A Few Thoughts on Russian Love, Russian Lit, and Mayakovsky’s “Listen!”

A subterranean rendezvous wouldn’t be high on the desirables list for most American paramours. Our subways, metros, and “T”s are dirty, noisy dumps filled with discarded Chipotle bags, pee-stained peoples, and, of course, no cell phone service. I believe the most passionate embrace ever documented in an America subway was between a giant rat and a gianter slice of pizza.

But in Russia, or at least Moscow, the star-crossed trek into the depths of the country’s soil, to the underground rail system, for meet-ups with their beloveds. Exactly when this convention of lovers convening in the metro crystalized I’m not sure, but one doesn’t have to be there long to see why. While the rest of Moscow is mostly grey, concrete, and inhumane, its metro is a work of art, less a functional high-speed system of transportation than a monument to the nation’s collective soul. Station names evoke the triumphs of Russian might (Victory Park, Square of the Revolution) and cultural achievement (Chekhovskaya, Doestoevskaya). Each is beautiful, distinct, and provides above and beyond the request level of enchantment for a lovers’ reunion.

I was in Moscow for a few months a few years ago, and I’d often pass my commute time starring at couples’ come-and-goes (This was long before I’d acquired the art of usefully wasting time on public trans). Always waves of women, always high-heeled, bearing packaged roses or large boxes of chocolates under the arms of their designer fur coats, joined by the lips to some gruff man who, ear flaps bravely undeployed on his shapka-ushakna, stands a step below on the escalator so his head is perfectly level with hers for the duration of their three–minute, 126-meter ascent to ground level.

Invariably you’d wonder how they’d turn out together after stepping out of the magical confines of the metro into the frankly crummy rest of the metropolis. But there were too many people to keep track of and too little time to me to ever follow any of these story lines much past their first steps into daylight. The few Muscovites I did talk to had unencouraging things to say about their relationships. My friends and I encountered two technology students in a park one afternoon who informed us that having a girlfriend in Moscow was too expensive. A middle-aged woman once sat down next to me on a bench and burned through ex-boyfriend stories and cigarettes (stuck w/ hand-struck matches) one after another forty five minutes straight before I excused myself. One of my Russian friends did get married — but at least from afar that seemed less out of love than owing to the fact that his parents promised him a Moscow flat of his own as soon as he got hitched.

Beyond these data points, the only examples I have are from Russian literature, and we all know things there usually don’t go so swimmingly. The progenitor of all Russian literary heroes, Eugene Onegin, bitterly realizes his love for Tatyana far too late for them to be happy together. Among the many memorable miserables of Chekhov, there’s Masha, an unrequited lover who wears only black since she’s “mourning for her life” and Nina, who’s abandoned by a famous writer with whom she had run off to Moscow. Anna Karenina is next up on my shelf — so don’t spoil it for me — but based on the picture on the cover I’m guessing her affair won’t end up too cheery either.

In their own love lives, the authors of these tales didn’t fare much better than their characters. Pushkin, as every Russian schoolchild knows, was killed in a duel fought against his wife’s alleged lover (that facking Frenchman!). Tolstoy’s marriage was likewise famously unhappy, and after over 48 years together he left his wife — only to die eight days later (so I guess she sort of got the last laugh?). Chekhov only agreed to get married if his wife agreed to live 1000 kilometers away from him. The life of Anna Akhmatova is too sad to recount here.

If we want to keep score amongst Russia’s rulers too, there’s the tsar’s time-honored tradition of sending their wives away to nunneries when they felt like it (a practice rumored to have been revitalized by Vladimir Putin before he finally divorced his wifey). Notable also was Catherine the Great kind of killing her husband to assume power, Nicholas II’s forced deference to Rasputin in his marriage to Alexandra Fyodorovna, and Stalin driving his wife to suicide before killing her family. So not such a pretty picture there either.

