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Ghost of War Past

Yevgeniya Berkovich, a Russian poet and theater director, has been arrested for supposed “justification of terrorism” in a play about Russian women who married jihadist men and went to Syria. (The play had been running for years, and which had won the Golden Mask national theater award last year.) Many seem to suspect, though, that the arrest had little to do with the play and much to do with Berkovich’s opposition to the war.

Here is one poem of hers, which was written at least a year ago but which seems to have been widely shared in the last several days, on occasion of her arrest and of the May 9 Victory Day anniversary of victory in World War II; my apologies for the clumsy translation (Russian speakers should read the text for themselves). A few observations, based on my limited knowledge of modern Russian life: Both sides in the war, and especially the Russians, routinely invoke the heroism of the “grandfathers,” the generation of men who had fought against the Nazis in World War II. The “immortal regiment” refers to Victory Day parades in which people carry photographs of their relatives who fought on the front lines. “The Ninth Wave” is a famous painting in the Russian Museum. Prishvin is a famous Russian children’s writer. Sergey, I think, is just a generic Russian Everyman name; to my knowledge, it doesn’t refer here to anyone in particular. Seriozha is the standard nickname for Sergey, and Seriozhenka is a standard further diminutive, used affectionately. As you will see, the poem shifts in voice from the narrator to the grandfather to the grandson.

Either he overloaded on the news,
Or it was the wine with dinner,
But at night Sergey was visited by his grandfather, who had fought.
He sat down on the Ikea stool, blocking with his back the courtyard
Behind the window. I need to have, he says, some words with you, Seriozhenka.

Might you, my dear, beloved grandson,
Never write anything about me in Facebook?
Not in any context, not with the letter “Z,” not without the letter “Z.”
Just don’t do it at all, asks his grandfather.
Don’t talk of any victories using my name,
No victories at all.

Also, he went on, I would be glad,
If you wouldn’t carry me to the parade,
I ask you, very much—and he gestures with his hand.
I don’t want a regiment,
Not an immortal one, not a mortal one, Seriozhenka, not any one.
Let me go to my peace, Seriozha.
I have earned peace.

Yes, I know, you are a hard worker, smart, liberal,
You didn’t choose any of this,
But I also didn’t choose any of this!
We lived our life,
A difficult one, but our only one.
Could we stop
Illustrating war for you?
Can you just go on by yourselves?
Somehow from scratch?
We don’t need your pride
Nor your hidden shame.
I ask you, make it so that
I will finally be forgotten.

But then I would forget, how in the Russian Museum
We caught the Ninth Wave,
How I awoke wet,
And you changed me,
How we read Prishvin
How we searched for the poles in the atlas,
How you explained to me, why in the sky
There is such a white trail
Behind every airplane,
How you gave me as a gift
A magnifying glass ….

It’s OK, the grandfather answered,
After all, that too didn’t help you.