The Volokh Conspiracy

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Free Speech

Poems of Emigration: "Simply People Who Couldn't Think as Instructed"


Russian history has produced a subgenre of poems and songs about emigration (something American history has fortunately been largely spared). I blogged in March about Yevgeniy Kliachkin's "Farewell to the Motherland," and I also like the great Bulat Okudzhava's poem that begins,

How good it is that Zworykin left
And invented television there
If he had not left the country,
He, like all the rest, would have gone to Golgotha….

How good it is that Nabokov left
Not sharing with anyone the secrets of parting
How lucky that was! And on how many prophets
Their native land showed no mercy! …

Not a happy sentiment, but, hey, Russia's is not a happy history. In any event, a few weeks ago I came across Robert Rozhdestvenskiy's "The Talented Were Leaving My Country," written about the emigration of the 1970s. Here are the opening stanzas, which I found to be the most affecting; as usual, apologies for the flawed translation:

The talented were leaving my country,
Taking with them their dignity.
Some having sampled the Gulag gruel
And some a week before it.

Those who left weren't some sort of heroes—
How to tell who's a hero and who's not?
Simply people who couldn't think as instructed
Even if those were the very best of instructions ….