The Execution Of Stenka Razin


In Moscow, the white-walled capital,
a thief runs with a poppy-seed loaf down the street.
He is not afraid of being lynched today.
There isn’t time for loaves…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
The tsar is milking a little bottle of malmsey,
before the Swedish mirror, he squeezes a pimple,
and tries on an emerald seal ring-
and into the square… They are bringing Stenka Razin!
Like a little barrel following a fat barrel
a baby boyar rolls along after his mother,
gnawing a bar of toffee with his baby teeth.
Today is a holiday! They are bringing Stenka Razin!
A merchant shoves his way in, flatulent with peas.
Two buffoons come rushing at a gallop.
Drunkard-rogues come mincing…
They are bringing Stenka Razin! !
Old men, scabs all over them, hardly alive,
thick cords round their necks,
mumbling something, dodder along…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
And shameless girls also,
jumping up tipsy from their sleeping mats,
with cucumber smeared over their faces,
come trotting up- with an itch in their thighs…
They are bringing Stenka Razin!
And with screams from wives of the Royal Guard*
amid spitting from all sides
on a ramshackle cart
he comes sailing in a white shirt.
He is silent, all covered with the spit of the mob,
he does not wipe it away, only grins wryly,
smiles at himself: ‘Stenka, Stenka, you are like a branch
that has lost its leaves.
How you wanted to enter Moscow!
And here you are entering Moscow now…
All right then, spit! Spit! Spit!
after all, it’s a free show.
Good people, you always spit
at those who wish you well.
I so much wished you well
on the shores of Persia,
and then again when flying
down the Volga on a boat!
What had I known? Somebody’s eyes,
a saber, a sail, and the saddle…
I wasn’t much of a scholar…
Perhaps this was what let me down?
The tsar’s scribe beat me deliberately across the teeth,
repeating, fervently:
‘Decided to go against the people, did you?
You’ll find out about against! ’
I held my own, without lowering my eyes.
I spat my answer with my blood:
‘Against the boyars- true.
Against the people – no! ’
I do not renounce myself,
I have chosen my own fate myself.
Before you, the people, I repent,
but not for what the tsar’s scribe wanted.
My head is to blame.
I can see, sentencing myself:
I was halfway against things,
when I ought to have gone to the very end.
No, it is not in this I have sinned, my people,
for hanging boyars from the towers.
I have sinned in my own eyes in this,
that I hanged too few of them.
I have sinned in this, that in a world of evil
I was a good idiot.
I sinned in this, that being an enemy of serfdom
I was something of a serf myself.
I sinned in this, that I thought of doing battle
for a good tsar.
There are no good tsars, fool…
Stenka, you are perishing for nothing! ‘
Bells boomed over Moscow.
They are leading Stenka to the place of execution.
In front of Stenka in the rising wind
the leather apron of the headsman is flapping,
and in his hands above the crowd
is a blue ax, blue as the Volga.
And streaming, silvery, along the blade
boats fly, boats like seagulls in the morning…
And over the snouts, pig faces, and ugly mugs
of tax collectors and money changers,
like light through the fog,
Stenka saw faces.
Distance and space was in those faces,
and in their eyes, morosely independent,
as if in smaller, secret Volgas
Stenka’s boats were sailing.
It’s worth bearing it all without a tear,
to be on the rack and wheel of execution,
if sooner or later
faces sprout threateningly
on the face of the faceless ones…
And calmly (obviously he hadn’t lived for nothing)
Stenka laid his head down on the block,
settled his chin in the chopped-out hollow
and with the back of his head gave the order:
‘Strike, ax…’
The head started rolling, burning in its blood,
and hoarsely the head spoke: ‘Not for nothing…’
And along the ax there were no longer ships-
but little streams, little streams…
Why, good folk, are you standing, not celebrating?
Caps into sky-and dance!
But the Red Square is frozen stiff,
the halberds are scarcely swaying.
Even the buffoons have fallen silent.
Amid the deadly silence
fleas jumped over
from peasants’ jackets onto women’s robes.
The square had understood something.
The square took off their caps,
and the bells struck three times seething with rage.
But heavy from its bloody forelock
the head was still rocking, alive.
From the blood-wet place of execution,
there, where the poor were,
the head threw looks about like anonymous letters…
Bustling, the poor trembling priest ran up,
wanting to close Stenka’s eyelids.
But straining, frightful as a beast,
the pupils pushed away his hand.
On the tsar’s head, chilled by those devilish eyes,
the Cap of Monomakh, began to tremble,
and, savagely, not hiding anything of his triumph,
Stenka’s head burst out laughing at the tsar!

Translated by Tina Tupikina-Glaessner, Geoffrey Dutton, and Igor Mezhakoff-Koriakin (revised)

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