Obviously there are examples to the contrary: I always delight to report that in the first ever Russian version of Shakespeare’s Hamlet, the translator altered the ending so that Hamlet and Ophelia both survive, get married, and live happily ever after together. (This could be Russia’s first — and last? — ever happy ending). But if you had some metric to measure the strength of the bonds of love I bet Russia really would not score so well. So what might explain this one country’s romantic misfortunes? If we put on our 19th century sociologist hats (which would prolly look something like this, no?) we might speculate that the climate has something to do with it. Yet similarly frozen Sweden and Finland don’t seem to share the same penchant for poor outcomes. A more plausible explanation could be that, due to the Mongol yoke that cut off the country from Western Europe from 1237 to 1480, Russia missed out on the tradition of courtly or chivalric love. Thus, when it was reconnected with European culture at the start of the 17th century (a process that really kicked into high gear only after the defeat of Napoleon at the start of the 19th) it was unprepared for the wave of Romanticism that would be sprung upon it.

But above all else, a contributing factor to this climate of unhappy love stories in Russia is the general climate of national tragedy. Russia has had more than its fair share of war, feminine, secrete police activities, terrorism, political repression, economic depression, and so forth, none of which are good for stable love. The saddest thing we ever read in college was the short story “Cold Autumn” by Russia’s first Nobel laureate Ivan Bunin (here for the Russian; here at the 13:30 mark if you want to hear it read in English with a British accent). In it, a woman recalls a walk about the grounds with her fiancé on a chilly autumn night just before he’s sent off to fight in World War I. He is killed a month later in Galicia … She outlives him, marries a kind older officer, they flee to Turkey during the revolution, her husband dies, she raises her nephew’s son in Constantinople, they move on to Bulgaria, Serbia, the Czech Republic, Belgium, Paris, and finally to Nice, where she settles down. And yet after all this, 30 years later, she asks herself: “What has there really been in my life?” To which she answers, “Only that cold autumn evening.”

Alas that life is not simply a walk across a field! (to paraphrase Doctor Zhivago), Alas that the events of the world conspire to strip so many of the freedom they need to see their love bloom! But for this new generation of Russians — the ones I observed moving through the Moscow underground — perhaps there is some hope. So long as Putin’s shenanigans don’t get too out of control (perhaps a bigger “so long as” than one would have predicted a few years ago), maybe they’ll enjoy enough normalcy to grow up gently, live and love freely, be faithful, fruitful, etc… without the backdrop of some incredibly sad national struggle that demands they make impossible decisions. Their stories might not be as memorable as that of, say, Anna Karenina, but maybe they will at least find some measure of happiness together.

We can count it amongst our blessing in the United States that rarely have we had to deal with any of the national tragedies Russia’s endured. 4 years of WWII, 4 years of the civil war, but not much else.* “Dear Sarah” at the end of Ken Burns’ Civil War documentary always gets me, but for the most part, we haven’t been forced to grow up too quickly or bear such burdens. *(mindful, of course, that when using his authorial “we” I am referring not at all to a universal American experience).

In any case, we probably take more for granted than we ought to the unique flavor of love in our lands. The washing the dishes, the slicing of apples, the pulling the weeds in a garden, the painting of white picket fences, etc… rituals which, to a foreigner bred on tales of passion and intrigue and ecstasy seem strange or downright preposterous, but which quietly constitute the vitality of American Domestic Happiness. This is something Vladimir Nabokov, foreigner par excellence, likes to poke fun at. Or rather, he pokes fun at a “cultured European’s” inability to comprehend the nature of relationships here. In Pale Fire, the mad Russian professor Charles Kinbote stares with binoculars out the window into the house of his neighbor, Appalachain poet John Shade and his teenage-sweetheart-turned-wife Sybil, absolutely convinced that there must be some skeletal strife — perhaps a affair with a coed at the nearby university where he teaches — behind the apparent rhythm of domestic routine that gives rhythm to Shade’s work. (In fact, there is something haunting his writing and their marriage, though Kinbote doesn’t ever guess it: the suicide of the Shades’ daughter Hazel). Incidentally, Nabokov discovered American Domestic Happiness firsthand; the dramatic and tumultuous affairs of his European days basically came to an end as soon as he and his wife Vera were able to secure passage to the United States, where they joyfully raised a son.

