Russian writers reading in English give new dimension to their words

For many of us, it is pure catharsis to read Joseph Brodsky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, Vladimir Nabokov and Leo Tolstoy. Yet it is quite another experience to listen to them read their poetry aloud. RBTH has found these masters reading their own works in English

Source: ImWerden electronic library archive

Poet Joseph Brodsky, who was born in 1940, first gained international recognition in 1964, when the young poet and translator was charged with “social parasitism” (also known as not having a “real” job) and sentenced to 5 years of labor in exile. This famous trial introduced the Brodsky to many Americans with this now cherished transcript:

Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Poet. Poet and translator.
Judge: Who said you were a poet? Who assigned you that rank?
Brodsky: No one. Who assigned me to the human race?

Numerous Russian and foreign writers (including Jean-Paul Sartre and Yevgeny Yevtushenko) wrote to Soviet authorities to support Brodsky, and the exile was over after 18 months. By that time, Brodsky’s poems had circulated in samizdat, and some of them were released in the West. In 1972, Brodsky was expelled from the Soviet Union and moved to the United States, settling in New York. His poetic influences transcended national borders, and some of his poems were dedicated to greats like John Donne and T. S. Eliot. W. H. Auden befriended Brodsky and helped him emerge as an émigré artist. In 1987, Brodsky was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1991, he was appointed poet laureate of the United States.

Brodsky was famous for his melodic and dramatic manner of reciting poems, natural for Russians, but novel if not awkward to the American ear. In this recording, Brodsky recites his poem “Nature Morte,” translated by the author, in a rare, reserved manner. This poem, written in 1971, is Brodsky’s early take on a recurring theme in his poetry – landscapes and locations deprived of people.

In the 1960s, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who was born in 1932, was one of the leaders of Moscow’s liberal poetry scene. He went on to become one of the best-known poets of the Soviet Union. Today, the 81-year-old is one of the great elders of contemporary Russian poetry. Siberian born, Yevtushenko was distinguished from other Soviet writers for his simple and vivid poetic language. His poems were dedicated to strong and evocative themes, political and social, which contributed to his success.

Though his poems were at least moderately critical of the regime, Yevtushenko managed to travel extensively in Russia and abroad. In the last decade, Yevtushenko has divided his time between Russia and the United States—most recently in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where he is teaching Russian literature. He is one of the few living Russian literary greats.

Yevtushenko is famous for his flamboyant, expressive style of reading, which he formed in the 1960s, when he gave “poetic concerts” in front of thousands of rapt listeners in huge stadiums. In this recording made in 1995, he recites his poem “The Twenty-First Century” translated by James Ragan with the author. In this poem, Yevtushenko expresses his hopes for a bright new millennium, where “instead of politicians, all are poeticians.”

Source: DGWills Books YouTube account

Most native English speakers know Vladimir Nabokov, who died in 1977, from his controversial novel “Lolita,” which is still among the most revered and censored books in the world.

Of course he was a poet, writer and entomologist, obsessed with butterflies. Born into a wealthy and well-educated family that spoke Russian, English and French, Nabokov was trilingual from an early age. He lost his newly inherited fortune to the Bolshevik revolution, and Nabokov, whose father was a liberal lawyer, politician and nobleman, had to flee Russia. He finally settled in the U.S. with his wife Vera, his long-time literary assistant. Nabokov was a rare example of a bilingual author, whose works became popular in both languages – “Lolita” was written in English and subsequently translated into Russian by the author.

In this recording, Nabokov reads his poem “To My Youth,” translated by the author. In the poem, Nabokov addresses his younger days, lamenting the broken connection between his Russian youth and his later years abroad.

Source: ImWerden electronic library archive

If Western readers know one, and only one Russian author, it is Leo Tolstoy, who lived from 1828 to 1910. As a young and wealthy nobleman, Count Tolstoy led a lavish life and enjoyed moderate success as a writer.

It all changed after his military service in the Caucasus and in the Crimean war. Tolstoy spent a year in Sevastopol, during its siege by the united forces of England, France and the Ottoman Empire, and described the siege in his “Sevastopol stories.” His recollections of a harsh, grievous and scarce life in military camps moved Russian readers greatly and were noticed by the Emperor himself. Some years after leaving the service, Tolstoy married Sophia Bers, who assisted him greatly in daily life and helped him concentrate on his writing. In the years after their marriage, Tolstoy produced his most important novels, including the tumult of “War and Peace” and the electric “Anna Karenina,” which established him as the foremost figure in Russian literature.

In January 1908, Tolstoy received a phonograph as a gift from its inventor, Thomas Edison. Tolstoy immediately made the device serve his writing needs: “I want to reply to some of my correspondence right away, still under the impression the letter made upon me, and to say the answer into a phonograph is much easier and natural than to write it on paper.”

Source: ImWerden electronic library archive

One of the recordings of Tolstoy’s voice captures him reading an excerpt from “Wise Thoughts For Every Day” a collection of passages from various thinkers selected by the writer. The recording was made at the writer’s home in Yasnaya Polyana on October 31, 1909, just a year before Tolstoy’s death. As the words in the recording may be hard to understand, here’s the passage that Tolstoy reads (translated by the author):

“That the object of life is self-perfection, the perfection of all immortal souls, that this is the only object of my life, is seen to be correct by the fact alone that every other object is essentially a new object. Therefore, the question whether thou hast done what thou shouldst have done is of immense importance, for the only meaning of thy life is in doing in this short term allowed thee, that which is desired of thee by He or That which has sent thee into life. Art thou doing the right thing?”


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