Notes on Vanya
This biographical essay first appeared in The Inconvertible Sky (Talisman House, Publishers, 1997), selected poems by Ivan Zhdanov in English translation.
I had been trying to find Ivan Zhdanov for several years when we finally met outside of a football stadium in Moscow with Andrei Voznesenky in 1987. We began translating one another's poetry at the beginning of perestroika. But we had never met. I was then a writer-in-residence at the Lab in San Francisco and the Witter Bynner Foundation had given me a grant to travel to the Soviet Union. I had first read Vanya's work in some of 'samizdat' publications printed in Paris. Later that same night of our first encounter, Vanya came to our room with Aleksei Parshchikov and Aleksandr Eremenko. Our friendship was initiated, and we've stayed in contact since. I began to publish my translations of Vanya's poetry in the Five Fingers Review a decade ago. When Ed Foster called me this past winter to translate a selection of his poetry, I was both thrilled and intimidated by the task. I immediately wrote Patrick Henry, who worked with me on a collection of Nina Iskrenko's poetry before her death, and this volume represents our collaborative efforts. I also had the good fortune to spend time with Vanya working on the poems in Moscow with the valuable assistance of Mark Shatunovsky, a true friend and extraordinary writer. I am also indebted to my teacher and mentor, the wonderful poet Ivan Burkin, who has assisted in my translations of Zhdanov's poetry for over twelve years.
Zhdanov was born in Siberia in 1948, and his work has appeared extensively in translation in Europe, less so in the United States. Two of his books were published in the former Soviet Union: Portret (Portrait) in 1982 (which started a controversy and became something of symbol of hope for other young writers at that time), and Nerazmennoe nebo (The Inconvertible Sky) in 1989. Four books have appeared since: Prisutstvie pogasshego ognya (The Presence of Extinguished Fire, 1993); Fotorobot zapretnogo mira (Identikit of a Forbidden World, 1997); Dialog-Kommentarii pyatnadtsati stikhotvorenii Ivana Zhdanova (Commentary in Dialogues of Fifteen Poems by Ivan Zhdanov, 1997); and the re-release of Fotorobot zapretnogo mira in 1998. His work has been included in the anthologies: Third Wave: the New Russian Poetry (University of Michigan Press), and Silver and Steel: 20th Century Russian Poetry (Doubleday). [Subsequent to the writing of this essay Zhdanov's poetry appeared in the Crossing Centuries: The New Wave in Russian Poetry (Talisman House, Publishers, 2000).] He has traveled to the United States for festivals and readings on three occasions. The translated texts here date from his earliest poems to his most recent ones, published in the "Segodnya" newspaper last year. Their publication created a sensation in Moscow, given his recent silence. His poetry is very respected by the intelligentsia and former underground, and his new poems were even broadcast on Russian TV on New Year's Day. But he gives few readings now. In fact, he's a rather private, even isolated poet. Many of his friends and the poets of his generation have emigrated over the past few years. Those who have remained generally do so with great hardship and difficulty.
I think of Vanya as something of a 'religious' poet, though his lifestyle is far from that. He's certainly one of the most influential of the so-called 'avant-garde' poets. Today his work is taught as representing the late emergence of Russian postmodernism in university as well as high school courses. Zhdanov himself denies all of this, of course, and has spoken with me of simple tradition and history as the founding cornerstones of his writing and influences. During the eighties, the critic Mikhail Epshtein labeled Zhdanov, along with Aleksei Parshchikov and Aleksandr Eremenko, as a "metarealist" (some critics earlier used the terms "metametaphorists" and "citizens of the night").
In his essay for the Michigan anthology Epshtein acutely observed: "The essence of a thing comes out in its return to the original, or predetermined, model; death utters the secret, all-clarifying word on life. Zhdanov is the master of depicting forms that seem already to have lost their substance but regain themselves in memory, in times of waiting, in the depth of a mirror or the shell of a shadow."
On the other hand, Evgeny Evtushenko and others have compared Zhdanov's lyric poems to those of Pasternak. The text is a "thing" for Zhdanov, but it is only one of many that converge in the process of meditative seeing.
I know him as a friend, a man given to extremes of intelligence, at times near barbarism in his behavior. His life seems something of an anachronism. He continues to treat me like a little brother, though neither of us is any longer young, and he did me the great honor of introducing a collection of my own poetry in Russian. He was, ironically, one of the last poets to be given an apartment by the now multi-splintered Soviet Writers' Union. For years he lived wherever he could in and around Moscow, as he had no permit to reside in the city, which is why it took me so long to find him. In 1994 he received a government grant for his work, which was to be allotted to overlooked artists,
writers and scientists. For me, the image of him remains from a going-away party for my wife Katya and me at Mark Shatunovsky's apartment, where a group of poets had gathered with Nina Iskrenko playing old communist ballads on the piano — everyone singing and dancing and drinking vodka as if it were neither the end or the beginning of a war.
