Translated from Russian by Carol Ueland and Robert Carnevale
(New York, NY: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 2015)
In 1989, I was a sophomore at a small Midwestern college. My friends and roommates were largely apolitical and, if I am going to be honest, we weren’t really paying attention to what was happening in the world. We were sheltered in the way that many young adults are and had yet to become aware of our place. But then history happened.
On November 9th of that year, the Berlin wall fell, and the way the world changed grabbed my attention and never really let it go. The Soviet Union was collapsing under its own weight, and the future of the planet seemed more secure than ever. The Cold War had thawed, and the world seemed to be entering spring. Osama Bin Laden and the various fundamentalist terrors had yet to be unleashed. There was most certainly an optimism in the East and the West. Gorbachev was a physical manifestation of common sense, and the inevitable world-destroying nuclear Armageddon promised by the Cold War seemed to be permanently averted.
While I, and most people, looked at these developments from a fairly practical, political perspective, there were many Russian writers and artists that were fueled by these events but who also, no doubt, viewed them with a pessimism forged by decades of disappointment.
Aleksandr Kushner’s collection, Apollo in the Grass, includes poems written between 1988 and 2010. However, Kushner was born in 1936 and lived through post-WWII Stalinist Russia and the Cold War, and this is reflected constantly in his later work. Kushner experienced most of the critical historical moments in twentieth century Russian history, and this directs his writing, gives it historical gravitas, and allows for his work to be informed and important. It is a cerebral mix of art and historical perspective.
There is a timeless nature to Kushner’s work that is appropriate, because the Russia of Brezhnev is creeping and lurching back into existence. When we read of Putin’s assassination of a vocal critic such as Boris Nemtsov or the invasion of the Ukraine, it is hard not to feel like we have seen all of this before:
What century is it today?
Don’t hurry, stand still.
The fourth, the fifth snowfall
Or, perhaps, the sixth.
It is particularly striking that Kushner’s work produced prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall would seem apropos even if it were written today.
Russian history is mired in pain, and Kushner mines this with skillful aplomb. We are reminded that communism in its most ideal form is not so unlike a hippie commune. In my own local neighborhood of Fremont in Seattle, there stands a statue of Vladimir Lenin. Fremont is a wonderful, community-minded district, and there seems to be no irony in the statue’s presence. There is much to like about communism as an ideal but little to like about its real world execution. Russia could have been a pioneer in building the most populist nation in history, but instead it has raised hopes of equality and peace repeatedly through the past century only to ultimately disappoint:
Man loves what is close by, does not wish evil,
Believes in salvation, and awaits his Messiah
A month, a year, but then grows weary, mutters,
And sinks under grief – like us in Russia.
Russia’s checkered past has proven fertile ground for art. It has supplied the world with many of history’s finest authors and poets and this also supplies Kushner with invaluable material, often providing a link between the past and the present:
Heaven is where Pushkin reads Tolstoy,
Where eternal Spring springs more enticingly.
One can, of course, already imagine the meadows that bloom
Over and over – and every last sapling is green
At times, readers of Kushner and many of his Russian contemporaries become fatigued by an inherent negativity that seeps into these works. However, the better one understands Russian history, the more inevitable that seems:
Do not inquire of God: He is not in this world.
The heavenly kingdom is…heavenly, its light unearthly.
The earth receives just a few glimmers.
So most of the world lies in evil.
Apollo in the Grass does not only capture life in Russia, past and present, but also touches on universal truths of love, life, art, and beauty. Aleksandr Kushner’s value as a writer is largely in his versatility. While much of his best work is related to his mother country, his assessment of the human condition is equally valuable and rewarding.
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Jeff Knops has degrees in History and Political Science. His work and pleasure has brought him to Asia, Central America, Western Europe, and the Middle East. He lives and reads in the Pacific Northwest.