Friday, November 30, 2012

Scenes From the City

I. November Fog

The air is heavy and wet, and you can almost smell the Baltic sea in between the layers of petrol and exhaust. Trees drip, a few last brown leaves still clinging stubbornly, but their branches are mostly bare. A thick white fog covers everything, diffusing the weak winter sunlight into a pale pervasive glow, as though the entire sky were frosted glass. It's warm enough, but a thin layer of condensation covers everything from the tress' bark to the iron gate of the central park.

Morning traffic is muffled and the cloud creates the illusion of isolation; a woman in her sixties with a black turban-like fur hat and a plastic shopping bag materializes suddenly out of the whiteness before dissolving back into it again. Every now and then a trolleybus clatters over the cobblestones, its electric poles sparking along the net of wires overhead, red tail lights fading into white. Somewhere a church tower tolls ten-thirty. This is Europe.

It is half like Christmas and half like fiction -- temporal surrealism enforced by the insulation, a conviction that the cloud has dissolved our bond with time. Only this small circle of a world exists, floating in an opaque bubble until it collides with something more solid, more real, and ends in a wet pop. A flock of pigeons pecks at the stones around my boots -- half have black claws, half have white -- before something scares them and they take flight together with the percussive whit of many wings.

II. Central Market

A light rain falls on the corrugated metal roof but is inaudible over the babble of hundreds of conversations and transactions, all echoing off the high rafters with the ersatz camber of a lofty railway station, open to the weather. Four long counters run the full two hundred yards, laden with the best of autumn produce and staffed by surly attendants in market aprons over their puffy winter coats. Each row is a checkerboard of fall color in piles of cucumbers, oranges, tomatoes, cabbages, carrots, beets, horseradish, kiwis, squash, and persimmons. Jars of amber honey abut high mounds of dried apricots and walnuts still in the shells. Artfully opened pomegranates skewered on sticks look like exotic flowers or dragons' maws.

On one side, the smell of fresh fish wafts in from the seafood stalls nearby, and on the other, the faintly sour metallic scent of raw meat leads into the adjoining butchers' hall. The tinny voice of a loudspeaker plays advertisements and jingles on an endless loop, but the words themselves are lost in the rafters between the pigeons. Underfoot, a wet layer of sand and mud grinds on the pavement, glistening slightly in the filtered light. A few errant leaves have been trampled into pulp under the shuffling heels of old women in long coats. And behind each booth the bundled clerks weigh their produce on sets of blue metal scales, exchanging weights and potatoes until both come into balance.

III. Victory Square

The first of three buses clips the corner puddle, splashing grimy water from the inland sea on one side of the curb to the series of small ponds on the other, starting a chain of tiny overflows between the depressions in the sidewalk. Flotillas of soggy cigarette butts and discarded advertisements make waterlogged wreckage in the puddles. A crowd gets off the bus and navigates the archipelago, umbrellas slung over forearms under the grey sky. The two or three people standing safely behind the crosswalk quickly swell to a couple dozen, all jostling and chatting while the traffic light counts down in red LED numbers.

The counter reaches zero and transforms into a little green man with a stream of electronic chirping. No longer bound to land, crowds spill over the curb from both sides of the street, meeting between the tram tracks before dissolving through each other en route to their counterparts' distant shore. It's a chaotic game of leapfrog from one cobblestone to the next, caught up in the momentum of migration.

One girl, long blonde hair in a loose bun, clutches her bag over one shoulder, umbrella over her elbow. Her thigh-length black belted coat barely covers the hemline of her skirt, leaving a stretch of bare leg before the flange of her boots begins just above the knee. She moves with a series of delicate hops like an exotic bird, balancing on platformed soles and golden stiletto heels as wide as a drinking straw. Almost to the other side, one heel goes awry and she wobbles for a long second before springing to safety.

The little man chirps three last times and turns red again.

Sunday, November 25, 2012


If last week's effort was not enough to satisfy your need for poorly translated poetry, you are in luck because I am apparently delusional enough to make a second attempt. Also by Joseph Brodsky, this poem is a short sketch of Baltyisk in the 1960s, which was then the Soviet Union's top-secret naval base on the Baltic Sea, a short distance to Kaliningrad's west. Today it is still a naval base, although the extreme secrecy has lifted somewhat.

