In my student days – that was in Pyatigorsk, a delightful health-resort of a town in the south of Russia – I began a career in writing, translating poetry from English into Russian and the other way, and also writing short stories. But this career was cut short by the attentions of local censors who took it into their heads to squash me as a representative of the trend known in the 1950s as stilyagi (something like “fops,” “dandies”). I had very little to do with that crowd, I actually disliked them, mostly because of my “old Russian intelligentsia” family background, but that was impossible to prove to the relevant officials once they labeled one with something they could understand. So I stopped all attempts to publish my stuff, though I continued writing both poetry and prose all my life “for the bottom drawer” in two, sometimes three languages. The Russian expression is pisat’ v stol – literally, “write for the desk” – a well-known exercise among “internal émigrés” until the mid-1980s.
Even before graduation, I switched to a career in Theoretical Linguistics, publishing some 60 papers and four monographs over some 20 years. Intellectual curiosity took me far beyond linguistics proper into such fields as theory of probability and mathematical statistics, information theory, mathematical logic (at one time I attended lectures and seminars on algorithms and recursive functions at a Physics and Mathematics Department), psycholinguistics, etc. Apart from a few publications in these subjects, these studies did not affect my professional career much, although at the time the process afforded me distinct intellectual enjoyment.
In terms of tenure, I served as Associate Professor and head of departments of English Philology at a number of provincial higher educational establishments (Pyatigorsk, then Magnitogorsk, then Tver), which taught me a few things about handling other human beings – always a difficult job for an introvert. Towards the end of the 1970s, no longer able to contain my disgust with the shenanigans so rife in the academic jungle (in which Party officials played a lusty role), I gave up my academic career for freelancing, mostly as a translator, having by that time moved to Moscow.
I had had some experience doing translation jobs for Moscow publishers, so the transition was easy enough. In the years that followed I translated dozens of books from Russian into English – prose, poetry, philosophy, linguistics, aesthetics, mathematical logic, literary theory and criticism, psychology, systems analysis, and God knows what else.
Of the poetic translations, most memorable are books and separate poems by Anna Akhmatova, Vladimir Vysotsky, Boris Pasternak, Iosif Brodsky, Robert Rozhdestvensky, Yevgeny Yevtushenko, and many, too many other poets and pseudo-poets. The translations appeared mostly in volume form from a variety of publishing houses chiefly in Moscow but some as far as Japan. In 1990 Progress Publishers produced a volume of my translations from Vladimir Vysotsky, title Hamlet with a Guitar – a book that is probably the best known of all that I’ve done in the area of poetic translation. A certain American scholar even wrote a whole dissertation about my “singable translations.” They are indeed sung, so far as I’ve heard, in Paris and Sweden and elsewhere by various groups and individuals, who unfortunately forget all about royalties that are due me, God forgive them.
My poetic translations also appeared in the then widely known Soviet Literature magazine. That journal published some of my prose translations, too, such as The Last Pastoral by the late Ales Adamovich, whom I came to know fairly well.
That was not long before Ales came into nationwide prominence as one of the leaders of the democratic movement in the later years of Perestroika, along with Academician Andrei Sakharov and others. Curiously, I was the more optimistic about the prospects for democracy in the Soviet Union in our nocturnal debates on the eve of the First Congress of People’s Deputies in 1989, talking of street protests and things, while Ales was much more cautious and skeptical about the strength of the democratic sentiment in the country. However, at the Congress itself Adamovich fought fiercely on the side of the angels, so much so that it made me feel proud to have such a friend. I still have somewhere in my archives an unpublished script about the Chernobyl disaster for a film he planned to produce together with Stanley Cramer. Pity those plans came to nothing: it’s good honest stuff.
Since about age 14, when I first read Georgy Plekhanov’s book on the monistic view of history, I had a penchant for philosophy, especially the Greeks, and at one time studied the subject rather systematically. That was the reason why, decades later, I willingly took up translation, for Progress Publishers, of works by Evald Ilyenkov, Merab Mamardashvili, Aleksei F. Losev, and other fine philosophers. I also translated a few of the lesser known works of Marx and Engels from German and French into English for their Complete Works (then being published in London), and half of Volume Four of the Complete Works of Georgy Plekhanov (the other half done by Kate Cooke).
I must say that these jobs brought one true intellectual pleasure. To pay for this, however, I sometimes had to translate, on the quid pro quo principle, piles of trash, like a volume entitled Historical Materialism, which I mentally dubbed the biggest collection of lies between two covers I’d ever encountered. An 800-page textbook of Marxist Philosophy by a certain gentleman called Spirkin was in the same vein. There must have been other stuff which I, thank God, have by now forgotten.
In the post-Perestroika period I published numerous short stories, features, articles and reviews, mostly in English, in such magazines as Moscow Guardian (long defunct), Glas, Moscow Magazine (twice defunct), Capital Perspective (defunct), Russian Life, Perspective, and in Moscow’s English-language papers: Moscow Times, Moscow News, Moscow Tribune (defunct).