Nabokov knew better than anyone not to confuse the happiness of the hearth with bourgeois boredom, and shows better than anyone (in the form of Humbert Humbert’s twisted love for the apparently vulgar Dolores Haze aka Dolly aka Lola aka Lo aka Lolita) that complaining about lack of depth is probably one of the most superficial things one can do.

Of course, we Americans from time to time are prone to internalize the Europeaners’ sneer, jealous that somehow our lives are superficial since we didn’t live through any grand struggles. Thus, for instance, David Brooks (or one of his ghostwriters) lamented last year in a column called “The Russia I Miss”:

Russia stood for something that America has never been known for: depth of soul. If America radiated a certain vision of happiness onto the world, Russian heroes radiated a vision of total spiritual commitment.

(Typically, besides a passing remark that the country produced “some really bad political ideas,” there wasn’t a hint anywhere in the column of what it cost the country to achieve that “depth of soul” ). But anyway, may the galoshes be forever greener elsewhere! It’s of course inevitable that this longing spills over into the realm of love. Hence the enduring appeal of “From Russia with Love,” East European mail order brides, the sing-and-shout-inducing Moscow girls, and all the rest …. Americans seem to enjoy falling in love with members of other cultures because we’ve never really had one ourselves.

In that treasure trove of the sad, beautiful, and grammatically underdeveloped, Yahoo! Answers, you’ll find a bevy of queries of the following form:

“I’m looking for a famous russian poem about love, can anyone help? I’m dating a beautiful Russian woman and I’m tring to find a good russian love poem to give her.”


“Romantic Russian poem to give my boyfriend? We have been having a very hard time lately- he is distancing himself from me and I am trying to change for him (we have a long history). I can read Cyrillic and would like a poem that I could make him proud (he’s a Russian immigrant) by reading, a romantic one.”

An invariable answer to pleas of these heart-strung websurfers, alongside the obligatory recommendation of a verse from Pushkin, is the 1914 poem “Listen!” by Vladimir Mayakovksy, the futurist “poet of the Russian Revolution” (best known in the United States for his influence on Frank O’Hara). “Listen!” begins:

 If stars are lit
 It means there is someone who needs it,
 It means someone wants them to be,
 That someone deems those specks of spit

Filed under the category “setting the mood,” this little ditty does alright, capturing the wish that lovers (or at least one hoping to speak for both) betwain a star-soaked sky, by their presence, may justify the existence of those twinklers. Somewhat presumptuous — as if the mediocre palpitations of their breasts had power to perturb those far off celestials — but nevertheless charming, right? Even Mr. Nabokov finds himself guilty of such a sentiment. He writes in his memoir Speak, Memory:

“Whenever I start thinking of my love for a person, I am in the habit of immediately drawing radii from my love — from my heat, from the tender nucleus of a personal mass — to monstrously remote points of the universe. Something impels me to measure the consciousness of my love against such imaginable and incalculable things as the behavior of nebulae (whose very remoteness seems a form of insanity).”

Why must we have the ladder of love extend far off into the heavens? Does this betray childish innocence? Exaltation of what’s above? Dissatisfaction with what’s below? Mr. Nabokov can give no explanation for this and I — not even a Vladimir Knockoff — will not attempt to produce one either.