I make absolutely no guarantees about the quality of this translation -- I asked a couple of my Russian friends what they thought about a few of the trickier stanzas (especially the fourth), but they didn't seem to make much more sense out of it than I could. I am especially unsure about to whom or what the "him" referenced there refers (man in general? someone specific yet unnamed?) and about the use of выступать in the last line, and I'd love to hear advice or corrections in the comments. But since I can't find any other English translations, I suppose I have a duty to post my attempt.


В ганзейской гостинице «Якорь»,
где мухи садятся на сахар,
где боком в канале глубоком
эсминцы плывут мимо окон,

я сиживал в обществе кружки,
глазея на мачты и пушки
и совесть свою от укора
спасая бутылкой Кагора.

Музыка гремела на танцах,
солдаты всходили на транспорт,
сгибая суконные бедра.
Маяк им подмигивал бодро.

И часто до боли в затылке
о сходстве его и бутылки
я думал, лишенный режимом
знакомства с его содержимым.

В восточную Пруссию въехав,
твой образ, в приспущенных веках,
из наших балтических топей
я ввез контрабандой, как опий.

И вечером, с миной печальной,
спускался я к стенке причальной
в компании мыслей проворных,
и ты выступала на волнах...


In the Hanseatic hotel Anchor,
where flies land on the sugar
and destroyers sail along
the deep channel, past the window,

I kept my cup company,
staring at the masts and guns
and saving my conscience from reproach
with a bottle of Cahors.

Dance music blared, and
soldiers climbed into their vehicles,
woolen pants bending at the thigh.
The lighthouse winked at them cheerfully.

I often hurt my neck, thinking
about the similarity between him and the bottle,
deprived by conditions
of knowing his contents.

From our Baltic marshes
I smuggled your image, like opium,
into East Prussia
behind eyelids at half-mast.

And in the evening, with a melancholic face
and flitting thoughts,
I went down to the quay wall
and you stepped out on the waves…


Sunday, November 18, 2012

Postcard from the City K.

Joseph Brodsky was a poet and a writer, born in Leningrad in 1940, and exiled from the Soviet Union in 1972. With the help of a friend, he settled in the United States, where he taught at Queens College and Mount Holyoke College among others, won the Nobel Prize in Literature, and was named national poet laureate. Even after the collapse of the Soviet Union, he never returned to Russia.

He dropped out of school at fifteen and worked odd jobs for several years while writing poems with only underground circulation, until he was arrested for "social parasitism" in 1963 under the accusation that his transient work record was not enough of a contribution to society. Only members of the Soviet Writers' Union could be recognized as real poets, and he was not a member. The Kafkaesque transcript of his trial was smuggled out to the West, where it made him a hero of artistic integrity.

Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Translator and poet.
Judge: Who has recognized you as a poet? Who has enrolled you in the ranks of poets?
Brodsky: No one. Who enrolled me in the ranks of the human race?

He was sentenced to five years of exile and labor in Arkhangelsk, but was allowed to return at the protests of many Soviet and Western figures after only eighteen months. After his return to Leningrad he continued to write for seven more years, most of his work being published abroad, until in 1972, after refusing to emigrate to Israel, he was put on a plane to Vienna and never came back.1

Brodsky published several books of poetry and book of heartrending English essays entitled Less Than One, and his writing is remarkable not for any overt political subversiveness, but for his quiet attention to themes of freedom and dignity. I was very pleased to discover that he also wrote three poems about Kaliningrad. The first, an unfinished fragment ("Отрывок"), from a visit that he presumably made to Baltiysk, the top-secret naval base on the peninsula a few kilometers to the west of Kaliningrad, as a photojournalist for the magazine Костер in 1963. The second and longest poem, "Einem alten architekten in Rom," he wrote in his northern exile, and the third, "Открытка из города К." a few years later, after a second trip to Kaliningrad while visiting his Lithuanian friend and fellow poet Thomas Venclova.2

These three poems are not among Brodsky's most famous, and the only English translation I have found is George L. Kline's version of "Einem alten...".3 Poetry is notoriously difficult to translate, and my Russian is mediocre at best, but I suppose an overcast Kaliningrad weekend afternoon is an appropriate time to put laziness aside and try to render at least Brodsky's general meaning in English, if not his eloquence. I hope the state of my Russian hasn't mangled it too badly. The Castle's ruins no longer stand by the river, but having shuffled through my own piles of fallen leaves and broken bricks, the image is still real enough.

