Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk

 

Lev Ozerov, pseudonym of Lev Adolfovich Goldberg (1914–96)

 

Born in Kyiv, Lev Ozerov studied in Moscow, then worked as a front-line journalist after the German invasion. After the liberation of Kyiv in 1943 Ilya Ehrenburg commissioned him to write an article for The Black Book (a planned documentary account of the Shoah on Soviet soil) about the massacre at Babi Yar, a ravine just outside the city where the Nazis shot a hundred thousand people, most of them Jews. Ozerov also wrote a long poem about Babi Yar, published in early 1946.

From 1943 Ozerov taught in the Translation Faculty at the Gorky Literary Institute, translating poetry from Yiddish, Hebrew and Ukrainian (languages he knew well), Lithuanian (which he could read) and other languages of the Soviet Union with the help of a crib. He also wrote many books of literary criticism and did much to enable the publication of writers who had suffered or perished under Stalin. He was the first editor to publish Nikolay Zabolotsky (his translation of The Lay of Igor’s Campaign) on his return from the Gulag in 1946.

Ozerov has yet to win due recognition. His finest book, Portraits without Frames, published after his death, comprises fifty accounts, told in a variety of tones and with deceptive simplicity, of meetings with important figures, many – though not all – from the literary world. One poem tells how Yevgenia Taratuta, an editor of children’s literature, kept her sanity during brutal interrogations by reciting Pushkin and Mayakovsky to herself. A second describes Ozerov’s first meeting with Zabolotsky on his return from the Gulag. The poem ends with Zabolotsky’s daughter telling Ozerov, decades afterwards, how later that day her father had said to her: ‘I had thought I was forgotten, but people still seem to remember me.’ Ozerov writes with compassion not only about such great and courageous writers as Varlam Shalamov but also about such writers as Alexander Fadeyev, a Soviet literary boss who shot himself when Stalin’s crimes, and his own complicity, began to be exposed under Khrushchev.

Among the subjects of other ‘portraits’ are Babel, Platonov, Shostakovich, Tatlin, Kovpak (a Ukrainian partisan leader) and the ballet dancer Galina Ulanova. One poem tells of the poet Boris Slutsky’s generosity in making his room available to couples who had nowhere to sleep together; one evening he returns home to find a note: ‘Boris, / you are a great humanist, / and the heavenly powers / will reward you. The sins of others, / sins that are not yours, / will bring you blessings.’

The ‘portrait’ below is of Fyodor Konstantinov (1910–1997), an accomplished engraver who studied under Vladimir Favorsky (1886–1964), the subject of another Ozerov poem, at the Moscow Art Institute. Konstantinov was known for his depictions of Mozart, Paganini, Wagner, Verdi, and the poet Sergey Yesenin. He also illustrated the works of many classic Russian and other authors.

Robert Chandler

 

Fyodor Denisovich Konstantinov

 

Like the sculptor Anna Golubkina,

he wasn’t from overseas

or from the backwoods,

but from Zaraysk. [1]

I had the good luck

to see him at work.

A silly thing to say—

no one ever

saw him any other way.

Focused, passionate, tireless,

he had the brawn of a small-town carpenter,

the dexterity of a master joiner

who could guess the breed and age

of a tree blindfolded, by touch,

and the endurance of a rugged tar extractor,

and the meditative patience of an icon painter.

A piece of boxwood, gripped in a vise,

waits on the workbench for his knife.

He must be as precise as a sniper,

as a surgeon;

after all, boxwood isn’t paper.

In the evening, a smooth piece of boxwood—

come morning, a tableau vivant:

gentle waves of bluish pink snow,

the upturned fretsaw

of a faraway forest,

and sleighs, far-flying sleighs.

Who’s in them? Pushkin or Gogol,

Nekrasov or Koltsov? [2]

Look long enough—and we’ll see!

“Oh, what do I know? Decide for yourself . . .”

While the sleighs will fly away,

they will fly away of their own accord

from under the studio’s roof.

 

“What a day it’s been!

I worked well—but not enough,”

Fyodor Denisovich says quietly.

He’s silent for a long time,

then suddenly begins

a conversation we have had before,

and more than once.

“And I keep thinking: Who will continue my work?

Whom will I tell my secrets to?

To whom will I pass down the keys?

Think what Favorsky did for me—

he helped me to understand, he gave me direction.

Eternal thanks to dear Vladimir Andreyevich.”

I answer after a pause, and with pain.

I’ve witnessed Fyodor Denisovich

yearning for students for a quarter of a century.

Nobody, nobody here is in the least bit bothered.

What I am saying is monstrous—but true.

Konstantinov spoke at the Academy of Arts—

a dense blanket of silence.

He spoke at the Union of Artists—

a grave peace, if not the peace of the grave.

He spoke at the Ministry of Culture—

not a word, only indifference.

And last, he spoke at the Cultural Foundation—

promises, smiles, and no action.

A few lone pens—three, five, perhaps ten,

your humble servant among them—

wrote about this.

Nothing, nothing, nothing.

So—should we allow the flame to fade?

Should the younger tribe

never encounter the charm of woodcuts?

Should we allow the art

of Pavlov [3] and Favorsky

to die out?

Let them both disappear

up the chimney of oblivion?

Let the sands bury them?

To be altogether forgotten,

like the secrets of Cremona’s violin makers?

Another evening,

I climb up to Konstantinov’s top-floor flat.

“Fyodor Denisovich!” “Here!” he responds

from the dense forest of his Moscow building.

It’s warm in the workshop.

There’s a fresh engraving on the table:

the sea, a high wave

crested with foam,

white as the flower

of a Zaraysk apple tree.

 


[1] Anna Golubkina, the first major Russian woman sculptor, was born into a family of peasant Old Believers in Zaraysk, in central Russia. She studied at the Imperial Academy of Arts in St. Petersburg as well as at the Académie Colarossi in Paris, and worked as an assistant to Auguste Rodin. She embraced the Revolution of 1917 but recoiled from the Bolsheviks’ violence and only reluctantly agreed to work for the government, teaching at the Higher Art and Technical Studios (Vkhutemas) in Moscow.

[2] Nikolay Alexeyevich Nekrasov was an influential mid-nineteenth-century Russian poet, critic, and editor; he was best known for his civic verse, which promoted liberal, reformist ideas and expressed deep sympathy for the lower classes. The poet Alexey Vasilievich Koltsov, who was born into a cattle merchant’s family in 1809 and died of tuberculosis at the age of thirty-three, wrote simple, songlike poems in praise of peasant life, which earned him comparisons to Robert Burns.

[3] Like Favorsky, Nikolay Pavlov was a well-known Soviet-era artist and engraver.

 

‘Fyodor Denisovich Konstantinov’ is excerpted from Portraits Without Frames, a selection of poems by Lev Ozerov and translated from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Drayluk and Irina Mashinski, available now from Granta Books.

The Editor’s Chair: On Daša Drndić
Introduction