Joseph Brodsky – On Ukrainian Independence

Joseph Brodsky
Joseph Brodsky

I’ve come across the best translation of this Brodsky’s poem by Artem Serebrennikov.


On Ukrainian Independence

Dear Charles XII, the Poltava battle [1]
Has been fortunately lost. To quote Lenin’s burring rattle,
“Time will show you Kuzka’s mother”[2], ruins along the waste,
Bones of post-mortem bliss with a Ukrainian aftertaste.

It’s not the green flag [3], eaten by the isotope [4],
It’s the yellow-and-blue [5] flying over Konotop [6],
Made out of canvas – must be a gift from Toronto [7] –
Alas, it bears no cross, but the Khokhly [8] don’t want to.

Oh, rushnyks [9] and roubles, sunflowers in summer season!
We Katsapy [10] have no right to charge them with treason.
With icons and vodka, for seventy years we’ve bungled,
In our Ryazan [11] we’ve lived like Tarzan in the jungle.

We’ll tell them, filling the pause with a loud “your mom”:
Away with you, Khokhly, and may your journey be calm!
Wear your zhupans [12], or uniforms, which is even better,
Go to all four points of the compass and all the four letters.

It’s over now. Now hurry back to your huts
To be gang-banged by Krauts and Polacks right in your guts.
It’s been fun hanging together from the same gallows loop,
But when you’re alone, you can eat all that sweet beetroot soup.

Good riddance, Khokhly, it’s over for better or worse,
I’ll go spit in the Dnieper, perhaps it’ll flow in reverse,
Like a proud bullet train looking at us askance,
Stuffed with leathery seats and ages-old grievance.

Don’t speak ill of us. Your bread and wheat we don’t need,
Nor your sky, may we all choke on sunflower seed.
No need for bad blood or gestures of fury ham-fisted,
Seems that our love is up, if it at all existed.

Why should we plow our broken roots with our verbs?
You were born out of earth, its podzolic soils and its herbs.
Quit flexing your rights and laying all the blame on us,
It is your bloody soil that has become your onus.

Oh, gardens and grasslands and steppes, varenyks [13] filled with honey!
We’ve had greater losses before, lost more people than money.
We’ll get by somehow. And if you want teary eyes –
Wait ‘til next time, guys, this provision no longer applies.

God rest ye merry Cossacks, hetmans, and gulag guards!
But mark: when it’s your turn to be dragged to graveyards,
You’ll whisper and wheeze, your deathbed mattress a-pushing,
Not Shevchenko’s bullshit but poetry lines from Pushkin [14].



[1] Charles XII (1682 – 1718), King of Sweden (1697 – 1718), main antagonist of Russia in the Great Northern War (1700 – 1725). His campaign in the Ukraine, where he was aided by the rogue Ukrainian hetman Ivan Mazepa, ended in a disastrous defeat near Poltava (8th July 1709).
[2] Brodsky deliberately conflates the speech patterns of two different Soviet leaders. Vladimir Lenin (1870 – 1924), the founder of the Soviet state, was known for his burring speech (he is not explicitly named in the original and is only referred to as “the burring man”). “To show someone Kuzka’s mother” is a rare Russian idiom meaning “to teach someone a lesson”, infamously used by Nikita Khrushchev (1894 – 1971) in 1959 while addressing US Vice President Richard Nixon.
[3] Possibly an allusion to the green flag used by Ukrainian anarchists in 1918-1921.
[4] Allusion to the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear meltdown.
[5] Colours of the Ukrainian national flag.
[6] A small city in northern Ukraine.
[7] Allusion to the strong, and fervently nationalist, Ukrainian diaspora in Canada.
[8] Khokhly, sing. Khokhol (lit. “tuft of hair”, referring to a typical Cossack hairstyle), is a Russian ethnic slur for Ukrainians.
[9] Embroidered towels, a hallmark of Ukrainian folk art.
[10] Katsapy, sing. Katsap (probably from “yak tsap”, “like a goat”, alluding to beards customarily worn by Russian peasants), is a Ukrainian ethnic slur for Russians.
[11] A city in Central Russia, often a byword for a backwater province.
[12] Long male garments worn in the 16th-18th century in Poland and Ukraine.
[13] Ukrainian dumplings.
[14] Taras Shevchenko (1814 – 1865) and Aleksandr Pushkin (1799 – 1837), Romantic poets traditionally seen as founders of, respectively, Ukrainian and Russian modern national literatures.


На независимость Украины

Дорогой Карл XII, сражение под Полтавой,
слава Богу, проиграно. Как говорил картавый,
“время покажет Кузькину мать”, руины,
кости посмертной радости с привкусом Украины.

То не зелено-квитный, траченный изотопом,–
жовто-блакытный реет над Конотопом,
скроенный из холста, знать, припасла Канада.
Даром что без креста, но хохлам не надо.

Гой ты, рушник, карбованец, семечки в полной жмене!
Не нам, кацапам, их обвинять в измене.
Сами под образами семьдесят лет в Рязани
с залитыми глазами жили, как при Тарзане.

Скажем им, звонкой матерью паузы медля строго:
скатертью вам, хохлы, и рушником дорога!
Ступайте от нас в жупане, не говоря — в мундире,
по адресу на три буквы, на все четыре

Пусть теперь в мазанке хором гансы
с ляхами ставят вас на четыре кости, поганцы.
Как в петлю лезть — так сообща, путь выбирая в чаще,
а курицу из борща грызть в одиночку слаще.

Прощевайте, хохлы, пожили вместе — хватит!
Плюнуть, что ли, в Днипро, может, он вспять покатит,
брезгуя гордо нами, как скорый, битком набитый
кожаными углами и вековой обидой.

Не поминайте лихом. Вашего хлеба, неба,
нам, подавись мы жмыхом и колобом, не треба.
Нечего портить кровь, рвать на груди одежду.
Кончилась, знать, любовь, коль и была промежду.

Что ковыряться зря в рваных корнях глаголом?
Вас родила земля, грунт, чернозем с подзолом.
Полно качать права, шить нам одно, другое.
Это земля не дает вам, кавунам, покоя.

Ой да Левада-степь, краля, баштан, вареник!
Больше, поди, теряли — больше людей, чем денег.
Как-нибудь перебьемся. А что до слезы из глаза —
нет на нее указа, ждать до другого раза.

С Богом, орлы, казаки, гетманы, вертухаи!
Только когда придет и вам помирать, бугаи,
будете вы хрипеть, царапая край матраса,
строчки из Александра, а не брехню Тараса.

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