Alexander Tvardovsky – Soviet poet
Alexander Tvardovsky was born in 1910, in the Smolensk Region, on the little farm of Stolpovo, as the tiny scrap of land acquired by his father was called. In no sense was possession of that piece of land a thing to be envied. But for his father, who had worked for years as a blacksmith to earn enough to put down the deposit required by the bank, that land was precious, even sacred. And from the very first he taught children to love and respect it.
Alexander’s father was a literate man and even a well-read one by village standards. Books were no rarity in their house, and in the winter whole evenings were given over to reading aloud.
The boy started writing verses before he could properly read and write. There was no metre, no rhyme, nothing of poetry at all, but he distinctly recalled that he had a fervent desire, so passionate that his heart nearly burst, to achieve all that—metre, and rhyme, and music—a desire to give birth to them, and without delay.
In summer, 1925, Tvardovsky broke into print for the first time, with a verse called My Cottage in a Smolensk newspaper. At the age of 18 Alexander went to Smolensk where he entered a teachers’ training college. You know, he did a successful two years there, and then went on to the Moscow Institute of History, Philosophy and Literature.
That period was perhaps the most decisive and significant of his literary career. Those were the years when the countryside was in the throes of a great reorganisation based on the principles of collectivisation. Everything that was taking place on the farms at that time affected him extremely closely—in everyday life and in the social, moral and ethical sense.
Tearing himself away from books and studies, Tvardovsky travelled out to collective farms as correspondent of regional newspapers and fervently hunted out all that made up the newly developing way of life in the countryside.
After each trip he noted down for his own reference what new things he had discovered in the complex process of establishing collective farm life. All this constituted the theme of his poem The Promised Land in 1936, which won the approval of readers and critics. The author counted that poem as the real start of his literary career.
His principal literary work during the Second World War was Vasili Tyorkin (Book about a Fighter). Whatever the intrinsic literary worth of this poem, it gave him real happiness to know that his work was of some use. Tyorkin was his lyric, his pamphlet, it was his song and his sermon, his anecdote, his story-teller’s fancy, his heart-to-heart talk, his dialogue with an event.
At about the time Alexander wrote Vasili Tyorkin and his verses Front-Line Chronicle, he started on House by the Road, which was not finished until after the war. Its theme was war, but from the other side—from the point of view of home and family, of the wife and children of a soldier and how they went through the war.
Always, side by side with verses, Tvardovsky wrote prose—Press reports, feature and other articles, and stories. In thoughts and plans for the future, prose had always occupied a more extensive position.
Whereas he knew the Smolensk Region and gained some happy and priceless memories from it simply because his mother and father lived there, he made the acquaintance of Siberia, with its austere and magnificent beauty and fabulous prospects, when he came to maturity. This new link with “distant lands” had a direct effect on his main work of the fifties, Space Beyond Space.
Since the mid-fifties he had devoted a considerable part of working time to editing the magazine Novy Mir (New World).
Soon after the collapse of Novy Mir, Tvardovsky suffered a stroke, which led to a loss of mobility and speech, and in the hospital he was diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. The writer died on December 18, 1971 in the village Krasnaya Pakhra, Moscow region. He was buried in Moscow at the Novodevichy cemetery.
Alexander Tvardovsky – Soviet poet
Death and the Soldier from the poem VASILI TYORKIN
From beyond a distant summit
Came the battle’s din and glow,
But our friend Vasili Tyorkin
Lay alone upon the snow.
And the snow was stained with scarlet
Where the wounded hero lay.
Death came stealing like a harlot:
“Come on, soldier, come away.
It is time that you were going—
Let me lead you through the gale,
Blizzard blowing, blizzard blowing,
Blowing snow across our trail.”
Tyorkin started as he lay there,
Scarcely breathing in the snow:
“Who invited you, you hussy?
I’m alive. I will not go.”
Death detected some misgiving:
“It’s no matter how you strive—
You cannot be counted living
Just because you are alive.
I have touched you with my shadow;
Even now you are too weak
To be conscious that the snowflakes
Lie unmelting on your cheek.
Do not fear the dark before you—
Night is just as good as day.”
“That’s all right, but what, you whore, you,
Would you like to have me say?”
This remark, so unexpected,
Disconcerted her a bit:
“What I’m asking,” Death reflected,
“Is a trifle, you’ll admit.
Just a sign that you are willing
To submit to my demands,
That you’re sick and tired of living—”
“In a word, throw up my hands?”
Death considered, drawing nearer:
“Well, why not? I’ll take the blame.”
“Nothing doing, life is dearer.”
“Silly boy, it’s all the same.
If you want it or you don’t,
All the same your hands are blue,
All the same your sight is failing,
Lips are paling.”
“See how quickly night is falling,
Why prolong your misery?
If you’re wise you’ll heed my calling—
Get it over—come with me.”
“I will stay.”
“Don’t be foolish—you are freezing.
You will not survive the storm.
Let me wrap you in my blanket
And forever keep you warm.
You believe me. You are crying.
Your submission makes me bold ..
“Don’t you trap me with your lying!
I am crying from the cold!”
“Tears of joy and tears of pain—
All the same! On the plain
Night is swiftly drawing near;
They will never find you here.
And even if they found you,
Would your happiness increase?
Once again your cares would hound you—
Better lie and die in peace.”
