I was 11 years old when I first saw Alexander Vertinsky. I grew up during the Stalinist years of Young Pioneer rage. We despised cowards who surrendered to the fascist enemy and detested emigrants who fled overseas from the difficulties of our “fighting, boiling bustle” (as poet Mayakovsky put it). It was also Mayakovsky who (in the poem “Mr. People’s Artist of Merit”) had coined the image of an artist who acts like a nobleman despite having come from the people, of one adorned with an honorary title who brought indignity and shame on his people. Thence the call on artists and writers, which would become a motto of Soviet art: “The song and the verse are like bomb and like banner, and the voice of the singer inspires class struggle.”
I didn’t have to be “inspired.” Even though I sometimes donned the red neckerchief of a Young Pioneer, I managed to dwell in my own world, simultaneously one of the streets and of the books. I was sensitive, impressionable, and uncompromising. Naturally, all the poetry of the world had found embodiment in Pushkin. Nekrasov’s civic verse, Krylov’s fables, and Marshak’s poems for the young readers were read, memorized, and remembered. But Pushkin — so vibrant, so approachable, so deft at circumventing the Young Pioneer dogmas and dramas — Pushkin was my sole idea of the Poet as such.
And suddenly my father, formerly a frontline officer, a great lover of what they called estrada — concert-style stage performances by musicians, singers, and chansonniers — takes me to hear a living poet who sings his own compositions and other poets’ verses. And the music, too, is his own. We ride in my father’s company car to Zhelyabov Street where the Leningrad Estrada Theater is located. I remember the managing director, lanky and very skinny, with a large sad nose and intelligent eyes under the round life rings of his eyelids. And on the wall of the director’s office — a poster with the name in large red letters: ALEXANDER VERTINSKY.
We’re sitting in a stage box. In the middle of the white stage there is a black grand piano. On the stage — a tall slender aristocrat, a man with an elongated Scandinavian face. He wears a tailcoat. The black grand piano with its lid thrust open rhymes with the black coat and its ruffled tails. A miniature pianist sets the rhythm with bouncy chords. Vertinsky springs up his arms like a girl-acrobat; that’s exactly how I’ve remembered it. It feels like he’s about to walk on his hands. Or turn a somersault. Or perhaps dive, like a swimmer, into the sea of the audience, a frozen sea only waiting for a signal to explode into a storm of applause.
A former White Russian émigré sings in postwar Leningrad. A friend of Chalyapin. A pal of Rachmaninoff. And of so many others … Bunin heard Vertinsky in Paris. The officers who had served under Baron von Ungern-Sternberg in the Far East applauded Vertinsky in Harbin. And now the theater was filled with all different kinds of Soviet folks. A parti-colored postwar crowd. Former military officers; black marketeers; venerologists; and plain ordinary members of the intelligentsia who refuse to believe that a penitent emigrant would be allowed to sing anything unofficial, out of synch with Socialist Realism.
Needless to say, back at the time I couldn’t understand such fine nuances of attitude. I had been plucked out of the inferno and sooty smoke of a communal apartment, in which proletarians, descendants of the Russian Orthodox clergy, and our own Jewish family had to coexist. I came to the theater with my father, and at home my mother cried the tears of a young woman who had been abandoned in marriage and doomed to loneliness. I was not fully conscious of all this, but such was the backdrop against which those divine and completely unexpected words descended on me. Words of true poetry poured, perhaps like silver rain, from the palms of the artist’s hands. How Vertinsky painted with his hands on the air of the stage performance! And what wondrous words: “Your lilac-hued abbot will be certainly glad and absolve your transgressions at random …” And the refrain: “In the ocean faraway and blue, someplace near the Land of Fire, sailing in the purple mist, those dead grey-haired ships …”
Trembling with delight, I wouldn’t let go of my father’s hand. There it is, the sensation of the open sea! Piratry. Nansen. Bering. Magellan … And my own father, who had only recently shed the epaulets of a naval officer. As for Vertinsky, he looked totally indifferent to the others’ circumstances. What did he care for the shoulder shrugs of party functionaries or small- and big-time underground money bosses. He sang for those who had by miracle survived the Civil War, the terror of 1937, the siege and the Great Patriotic War. He sang for me — a boy who must have then and there recognized a poet within himself. I shook with excitement, excitement and sweet languor born out of the words Vertinsky enacted: “The sailors sang for me about an island where a sky-blue tulip has bloomed … I won’t be a poet any longer, I want to sail out to sea.”