Copyright © by John High, 1997. All rights reserved.
(This essay first appeared as the introduction to The Inconvertible Sky (Talisman House, Publishers, 1997), selected poems by Ivan Zhdanov in English translation.)
In 1979 I first saw the world "God" printed with a capital letter, not counting pre-revolutionary publications. This was not especially religious literature as we usually conceive of it. It was an eclectic, densely metaphorical and occasionally surrealist poem by Ivan Zhdanov called "Radiator's Rhapsody," which appeared in the miscellany Poetry.
A poem so saturated with metaphor and smacking of surrealism could not possibly leak through the censors' fine sieve into the rigidly ideologized, maniacally realistic Soviet literature and remain politically indifferent. Even less could there be a "God" with a capital letter when Party workers found attending church services were sacked from their jobs, and every Easter night Western musical programs, so seductive for those on a strict ideological diet, were shown on television to keep people glued to their screens and prevent them going to watch the festive church processions.
In that same year I was invited to read my poetry along with other young poets at the Central House of Workers in the Arts, next door to the sinister building on Lyubyanka Square1. On a frosty December night, when darkness falls early in Moscow and the street lamps emit a weak, suspended light to dispel the winter gloom, I dimly saw a distant crowd of people stamping their feet by the entrance, asking for tickets all the way from the subway. It was tempting, of course, to regard this rush to attend a poetry reading as referring to me, but common sense whispered that I shouldn't flatter myself, as this was my first public reading. This pack of youths doing all it could to slip past the staunch ticket-taker had come to hear Ivan Zhdanov read with two of his friends, Aleksander Eremenko and Aleksei Parshchikov, who had already become a canonical trinity making waves in the underground.
Without perceiving it, the country had entered an era of liberal bureaucracy. The totalitarian kingdom of socialism still seemed an indestructible thousand-year reich. Brezhnev and his full clip of aged communist godfathers were still alive, fostering social immobility and economic stagnation with a sacral trembling. But in this tightly sealed atmosphere a leak appeared, a widespread poetry boom, mistakenly called the "third wave" (in fact it should have been called not a "wave" but a "leak," "the last leak of socialism"), which, in spite of the reigning common sense was not ignored steadfastly in the press. Lengthy critical articles and reviews began to appear in the officially sanctioned newspaper "Literaturnaya Gazeta," dedicated in the main to this canonized trinity of poets, who had along the way acquired the name "metarealists", or even "metametaphorists". This was a typical Soviet phenomenon: to discuss or condemn works that almost no one had access to, just as happened with Pasternak's novel and Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago.
The biggest "leak" of the "third wave" was Ivan Zhdanov, whose book Portrait, published by the Sovremennik publishing house in 1982, contained none of the normally obligatory words, such as "Party," "Communism," "socialism," "Lenin," "Revolution," "motherland," or "Russia," and once more contained the word "God," although now with a capitulatory lower-case letter. Alongside appeared an abundance of such non-poetic and ideologically useless words as "radiator," "can opener," "bronchitis," "X-ray"; that is, an utterly apolitical modernism.
How do such paradoxes occur? What has to be done to carry them out? A practical person would say such a thing would take "blat," or pull, and as always he would be wrong.
Ivan Zhdanov could have had no blat in principle, born the eleventh son in a peasant family in a backwoods village near Barnaul in the far-off Gorny Altai region of Siberia. As regards his resume, of course, such origins were an undoubted plus in the eyes of the functionaries from the state apparat, practically all of whom had, by definition, sprung from this same class in what had recently been a primarily peasant country, although this never hindered them in following state and Party policy and destroying their own age-old peasant way of life.
But Ivan Zhdanov’s “Aryan” origins were undermined in the eyes of those same functionaries by his questionable, intellectually saturated poetics, which deviated as far as possible from vulgar realism and destroyed their class-based doctrines of literature at the roots. One literary bureaucrat who became acquainted first with Zhdanov’s work, and only later with the author himself, said with astonishment: “I thought he was a lad who only knew the way from the grand piano to the bookshelf.”
By that time, however, Ivan Zhdanov was not a lad at all. He had tramped down the most varied roads, doing stints as a factory worker, a roughneck on an oil derrick in Yakutia, a “crackpot, healed” by doctors in a psychiatric hospital where he was dragged by the dean of the journalism department at Moscow State University, who also dismissed him from the ideological faculty, which had no room for unstable psyches. A string of jobs followed: stagehand in several Moscow theaters, a short-term desk-job at the Bibliophile Society, a turn at the state film company, MosFilm, then back to the theaters, and finally an elevator repairman for MosLift, Moscow's elevator board. And all this without a permanent residence and the permanently looming threat the police would expel him from Moscow because he had no residence permit. For the same reason he periodically had to flee Moscow and return to Barnaul. During the first such flight he managed to graduate from the Barnaul Pedagogical Institute.
