До тебя мне дойти нелегко,
А до смерти – четыре шага.

Пой, гармоника, вьюге назло,
Заплутавшее счастье зови.
Мне в холодной землянке тепло
От моей негасимой любви.

1941

ALEXEY SURKOV (1899-1983)

The ever-vigilant Soviet war censors took issue with the words ‘just four steps divide me from death,’ as being too defeatist, and destroyed the entire 1942 run of the song’s recording.  They subsequently tried to change the offending line, but everyone knew the words and sang it as it was written.

In the Dugout

to Sofia Krevs

Restless flames twist and toss in the stove,
Resin shines on the wood like a tear,
And accordion sings about love,
And your eyes and your smile reappear.

Bushes whispered about you to me
In the snowfields near Moscow, near home.
Ah, my love, if it only could be,
If you heard me here singing alone!

You are far, far away at this hour –
Snows between us and winter’s hard breath,
To rejoin you is not in my power,
Though just four steps divide me from death.

Sing, accordion, scorning the storm,
Call back joy, drive off sorrow and doubt.
In the cold of the dugout I’m warm,
For the fire of our love won’t go out.

1941

ИЛЬЯ ГРИГОРЬЕВИЧ ЭРЕНБУРГ (1891-1967)

Ehrenburg, already an internationally famous writer, poet, essayist, became one of the most important Soviet war correspondents, the author of much-anticipated and much-loved articles that raised troop morale, both for the military newspapers and civilian press. Hitler promised to have Ehrenburg hanged, declaring him Germany’s worst enemy.  

Возмездие

Она лежала у моста. Хотели немцы 
Ее унизить. Но была та нагота, 
Как древней статуи простое совершенство, 
Как целомудренной природы красота. 
Ее прикрыли, понесли. И мостик шаткий 
Как будто трепетал под ношей дорогой. 
Бойцы остановились, молча сняли шапки, 
И каждый понимал, что он теперь – другой. 
На Запад шел судья. Была зима как милость, 
Снега в огне и ненависти немота. 
Судьба Германии в тот мутный день решилась 
Над мертвой девушкой, у шаткого моста. 
  
1942

ILYA EHRENBURG (1891-1967)

In 1942, Soviet forces began to retake some of the territories previously occupied by the German army. According to those who witnessed it, the devastation they found fueled their hatred of the enemy and their resolve more than any military orders or any exhortations of the army’s political officers.

Retribution

She lay beside the bridge. The German troops had reckoned
To cheapen her by this.  Instead, her nakedness
Was like an ancient statue’s unadorned perfection,
Was like unspotted Nature’s loveliness and grace.
We covered her and carried her. The bridge, unsteady,
Appeared to palpitate beneath our precious load.
Our soldiers halted there, in silence stood bare-headed,
Each transformed, acknowledging the debt he owed.
Then Justice headed westward. Winter was a blessing,
With hatred huddled mute, and snows a fiery ridge.
The fate of Germany that murky day was settled
Because of one dead girl, beside a shaky bridge.

1942

ВЕРА МИХАЙЛОВНА ИНБЕР (1890-1972)

Vera Inber was a wide-ranging poet who was endorsed by Stalin (despite being Trotsky’s cousin). She moved to Leningrad and lived there throughout the war. She kept a celebrated diary about life in the besieged city where she worked on the radio.  

Заря в Блокадном Ленинграде

Зима роскошествует. Нет конца 
Ее великолепьям и щедротам. 
Паркетами зеркального торца 
Сковала землю. В голубые гроты 
Преобразила черные дворы. 
Алмазы. Блеск... Недобрые дары!

Но чем закрыть? Без теплых испарений 
Воздушный свод неизъяснимо чист. 
Не тающий на ветках снег – сиренев, 
Как дымчатый уральский аметист. 
Закат сухумской розой розовеет... 
Но лютой нежностью все это веет.

А в час, когда рассветная звезда 
Над улиц перспективой несравненной 
Сияет в бездне утренней, – тогда 
Такою стужей тянет из вселенной, 
Как будто бы сам космос, не дыша, 
Глядит, как холодеет в нас душа.

1942

VERA INBER (1890-1972)

This segment is part of Inber’s long poem about the siege (the poem and her siege diary Almost Three Years won the Stalin Prize. The winter of 1941-1942 was extremely cold, with temperatures dipping below -30. 

Dawn in Besieged Leningrad

Diamonds, Sparkling. Gifts that cannot ease
the agonies of a town where all the faces
are branded deep with hunger, death, disease.
What use then are these opalescent spaces,
this garden glint, this crystal light of trees?
They should be shrouded, like a shrouded mirror
in homes where death makes glittering things a horror.

How may we shroud them? There’s no warming mists
curling to blur with clouds the aery dome.
Unmelting snow, like Ural amethysts,
has found on boughs its settled shining home.
No southern rose was like the sunset-rose.
All round a fiercely tender beauty glows.

And when, above the streets, the morning star
climbs up the sky to warn us of the dawn
and throbs and beams in lucid strength afar,
such a sharp iciness from earth is drawn
the universe seems gasping to behold
how souls themselves are frozen by the cold.

1942

СЕРГЕЙ СЕРГЕЕВИЧ ОРЛОВ (1921-1977)

Orlov published his first book of poetry in 1942. He fought his first battle as a tank commander in 1943 and his last battle as a commander of a tank platoon in 1944 (he managed to escape from his burning tank, but was severely burned). All the while, he wrote poems that were published in army newspapers.

‘Его зарыли в шар земной…’

Его зарыли в шар земной,
А был он лишь солдат,
Всего, друзья, солдат простой,
Без званий и наград.

Ему как мавзолей земля – 
На миллион веков,
И Млечные Пути пылят
Вокруг него с боков.

На рыжих скатах тучи спят,
Метелицы метут,
Грома тяжелые гремят,
Ветра разбег берут.

Давным-давно окончен бой...
Руками всех друзей
Положен парень в шар земной,
Как будто в мавзолей...

Июнь 1944

SERGEY ORLOV (1921-1975)

This poem, with its transcendent vision of a soldier’s final resting place, is Orlov’s most famous. Years after the war, when Orlov was talking poetry with friends in a bar, an ex-soldier sitting nearby declared that they would never write anything as fine as ‘They Buried Him in Planet Earth.’ 

‘They Buried Him in Planet Earth…’

They buried him in planet earth –
he was a soldier, nothing more.
No ranks, no decorations,
just a fighter in the corps.  

The earth will be his mausoleum
for millenniums to come, 
as countless milky galaxies
whip stardust all around.

Earth’s storm clouds sleep on russet slopes,
its snows come drifting by,
its heavy thunders thunder past,
and winds get set to fly.

The battle ended long ago…
His friends took hold of him 
and laid the lad in planet earth
as in a mausoleum.   
 
June 1944