Beside my bed tonight I have my Russian dictionary. No it has not come to that. I have beside me also a book of Russian poetry. The English translation of the collection is ‘Contrasts’.
In 1994 I was working in Moscow. After ‘perestroika’, Russia was opening up to the West and as with many things the Irish had got there first. I was there to supervise, among other restaurants, the construction of a pub.
My interest in Russia began with its poetry. It was a poets dream to be stationed there. The language is beautiful to listen to and Russians know their literature and much of ours as well.
A very good Russian friend of mine took me to Peredelkino an area outside Moscow where Artists and poets had their homes: Pasternak, Alexander Blok and many others. But the highlight of my time there was the introduction my friend gave me to the poet Sasha Krasny. We waited in the minus 30 Moscow afternoon till having phoned ahead we knew that Sasha had taken his afternoon nap and was ready to receive visitors.
Sasha at that time was aged 111, born in 1882. He was living in a small Moscow apartment with, I believe, some distant relatives, his room separated from his hosts by a wooden curtain.
His life had been remarkable by any standard regardless of his age. He had been an artist a performer with a Bolshevik touring theatre, a bodyguard to Lenin, he had known the poet Esenin and was, when I met him writing a collection of poems dedicated to his wife who had died some 30 years previously. Through my translator we discussed poetry and he expressed his concerns about the rising costs of food and publishing.
He proudly showed me a new sculpted portrait head which had been done of him. He read me some of his poems and a poem of Esenin and I read him Fern Hill by Dylan Thomas – the best I could offer him in exchange. Though his eyesight was failing his voice was strong and resonus like a Russian bell.
Before we left he asked me to feel his arm. He flexed his elbow and his biceps were like steel. His secret he said was his daily press-ups which he did without fail sick or well.
As we went to leave he asked my young friend for a kiss. She went to give him a peck on the cheek . No, not like that he said. A real kiss. I think there was more to his longevity than press ups!
He gifted me a book of his poems and wrote in it ‘ To my new English friend.’
And so the reason I have my Russian dictionary by me is because I want to translate the first poem, a love letter from Moscow to Odessa – the town of his birth, his homeland of Ukraine – and try to understand how people who have truly been brothers have come to this.