It should be noted that this biography was typical for the opposition-minded intelligentsia, or even for dissidents, suggesting as it does the idea of a conscious deviation from conformism. But in Ivan Zhdanov's case it was misleading. So many falsely intellectual notions proved upon inspection to be no less unconsciously classist. I had known him for several years already by this time and was well informed about his epic Altai roots, yet I was struck by the incompatibility of his extremely patriarchal origins (the eleventh son in a peasant family) which I learnt of in the annotations to his first book, with his acutely modernist poetry, ascribed in class theory to the dyed-in-the-wool, degenerate and decadent urban intelligentsia.
Misled in turn by his solid pedigree and his innovative poetics, the Communists, the national-patriots, the “back-to-the-earth movement” and the postmodernists frantically tried to tame Zhdanov and enlist him in their ranks, but none of them succeeded. Therefore if one is to speak of Ivan Zhdanov having blat, he must recognize any blat Zhdanov had resulted from this unlikely combination which impressed people from the most diverse schools.
It was simply that when Ivan Zhdanov recited his verse at that 1979 reading in the Central House of Workers in the Arts, the indisputable self-sufficiency of a self-originating source was present, intensified by his manner of reading his verse not to the outside world — that is, not appealing to his audience as would have logically been warranted — but inwardly, to himself. The lines seemed to occur within him, and he supervised their development as he revealed their occurrence in a somnambulistic, monotonous rustling of words.
A slight inarticulateness in his pronunciation gave the impression that you were observing this occurrence through a dark, magic crystal in which you could just make out the poems’ characteristic, thinly populated and biblically primordial landscapes where individual, contemporary characters were placed — characters, that is, from our densely populated communal apartments and our strained contemporary society in general. And in their transformation in the poetry, their deliverance from the crush and press of our life, they became mythical heroes who discovered anew the worth and sense of the existence they had squandered in never-ending communal quarrels and scraps. In the depths of Zhdanov's dark landscapes, the social dimension, which indisputably rules the everyday world, lost its authority, and some of its significance as well.
Transformed into the primordial, ultimate and timeless landscapes of Zhdanov's poetry, a father, mother or sister, who live and perish in obscurity, or a beloved woman, who is invoked simply as "you," ceases to be the poet's own father, mother, sister or lover and becomes a generic Father, Mother, Sister or Lover. Any city transplanted in these landscapes becomes Babylon, any building in that city, the Tower of Babylon. And including these people and places in generically specific relations, he extracted them from their customary, particular social context and transported them into a primordial void where everyone — communists and the intelligentsia, national-patriots and cosmopolitans, members of the “back-to-the-soil” movement and modernists — found themselves in one common dimension from which no one is ever finally free and where each of us sooner or later remains alone with his fate and his conscience. This is why, sensing in Ivan Zhdanov a call to ultimate truth, various groups sought to win him over to their side. But this call gave them nothing to sink their hooks into, and even the publication of his book failed to recruit him into their ranks.
So for all these reasons, when I first heard Zhdanov read his work, I recognized in him a perfectly clear incarnation of a revered archetypal character, the charmed pilgrim of Nikolai Leskov's fiction, who with an abundance of physical strength and psychological resources mastered that which is, in theory, beyond the strength of man. As if Zhdanov — growing up in the Altai backwoods, a place so remote that communist class-based propaganda reached it only in a watered-down form — did not know how harmful modernism was said to be. For that reason, in the few models of modernism that made it to his village — cut-out reproductions of paintings by Salvador Dali, René Magritte or Paul Delvaux published once in a great while in the popular magazine "Ogonyok," or monographs on modernism, couched in abusive or denunciatory language, which their authors had fought to see into print, or works of Russia’s own modernists from the early years of this century that circulated semi-legally — in these, Zhdanov recognized material possessing a new expressiveness suitable for making contemporary myths that would be both the work of the author, in the modernist vein, and the work of no one, like anonymous folk verse: myths impossible to unify because ignorant of unification, whose very achievement forced the reader to recognize their indisputable universality.
So Ivan Zhdanov was published when others were forbidden to publish and was accepted by those who should not have accepted him. The image of Leskov's charmed pilgrim, wandering through life like a somnambulist, passing unharmed over ground that fell away beneath the feet of others, was repeated in characters who appeared in Zhdanov's poems, be it Odysseus, or Orpheus, or a nameless lyric hero who quit the home of his youth only to realize the inevitability and simultaneously the futility of the journey he had undertaken.