Открытка из города К.

Томасу Венцлова

Развалины есть праздник кислорода
и времени. Новейший Архимед
прибавить мог бы к старому закону,
что тело, помещенное в пространство,
пространством вытесняется.
дробит в зерцале пасмурном руины
Дворца Курфюрста; и, небось, теперь
пророчествам реки он больше внемлет,
чем в те самоуверенные дни,
когда курфюрст его отгрохал.
среди развалин бродит, вороша
листву запрошлогоднюю. То – ветер,
как блудный сын, вернулся в отчий дом
и сразу получил все письма.

Postcard from the City K.

Thomas Venclova,

The wreckage celebrates the oxygen
and time. A modern Archimedes
could add to his old law
that a body, placed into space,
is by itself displaced.
in its murky mirror, refracts the ruins
of the Castle; and I suppose now
it pays more heed to the river’s prophecies
than in those heady days
when it was newly built.
wanders among the rubble, stirs up
last year’s leaves. That is the wind,
like the prodigal son, returning to his ancestral home
and a pile of unread letters.

1. Robert D. McFadden, "Joseph Brodsky, Exiled Poet Who Won Nobel, Dies at 55," New York Times  January 29, 1996.
2. "Иосиф Александрович Бродский," Калининградская областная научная библиотека.
3. George L. Kline, trans., Joseph Brodsky: Selected Poems, Baltimore, MD: Penguin Books, 1974.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

Election Reflections

Not surprisingly, my absentee ballot never arrived. Undeterred, four weeks ago I stuffed a federal write-in ballot that I'd printed from the internet into a very Russian envelope, tried to scrawl my county election office's address on lines that were clearly not designed with American destinations in mind, wrote a big США/USA at the bottom, and dropped the whole fat packet into a mailbox with a silent prayer to the postal gods. I have absolutely no idea whether it ever arrived in my precinct, but knowing the Russian postal system, my election officials will probably receive a mysterious ballot covered in Cyrillic and pictures celebrating Novgorod's 1150th anniversary just in time for the 2016 election. Novgorod will be 1154 by then, and I'll be surprised if Obama is still on the ticket.

Before last Tuesday, I would have told you that I was glad to be out of the country for all the election-season chaos. If my home state had been Ohio, I'd probably be 15,057,639 times more grateful, or the number of dollars spent only by Romney and Obama on advertising in that state in the final campaign week alone. I did not miss the mudslinging on the front page of every newspaper, I did not miss the poorly veiled derision from people who are obviously voting for the other guy, and I certainly did not miss the inane punditry, vapid media, and varyingly blatant lies that make me either want to plug my ears and cry or run screaming from the world in frustration. In Russia, the best way to stay caught up with American news is to read American news, which is a solitary act of browsing a few websites over my morning breakfast before closing my laptop and not thinking about it again for the rest of the day. Campaign slogans are not on any billboards, and I haven't received any robocalls to my Russian cell phone. If you want to ignore the election here, it is certainly possible, and until Tuesday I managed admirably to do so.

Russia has an annoying habit of being half a day worth of time zones ahead of the United States. I woke up on election day and realized that a side-effect of ignoring the whole shebang is having to suffer the shock of suddenly realizing the election is going to happen whether or not I follow it. It's not that I'm apathetic or indifferent towards American politics -- quite to the contrary, I care passionately about what happens -- it's all the commercial trappings and media coverage to which I'm allergic. I'll skip the campaign, but there's nothing like that little flutter in the pit of your stomach on election day to remind you how exhilaratingly unknown is the future.