“You are trying to ensnare me.”
Tyorkin’s jaw was firmly set.
“I must live. You cannot scare me.
I have hardly lived as yet.”
“If you live—what then? What of it?”
She was bending to his ear.
“If you do—you think you’ll love it?
Love the cold, the dirt, the fear?
Life is not a bed of roses,
Think of everything once more—”
“Think of what? It’s all familiar.
You forget that this is war.”
“Once again you’ll have the worry
About homefolks, about home—”
“That’s the reason I must hurry—
Kill off Fritzes and get home.”
“Home. Perhaps. If home were waiting—
If your home were still intact—
But except for bricks and grating,
All is ashes—that’s a fact—
All in ruins—”
“I can build it,
I know how, and I am strong.”
“The land is wasted.”
“Once I tilled it.”
“Pipes are twisted.”
“Not for long.
‘Jack of all trades’—so they called me.
Once I’m back, I’ll mend the harm.”
“You will—unless—don’t stop me—
You will, unless you lose an arm,
Or in general are disabled—”
Tyorkin drew a sudden breath.
Was there nothing that enabled
Man to triumph over Death?
He was ready for submission,
Worn and weary, night at hand—
“Listen, Death, on one condition,
I’ll transfer to your command.”
And the boy, where he lay bleeding,
So alone, so young, so weak,
Started quietly to speak,
In a tone of earnest pleading:
“I’m no better than the others,
I can die as well as they,
But when all the fighting’s over,
Will you free me for a day?
So that I may be in Moscow
For the victory salute?
So that I may hear the salvo
That the Moscow guns will shoot?
“While the rockets still are flaring,
May I hurry home to see
How the village folks are faring?
They will be expecting me.
And when friends come out to meet me
At some old familiar spot,
May I answer those who greet -me
With a word?”
“You may not.”
Tyorkin shuddered as he lay there,
Yet some strength seemed to revive.
“Get away from me and stay there,
I’m a soldier still alive!
I will yell until I’m blue,
I may perish on this hill,
But I’ll never yield to you
Of my own free will!”
“Take it easy.
You will only prove the rule—”
“Stop! They’re searching!
Someone’s coming! It’s the medics!”
“Where, you fool?”
“There!” His eyes were shining.
Death went weak with laughter then:
“That’s the squad that comes to bury!”
“Just the same, they’re living men!”
One came over, then another,
With a crowbar and a spade.
“Here’s another stiff to cover.
We won’t finish, I’m afraid.”
“Let’s sit down on this cadaver,
All my bones, I think, are broke.”
“If we can’t fill up our bellies,
We at least can have a smoke.’’
“How’d you like a sup of something—
Cabbage soup with cream on top?”
“How’d you like a sip of something?”
“I’d be willing—just a drop.”
Suddenly they seemed to hear
Someone say, just audibly:
“Drive this jade away from here!
I’m alive, as you can see.”
Up they jumped from off Vasili,
Had a look—alive all right!
“Can you beat it?”
“Now we really
Must get back before the night.”
“Just to think of him surviving!
Quite a marvel, on the whole!
Not so strange to find a body.
But a body with a soul!”
“Once his soul is whole—come on!
Got to give the guy a hand.
We had almost passed him on
To the Ministry of Land.”
“Get your spade without delaying,
He is frozen to the spot.
Chop his coat off…”
Death was saying:
“I will follow. Like as not
They will jerk him or will drop him,
And I’ll have him back again.
Some new accident may stop him
From escaping with those men.”
Both their spades and both their belts—
Both their coats laid end to end—
“Come on, soldier, lift the soldier.”
“Off we go! Have patience, friend.”
Slowly, carefully they bore him,
Trying hard to ease the ride.
He looked happily before him;
Death kept trailing at the side.
What a road they had to cover!
Ruts and rocks and drifts of snow—
“Why not rest a little, brothers?”
“That’s all right. We’d better go.
Night is coming. Don’t you bother
About us,” a soldier said.
“You can bet we’d ten times rather
Lug a live one, than a dead.”
And the other said: “That’s right.
And besides, it’s understood,
That a live one must keep going.
While a dead one’s home for good.”
Now it seemed the wind was easing;
Less relentless grew the storm.
“Lost your gloves? Your hands are freezing.
Here, take mine, they’re nice and warm.”
As she listened, Death kept thinking:
“What a friendly lot they are!”
All her hopes were quickly sinking:
“There’s no sense in going far.
I can see they’ll never let him
Go away with me today.
It’s a pity not to get him—”
And she sighed and turned away.
Translated by Margaret Wettlin
Dedicated to Mothers
From beginning to end it’s goodbye,
We say them to mothers in sequence—
In our childhood you cannot deny
We treated the first with nonchalance.
Kind hands packed our cases for camp,
While we stood at the door in a sweat
That something would happen to cramp
Our going, although it was set.
Then the parting “for good” came along,
The one mothers dread (quite the most:
Of our “filial” bent right or wrong
We were quick to advise them by post!
And we sent them some snapshots of who
The girls were they’d not met before,
So big-hearted, permitted them too
Their strange new in-laws to adore.
After brides—of course grandchildren small…
Then a wire falls out of the blue,
You go back: the last parting of all
Between Gran, dear old Mum … yes, and you.
Translated by Gladys Evans