Pictures at an Execution: On Lev Ozerov's "Portraits Without Frames"
Lev Ozerov | Portraits Without Frames | NYRB Classics | December 4, 2018 | 280 Pages | Introduction by Boris Dralyuk | Edited by Robert Chandler and Boris Dralyuk | Translated from the Russian by Maria Bloshteyn, Robert Chandler, Boris Dralyuk, and Irina Mashinski
The Jewish-Ukrainian poet Lev Ozerov (1914-1996) might at first seem an unlikely chronicler of the Soviet experience. Born Lev Adol’fovich Gol’dberg to a family of pharmacists in Kiev amidst the outbreak of World War I, he was a mere toddler when Lenin’s Bolshevik Party seized power in Petrograd in 1917. As a child, Ozerov loved music (he dreamt of becoming a composer) and drawing, a skill he would maintain into adulthood and employ in a distinctive combination signature/self-portrait (see Figure 1 at bottom). His first employment as a teenager was in Kiev’s Arsenal munitions plant, a site of major pro-Bolshevik uprisings in 1918. It was only after taking a job with a local newspaper in 1932 that Ozerov began to publish poetry, under his real name and the abbreviated “Lev Berg.” The romanticism and naturalistic imagery of these early verses apparently inspired the nom de plume “Ozerov” (from the Russian ozero, “lake”), suggested by a university classmate in reference to the “Lake School” of British poetry.
Few traces of youthful sentimentality are evident in Portraits without Frames, Ozerov’s last poetic work and first to be made available in English. Originally published posthumously in Russia in 1998, Portraits is an anthology of fifty free verse tableaux based on encounters with Soviet writers, artists, and cultural figures ranging from the world-famous (Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, Dmitry Shostakovich) to the lesser-known (Yiddish poets Leyb Kvitko and Dovid Hofshteyn, arrested and shot on Stalin’s orders in 1952). Each “portrait” is preceded by a short biographical note from the translators—the missing “frame,” as it were—no fewer than four of whom collaborated on this volume. Roughly half the portraits have dates; many of those that do were composed in the final years of Ozerov’s life. Together, they comprise what translator Boris Dralyuk in the book’s introduction calls a “mini-encyclopedia of Soviet culture,” one bearing the scars of both that culture’s tortuous history and its ultimate unraveling.
There is nevertheless a romantic quality to many of the vignettes in Portraits, particularly those depicting individuals imprisoned or killed for their work. In his portrait of Peretz Markish, executed alongside Kvitko, Hofshteyn and eight other prominent Soviet Jews in the so-called “Night of the Murdered Poets,” Ozerov begins by invoking the image of Lord Byron:
Once you’d seen him,
you could say
you’d seen Byron:
honor, dignity, stature,
a melancholy beauty
He’d raise his head
and, with half-closed eyes,
recite his poems
as if he were singing.
Like any skilled portraitist, Ozerov’s attention is drawn to the visages of his subjects, and he is at his most Byronic when describing the contours and character of a face. We are introduced to the writer and editor Alexander Tvardovsky via his “Soft locks of fair hair / wind-blown / onto his forehead, onto eyes / of the palest blue.” Novelist and Gulag survivor Varlam Shalamov’s “wrinkled face” is compared to “a hieroglyph / of all he has lived through / and does not speak about,” while the filmmaker Alexander Dovzhenko’s deeply-tanned “forehead, nose, nostrils, eyes” suggest that “he could be a carving / on some local species of wood.” Such evocative passages transition almost imperceptibly into spartan accounts of political censure and violence. Summarizing the fate of the experimental stage director Vsevolod Meyerhold, executed by an NKVD firing squad in 1940 after years of persecution, Ozerov captures the simultaneously sudden and brutally drawn-out erasure of a person from public life:
Meyerhold has lost
his theater, lost
This half-stanza, beginning and ending with the director’s name, constitutes a kind of poetic hourglass centered on the single “lost” in line four, a vessel through which Meyerhold’s personal losses filter down and gather into a collective tragedy. Indeed, the entire passage hinges on the word “lost,” repeated four times in seven lines. Remove it, and the message is inverted: “Meyerhold has his theater, his home, his life. The world has Meyerhold.”
Loss—of life, but as often of livelihood—is the predominant mood throughout Portraits. Death, after all, is “just joining the majority” (a quip credited to Mikhail Svetlov), but “nothing in Russia lasts / like a damaged reputation.” Many of Ozerov’s sketches are based on meetings with disgraced or downtrodden former grandees of Soviet culture entering their twilight years. Of the stately poetess Akhmatova, now pale and overweight in a baggy housecoat, Ozerov writes, “It’s Akhmatova, they say, / But not Akhmatova.” When he calls on the blacklisted writer Yuri Olesha at home, Ozerov finds Olesha pacing the floor, tearing at his shirt collar and muttering distractedly. A documentary crew drives up to the nearby dacha of a more celebrated author, and suddenly Olesha’s personal turmoil is externalized. Television technicians, cameramen, and assistants pour out of the van, tripping over wires in their haste: “They visit two or three homes, / ignoring Olesha— / who has long ago fallen from favor. / Into disgrace.” Ozerov casts himself as the voice of Memory in these moments, speaking from the future to arbitrate aesthetic merit and soothe the pain of premature obsolescence. “Who will remember him, / this fool of an editor?” he tells Akhmatova. “But every line of yours, / whether early or late, / will be worth / its weight in gold— / no, that’s not right— / it will be beyond price.” Upon visiting the poet and children’s author Nikolay Zabolotsky, who spent more than five years in the Gulag, it is Ozerov’s turn to pace the floor in a frenzy, feverishly reciting Zabolotsky’s verses as the former prisoner looks on in astonishment. “I thought I’d been quite forgotten,” we hear Zabolotsky tell his daughter afterwards, “but it seems people still remember me.”