The flip-side of not having to endure endless political arguments and campaign coverage is that there isn't anyone to talk to about the election when you want to have that good argument. Nobody cares about American politics like Americans, and damned if by the end I didn't actually miss the whole rabid mud-slinging buzz-feeding electoral shit storm. Presidential elections are like either civic cocaine or the ultimate national sport -- a bizarre fetishistic ritual, national masturbatory frenzy, commercialized, streamlined, commentated, and spoon-fed in the perfect focus-group tested mixture of ideology and entertainment that's simultaneously addictive, repulsive, bestial, and one hundred percent American. How dare the U.S. of A. go on without me.

I realized I had fallen off my own wagon sometime Tuesday afternoon, when I had exhausted the election coverage of CNN, NBC, CBS, the BBC, and the New York Times, and the polls had barely even opened on the East Coast. Nothing tastes so American as that sweet media drip of constant info updates by correspondents with unprovocative hair. My media binge was dampened only by the inconvenient reality that the East Coast wouldn't count ballots until three in the morning my time, and at some point I was going to have to put down the computer and try to go to sleep, hopefully to wake up to clear results. Thank Ohio that Florida wasn't the tie-breaker this time.

It is amazingly difficult to explain American civics to Russians, all of whom were surprised both that it is possible to vote from abroad and that I would go to such efforts to do so. To me, it is unthinkable that I wouldn't try to vote from wherever I am in the world, but attempting to describe that sense of civic obligation has made me consider how deeply ingrained it is in my worldview -- and how American that is. Russians, especially from the younger generation, are notoriously politically ambivalent, and given recent elections here I can't really blame them. I see pervasive structural problems in the American political system as well, but elections have a way of revealing that my own cynicism about the political situation in the United States is not as deep as I sometimes fear. I worry about many political problems, but at least I can take it for granted that my ballot will be counted fairly and the election process is generally free of major fraud. And then I watch a country of over three hundred million people proceed orderly to polls in fifty different states and despite a hurricane in order to choose a new government, and I think maybe this democracy thing is okay after all. How American of me.

Thursday, November 1, 2012

The Myth of Königsberg

Most English guidebooks claim that there are very few German buildings from Königsberg which still remain. It would be more accurate to say that very little survived in the center of the city where the bombing was heaviest, and which is now mostly open space -- wooded park on Kant's Island, greenish swaths along the river, grass and concrete around the House of Soviets. The foundations of the cathedral, the old stock exchange, and several Prussian brick gates are the most commonly cited German buildings still in existence, and indeed they are impressive. But it is also true that a remarkable amount of peripheral Königsberg did survive both the war and the later Soviet iconoclasm of German culture, and has quietly continued to function as apartments, warehouses, and stores to this day.

I find it problematic to discuss "the destruction of Königsberg" as though it were a single tragic event, or as if it occurred in an easily definable place. Cities change all the time, even without such drastic interludes as a world war and complete change of population. It is natural for buildings to be renovated, torn down, or replaced according to local pressures, and for cities' infrastructures to transform along with the people who live there. Of course the Second World War falls far outside the scope of everyday urban evolution, and the number of buildings that were destroyed as a direct result of military bombing and the city's capture account for the majority of pre-war structures that no longer exist today. The Royal Air Force conducted a series of aerial raids in August 1944, and estimated that they had destroyed twenty percent of the city's industry and around forty percent of its residential buildings. When the Red Army finally took the city in '45 after a long siege, heavy bombardment, and a violent four day battle, somewhere around eighty percent of the existing buildings were no longer completely standing.

Königsberg Castle from the air, ca. 1925

Ruins of Königsberg Castle in the 1950s

However, when people speak about the destruction of old Königsberg, they refer to more than the devastation directly attributable to the war. The Old and New Synagogues, for example, built in the early and late nineteenth century respectively, were both destroyed by the Nazis during Kristallnacht in 1938. On the other hand, Königsberg Castle and many less-notable buildings sustained some damage from the bombings and could have been restored, but instead were demolished by the Soviets in the 1960s. Other structures, such as the Albertina University's main building and the city hall, experienced extreme Soviet renovations and are now almost completely unrecognizable as their former selves. Yet despite meeting their fates in very different eras, the synagogues and the Castle are mourned today in the same breath as the architectural casualties of the war itself, if they are mourned at all.

Main university building, ca. 1900

University building today

Hansaplatz/Adolf-Hitler-Platz, ca. 1942

Victory Square today -- city hall is on the left, and the former
Nordbahnhof is visible on the right. Both have been heavily renovated.

