Thursday, September 10, 2009

Mikhalkov obit

Sergei Mikhalkov

Sep 10th 2009
From The Economist print edition

Sergei Mikhalkov, the Kremlin’s court poet, died on August 27th, aged 96

TALENT without flexibility was a dangerous thing in the Soviet Union, as thousands found to their cost. Sergei Mikhalkov had talent aplenty, as a poet, playwright, children’s writer and satirist. But, more important, he was flexible.

Mr Mikhalkov penned the words to two versions of the Soviet national anthem, one glorifying Stalin and one ignoring him. After Russia shrugged off communism he wrote a third version, to the same tune. In between he denounced two of the country’s greatest writers, Boris Pasternak and Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Every regime he served gave him medals.

Servility towards power is a ubiquitous phenomenon. An 18th-century English song, “The Vicar of Bray”, tells of a country clergyman who changed his allegiance with the times, Romish under James II, strongly Protestant under the Hanoverians, through every other point of the ecclesiological compass. The chorus runs:

And this is Law I will maintain
Until my Dying Day, Sir.
That whatsoever King may reign,
I will be the Vicar of Bray, Sir!

Mr Mikhalkov offered a Soviet version of the theme.

He was born in the Russian empire to a noble family, with admirals and princes among his forebears. Many of that breed fled from the Red Terror that followed the Bolshevik revolution; those that stayed behind had their lives blighted, or ended, by the communist hatred of “class enemies”. But young Sergei slipped through that net, working humbly in a Moscow loom factory and writing poetry on the side. That was his ticket to the new aristocracy of proletarian cultural workers. He remained, at heart, a courtier and a cynic.

He gained his first success with a children’s verse fable about the exploits of a very tall policeman, “Uncle Steeple” (Dyadya Styopa). Given what the real-life police were doing in the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it should probably be classed as escapist fiction. A little later, he wrote a poem praising—he claimed—a girl with a dark-blond plait whom he had met at the House of Writers. Her name was Svetlana. Since that was also the name of Stalin’s daughter, the poem brought the tall, tinny-voiced, stuttering young man to the dictator’s notice.

In 1944 he was commissioned, along with Gabriel El-Registan, a Soviet Armenian poet, to write the words for a new national anthem to replace the “Internationale”. The rousing hymn of the international workers’ movement—freedom thundering against oppression, starvelings rising to end the age of cant—was felt not to fit the needs of the contemporary Soviet Union.

Its replacement, set to a stirring tune composed by Alexander Alexandrov, was a sentimental and militaristic ditty that gave equal weight to Lenin and Stalin:

Through days dark and stormy where Great Lenin led us
Our eyes saw the bright sun of freedom above
and Stalin our Leader, with faith in the People,
Inspired us to build up the land that we love.

Admittedly, national anthems rarely make great literature, and other Soviet poets, including on one occasion even the great Anna Akhmatova, found it expedient to put their pens at the service of the regime. But Mr Mikhalkov’s loyalty was exceptional. A good example of his work is “I want to go home”, a 1948 propaganda play about post-war orphanages in Germany, in which sinister British officials try to brainwash and kidnap Soviet children to use them as spies and slaves in the imperialist cause. The plot is foiled by heroic and kindly Soviet officers. The truth was exactly the other way round: it was the Soviet secret police who organised ruthless repatriations, often dividing families.

Mr Mikhalkov’s lyrics did not long survive Stalin’s death in 1953. From then until 1977 the anthem was played without words, neatly illustrating the Soviet Union’s ambiguous attitude to Stalinism. Mr Mikhalkov adapted to the times, becoming a pillar of the Soviet literary establishment and a notable enforcer of party discipline in its ranks. He wrote, in 1970, some new lyrics to the national anthem. To mark the introduction of the new Soviet constitution in 1977, the authorities adopted them. They ignored Stalin, praised Lenin and highlighted Russia’s role in welding the “unbreakable union of free-born republics”.

The union proved anything but. Given a whiff of freedom under Mikhail Gorbachev, the captive nations of the Soviet empire bolted for the exit. They found, or restored, their own songs. But Russia was tongue-tied. It dumped the Soviet anthem and adopted a resonant tune by Glinka, called simply “Patriotic Song”. It failed to catch on. In 2001 Vladimir Putin ordered the restoration of the Soviet tune—and it was Mr Mikhalkov’s turn to write, once again, the words. The anodyne doggerel that resulted is no better (and certainly no worse) than other countries’ national anthems. It praises Russia’s uniqueness, mentions God, and concludes: “Thus it was, is, and always shall be!” Except that it isn’t, and wasn’t. Few knew that better than the wily Mr Mikhalkov.

1 comment:

trilirium said...

This Mikhalkov verse is my favorite:

Фашистская посылка

Эта лента голубая -
Снята с девичьих волос,
Эта лента голубая
С украинских русых кос.

Эта вышивка - с кровати,
Этот перстень - снят с руки
Черной ночью, в мирной хате,
В деревушке у реки.

Из больницы - бумазея,
Занавески - со стены
Подожженного музея
Древнерусской старины.

Эти две витые ручки
Были сорваны с дверей -
Трех солдат к любимой внучке
Не пускал старик еврей.

Побурели пятна крови
На платочке пуховом...
Это - добыто в Ростове,
Это - взято под Орлом.

Все зашито в парусину
И сдано на почту в срок.
Путь посылки до Берлина
И опасен и далек.

Фридрихштрассе, 48,
Получить: Матильде Шмитт.
Отправитель: Генрих Шлоссе.
Был здоров. Теперь убит...

- 1941