Romantic revolutionary: Pushkin is seen as the founder of modern Russian literature. Photo: AKG-Images
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Russian soul reawakened: startling revelations in a new anthology of Russian poetry

The new Penguin Book of Russian Poetry has surprises to offer.

The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry
Edited by Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski
Penguin, 592pp, £12.99

Russia has always been big news and, after a period of what seemed like quiet, is again big news. But it has never quite gone away. The country has, after all, produced a vast and important literature of which we have not been – could not be – ignorant, from Pushkin and Lermontov through Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Gorky and the rest.

Big news and politics are not entirely ­detached from literature. Penguin’s first anthology of Russian-language poetry, The Penguin Book of Russian Verse, appeared at the height of the cold war, in the middle of the Cuban crisis, in 1962. Books by Yevtushenko and Voznesensky followed. Then came Brodsky and Ratushinskaya. Daniel Weissbort’s Post-War Russian Poetry appeared in 1974. These books – these poets – defined our sense of Russia in that era. We watched Russia carefully, searching for clues to its nature and its inclinations. We were in awe of “the Russian soul”, heroic, revolutionary, slumbering, tragic. Russia was a giant in action.

Times change. The 1962 anthology was edited by Dimitri Obolensky and consisted of the Russian text with English prose versions at the bottom of each page, accompanied by a brief paragraph of introduction for each poet. There was also a heavyweight, 30-page introduction, intended for the serious, possibly expert reader. (I hold the book in my hand now, its pages and dusty-blue paperback cover softened by time.) It included poets from the medieval period and ran up to the mid-20th century, the last contributor being Margarita Aliger, who was born in 1915.

Over 50 years and some major, not to say momentous, political turns later, a new anthology was needed and now we have one. It is marvellous, working on quite different principles from Obolensky’s model. The medieval poets are missing. Robert Chandler’s introduction is excellent but takes only seven pages. The Russian text does not appear at all. The last section contains verse by English-language poets addressing Russian themes, and because the whole thing is presented as a book not for experts with some knowledge of Russian but for readers of poetry in English, the translations are in verse: not just verse but, often, formal verse.

In the 1960s and 1970s, form was generally considered decoration, an irrelevance to be jettisoned in favour of something that could be extracted from it. Form was anti-modern: the equivalent of pediments and capitals in architecture. To be modern, to be a modern internationalist, was to abandon such things. The contemporary counterargument is that form is not decoration but process, an aspect of meaning not to be detached from the whole. The translations in the new anthology follow this ­principle, in that they look for English equivalents of the original’s use of form in terms of metre and rhyme.

Form is demanding, of course, and in the hands of a clumsy translator (or poet) it can sound stilted. The happy surprise in the anthology is that although not everything is carried off convincingly, an awful lot is, not just Chandler’s own elegant translations but also those of lesser-known others such as G S Smith, Yvonne Greene, Maria Blosh­teyn, Catriona Kelly or Boris Dralyuk. There are skilful hands at work here.

The leading poets are all present: Krylov, Pushkin, Tyutchev and Lermontov, through Bunin, Blok, Akhmatova, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Tsvetaeva and Mayakovsky, down to Akhmadulina, Brodsky and Shvarts. Some are in new translation, some are old ones from earlier books, dug out of single volumes and anthologies. The poets’ reputations go before them and are confirmed.

But who emerges from this anthology refreshed and enlarged? Above all it is Velimir Khlebnikov, one of the less formal poets, who in his 37 years produced work of great dynamism and range. Obolensky gave him three pages: here he has 25, and deserves them. This is the sound of the ­futurist Khlebnikov, writing in about 1908, as translated by James Womack:

Zoo! Zoo!

Where the iron of the cages is like a father,

    reminding brothers that they are brothers

    and stopping their bloody skirmish

Where Germans come to drink beer.

And pretty ladies sell their bodies.

Where eagles sit like centuries, defined

   by a present day that still hasn’t

   reached its evening . . .

Among the more famous writers we also discover Varlam Shalamov, Boris Slutsky, Arseny Tarkovsky (the director’s father), Olga Berggolts and Sofia Parnok of 1931, here half-formally translated by Chandler:

I pardon all you sins –

but two I can’t abide:

you read poems in silence

and kiss aloud . . .

And there are more-than-decent formal translations of 1916-vintage Mandelstam, as in this instance, by Thomas de Waal:

On the black square of the Kremlin

the air is drunk with mutiny.

A shaky “peace” is rocked by rebels,

the poplars puff seditiously . . .

Russia is back in the news. Literature, Pound said, is news that stays news. There is new news here. This book is likely to be the standard anthology for a good while. It earns its place. 

George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His books include “Bad Machine” (Bloodaxe)

This article first appeared in the 19 June 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Mini Mao

Screenshot of Black Mirror's Fifteen Million Merits.
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How likely are the plots of each Black Mirror episode to happen?

As the third series is on its way, how realistic is each instalment so far of the techno-dystopian drama? We rate the plausibility of every episode.

What if horses could vote? What if wars were fought using Snapchat? What if eggs were cyber?

Just some of the questions that presumably won’t be answered in the new series of Charlie Brooker’s dystopian anthology series Black Mirror, somewhere between The Twilight Zone with an app and The Thick Of It on acid.

A typical instalment takes an aspect of modern technology, politics, or life in general and pushes it a few steps into the future – but just how plausible has each episode been so far?