I speak of physical divisions between Königsberg and Kaliningrad in the sense that some houses and squares were built before 1945, and some were built after. There are a few streets in this city that survived almost undamaged from German times, and in those places it is easily possible to imagine yourself still in East Prussia. Similarly, there are neighborhoods that are entirely Soviet, indistinguishable from identical streets in every major Russian city. Most areas fall somewhere in between, populated with some clearly Soviet buildings, the occasional German one, and new Russian constructions filling the gaps between. With a certain amount of doublethink, it is possible to see one city and unsee others, to walk down many streets in a single step.

Ул. Майора Козенкова, original apartment buildings and
church, which is now Orthodox

Cities are never just physical spaces. They are ideas and identities, shared experiences as well as shared terrain. Königsberg and Kaliningrad exist perhaps more distinctly in the mind than in the landscape. In the immediate post-war years, the new Soviet proprietors expelled all remaining Germans from the territory and imported (sometimes forcibly) Russians from deeper within the Soviet Union. Königsberg ceased to exist as a physical city, and remained only in the minds and memories of its scattered inhabitants. The new Russians, on the other hand, inherited a pile of ruins, but no cohesive idea of what this new city might be.

The official identity of new Kaliningrad would be antithetical to the city's past. As much as Königsberg had been the center of Prussian militarism and National Socialist fascism, so Kaliningrad would be a symbol of Soviet victory and a bastion against the capitalist West. Every street, square, and landmark was renamed with what I can only imagine was gleeful abandon, Adolf-Hitler-Platz becoming Плошадь Победы (Victory Square) in a heavy-handed reconception of the city's new identity. Victory Day, the anniversary of Germany's defeat (May 9th) is apparently still celebrated here every year with a reenactment of the Storming of Königsberg, complete with the simulated deaths of actors in Nazi costumes.

There are few people still alive who actually remember pre-war Königsberg, and I would be surprised if any of them live in Kaliningrad now. Germans may have a nostalgic memory of East Prussia based on the stories of those who once lived here, but present-day Russians have a myth of Königsberg of their own. No one who lives here today remembers this place before it spoke Russian, and they are left to fill in the past with different stories, to lump the loss of Königsberg's notable buildings together with Germany's loss of the city.

The Soviet Union also no longer exists, and Kaliningrad now struggles to find a new place between Russia and Europe. With that transition has come a rediscovery of old Königsberg. Recently constructed buildings, especially residential ones, tend to be modeled more or less on the German style, the most obvious example of which is the modern "fishing village" just opposite Kant's Island. The region's German past is something of a Russian novelty, and in era of tourism from both Europe and Russia, I suppose it makes sense to capitalize on the city's unique background. But Russians didn't live through that history, and the majority of them probably don't care about the details of it. The myth of Königsberg is not based on personal memories of a real city, but consists of a strange imagined past, extrapolated backwards from where Kaliningrad begins. It comes across in the new architecture as a stylized, sanitized, commercialized version of the city's history, plucked from mute photos of Königsberg and transported into 2012, leaving all context behind. If a city can appropriate itself, then Kaliningrad is doing so.

Fishing Village (aka fancy hotels), ул. Октябрьская

Construction of new homes on the city outskirts

New Russian houses imitating old -- the two
long buildings on the far right are original

I am not sure if this is one city, or two, or many. Are Königsberg and Kaliningrad distinct places despite their shared terrain, or are they two halves of a whole; one a city without a future, and the other a city without a past? Do they really have anything in common besides the war? The destruction of so many beautiful buildings is certainly an aesthetic and an intellectual loss, but apportioning blame seems as futile as definitively pinpointing the origins of the Second World War. Artists, authors, and philosophers have been trying to make sense of the twentieth century ever since the nineteenth. If any place encompasses both humanity's philosophical aspirations and the incomprehensibility of the last hundred years, then it is this bastard city of Kant's. Everyone who has ever lived here or tried to invade has shaped this city according to their own requisites, and perhaps that is only natural, after all. Cities are not static things, they are abstract amalgamations of the people who live in them -- and people are good at many things, but perhaps my favorite is change.