In the 1920s, Nikolai Zabolotsky was a member of a literary group called OBERIU–perhaps the last close circle of young innovators in Russian literature. None of the major OBERIUTs, except Zabolotsky, survived the 1940s: most died in confinement. NZ, too, was arrested in 1939.
Interrogators urged him to “confess” and implicate other writers in the “Trotskyite conspiracy.” As Zabolotsky described later in The Story of My Confinement (1956), he was tortured with sleep deprivation for several days, and driven to insanity. At that point, he even tried to physically resist his tormentors and got beaten almost to death. Fortunately, Zabolotsky was then transferred to a mental hospital where understanding staff helped him recover. Back in prison, he received a five-year sentence and was shipped to a labor camp in the Far East. The journey took two and half months and was no less excruciating to the prisoners in the freight train than a slave ship’s trip from Africa to America to the denizens of its hold.
Although his five-year term was extended during the war, Zabolotsky got transferred to Kazakhstan where he, still a prisoner, could work as a draftsman, delivered from manual labor. Already in 1946, he was allowed to settle in Moscow (Leningrad had been OBERIU’s home town, but as I’ve said, most of Zabolotsky’s old friends had by then perished) and even have his poetry published. But from the mid-1930s onward, NZ’s work was no longer avant-guard in the sense that his 1929 collection, Stolbtsy, definitely was–and that fact has caused much controversy in Russian literary circles. According to one theory, Zabolotsky felt his early poetry had brought nothing but misfortune on him and his family, and–not subscribing to the view that poetry was the ultimate means and goal of existence–sought to avoid composing original work, primarily by switching to translation: oh, the great Russian school of literary translation! Eventually, NZ compromised: he would still versify and publish, but only 100% orthodox, conservative stuff.
I don’t buy all of this theory. Zabolotsky’s late poems are quite uneven in quality, but some are gems, and most retain inclusions of his very own, non-classical language; and the philosophy in the background is certainly his own. Here’s a sketch of a translation of his reportedly last poem (the last one on the page linked).
In a station
In an iron dusky hall,
Swallowing engine smoke,
Mary is sitting in the station
With her little child.
Around her, paper bags and trunks,
The bustle of life on the road;
With glistening badges, Beelzebubs
Drive trolleys through the gate.
On the tower, radio is playing,
A hooter hoots outside the windows,
And she alone has no idea
How many hours she has been sitting,
How many hours, holding the baby–
So many hours! so many hours!
So many hours, chasing away
The smoke, the grind from the half-closed eyes!
And how many more days she’ll have to–
So many days! so many days!
From now, before the baby
Smiles in its mother’s arms.
Over the portal’s black outline
There hangs an evening star;
Off from Kursk Station, trains are rushing
All over the universe;
They scud through fens and fogs,
Through coppices and sands,
And abysses beat drums to them
And tear their flame to bits.
Only on that plain bench,
Surmounting pain and fear,
Mary in a cheap fur-coat
Keeps silent, baby in her arms.
Mary was Madonna in the original: I tried to avoid undesirable subcultural and denominational associations. The supporting symbolism–the Beelzebubs, the evening star, the centrality of Kursk Station and the Mother’s homelessness away from home–is still there.