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The Best Tales of Soviet Russia

recommended by Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler, one of the best known translators of Russian literature, recommends some of his favourite tales of Soviet Russia. There's the one about a dog in space and the one about the Soviet café which stocked nothing but champagne and Mars bars...

Interview by Anna Blundy

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Tell us about The Russian Countess.

This is a book by the mother of my Russian teacher at Winchester, who was a very small boy indeed when he left Russia – I think about two years old. What struck me most of all is the last third or so of the book, which is the years from the 1917 revolution until she finally managed to escape the country. She becomes this extraordinarily resourceful woman with a remarkable gift for saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. She’s stuck in Moscow, she’s already got her children out of the country but she’s finding it more and more difficult to get out herself. She doesn’t have any literary pretensions and she tells this story absolutely straightforwardly, but there are moments when her writing attains an almost mythical quality.

The story I always tell people about this book is when she’s in Moscow in 1920 and she’s in complete despair and thinks she’s never going to be able to join her children and she’s cut off from her husband (they all left the country and she went back in the mistaken hope that she might be able to get a little bit more money by selling her house and the remaining possessions, and she couldn’t get out again), it’s winter and she thinks she wants to die. So she walks out through the outskirts of Moscow into the forest, because she wants to die there, and towards her, coming out of the forest, is this rather tired-looking man. He turns out to be a German – God knows what he’s been doing in the forest – half-starved and on his last legs and he turns to her, desperate for help, overjoyed that she understands German. So this poor woman, instead of going into the forest to die, gets lumbered with having to rescue this German. She takes him back into the centre of town and finds him shelter and food, and so they save each other’s lives. It has a sort of fairy-tale quality.

You say she had a knack of saying the right thing to the right person at the right time. I think I have the opposite skill. What kind of thing did she say at the right time and to whom?

Well, it’s the 1920s and the Soviet-Polish war is already going on, so getting across the frontier into Poland is obviously not easy. She first of all manages to join an orchestra – she’s quite a good amateur violinist – and the orchestra is travelling out of Moscow to somewhere in Belarus and then the Poles are advancing so the orchestra is going to get evacuated eastwards, which is the last thing she wants because she needs to get closer to the front line. She manages to persuade someone to take her on as a Red Army nurse because she’s got a bit of first aid knowledge. She joins a Red Army troop train and gets posted to the front. There’s one man, a member of the Party, who is in her coach and he obviously likes her but is suspicious of her. For all her resourcefulness she seems to have some aristocratic habits that she’s unable to rid herself off, so he’s surprised at the way she washes in the morning. She washes her face with great delicacy and he questions her about this and he does more or less guess who she is, but he lets it pass.

Vasily Grossman, The Road?

I translated Life and Fate a surprisingly long time ago, about 20 years ago.

How long did it take you?

Well, for about 18 months I didn’t get very much done and I got depressed about it, but then I took myself off to a flat by the seaside in Cornwall for four months and just worked all day long and swam a couple of miles every day. I got most of the work done then. It would normally take me 18 months to read half of it in Russian, never mind translate it. Well, that was my reaction when my friend Igor Golomstock first brought a copy of the Russian text along to me and said: ‘Robert, if you want to establish yourself as a translator you should translate this book.’ I just laughed at him and said: ‘I don’t read books that long in Russian, let alone translate them.’ But Igor was very persistent.

During the last ten years Grossman has become a great deal better known, but the people drawing attention to him have, by and large, been historians like Antony Beevor, or people whose interest is largely political – Martin Kettle, John Lloyd. So the focus has been very much on Grossman as a historical witness: Grossman and Stalingrad, Grossman and the Shoah. There’s nothing wrong in that and I’m very grateful, but Grossman is a very, very fine writer, irrespective of history, and in The Road above all. The Road is a collection of ‘late stories’ written after the confiscation of Life and Fate and these are wonderful stories.

What are they about?

The Soviet writer he was closest to was Andrey Platonov and the stories do have quite a Platonov-like quality to them. There is one about a dog, just called ‘The Dog’, and it’s quite close to reality. There were several mongrel dogs that were sent up into space on the early sputniks and this is a story about the first dog to be sent up into space and to come back alive to earth.

Laika? No. She died, didn’t she?

Laika died. That was the very first dog. This is the fictionalised successor to Laika and it’s very unexpected. I showed it to a poet friend called Elizabeth Cook and her immediate comment was that it was really shamanistic! It would never have occurred to me but actually it’s a valid comment. The heroes of the story are the female dog and the scientist in charge of the laboratory, a really hard-headed, unsentimental scientist who, to everyone’s amazement, gets quite besotted by this animal, and he has visions of her going out into space and for the first time the cosmos will penetrate the eyes of a living being. And somehow he will look into her eyes when she’s back on earth and will see the cosmos. It’s very warm and tender and funny, and there’s a certain irony to these mystical ideas, but some seriousness to them as well. Quite a lot of them are about animals.

