One song by Bulat Okudzhava, performed by Carolina Rimoldi

I’d like to discuss this song and why I translated it a little, but first I think I should present it at the very top of the page, lest my rambling prevents readers from becoming listeners. So, without further ado, here is my translation of Bulat Okudzhava’s ‘Приезжая семья фотографируется у памятника Пушкина’, or ‘A visiting family has their picture taken in front of Pushkin’s statue’, put to music by the wonderful Carolina Rimoldi. Carolina has an Instagram that you should follow @carolina.j.rimoldi, and a Youtube channel that you should watch here. If you would like to hear the Russian original, it’s on Youtube here.

 A visiting family has a picture taken in front of Pushkin’s statue

Pushkin behind them, a family stands together.
The camera clicks, and off flies a little bird,
The camera clicks, but look what we’ve captured forever,
Pushkin behind us, and off flies a little bird,
Pushkin behind us, and off flies a little bird.

All bills are paid, all fights have fallen silent,
Where Tverskaya street flows onward, nobody knows.
All of the ladies passing by throw glances behind them,
And then they smile, and off flies a little bird,
And then they smile, and off flies a little bird.

Pushkin behind them, a family stands together,
Oh how charming, if you recall, just how absurd
Were all our mistakes, all of our fights, captured forever,
With Pushkin behind them, as off flies a little bird,
Pushkin behind them, and off flies a little bird.

With this picture taken, we’ll fondly remember
As our short lives go by, and melt into the earth,
That here we are now, hugging each other, captured forever,
Pushkin behind us, and off flies a little bird,
Pushkin behind us, and off flies a little bird.

Bulat Okudzhava

The reasons for me coming across this song are academic, in both senses of the term. I’m researching a group that are variously called the ‘soviet bards’, the ‘guitar poets’, or simply those who sang ‘author’s songs’, depending on who you ask. Okudzhava was in many ways the father of the movement, which prioritised a mixture of lyrical intricacy and often down-to-earth, conversational language. The music captured an audience and a side of life that Stalinist and post-Stalinist state-sanctioned ‘popular song’ failed to keep hold of, as the fifties turned into the sixties turned into the seventies; as High Stalinism turned into Khruschev’s ‘thaw’ turned into Brezhnev’s ‘stagnation’. The music often toyed with the boundaries of lyrical acceptability, and was therefore more often experienced either in small apartment concerts (most iconically in Moscow’s Arbat region), or in magnitizdat, clandestine tape-recordings that were a far more widespread musical equivalent to the samizdat that first brought the Soviet public the likes of Pasternak, and translations of Orwell.

Unlike Pasternak and Orwell, however, the bards’ rebellion was more often than not on a smaller scale, and less overtly audible to the untrained ear. The official state position on art as a “revolutionary” tool was a Stalinist hangover, requiring art of all forms to comply to a vague ‘politicism’ in order to prove itself worthwhile to the national cause. With no Stakhanovite factory workers or crowds of inspired citizens marching through the street (except occasionally ironically), the bards caused worry amongst the authorities, who saw within this primarily youth-led cultural movement a burgeoning celebration of individualism, threatening the unity of the Soviet ‘collective’. As Rachel Platonov puts it in ‘Singing the Self: Guitar Poetry, Community, and Identity in the Post-Stalin Period’, “at a generic level, guitar poetry was political by default because the majority of its songs were apolitical”. Nowhere is this clearer than in Okudzhava’s paean to a detail as small (and yet, as individually significant) as the background of a family photo. On the surface, there is a complete lack of political commentary here –– and in general, I would emphasise the radical political potential of guitar poetry considerably less than some out there would –– but in the genuine affection for small moments that this song displays so beautifully, we find a refusal to submit one’s interest to a grand, broadly Stalinist artistic narrative which, by the late 1960s, left a growing movement of young people cold.

‘Happy New Year!’ 
1958 postcard with an illustration of the Pushkin statue on Tverskaya st. 

So far, so academic. But the initial urge to translate something rarely comes from a cold, analytical interest in the generic or literary importance that it may have, or may have had; my translation of Okudzhava is no exception. As I publish this, it is the morning of January 7th, and the Russian Christmas and New Year celebrations will be getting underway. I’m no expert on Novy God traditions or the ideas associated with them, but Winter holidays and talks of new beginnings often come paired with an inclination to look back, to assess the vibe of the year we’ve been through, and to pick out what we wish to take from it going into, in our current case, round two thousand and twenty-one. Okudzhava made me realise that it’s been a big year for pictures, and for remembering when we took them. He makes clear something that we all understand intuitively, which is that a photograph is like a metaphor: it can convey more than we first intend it to.

As the pandemic started, I was on my year abroad. My girlfriend and I were two months into a planned four-month stretch spent in different continents, and as things got worse internationally and I was forced from Moscow back to London, those already-unbearable four months turned, unprecedentedly, into an interminable nine. I was lucky enough to spend lockdown with my family, but as the days went by (and melted, as Okudzhava would say, into the earth), during those long stretches where time zones left one of us asleep and the other awake, bored and lonely, photographs came to provide a unique sustenance. Calling someone while you’re both stuck at home is one thing (and a very important thing, don’t get me wrong), but looking through the records of the lives you’ve built together, and the things that passed you by when the picture was first taken, remind you of the fierce vibrancy and variety of everything that led you to this point. To look back is also to look anew, afresh. The Russian formalist Viktor Shklovsky argued that the point of all art is to make us look afresh at the world around us, by ‘making it strange’ to us once again. The photographed moments that precede lockdown have come to mean that much more, now that we feel just how strange life is when you take those moments away. Unnoticed details –– a little bird taking flight in the background of a family photo –– allow us to reinhabit spaces we once took for granted.

It’s worth mentioning that a question I’m particularly preoccupied with at the moment is the distinction between music and poetry –– when does one become the other, and how should that change the way we talk about it? Okudzhava, seemingly just to complicate the matter for me, performed this piece interchangeably as either a song sung with guitar accompaniment, or as a melody-less, guitar-less spoken poem (if you’d like to complicate it further, many ‘guitar poets’ refused to call what they wrote ‘songs’, but instead ‘poems, sung to music’). I first came across it as a song, and it was as a song that I found it most affecting. It seemed only right, therefore, that instead of presenting you with a poem and asking you to imagine it a song, I found someone who could do it justice in the form that it felt at home in. I’m hugely, hugely grateful to Carolina for doing such a wonderful job in such a short timeframe –– I think her performance does all the best things a translation can do, capturing Okudzhava’s cadences and melodies in a manner that’s also distinctly English.

As the Russians would say, с новым годом –– let’s hope the coming year holds more than just photographs.


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