On Early Trains (На ранних поездах), Boris Pasternak

Fresh forces going to the front, December 1941 By RIA Novosti archive, image #429 / Oleg Ignatovich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16790863
Fresh forces going to the front, December 1941
By RIA Novosti archive, image #429 / Oleg Ignatovich / CC-BY-SA 3.0, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=16790863

After the Purges, the onset of war came as something of a relief to Soviet writers. There was new freedom, and people were able to embrace a cause. In “Natasha’s Dance” Orlando Figes writes of this time:

People were allowed and had to act in ways that would have been unthinkable before the war.They organised themselves for civilian defence. By necessity, they spoke to one another without thinking of the consequences. From this spontaneous activity a new sense of nationhood emerged. As Pasternak would later write, the war was ‘a period of vitality and in this sense an untrammelled, joyous restoration of the sense of community with everyone’. His own wartime verse was full of feeling for this community, as if the struggle had stripped away the state to reveal the core of Russia’s nationhood…’

Pasternak wrote this in March 1941, as the war with Germany was about to begin.

I’ve been near Moscow through this winter,
But through the frost, as snow falls down,
As I have had to, I have travelled
To do my business in the town.

I ventured forth one morning, early,
When there was no one on the street,
And through the dark and frigid forest
Resounded creak of treading feet.

And looming at me at the crossroads
The wasteland willows there arose.
Transcendent, constellations towered,
In January’s pit the shadows froze.

The mail train or the number forty,
As usual as I would arrive
Would trying be to overtake me,
But mine was at six twenty-five.

And suddenly the cunning wrinkles
Of light were gathered in a ball.
A searchlight strobed with mighty power
And viaduct was in its thrall.

Once in the fetid airless carriage
The weight of dread upon me pressed –
I grasped again that innate weakness
I’d had when sucking at the breast.

Through all the troubles we have been through,
The years of war and stricken straits,
I had in silence then discovered
How so unmatched were Russia’s traits.

And I was lost in adoration,
In awe I looked around me then.
For here sat crones and out-of-towners
And eager lads and working men.

Of servitude there wasn’t any
In those whom need had often floored
And all the news and lack of comfort
They took upon them like the Lord.

And in the carriage there they huddled,
As children and the young they read
And all, adopting various poses,
Impassioned on those words they fed.

And in the dark, now streaked with silver,
Was Moscow brave awaiting us
And, leaving dappled light behind, we
Emerged on street without a fuss.

Our future pressed against the railings
And as we left were senses doused
By floral scent of soapy lather
And gingerbread with honey soused.


Я под Москвою эту зиму,
Но в стужу, снег и буревал
Всегда, когда необходимо,
По делу в городе бывал.

Я выходил в такое время,
Когда на улице ни зги,
И рассыпал лесною темью
Свои скрипучие шаги.

Навстречу мне на переезде
Вставали ветлы пустыря.
Надмирно высились созвездья
В холодной яме января.

Обыкновенно у задворок
Меня старался перегнать
Почтовый или номер сорок,
А я шел на шесть двадцать пять.

Вдруг света хитрые морщины
Сбирались щупальцами в круг.
Прожектор несся всей махиной
На оглушенный виадук.

В горячей духоте вагона
Я отдавался целиком
Порыву слабости врожденной
И всосанному с молоком.

Сквозь прошлого перипетии
И годы войн и нищеты
Я молча узнавал России
Неповторимые черты.

Превозмогая обожанье,
Я наблюдал, боготворя.
Здесь были бабы, слобожане,
Учащиеся, слесаря.

В них не было следов холопства,
Которые кладет нужда,
И новости и неудобства
Они несли как господа.

Рассевшись кучей, как в повозке,
Во всем разнообразьи поз,
Читали дети и подростки,
Как заведенные, взасос.

Москва встречала нас во мраке,
Переходившем в серебро,
И, покидая свет двоякий,
Мы выходили из метро.

Потомство тискалось к перилам
И обдавало на ходу
Черемуховым свежим мылом
И пряниками на меду.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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