I returned to “Listen!” recently when I was thinking about light pollution — did you know over two thirds of Americans have never seen the Milky Way? — and decided to look it up in Russian. I found differences between it and the version I knew in English offer a suggestive window into cultural difference I’ve been sketching out above. The first thing I saw was that there was more to the poem than the lines I’d known. And, taking the work as a whole, it’s not really that much of a love poem at all. The full text reads:

The next thing to notice, even if you don’t read Russian, is that the original ends its sentences not with periods or exclamation points but with question marks. The changes in punctuation make a world of difference as far as the tone of the poem is concerned (listen to it pronounced here in English, vs. here in Russian). Whereas the tone of the poem in English is clam and self-assured (plus rhymes more extensively than in the original); the Russian is doubting, nervous, agitated — “quiet desperation” has never been a particularly Russian attribute. For an American lover, the first few lines are sufficient; in the original though, the opening syllogisms are hallow, and the speaker must take his protest all the way to the seat of God to receive what ends up being a non-answer. Maybe the most interesting aspect of both poems is how the speaker’s demands change. First, he wants a justification for the entirety of the celestial fauna. Then, he merely needs there to be one star for himself, because he personally cannot stand this “starless suffering” (Ah! there it is: my favorite Russian word, мука). In the end though, he wants there to be at least one star over the crest of each building — that is, that everyone has at least one star; at least one thing to get each person through the night time to tomorrow’s sun.

In the world of the speaker of this poem, with no radiance of meaning prepackage within nature, with a mute deity, it’s up to them take up the task to supplying it not just for him- or herself but for all of mankind. It’s tempting to read this poem in the context of the Soviet effort at “God-building” following the collapse of traditional faith amongst the scribbling class. Mayakovsky indeed seemed to think he was helping create a new Soviet mythology that was to fill this inner void. Among his propaganda works was a 3,000-line epic about the life and death of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin and one called 150,000,000 (referring to what was then the population of the Soviet Union) that depicted a battle between 150,000,000 Ivans and the evil Woodrow Wilson.

But in April 1930, Mayakovsky shot himself. He was 36, two month shy of being the same age as Pushkin was when he died. His funeral was attended by 150,000 mourners, making it the third-largest in Soviet history. For the “Poet of the Revolution,” though, it doesn’t seem that disillusionment at the Bolshevick’s attempt to realize their ideals, the inefficiency of the new Soviet regime, nor horror at the murders it was perpetrating inspired his act. The cause seems to have been, rather, that one of his numerous liaisons, this time with an actress named Veronika Polonskaya, had gone sour. In a suicide note he wrote:

The love boat smashed up against the daily grind. 
 Now you and I are quits. Why bother then
 To balance mutual sorrows, pains, and hurts. 
 Behold what quiet settles on the world. 
 Night wraps the sky in tribute from the stars.
 In hours like these, one rises to address 
 The ages, history, and all creation.”

Is that the same night sky that posed for him 15 years earlier when he wrote “Listen!”?

There’s always an asterisk next to incidents like this. We’re speaking of Soviet Russia, after all, which killed over 600 writers in its day. Quoth Wikipedia: “The bullet removed from [Mayakovsky’s] body didn’t match the model of his pistol, and his neighbors were later reported to say they’d heard two shots. Ten days later, the officer investigating the poet’s suicide was himself killed.” So we’ll likely not actually know what happened to him.

(The jury’s apparently also still out on whether Mayakovsky was a supporter of the Sox or the Yankees.)

I used to have a big problem reading things by writers who killed themselves. I stayed away from Hemingway, Plath, D.F.W. for a very long time. Isn’t the point of reading self-improvement, to learn how to live a better and happier life? And if so-and-so’s books or poems weren’t enough even to keep him or her from ending in a bad spot, why would it be useful for me to read them? That seemed as ridiculous as taking architectural design tips from a builder whose house had collapsed on them. Such is probably an obnoxiously American kind of objection, and I still don’t really have an answer to it. But I can say that from the experience of being forced to read Russian authors I know that, had I not, I’d be missing out on something important.

Обмотанные холодным осенним ветром
Лежат на поле две любовники вдвоем.
«Что хочешь делать до того как умрешь?»
Говорит ондо, белое, как фантазм
Другое говорит, «Как тебе кончать?»
Кто наобещает слишком много?
Кто хватается соломинку?
— Владимир Майквазовский