PORTRAITS WITHOUT FRAMES is a singular work of literary biography: a history of Soviet-era literature and culture that is also a masterful poetic sequence in its own right. In Portraits, Lev Ozerov (1914–1996), a relatively little-known Russian literary figure, recounts his personal encounters with a who’s who of 20th-century poets, authors, artists, composers, and musicians. It seems like he met everyone that was anyone, from Isaac Babel to Dmitry Shostakovich, from Boris Pasternak to the great ballerina Galina Ulanova, from celebrated poet Anna Akhmatova to novelist Andrey Platonov. Boldly, Ozerov chooses to paint his portraits of these figures in free verse poems, each not more than a few pages long, yet still managing to convey a lasting impression of the person’s spirit.
What comes through is the sense of community that artists enjoyed in the Soviet Union, and a sense of the heavy burdens they carried. Ozerov sketches his meeting with Yury Olesha, the Odessa-born writer famous for his 1927 novel Envy (later suppressed by the Soviets). Toward the end of his life, Olesha is living in near solitude, banned from publishing because he would not submit to socialist realism, and he refers to himself as “Yury Olesha — / an unwanted writer.”
Not all the Soviet artists gathered in this collection are known in the West; some may no longer even be known in Russia. However, Ozerov’s portraits make one want to know them and their work better. I found myself repeatedly looking up writers, seeing which of their works are available in English, and adding them to a future reading list.
Portraits is divided into sections of artists: “The Poets,” “The Prose Writers,” “The Yiddish Poets,” “Soviet Ukraine,” “The Visual Artists,” and “Music, Theater, and Dance.” And the collection concludes with a supplemental portrait, of Ozerov’s father, which underscores the project’s intimate, personal dimension.
In these portraits, we see the legendary Akhmatova glowing in Ozerov’s praise. And we hear her plaintive exhortation from one poet to another to “Do something for Shengeli, / don’t forget about him, / please reread his poems.” Georgy Shengeli, the subject of a separate portrait, became a persona non grata in Soviet poetry following a dispute with Vladimir Mayakovsky. We are made to see how petty battles among writers had lasting personal consequences during the period.
Between the lines, we witness the palpable cruelty and moral bankruptcy of the Soviet regime: Ozerov encounters great authors and artists who cannot publish or exhibit, or who were arrested and spent long years in forced labor camps, like Varlam Shalamov, author of Kolyma Stories, and the poet Nikolay Zabolotsky. There are portraits of poets such as Ksenia Nekrasova, who died young, before attaining recognition. Of Nekrasova, Ozerov writes:
whom I know well,
is a poem herself —
a poem just before it is born
and then later in the poem:
Ksenia looks for all the world
like a ruffled bird
gone quiet after a downpour.
Her poems write themselves
beneath the heavens,
but poems, however admired,
cannot feed you on this earth.
There is a fine, wistful economy to Ozerov’s art. A single stanza suffices to render an entire life. Here is his description of André Malraux and Isaac Babel in 1936, leaving Ozerov’s university in a car:
Malraux elegantly waves his fingers,
the fingers of a trained conductor.
Babel nods — methodically,
impatiently — he’s clearly tired.
In his eyes are laughter, slyness, a sparkle.
His large head attracts attention.
It does not yet foresee
troubles or grief,
but in a few years’ time,
they will be heaped upon it.
Ozerov’s description of Babel’s “large head” is so evocative that it is as if he were a phrenologist plumbing the depths of Babel’s psyche, which is, in fact, what Ozerov’s verse does.
Portraits Without Frames is edited by noted Russian translators Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk (executive editor of the Los Angeles Review of Books); the translations themselves were done by Chandler, Dralyuk, Maria Bloshteyn, and Irina Mashinski. I cannot speak to the fidelity of these translations, except to say that in most cases one forgets one is reading in translation, and that the sustained lyricism speaks to the talents of all involved.
In his depictions of Georgian poets, Yiddish poets, Ukrainian poets, Ozerov sends the reader down literary wormholes: Titsian Tabidze, Leyb Kvitko, Pavlo Tychyna. Know them? What about Oleksandr Dovzhenko, a master of Soviet cinema? Or the Yiddish poet Dovid Hofshteyn, about whom Ozerov writes:
Hofshteyn reads us a new poem,
woven from snowflakes,
pity for other people,
and the cruel insomnia of our century.
Here and elsewhere, Ozerov portrays the great betrayal and tragedy of the Soviet Union’s Jewish citizens. Ozerov was Jewish, as were many of the poets and artists he knew. As Dralyuk explains in his artful introduction, Ozerov was born Lev Adolfovich Goldberg in Kyiv, Ukraine, in 1914, and adopted the name Ozerov in the 1930s.
Although the Russian Revolution initially brought social acceptance as well as educational and professional opportunities for Jews, eventually Jewishness again became an obstacle to advancement, and even a cause for banishment, incarceration, or murder.
Ozerov was one of the first to write in Russian about Babi Yar, a ravine near Kyiv that served as a site of the Nazi mass murder of some 100,000 Soviet citizens, most of them Jewish, in his poem of the same name in 1946. In the book, three of the four biographical notes included in the section on Yiddish poets end with a variant of this phrase: “[E]xecuted on the Night of the Murdered Poets.” This refers to the date — August 12, 1952 — when more than a dozen Jewish cultural figures who had participated in the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee during World War II were arrested, convicted as traitors for having contacts with worldwide Jewry, and executed. In those late years of Joseph Stalin’s regime, Ozerov himself became the target of antisemitic attacks but survived, winning back, in Dralyuk’s telling, “the tolerance, if never quite the favor, of the authorities after Stalin’s death.”
Ozerov also played a covert role within the Soviet system in reestablishing writers who had been banned and repressed, editing and publishing the works of Akhmatova, Pasternak, and others. In many ways, Portraits Without Frames, which was released in Russia posthumously in 1999, continues that work by bringing to the fore the silenced, the long-forgotten, the unknown. Discussing Ozerov’s lifelong commitment to championing such figures, Dralyuk quotes from Ozerov’s 1965 poem “To History”: “We need to help the few with talent, / The hacks will make it on their own.”
Ozerov’s profound compassion suffuses the portraits. Speaking of the time after the October Revolution, Viktor Shklovsky confides to Ozerov that Maxim Gorky “admitted to [him] sadly what Lenin had told [Gorky] in strict confidence: ‘The experiment has failed.’” “And I recalled,” Ozerov writes:
the wall of books,
all written by a man
in times that were hard to bear.
The times Ozerov and his subjects lived in were indeed hard to bear. In translating his sensitive verse memoir, Bloshteyn, Chandler, Dralyuk, and Mashinski (as well as NYRB Classics) heed the call of Anna Akhmatova to keep worthy names and brilliant work alive for another generation to discover.