There’s another story, the title story, ‘The Road’, which (this is my private fantasy about the story and there’s no evidence for it) is the Stalingrad campaign from the perspective of an Italian mule dragging munitions for an Italian artillery regiment. My fantasy is that Grossman is trying to compensate for the loss of his manuscript, Life and Fate, by recreating the book in miniature. Life and Fate condensed into 15 pages. The mule is very like Andrey Platonov’s peasant heroes. He’s a thoughtful mule, plodding through the endless plains in the autumn mud. The mule gradually grasps the concept of infinity.

Does he? Gosh. Let’s move on to the Michele Berdy.

I’ve been reading Michele Berdy’s columns in The Moscow Times about little translation problems and this book is a compilation of these columns. They’re very entertaining. People who don’t know Russian at all can read them with real interest and enjoyment. She’s someone who wonders if she’s the American who has lived longest in Moscow. She’s been there for 32 years and has done all kinds of different work. She really has encountered all the day-to-day cultural misunderstandings between Westerners and Russians trying to do things together. These columns are the distillation of all that. One of the columns I particularly love is when she talks about all the tiny little Russian exclamations, all the two and three letter words and the ones that are really just sounds – ‘akh’, ‘ekh’, ‘ookh’. She writes about them really funnily.

The worst one of those is ‘nu’. Russians who were taught English under the Soviets always say ‘well’ for ‘nu’ when it’s really just a kind of ‘um’.

Yes. As a translator myself these are the words that always send me into a panic: I think ‘to’ more than anything. It has so many different meanings and you don’t notice the little words as much as the long words that you don’t understand. I have made a vow to always check with a Russian when I encounter ‘to’. There’s an amazing little story of doing something, interpreting, at a meeting with Yeltsin when he was nobody particularly important in 1988 and Yeltsin brought her a chair and a cup of coffee, quite uninvited and unnoticed. She said no client had ever been so considerate. She just has a wealth of practical experience of the language.

Platonov next.

Platonov I first encountered when I spent a year in Voronezh in the early 70s. I was on an exchange scholarship there and I had never heard of Platonov but it happens to be the city where he was born and somebody brought me a Soviet published collection of his work. About half his work was published in Soviet times. So, this made an immediate impression on me and I recognised it was something unusual. Back at home I started reading all the works that hadn’t been published in the Soviet Union, the surreal satire and extraordinary wit, and the creativity with language. The language immediately captivated me.

The Foundation Pit is the blackest of Platonov’s works. It’s very, very funny indeed but it is very black humour. It was written in the late 1920s, so the background is the collectivisation of agriculture and Stalin’s drive to industrialisation. The plot is a very simple little despairing parable of a group of workers who are digging what is supposed to be the foundation pit for a huge building that will provide a wonderful home for the whole of the local proletariat. Things keep going wrong and it’s decided that they should make the building two or four times bigger than had previously been planned, so they carry on digging a bigger and bigger hole, and this group of workers adopt a little orphaned girl as their mascot. She symbolises the bright new world they are creating. She is the kind of person for whom they are building this building. She actually dies.


And she is buried in this pit and, of course, the building is never built. It is just a grave.

Oh, great.

At the level of plot it’s very black and might seem overly schematic, but there is fantastic wit in the language and dialogue.

Did you marry someone in Voronezh? Everyone I know who went to Voronezh came back married to a Russian.

Yes, I brought back a Russian wife with me. She claims to be the person who first bought me a collection of Platonov’s work. We didn’t stay married very long but we are on good terms. She now lives in New York.

Now on to Charlotte Hobson.

Yes. Charlotte’s book is like a sort of mirror image of my experience of Voronezh. I spent a year there in 1973-4 when the Brezhnev regime was very stolid. Charlotte spent a year there in 1991, just after the failed coup against Gorbachev, so I recognise everything in her book but it’s presented as though in a distorting mirror. So, whereas students in the hostel when I was there were conservative and leading a very dull life, Charlotte describes this wild Dostoevskian picture of sex, drugs, alcohol and wild inflation – girls turning to prostitution because of inflation. The passage I remember most in the book is that she’s wandering about in the morning with her Russian boyfriend just before New Year and they go into a café and there’s nothing in the café except bottles of champagne and, for some reason, masses of Mars bars. These are the only two items.

I’ve been to lots of cafés like that in Russia.

Yes. I wasn’t there then, but she has this champagne breakfast. I’m not sure if they had the Mars bar or not, but it’s a wonderful paragraph about the difference between getting drunk because you want to get drunk and getting drunk because there’s nothing around but champagne. She describes it as a more solemn kind of drunk.

Yes, I know it well.

Interview by Anna Blundy

December 17, 2010

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Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler

The poet Robert Chandler is the translator of Pushkin’s Dubrovsky and the melodrama Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov. Robert’s translations of Sappho and Apollinaire are published by Everyman’s Poetry and his translations of Russian prose include Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and several volumes by Andrey Platonov.

Robert Chandler

Robert Chandler

The poet Robert Chandler is the translator of Pushkin’s Dubrovsky and the melodrama Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Leskov. Robert’s translations of Sappho and Apollinaire are published by Everyman’s Poetry and his translations of Russian prose include Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate and several volumes by Andrey Platonov.