How Are Things in Russia?

Occasionally, people ask me how things are in Russia, and I say that I haven’t been following Russian events in any detail. Still, I do have an opinion, albeit uninformed, and it echoes a poem by Bulat Okudzhava, my favorite Russian singer. As I mentioned eight years ago, the poem was written in 1989 — much has surely changed, some for the better and some for the worse, since then, but from what I’ve heard much hasn’t. I give a quick and dirty translation below, which unfortunately doesn’t preserve the rhyme, the meter, or much of the sensibility, but what can I do? (Note also that the translation borrows in one place from the version of the song that I heard, which differs in some respects from the written version.)

A bit of background that would be obvious to Russian listeners: Since Leo is an emigre returning from Australia, he’s certainly Jewish (only Jews and a few other ethnic groups were allowed to leave during the Soviet era, and the emigres of Okudzhava’s circle were overwhelmingly Jews). Okudzhava himself was a Georgian by ethnicity, but many of his close friends were Jews; judging by the dedication in the print version, the song was written with one particular friend (Leo Liukimson) in mind, though most of Okudzhava’s listeners wouldn’t know that.

From Australia Leo to Moscow returned
At his sister’s finally arrived
From the taxi’s window at Moscow he stared
Felt a chill running down his spine

These days, Moscow doesn’t quite look cruel –
Doesn’t shoot, doesn’t tie you in knots.
But suddenly asks “Are you scared, little kike?,”
And gives you a friendly wink.

In Australia, likely, the weather is hot,
Easy life that the pen can’t describe;
While in Moscow it’s worse than it was yesterday
But better than in ’37.

Down the boulevard, Leo, unhurriedly stroll
Look closely at the familiar faces
Maybe Moscow doesn’t have a vicious soul
But no-one’s born fortunate here.

To me the key lines are at the end of the third stanza:

In Moscow it’s worse than it was yesterday, but better than in ’37.

And, you know, that’s not chopped liver.