APRIL 5, 2020
ALEXANDER TVARDOVSKY IS NOT a household name in the West, even among literary scholars, though he is one of the most remarkable poets of 20th-century Russia. But then, his poetry is not of the kind that attracts literary critics: it is simple and straightforward, its direct meaning usually obvious, at least to a Russian. Tvardovsky was a peasant lad who made his name in Smolensk, a large town in the extreme west of Russia, today on the border with Belarus. He launched his career with a long narrative poem, The Land of Muravia (1934–’36), about the collectivization of agriculture. Its hero is a Don Quixote figure who does not want to give up his own smallholding and join the collective. He wanders all over Russia looking for a village where it is still possible to own your own farm. The ending is ambiguous: he does not join a collective, but it seems certain that in the end he will accept that he must and even that he will be better off doing so. The tone of the narrative and the hero’s ambivalence laid Tvardovsky open to the accusation that he was imbued with a “kulak spirit” — a “kulak” being a better-off peasant who refused to accept collectivization. This accusation embittered his literary debut and almost got him arrested.
He gained widespread fame during World War II with his Book about a Soldier, which was published in episodes in army newspapers and was then read over the radio. It developed out of a regular humorous column published in army newspapers during the Winter War against Finland (1939–’40). Written by a collective of authors, including Tvardovsky, the column consisted of a series of comic incidents in which a certain Vasia Tyorkin carried out some improbable but impressive and entertaining feat. Its effect was witty and amusing, but essentially light-hearted, not really “serious.” With the outbreak of a much larger and more fateful war, Tvardovsky felt the need to reshape Tyorkin into a character who, while still entertaining and uplifting, would face up to the gritty realities of a war that threatened Russia’s very survival as a nation.
He wrote to his wife in June 1942:
I have had the happy idea of reworking Tyorkin on a new and broader basis. I started off, and found the words flowing. […] Soon I had the feeling that without this work I could neither live, nor sleep, nor eat, nor drink. This is my heroic wartime deed! […] Thank god, at least I have been sloughing off the prejudices I acquired during a youth intimidated by dogmas and their creed-bearing preachers. I now believe only the honest truth, nothing more!
The main character, Vasili Tyorkin, is a simple peasant lad from a Smolensk village, and his outlook on life is largely traditional. He has the long-practiced peasant skills: he mends implements, looks after horses, plays on the accordion, sings, dances, and tells stories, some of which constitute the text of the poem’s individual sections. Above all, Tyorkin is perkily indestructible. His author does not shirk the nasty details of war, and Tyorkin suffers many of them, but he remains resilient and good-humored. He always has a song to sing or a salty anecdote to tell his comrades. In a touch of authorial fantasy, army headquarters issues an order that there should be a Tyorkin in every unit!
Tyorkin is strongly attached to his “little homeland,” his native village, and through it to Russia as a whole, which he conceives largely in terms reminiscent of 19th-century Narodnik verse (which celebrates simple peasant wisdom and the solidarity of the village community). Yet he has a broader outlook too: a national and even international horizon. He is a patriot, both Russian and universal:
The year kicked off, events began.
We’re fighting for the future
Of Russia, of the common man
And of all human nature.
The men and women on the front loved the Book about a Soldier: its honesty, its positive good humor, its freedom from dogma, and its closeness to the reality of their life. As one of them wrote to him straight from a dugout:
Our dear poet Alexander Tvardovsky! I am writing this letter on behalf of all our men. […] While chatting together we have often remembered Vasili Tyorkin and talked about him. It is a very good book and — above all — it is truthful. Everything in it is true. It describes the combat life of all of us soldiers. […] As long as Vasili Tyorkin lives alongside us, life becomes more cheerful and somehow easier.
Yet, though the text was published to keep up morale and put Red Army soldiers in a good mood — in which it obviously succeeded, to judge by the numerous letters Tvardovsky received — it scarcely mentions anything specifically Soviet: there is little or nothing about towns, industry, the technology even of warfare, and it offers no up-to-date ideology. Most remarkably of all, it never mentions either the Communist Party or Stalin. Soldiers go into battle with the cry “Za rodinu!” (“For the homeland!”), but not “Za Stalina!” (“For Stalin!”).
Instead, the poem glorifies the comradeship of ordinary soldiers. Like Vasily Grossman in his novels Stalingrad and Life and Fate, Tvardovsky sees this staunch solidarity, rather than political leadership, as the force that wins wars. When Tyorkin is wounded and lying in hospital, he cannot wait to get back to his regimental comrades: they are his “family.” When he lies in the snow seriously wounded, and death is calling enticingly to him, he refuses to die. Eventually, the “funeral team” (gathering corpses after battle) finds him and, though at the end of a long hard day, works zealously and lovingly to restore him to life and carry him to the field hospital.
You can travel the world and never notice
(And I’ve never seen before)
A friendship clean and pure as this:
The camaraderie of war.
For a time, the poem’s irreverence and its ideological shortcomings got Tvardovsky into difficulties. His editors were often touchy: they wanted more glorification, a more triumphalist tone. He started receiving curt messages from central publishing houses “requesting amendments.” Publication and radio readings were briefly suspended; presumably the political authorities had become anxious about the text’s ideological content (or lack of it). At one stage, in March 1943, things got so bad that his wife wrote to him from Moscow that “I have the impression that it is getting dangerous here to pronounce your name aloud.” But the poem’s sheer popularity overcame these obstacles: while the war was still raging, the soldiers’ demand for serious yet good-hearted entertainment was so strong that the newspapers had to resume bringing a “Tyorkin to every unit.”
The language of the Book about a Soldier is an object lesson in how to combine colloquial and literary Russian in a seamless continuum. I have always had the feeling that any attempt to translate it into English was likely to produce a colorless mishmash. A 1975 version by Moscow’s Progress Publishers did not convince me of the opposite. James Womack has done much better. Without falling into extremes of either British or American English, he has managed to find apt, often zesty equivalents, all while reproducing an approximation of Tvardovsky’s meter and rhyme scheme. The original text’s meter is based on the trochaic tetrameter, with variations to convey speech rhythms or point up dramatic turns; Womack has rendered it in iambic tetrameter — more natural to English speakers’ ears. His departures from this basic pattern are, however, more frequent and not always well chosen. The same goes for the rhymes. Tvardovsky’s, often slant rather than exact, conform to a general scheme, from which he sometimes departs as he does from the meter. English has fewer rhymes and usually needs more words than Russian, which can convey meanings through, for example, the declension of nouns. Inevitably, Womack has to modify or abandon the rhyme scheme far more often than in the original and sometimes has to distort the meaning in trying to stick to it. All the same, he has succeeded in conveying the jauntiness, the frankness, and the sheer bravado of the original.
This translation is a welcome enterprise. For the first time, it enables the English-language reader to obtain a vivid impression of Tvardovsky’s remarkable resourcefulness, of his at times unflinching realism combined with unfailing courage and cheerfulness. There should be a Tyorkin in every library.
Geoffrey Hosking is an emeritus professor of Russian history at University College London. His books include The First Socialist Society: A History of the Soviet Union from Within; People and Empire, 1552–1917; Russia and the Russians; and Rulers and Victims: The Russians in the Soviet Union.