I wanted to become a poet so that the simple sounds, “knock-knock-knock,” would enchant and hurt my would-be listeners just as Vertinsky’s words hurt me. “The woodpecker knocks on the pine tree rehearsing his wooden reverie knock-knock-knock knock-knock-knock on the ground falls the deadening wooden sound,” I would write 25 years after this performance.
I knew I was drowning in the sea of poetry by the name of Vertinsky. And I cried. For the first time, I cried from the impact of the poetic word. This was the sweet pain of art. Nothing of the sort had ever happened to me before. Never. “What a wind over the steppe of Moldova! How the earth sings beneath our feet. And it’s easy for my Gypsy soul, like a hobo to roam without love.” It was back then that I cried for my present self. My father wanted to leave. He was a kind man who didn’t take to heart such trifles as verses — even though as a spectator he was capable of appreciating them for their high sentimental value. But I cried like a poet over the fate of a fellow poet: “Oh, how sweet, how painful through the tears just to glance at the land of my birth.” And many more glorious verses of love, which the Mediterranean warm breeze had carried over to our dank autumn of Beria’s omnipotence: “The path of a maritime garden grows darker. The lanterns are yellow till dawn. I’m awfully tranquil, but please don’t you venture to speak to me now of love …”; “I’m terribly scared of the golden bondage …”; “This bitter mouth contorted by tears …” I still couldn’t understand that the piercing word-epithets had swum out of the depths of my heart to start my poetic formation. “Madame, all the songs have been sung now, I don’t have anything left. It is such a fairy-tale summer … Madame, now the leaves are all falling, and the autumn is feverish with death … I wait for you, my sky-blue oblivion, I perish in the foliage of fire. So when will you send me the message? So when are you coming for me?”
All of Alexander Blok and his feverish love affair with the red-headed Carmen … Mayakovsky and his Lilya Brik. Pushkin. These words encompassed everything, and only much later would they acquire the concrete shapes of my favorite poets and the women they loved. The delirious blue color of June and July in Leningrad, my own future enchantments and disenchantments, tears of love — I heard all of this in Vertinsky’s words, “Madame, all the songs have been sung now …”
How strange that already then as an 11-year old, I experienced a foretaste of what was yet to come. I shook off my tears and they fell onto the sleeve of my father’s coat. He was embarrassed and tried to talk me into leaving earlier. Latching onto the edge of the stage box, I buried my face in the deep velvet of the trim. And Vertinsky — as supercilious as an English lord and as corrupt as a gambler — prophesied, turning to me his griffon-like profile: “Chance speech was carried over on the air, those dear, those unneeded words: Winter Garden, the Fontanka, and the Neva. You, floating words, where are you going? There where the alien cities hum, and the alien water’s lapping at the shores … We can’t take you, hide or chase away. We must live, we mustn’t reminisce …”
Translated from the Russian by Maxim D. Shrayer, 2021
David Shrayer-Petrov, author and medical scientist, was born in Leningrad (St. Petersburg) on January 28, 1936, and immigrated to the United States in the summer of 1987. He is the author of 25 books, including the English translation of his novel Doctor Levitin. His new play in verse, Vaccine. Ed Tenner, was recently published in Moscow. Shrayer-Petrov lives in Brookline, MA, with his wife, the translator Emilia Shrayer.