In 1995-2003, with interruptions, I published, on a weekly basis, essays on the history of Perestroika in the Moscow News; general title, Collapse of the Colossus. In this way a rather bulky volume accumulated. I never made any attempts to publish it, though some interest was displayed both by specialists and laymen. I am still working on it, on and off, as this is the period in which I was most active politically and which I know best from personal experience.
All my life I hiked a great deal, did some mountaineering (until a bad fall some time in the sixties put a stop to that), and generally went in for escapism in a big way. I covered most of the Soviet Union, sailed all over the Caspian, the Aral, the Azov, and other places, mostly solo, and much preferring the wilder, pristine regions (what is in Russian known as nenaselenka “uninhabited areas”). In the process, I accumulated heaps of diaries or better say logs.
Some of these made the basis of a tale of adventure (rather, an undersized novel) entitled Taiga Law. Originally written in English as a short story, it sort of swelled to larger proportions in the process of translation into Russian, and the English text was then rewritten accordingly. It was published in 2002, in both English and Russian.
The novel Solo on the Aral followed the same pattern. Written in English in 1994 over a period of about three months, it took some twelve years to be translated into Russian, swelling in the process to some 500+ pages. It was eventually published in 2007 in Russian by the Evrasia+ Publishers (available at www.voskres.info ). I do not believe I will ever be able to re-translate it into English. There are too many other things to do first.
Another novel that took ever so long in writing was The Cruel Cruise. The first draft, in English, took only a few months to write out of the system, but these were followed by years of translation and rewriting. In the process it kept swelling, and finally appeared in 2011, in Russian only.
The post-Perestroika years brought several editorial jobs in succession. For a while I served as deputy editor-in-chief of the Soviet Union’s first glossy, Moscow Magazine, published in English and Russian. In 1995 the magazine perished through penury after being forsaken by its founder Derk Sauer, the current owner of a publishing empire in Russia. I felt sorry about its demise, it was a good enough magazine, quite artistic, and the content was OK – we did our best.
Then for ten years, 1995-2004, I was chief editor of the Moscow News weekly. Before my arrival MN was a sorry sight indeed, a collection of ridiculous, garbled English translations of articles from the Russian sister paper Moskovskie Novosti. Modesty aside, I made MN into a far more independent publication. My motives in doing so were varied. Part of the reason was that the realities of the 1990s in Russia made me drift away from the ideology and, most importantly, from the political line of radical liberalism characteristic of the “democrats of the first wave,” of whom I was in fact one. I came in for some criticism from my colleagues on the Russian paper, who mostly firmly stuck to their radical-liberal views of old, but by that time my little band at MN was already doing certain jobs on the side, like working for a State Department agency, the FBIS, and bringing in tidy sums of foreign currency to the company’s coffers while the Russian edition was way, way in the red. This made us immune to attack.
After MN was sold, in 2003, to Khodorkovsky and Nevzlin, the YUKOS oligarchs (there was a cover-up, but the actual owners were these individuals), I continued to work for a few months in my former capacity. I was not fired on the spot by the new management, as was Victor Loshak, chief editor of the Russian sister paper, but it was clear to me from the start that I would not be able to work along with the new bosses (such as the well-known “TV killer” Yevgeny Kiselev). So in the end I quietly sent in my resignation by email and left the paper that I regarded as a sort of my brainchild. That was sad, of course, but one had to be realistic: they would have squeezed me out without fail, and, considering all those bypasses in my leaky heart, I would be lucky to escape with my life – the pressure was relentless. Robert Bridge, whom I had educated in the proper spirit, held out for a few more months, but then had to quit, too. Eventually the paper fell into the hands of a bunch of dyed-in-the-wool Russophobes besmirching Russia at the Russian taxpayer’s expense. All I can do about it is mutter glumly O tempora, o mores, or so it would seem.
On leaving MN, I felt, for a few months, as free as the wind, and even put in a couple of memorable trips, paddling down the Vetluga in Russia’s north and the Akhtuba in the south, all in one season, but was soon recruited as chief editor of the English language webzine www.intelligent.ru (2005-2006). It is still referred to in various blogs as “defunct but fondly remembered.” The circumstances of its untimely death are too ugly to narrate here. It is hard enough to put together a bunch of fine journalists to produce a presentable publication. Finding a capable – and, most importantly, honest – manager has proved immeasurably harder.
After the death of www.intelligent.ru, I was for a couple of years chief editor of www.guardian-psj.ru, a small enough operation that strove to continue in the spirit of intelligent.ru. The 2008 crisis put an end to that venture. Since then, I have mostly devoted myself to writing, gardening, and a variety of hobbies too numerous and at times too exotic (like sling-shooting) to be here accounted for.
That’s it, in brief. Some colleagues will point to obvious lacunas in my narrative, but wasn’t it Napoleon who once said: “There are things one does not write.” Anyway, I have put a great many details of my life into Tales of the Wilds, especially “Taiga Law,” the first and longest of those tales, and also in Solo on the Aral, perhaps the most autobiographical of my writings. In The Cruel Cruise I gave more scope to the imagination, but as one reader keenly observed, there is a lot of stuff there that could not have been written without hands-on experience. All of these texts – plus whatever is in the pipeline, and there’s plenty – I hereby heartily and unblushingly recommend to the reader.
25 November 2011