“Voltaire, the Philosopher, to Empress Katerina”: A Poem from Ukraine by Boris Khersonsky

May 9, 2022

Boris Khersonsky was born in the western Ukrainian city of Chernivtsi but has spent most of his life in Odesa. During the Soviet period, Khersonsky, a psychiatrist by training, circulated his poems in samizdat. By the early 1990s his poems had found a broad readership. In the first phase of his poetic life, Khersonsky wrote in Russian; however, after the Maidan revolution and the Russian annexation of Crimea, he began to write in Ukrainian. At the time, Vladimir Putin was making broad claims about the need to protect Russian speakers in Ukraine. Khersonsky’s switch to Ukrainian as the language of his poetry was meant as a kind of declaration of independence.

The poem “Voltaire, the Philosopher, to Empress Katerina” is part of the series Poems of Katerina’s Era. It was composed in 2011. The poem is a parody of the actual historical correspondence between the Russian Empress known in the West as Catherine the Great and the great French philosopher. In this exchange Voltaire praised Catherine for her “enlightened” attitude and her light touch as an autocrat. In fact, Catherine’s reign was despotic. She canceled the autonomy of Ukraine and severely curtailed the rights of the Cossacks. In Khersonsky’s poem, Voltaire tries to paint her a picture of the life of the nation whose volcanic forces she has unwittingly awoken.

Her response — an utter lack of interest in Ukraine’s existence — exposes Russia’s past depredations and serves as a warning to its present leadership: underestimate this place and these people at your peril.

— Konstantin Akinsha

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Voltaire, the philosopher, to Empress Katerina:
“Katya, what’s your opinion on Ukraine, eh?
On the Dnieper-Dniester, the Carpathian caps,
on whitewashed huts covered in thatch, 
and, last but not least, on those shabby Yids
you gobbled up with all their kids
and the larger part of that country stolen,
the one known as Poland?
What do you intend to do with their mishpachas and their qahal,
with Sholem Aleichem and that painter Chagall,
with all their lefty Bolshie-Mensheviks and
with their iron-clad conviction
that those who came before were drafts, whereas
they, like scrolls, were inscribed with the Torah.
Have you read the Torah, Katya? A perfect book for you.” 

Katerina to Voltaire: “Yesterday I ordered
some pierogi stuffed with bear’s lard
and garlic and special olives from a grove
above Hebron on the edge of a desert cove.
The pie was topped with pheasant down
and powdered parmesan, like snow.
Salted salmon was also served — I had a bite
then ordered all the men to wear their tights
so their, uh, merits would be in a good position
for their Sovereign’s near-sighted inquisition.” 

Voltaire to Katerina: “What is to be done with the Ukrainian tongue,
which you and your Russians treat as a fatal wound,
and with Cossack lands where buckshot and sabers abound,
and with the Cossacks themselves and their Baroque style,
with a sea that spreads wide and wild,
with the Battleship Potemkin — say, how’s Potemkin, is he well?
How are his villages, the ones with fake houses where fake people dwell?
And the Khadjibey Turks? And those Odesa blokes,
commissars with Mausers tucked under their coats?
What is to be done with the Orthodox, the Lutherans, the crooks
with their copying pencils and accounting books?
It’s all the same to me — I don’t have long to wait.
But you, My Dear, are young; be smart, Kate.”

Katerina to Voltaire: “If you were here, Voltaire,
I’d rest my legs upon your shoulders, right there
in the great hall, sitting on the throne.
A little action won’t knock off my crown.
I’d trade you love for wit; for love, I’d pay with infinite caress.
Doesn’t the philosopher want to meet his empress?
Come to St. Petersburg. Come and get her.”

Voltaire to Katerina: “Paris suits me better.”

Translated by Konstantin Akinsha
and Matthew Olshan