A particular vision of the universe, canonized in the poems, could be found in this image: the land of youth — for Zhdanov the hills of his youth, his precious Altai, to which it was as impossible for him to return as to step twice into the same stream — which served as a traditional, universal reference point, conditioned by the primordial, generic, ancestral nature of popular legend, of myth. This amalgamation of the morphology of archaic myth with modernist myths that seemed to have lost all connection with their prototypes astonished his contemporaries — residents, as they were, of totalitarian, socialist slums where the difference between things was determined by how closely their ideological aims conformed to regulations, where one thing was declared harmful, another useful, one life-giving, another still-born. In Zhdanov’s poetry ideological opposites not only met without causing one another obvious harm, they entered into a complementary relationship, thanks to which the life of archaic myth was extended into the present, and kinless modernist myth forged blood ties with the genesis of the whole world. This is why prophets of various persuasions, not seen among us since the days of the Old Testament, resumed their work in his poetry, and an ordinary hill in the steppe country, lost in the expanses of the central Russian lowlands a thousand kilometers from the original, acquired the ability to transform itself into Golgotha.
The word “God” with a capital letter is, of course, essential to such poetry. Therefore, during one of the charged discussions in the Kirill Kovaldzhi's experimental literary seminar, once quite famous in Moscow, where the poetic splash later called the "Third Wave" occurred, when Zhdanov was asked to define the meaning of this new poetry, he replied: “the cultivation of a new conscience.” Later, speaking about the meaning of Russian literature as a whole, he brought this thought to its logical conclusion: “the writing of a new patristic literature."
But Ivan Zhdanov’s “God” is not the bankrupt god of comic books on biblical themes intended for children and those suffering from intellectual dystrophy, nor the god of pulpits and sermons puffed up with self-importance, but the “orphaned god” who in one of his poems “enters" the night which “isn't chosen," — that is, a God of the marginal and the outsiders, and therefore a God of the absolute majority, because whoever we might be, each of us, individually, is alone with himself, marginal, an outsider2. This is why, in the waning days of our totalitarian society, when we all instinctively strove to escape the oppressive collective existence thrust upon us by the system and involuntarily were marginalized, Zhdanov’s poetry was in demand from so many quarters.
It seemed that shortly the whole country would hear him, that the whole world was ready to pay heed. Russia seemed poised to cast off totalitarianism, and revelations were expected from her that would save the world. Zhdanov's poetry was actively translated into other languages. A new book came out in Paris. He was invited to international poetry festivals.
But less than six years later, in an era of revived capitalism, Ivan Zhdanov's countrymen, who so recently seemed determined to get rid of their oppressive collective existence, have quickly and without the slightest internal resistance allowed themselves to slip into the crowd of mass culture's consumers. The overwhelming majority of them was beguiled by the mirage of a modernist, capitalist paradise. They made it legal to write the word "God" with a capital letter, and did so with the most vulgar banality. That same majority fell into banalities of a criminal hue which the Western world outgrew long ago and which were of no interest to anyone. They proved incapable of catching a single word about the "orphaned god" or nights not chosen. Once more the majority chose its own night; but now instead of the night of socialism, they chose the night of capitalism. The Russian boom passed. Any world-saving revelations that might have been heard from Russia went unheard even here. The country was converted from the pathos of saving the world to realizing the egoistic slogan "every man for himself."
And while the Western way of life, with its avant-garde material culture, failed to save Russia, with its arrival the avant-garde poet Ivan Zhdanov, who had once broken out of the underground under socialism, was shoved back down again. He returned to his old unstable existence, although, it is true, he now had a one-room apartment he managed to wrangle from the once mighty Union of Soviet Writers as it collapsed before our eyes. Thus as it vanished this organization which had embodied conservatism supported an avant-garde poet left without means by the avant-garde economic and political changes in Russia, just as he had been in the classical Soviet era. Ivan Zhdanov has now gone even deeper and more hopelessly into the underground.
This is no longer an ideological underground, but the underground of life itself, which stands opposed to practical human activity, focused ultimately and unswervingly on extracting immediate profit and material benefit.
The phenomenon of Ivan Zhdanov is the result of a strategic natural combination. At the back of beyond a boy was born with perfect poetic pitch. He therefore skirted the ideological and aesthetic extremes which traditionally proved the ruin of poetry, literature and culture generally at that time, and more unerringly than others restored poetic space to the ethical balance essential to Russian cultural perception. In this thoroughly human dimension, the milieu of the avant-garde does not become an end in itself, and world views do not harden into ideology. At the rupture of two eras — the old lie weakened and the new lie not yet in force — he saw in the emerging dawn not a distorting mirror but genuine eternity where modernism and realism, avant-gardism and conservatism, "the eleventh son of a peasant family" and the refined intellectual all were reconciled. And in the reflected light of this eternity all the new deceptions now raining down on our heads continue to be invalid.
1) Headquarters of the former KGB (now FSB).
2) The poem referred to is "Such a night isn't chosen..."
Translated by John High and Patrick Henry
Copyright © by John High and Patrick Henry, 1997. All rights reserved.