O my poor Europe
Andrew McCulloch, TLS
"On August 25, 1968, the seasoned Russian dissident Natalya Gorbanevskaya (1936–2013) – she had helped smuggle Anna Akhmatova’s poems out of Russia and edited the samizdat newsletter Chronicle of Current Events – gathered with six others in Red Square to protest against the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia. She alone escaped arrest because she had her three-month-old son with her, but for covering the trial of her fellow-protesters in the Chronicle (articles that were later collected and published in the West under the title Red Square at Noon) she was arrested in December the following year and confined to Butyrskaya prison psychiatric hospital. She was released in February 1972, the year in which Index on Censorship published fourteen of her poems in its first issue and Daniel Weissbort translated and published the first book-length selection of her work. In Weissbort’s view, “it is probably true . . . that political changes in the post-USSR world have . . . rendered her work and that of other emigré poets almost invisible, since the literary world adheres to socio-economic realities”. But he goes on to suggest that although “the threat of official sanction may no longer exist”, her more recent poetry seems “as dedicated to human freedom – in the sense of freedom from political oppression – as it ever was”.
Unusually for a dissident Russian intellectual, Gorbanevskaya does not concentrate purely on the woes of Russians but also considers – as if guiltily – the fate of the countries of central Europe blighted by occupation. In “O my poor Europe”, from Flying Over the Snowy Frontier (1978), the collection on which she was working when she left Russia to settle in Paris, she laments the damage done by Soviet Communism to parts of Europe, seeing its “Charter of Liberties” as pitifully inadequate faced with the more brutal “freedom” of “trucks and armoured cars”. Almost thirty years after the demise of the Soviet Union, when this poem was first published in the TLS, it looks as if Europe’s liberal freedoms – so bravely defended by Gorbanevskaya – may again be facing challenges."Andrew McCulloch, TLS
O my poor Europe
O my poor, decrepit, lapsing-into-infancy
Europe, to whom will you leave
your last bar, last brothel,
and Charter of Liberties, in delirium
composed – wasn’t it – by barons and earls
calming with wine their nerves
cracked in the excitations of battles,
when it’s unknown who’s right and who’s beaten.
O my poor thing, this my graveside verse
is nothing but proof of my powerless
and endless love unto the end
for these final convulsions of your
face, etched with a net of slit
trenches, when the infantryman doesn’t count,
but there’s so much freedom for chill winds,
trucks and armoured cars.
Translated by G. S. Smith (1987)