Naum Korzhavin was born in the Ukraine in 1925 and as a child witnessed the horrors of collectivization: “I remember the Kiev of 1933. People died right in the streets. . . We survived not only hunger. We got used to thinking that there are people unworthy of compassion. Expendable people. . . The people learned to kill in the name of the people. The people mastered literacy along with cannibalism.” In his youth his passionate devotion to “true communism” (as opposed to Stalinism) naturally led to conflict with the authorities. In 9th grade he was expelled from school for “hooliganism.” As a young man studying literature in Moscow, he freely and publicly recited his most controversial and dangerous poetry. Amazingly, he avoided arrest until 1947, when he was accused of “rootless cosmopolitanism” (i.e. for being a Jewish intellectual), and exiled to Siberia.
After Stalin’s death in 1953, he was allowed to return to Moscow to resume his literary work. He described this as the happiest time of his life: “Russian became normal bad country then. I don’t believe in good countries anymore.” But trouble came again in the late ‘60s when his defense of arrested prisoners of conscience led to a ban on the publication of his works. In 1973, after being called in once more for interrogation, he asked for and was granted permission to emigrate to the US. Ten years later in a New York Times interview he said, “I had no choice. I am not sorry that I left. It was not a mistake. It was simply a tragedy.”
“Now light, now shadow,” written in Korzhavin’s first year as an immigrant, is a testament to that tragedy. He died last year (2018) at his home in North Carolina. Masha Gesson quoted a few lines from it in her remembrance of Korzhavin in the New Yorker; here is the poem in its entirety, along with the original Russian:
Now light, now shadow . . . Now light, now shadow . . . Now light, now shadow, Now night in my window. Every day I wake up in a strange country. I look into a strange nearness, Into a strange distance, I go down the stairs Into a strange life. Like holy beings A strange language, A strange goodness, Pull me through their gates. I run to them. But, full of everything from the past I can’t reach them And am left with nothing . . . . . . But there’s no longing –the legacy of books-- In me for the other country Where I used to get up. Where I was merged With everything, where everything – is impossible. Where my life Was and where everything expired. That life repeats itself to me Over and over, creeps into dreams. But it’s not here Just like the other country isn’t here. They been gone for a long time. Like a dream of the soul, They sunk down to the bottom, Covered by a sea of lies. And from those latitudes Stinking, swirling, A whirlpool Carries the very same filth here. I myself know: There’s a sky here too. But I died there And I won’t be resurrected here. A trumpet blow: Here liberty is available to anyone. But my fate Came to its end over there. It laid down in the northern soil. All around – only coffins. And I left. Away from fate – to freedom. Now light, now shadow. I am not rotting at the bottom. Every day I Wake up in a strange country. August, 1974, Boston То свет, то тень, То ночь в моем окне. Я каждый день Встаю в чужой стране. В чужую близь, В чужую даль гляжу, В чужую жизнь По лестнице схожу. Как светлый лик, Влекут в свои врата Чужой язык, Чужая доброта. Я к ним спешу. Но, полон прошлым всем, Не дохожу И остаюсь ни с чем... ...Но нет во мне Тоски,— наследья книг,— По той стране, Где я вставать привык. Где слит был я Со всем, где всё — нельзя. Где жизнь моя — Была да вышла вся. Она свое Твердит мне, лезет в сны. Но нет ее, Как нет и той страны. Их нет — давно. Они, как сон души, Ушли на дно, Накрылись морем лжи. И с тех широт Сюда,— смердя, клубясь, Водоворот Несет все ту же грязь. Я знаю сам: Здесь тоже небо есть. Но умер там И не воскресну здесь. Зовет труба: Здесь воля всем к лицу. Но там судьба Моя — пришла к концу. Легла в подзол. Вокруг — одни гробы. ...И я ушел. На волю — от судьбы. То свет, то тень. Я не гнию на дне. Я каждый день Встаю в чужой стране. Август 1974, Бостон
–Naum Korzhavin, translated by Jenny Wade