Olga Sedakova (b. 1949) may have a reputation for otherworldliness, but this Russian poet, scholar, translator, and essayist has fiercely engaged with public discourse in her own ways. She came of age in the Stagnation Era of the 1970s, when the spark of revolution had faded, and General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev declared that Russia had now reached a mature phase of socialism. Sedakova became a central figure in the Russian Underground or “Second Culture.” (The terms overlap, but not entirely.) As an undergraduate at Moscow State University she encountered celebrity scholars like Sergei Averintsev and Yury Lotman and the cultural circles that emerged around them. She also encountered samizdat — “self-published” texts circulated through trusted networks when they could not be legally published or sold. She learned several languages and began to read widely — not just Russian modernist poetry (think Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Nikolai Zabolotsky), but also world poetry and philosophy, texts from ancient Greece and Rome, Byzantine hymns, Greek and Russian saints’ lives. And she responded to what she heard and read with poems of a mystic lucidity, sharp and compassionate, humorous and deeply learned. Since the fall of the Soviet Union she has become an increasingly important public figure. One of the only remaining writers of her generation, she speaks forcefully of the need to remember if one wishes to be free.

“Elegy that Turns into a Requiem” is one of Sedakova’s most obviously political poems. According to her Italian translator, Francesca Chessa, Sedakova first drafted the poem in 1982, soon after Brezhnev’s death, but then erased all traces of it because of how dangerous it was even to write such a thing. But the poem returned to her, and in 1984 she reconstructed it as best she could, inspired in part by the death of the next General Secretary, Yury Andropov. “Elegy that Turns into a Requiem” invokes an uneasy transition of power upon the death of a corrupt populist leader. The speaker struggles with her own complex response: beyond her repulsion to high-pitched, formulaic, obligatory solemnities, a cosmic compassion opens up. She remembers how many were killed because it was “necessary” to realize the Soviet dream — and how complicit she and all around her were. Her judgment of power is exacting:

Who sets himself astraddle all the earth,
desires that nothing of the earth remain
except for what lies there beneath his heel.

And yet it is for herself, for everyone, that she cries out for mercy.


Elegy that Turns into a Requiem

            Tuba mirum spargens sonum …


A miscreant steals cotton. This past week
it was decreed that now it’s time to teach
the future country, meaning, all the children,
of drills and vises. It’s not war we want.
We so don’t want it some folks’ knees go weak
at just the thought.
                           While others, backed by jammers,
praise bold fools: one hot air balloon escapes,
one person skims the waves, one crawls by cables
along the current, one slips through cloacae —
all by his lonesome, baby on his back —
all of them unsung heroes, casting off
their own mysterious fatherlands where, after all,

a miscreant steals cotton. Caravans
and wagons, echelons … It’s all white noise …
Raw goods, we’ve got them right up to our ears.
A Muslim paradise or a nirvana
of bounteous cotton; somewhere at the end
exists the future happiness of billons:
the final foe’s hot air balloon floats off —
and silence, like in Leonardo’s windows,
out of which the model does not gaze.


But, poet! Lo, the trumpet of the ancients
forbids falsehood; thus soundlessly, but crudely
the war horn, the indomitable horn
is summoning e’en far-flung quarantines:
arise, get up!
                      I, like Bertran de Born,
intend to mourn the death of our great lord,
of even two.

Ah, some Provençal spirit
inspires me now with boldness. Does our friend here
not warrant the Plantagenet’s lament?

From Finish cliffs to Pakistan’s high mountains,
from islands that once used to be Japan’s
and to the plains that once were Poland’s; farther —
from earth’s own bowels, where no ray of light shines —
foremother oil, the nursemaid of concerns —
up to the heights, through which the chirping satellite,
flies straight into the snare of cosmic caverns —
t’s time for grieving. And if not for him,
for plenty else.


My heart feels strange, though. I’m not sure how else
to put it. Tell me, what word might I use
to picture its lugubrious paradise? —
Despite your resolutions, your designs,
compassion’s gloom will to get to you, as well,
as net, then needle, gets the butterfly.

On something’s spiky wreckage, in the round,
they’ll even place him under observation.

I’m not sure where I heard this, but I know
that there’s no schadenfreude in its depths —
in that place essence goes out to meet essence
and rises upward with compassion’s horn
to its full height of graveside lamentation.

Here from the governmental cataphalque,
now sprinkled with the tears of the condemned
(long overdue!) — what sight does haggard flesh
seek out with eyes squeezed shut, once it’s set off
on down its mournful way? …
                                     Behold Your servant, Lord,
before You. Not before us anymore.

Oh, Death — my Lady! everything you touch,
it all takes on a curious hopefulness —
to live at last, in some new way and fully.
And then the spirit, with no ready answer,
with its last light turned ‘round to face the light,
goes sailing off along the wave of grief,
now utterly alone. Where should we sail …


Ah, world of sorrows! but a magic dyeworks
conducting trade in all the paints of hope.
Yet one brief phrase, like hydrogen peroxide,
could bleach e’en clothes made up as bright and motley
as Geryon: “Behold, destruction cometh …”?
No, this is not for living ones to see.
We’ll weep for all we’re burying with him.

