Russia's history of the last
hundred years set out as a cautionary children's story.
Here are the fabulous
excesses of czarist rule, the growth of the Bolshevik party and the
iron rule of Stalin — shot through with vignettes of rural life, the
horrors of war and descriptions of contemporary Soviet towns. Into this
story are woven the elements of Russia's history from earliest times,
its literature and rich vein of music and painting.
Though a terrible story,
which grows only more heartless as the children are taken through their
Soviet catechism, the poem is a celebration of mankind's ability to
survive even the worst of horrors, and ends on a modest appraisal of
Russia's future, the great variety of its landscapes and the
indomitable nature of its people.
Here the patriarch and bearded clerics
instruct their boys in holy books,
and here is Baku bristling with its derricks
and loud with labourers and gangland crooks.
Here we pass the rushing rivers,
thick with boulders under Asia's blue-eyed vault.
Now dawdling on the Darya we pick
our way through buttercups to rustic halt.
Oysters, caviar, bejewelled eggs;
monastries and churches, onion domes:
a land beset by khans and atabegs,
and huddled turf-clad hovels making homes.
Resplendent St Petersburg subdues the Baltic
with domes and palaces on marbled streets:
as Vladivostoc, in the all-too-Nordic
blue Pacific, looks on whaling fleets.
Princess Orlova has a chill, poor
creature, stays at home: the doorman snores.
And driven out from village barn and store
the children sleep together out of doors.
That's all there is, this soil, this sky, the
that falls in the springtime, or as snow.
The wind's monotony and greyness stain
the steppes as far as steppelands go.
The years of growing are a puff of air,
the gift of motherlands you never reach:
imagination's tricks will hold you there:
do not believe what grown-ups teach.
My name is Drosselmeyer, cabinetmaker,
craftsman extraordinary, court magician.
I am the purveyor of dreams and the fabricator
of all that you could wish for. Children listen
It's more lamentable than you can know,
this world. Nor is the toy the thing it seems.
The window thickens with its clotted snow,
falls white as paper and it folds in reams.
What would you write there? Tell me. I can see
into the souls of children, I have hidden sight.
Think into yourself and tell me. You can be
anyone you want for this enchanted night.
Anyone at all. You choose. The midnight hour
will soon be welcomed as the Christmas tree
adopts the sofa, and each candied flower
will mark the places set for grown-up's tea.
Hear them chattering. What do they say?
Mere empty, casual things, as you will soon.
What do they know then? Nothing. Children, pay
attention, if you please, to fork and spoon.
If you will listen you will hear the walls
reverberate with Rimsky-Korsakov,
and wheezing bodies in the first-row stalls
drown out where orchestra must stop and cough.