Series 1 (2011)

Episode 1: The National Anthem

Premise: A member of the Royal Family is kidnapped and will only be released unharmed if the Prime Minister agrees to have sexual intercourse with a pig on live television.

Instead of predicting the future, Black Mirror’s first episode unwittingly managed to foreshadow an allegation about the past: Charlie Brooker says at the time he was unaware of the story surrounding David Cameron and a pig-based activity that occurred at Oxford university. But there’s absolutely no evidence that the Cameron story is true, and real political kidnappings tend to have rather more prosaic goals. On the other hand, it’s hard to say that something akin to the events portrayed could NEVER happen.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Episode 2: Fifteen Million Merits

Premise: Sometime in the future, most of the population is forced to earn money by pedalling bikes to generate electricity, while constantly surrounded by unskippable adverts. The only hope of escape is winning an X-Factor-style game show.

In 2012, a Brazilian prison announced an innovative method of combating overcrowding. Prisoners were given the option to spend some of their time on electricity-producing bikes; for every 16 hours they spent on the bike, a day would be knocked off their sentence.

The first step to bicycle-dystopia? Probably not. The amount of electricity a human body can produce through pedalling (or any other way, for that matter) is pretty negligible, especially when you take account of the cost of the food you’d have to eat to have enough energy to pedal all day. Maybe the bike thing is a sort of metaphor. Who can say?

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Episode 3: The Entire History of You

Premise: Everyone has a device implanted in their heads that records everything that happens to them and allows them to replay those recordings at will.

Google Glasses with a built-in camera didn’t work out, because no one wanted to walk around looking like a creepy berk. But the less visibly creepy version is coming; Samsung patented “smart” contact lenses with a built-in camera earlier this year.

And there are already social networks and even specialised apps that are packaging up slices of our online past and yelling them at us regardless of whether we even want them: Four years ago you took this video of a duck! Remember when you became Facebook friends with that guy from your old work who got fired for stealing paper? Look at this photo of the very last time you experienced true happiness!

Plausibility rating: 5 out of 5

Series 2 (2013)

Episode 1: Be Right Back

Premise: A new service is created that enables an artificial “resurrection” of the dead via their social media posts and email. You can even connect it to a robot, which you can then kiss.

Last year, Eugenia Kuyda, an AI entrepreneur, was grieving for her best friend and hit upon the idea of feeding his old text messages into one of her company’s neural network-based chat bots, so that she and others could, in a way, continue to talk to him. Reaction to this was, unsurprisingly, mixed – this very episode was cited by those who were disturbed by the tribute. Even the robot bit might not be that far off, if that bloke who made the creepy Scarlett Johansson android has anything to say about it.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Episode 2: White Bear

Premise: A combination of mind-wiping technology and an elaborately staged series of fake events are used to punish criminals by repeatedly giving them an experience that will make them feel like their own victims did.

There is some evidence that it could be possible to selectively erase memories using a combination of drugs and other therapies, but would this ever be used as part of a bizarre criminal punishment? Well, this kind of “fit the crime” penalty is not totally unheard of – judges in America have been to known to force slum landlords to live in their own rental properties, for example. But, as presented here, it seems a bit elaborate and expensive to work at any kind of scale.

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Episode 3: The Waldo Moment

Premise: A cartoon bear stands as an MP.

This just couldn’t happen, without major and deeply unlikely changes to UK election law. Possibly the closest literal parallel in the UK was when Hartlepool FC’s mascot H'Angus the Monkey stood for, and was elected, mayor – although the bloke inside, Stuart Drummond, ran under his own name and immediately disassociated himself from the H’Angus brand to become a serious and fairly popular mayor.

There are no other parallels with grotesque politicians who may as well be cartoon characters getting close to high political office. None.

Plausibility rating: 0 out of 5

Christmas special (2015)

Episode: White Christmas

Premise 1: Everyone has a device implanted in their eyes that gives them constant internet access. One application of this is to secretly get live dating/pick-up artistry advice.

As with “The Entire History of You”, there’s nothing particularly unfeasible about the underlying technology here. There’s already an app called Relationup that offers live chat with “relationship advisers” who can help you get through a date; another called Jyst claims to have solved the problem by allowing users to get romantic advice from a community of anonymous users. Or you could, you know, just smile and ask them about themselves.

Plausibility rating: 4 out of 5

Premise 2: Human personalities can be copied into electronic devices. These copies then have their spirits crushed and are forced to become the ultimate personalised version of Siri, running your life to your exact tastes.

The Blue Brain Project research group last year announced they’d modelled a small bit of rat brain as a stepping stone to a full simulation of the human brain, so, we’re getting there.

But even if it is theoretically possible, using an entire human personality to make sure your toast is always the right shade of brown seems like overkill. What about the risk of leaving your life in the hands of a severely traumatised version of yourself? What if that bathwater at “just the right” temperature turns out to be scalding hot because the digital you didn’t crack in quite the right way?

Plausibility rating: 1 out of 5

Premise 3: There’s a real-life equivalent of a social media block: once blocked, you can’t see or hear the person who has blocked you. This can also be used as a criminal punishment and people classed as sex offenders are automatically blocked by everyone.

Again, the technology involved is not outrageous. But even if you have not worried about the direct effect of such a powerful form of social isolation on the mental health of criminals, letting them wander around freely in this state is likely to have fairly unfortunate consequences, sooner or later. It’s almost as if it’s just a powerful image to end a TV drama on, rather than a feasible policy suggestion.

Plausibility rating: 2 out of 5

Series 3 of Black Mirror is out on Friday 21 October on Netflix.