We’ll set off for our saints — all killed like dogs
and buried so as never to be found.
We’ll take the common path and won’t complain,

like stars bound to the zodiac’s known roads,
like this one. And all those who have been killed,
from tsar’s son on down to the hired hand,
with neither trial nor tomb, as had to be,
long have they looked upon us from afar.

“It’s how it had to be,” we learned to say,
“so that we could defeat the darkness quickly.”
It’s how it had to be. Will have to be —
so be the judge of that, if you’re inclined.

To you, my youth, farewell. A ghoul has sucked
you ‘til it sucked you dry. And you, my conscience,
are harmed beyond the help of even miracles:
and for that matter, it may hurt somewhere,
but not here anymore. It’s not worth mourning
what can’t be saved. And you, my native speech,
he’s probably more becoming in his grave
than you are now.

      For those who waved aside
their fate — but still it got them.
                                     And for those
who didn’t wave but made their way into
the universal swamp with prim disgust,
recounting jokes from underneath the floor.
Those who got good and drunk. Who didn’t drink much
but who stole cotton, helping to increase
the people’s wealth. The ones who didn’t make it,
but most of all — the ones who did survive!


This much we know: power’s empty as a barrel
that’s bottomless. No matter what you pour
or push or stick inside — it won’t fill up.
Put half the country in a bag and then
in water, or let infants suckle ingots,
or circle half the planet in a tank —
it brings no peace. She doesn’t dream of peace.
She dreams of what will be beneath her hand,
what should be. Otherwise who’d be in charge here?

Who sets himself astraddle all the earth,
desires that nothing of the earth remain
except for what lies there beneath his heel.
Lo, power moves, the airy spiral column,
out from the Kremlin’s walls of rigor mortis
into the tomblike silence of the provinces,
toward peripheries dead on their watch,
and farther still, toward mujahideen —
and back, like the reflection of a wave.


Ah, such a clever mouse trap. Country mine —
oh, what a clever mouse trap. Hamlet, Hamlet
from folk to folk, the heir’s inheritance,
a precious ring — you, destiny, its stone,
as long as that bestung play is performed,
the one in which you languish, captive spirit,
look here: for here, it seems, is scarier still.

The parable, it seems, is Elsinore,
and we have come to watch the exposition
a hundred times. Long have I found all this
endurance horrible beyond all measure,
beyond all measure sickening. From all sides
the rubbish creeps up, with its rustling carpet,
and in one wee strategic dotted line
ticks out into the cosmos: tubamirum

Beloved companions of my learned youth,
indulgent Rosenkrantz and Guildenstern!
I know your kind mean business: help me out here,
please tell me what it is that I don’t know.
Okay, here goes:
go find yourself an attic
and bear in mind, you’re not the first to do so,
things have been worse. Such outsized cosmic spasms
are unbecoming for an individual.
And if someone, my prince, should contemplate this,
the hubris will no doubt destroy his liver
and meddle with his brains. If he is humble, though —
he’ll live without exploiting the change,
he’ll labor and he’ll gather in the fruit
of all his labors. When the empire falls,
the executioner may well ascend —
the cat, though, will still lap up all the milk,
the ant will finish building out his carcass.
The world, it rests upon us as before.
The salt of earth you seek, though, in your quarreling
with this our world — it is the Tuba mirum

“See, Rosenkrantz, it is the Tuba mirum,
it is the Specter that the world offended,
and it is that same world.”


Farewell, they will forget you — even sooner
than us poor wretches: watch how future power
starts gagging as it swallows former power —
its portraits, aphorisms, honored titles …
Sic transit gloria. What’s next is silence,
they say.
              No more a scarecrow or a jester,
no more a mesmerizing doll, now you
are spirit, and see everything as spirit.

In terrifying resurrected greatness,
in oceansful of peaceful, potent forces,
pray now, oh, mighty ruler, for the people …


Sometimes it seems to me that I am standing
beside the ocean.
                  “Hey, you lousy wizard,
were you the one who summoned us? then look
what happens now …”
             “Begone! not I, not I!
You let me go. Go pick on someone else.
I do not wish to know what grief and angst
are troubling unseen waters of the sea.”
Here, “down below” in fact means “up ahead.”
How I detest the near approach of grief!

Oh, but to take it all — by all, on all,
or with a pine dipped in Vesuvius
to write, as someone said, across the heavens —
to write, to write one single word alone,
to sob and write this one word only: HELP!

in massive letters so the angels looked,
and so the martyrs, too, could make it out,
the very ones killed with our clear assent,
the Lord then might believe that there is nothing
remaining anymore in hateful hearts,
in empty minds, or on the stingy earth —
that there is nothing more we can do. Help!


Translated by Martha M. F. Kelly


Martha M. F. Kelly is an associate professor and director of graduate studies in Russian in the Department of German and Russian Studies at the University of Missouri. She is the author of Unorthodox Beauty: Russian Modernism and Its New Religious Aesthetics (Northwestern University Press, 2016) and co-editor, with Sibelan Forrester, of Russian Silver Age Poetry: Texts and Contexts (Academic Studies Press, 2015). She is currently working on a new monograph, “How to Be a Russian Poet: The Public Life of Olga Sedakova,” and is translating a volume of Sedakova’s poems.