Failure to be recognized, or to any longer recognize oneself, also manifests as a defensive response to persecution. Ozerov relates an episode in which Pasternak, denounced and expelled from the Soviet Writers’ Union a few years before his death in 1960, is approached by a youth on the street:
“You’re Pasternak, aren’t you?
“No, no, I’m not Pasternak,”
he answered, horrified,
and took off in a hurry—
yes, almost at a run,
like Pushkin’s Eugene
from the Bronze Horseman.
someone was shouting after him.
Without looking round,
he replied, “No, no, you’re wrong.”
By likening Pasternak’s youthful interlocutor to Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman, the most famous symbol of oppressive state authority in Russian literature, Ozerov draws attention to both the diffuse nature of power in modern dictatorships and the reflexive, self-effacing paranoia those living at the margins of such systems tend to develop. Pasternak is pursued not so much by any one person as by his own name, for to be named is to be recognized, categorized, and processed. Dissociative behavior is a survival mechanism, but one that results in the very same obliteration of the individual it is meant to resist. For Ozerov, the only recourse is to surrender oneself completely to art, to acknowledge the fundamental truth expressed in the lines of the Georgian poet Titsian Tabidze, a close friend of Pasternak who was arrested and tortured to death 1937: “It’s not me who writes my poems; / It’s they who write me / as if writing a story, / while life carries on beside them.”
Fundamentally, however, Ozerov is concerned less with romantic introspection than with explaining his subjects and preserving their world for posterity. In this sense, Portraits without Frames can be best classified not as a mini-encyclopedia but as a variant on that most Russian of genres, the ‘history of my generation’ or ‘contemporaries’ memoir, a form of “non-confessional autobiography that tells the story of a milieu rather than a person.” As the historian Barbara Walker has shown, the roots of this genre can be traced to the Russian gentry culture of the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth centuries, in which kinship ties and patronage networks were of the utmost importance. Ambitious nobles hoping to pass on acquired knowledge or personal connections to their progeny began composing memoirs that recounted family history, highlighted the author’s proximity to persons of influence, and creatively intertwined private life with the life of the state. The gentry memoir style was adopted and reshaped over the course of the nineteenth century by intellectuals such as Alexander Herzen and Pavel Annenkov, who suffused the genre with the intelligentsia’s ethos, politics, and penchant for gossip.
According to Walker, what most distinguishes a ‘contemporaries’ memoir from other types of self-narrative is the former’s reliance on the outward gaze, the privileging of exteriority rather than interiority as a means to self-understanding. Where a memoirist in the Romantic tradition might ruminate on formative moments in early childhood or unpack the subtext of past love affairs, the author of a ‘contemporaries’ memoir seeks to attain self-knowledge by capturing the mentalities and modus vivendi of their peers:
Almost always evident in the work of such memoirists is a strong desire to give the taste of a milieu and an era; to describe the look and feel of place as well as of personalities; to catch hold of vanished times as a means of self-explanation, self-defense, and self-advertisement in a group experiencing rapid transition and generational change.
This overriding urge to self-defend and self-explain in the face of sudden change permeates the verses in Portraits without Frames, all of which appear to have been written in the midst of or immediately following the Soviet Union’s collapse in 1991. While certainly not nostalgic, Ozerov’s lamentations for those consumed by the Soviet experiment betray an ambivalence towards that experiment’s implosion and the evaporation of what Svetlana Boym calls “the unrealized dreams of the past and visions of the future that became obsolete.” If a communist utopia never materialized, neither did the open, enlightened society many dissidents and nonconformist intellectuals had hoped would emerge from the ashes of the USSR. Instead, as Masha Gessen writes in her study of the post-Soviet intelligentsia Dead Again, “the high of glasnost and perestroika was followed by a brief plateau of self-satisfaction” that degenerated during the ninties into “a nightmare of inflation, destruction, depression, bureaucratic battles aggressive alienation, a morbid festering national identity crisis and frightening, impenetrable apathy.” Liberal opposition figures who had persevered through decades of repression and imprisonment found themselves rudderless and alone, superfluous men and women in the cash-obsessed New Russia. They had outlasted the regime and, in a sense, themselves.
“As they grow older, people want to know / that their life / has not been lived in vain.” This coda to Akhmatova’s portrait might just as easily refer to Ozerov’s own search for meaning in the experiences of his contemporaries. They had struggled, sacrificed, risked and gone to prison, died—and for what? So that Muscovites could drive around in expensive German cars while Yeltsin bombed Chechnya? Didn’t anyone remember what it had taken to live and write “in times that were hard to bear?” Didn’t anyone care? In the end, both the author and protagonists of Portraits without Frames yearn for an existential comfort that words alone cannot provide. The book’s final poem, titled simply “Father,” finds Ozerov grappling on intensely personal terms with his own inability to amend history or rectify injustice:
It’s hard for me to speak
about my father. Hardest of all—
about how his life ended.
Father rushed to help
someone pleading for help
and was slain
by a bandit’s bullet.
He answered the call—
he was true to himself.
Year after year I’ve dreamt
of blocking his path,
but I can’t.
The devastating thud of this “but I can’t,” the last line of the English translation (though not the original Russian, which concludes with Tabidze’s portrait), can be read as both an admission of powerlessness and an assertion of principle. Ozerov is no more capable of taking a bullet for his father than he is for Markish, Kvitko, or Meyerhold—not only because it is impossible to alter the past, but because doing so would betray the ideals according to which these individuals lived. By telling their stories, preserving their portraits, Ozerov has done what is hard: to speak about that which one cannot change. But harder still to change that about which one will not speak.