The Twelve

THE TWELVE cover

THE TWELVE about

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Introduction to

Alexander Blok's

THE TWELVE

"The artist should be concerned with life and all that has a bearing upon it, with the world and the decisive changes which take place within it. It is as he consumes himself in life that he finds his expression.... It is only by laying an immeasurable claim to life that life becomes worthwhile. All or nothing. To await the unexpected. To believe not in that which exists in the world, but in that which ought to exist."

(From Blok's essay "The Intelligensia and the Revolution", January, 1918, published in The Spirit of Music.)

THE TWELVE snow

THE TWELVE vision 3

Coal-black evening.
Ash-white snow.
Wind Wind!
No man can stand up in this wind!
Wind Wind
Across God's whole world!

Wind spins and swirls
A flurry of snow.
A sheet of ice lurks just below.
Sliding, struggling,
Everyone
Trips—slips—Poor guys, down they go!

From building to building
A cable is strung,
A banner is hung:
"ALL POWER TO THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY!"


An old woman ponders and weeps,
She cannot figure out what it means:
What use is that flag,
That huge canvas sheet:
How many poor souls could divide all that cloth—
All our children are barefoot, in rags…
The old woman bobs like a hen,
Tumbles through snowdrifts in the gloom.
—Mother of God, intercede!
—The Bolsheviks will drive me to the tomb!

What lashing winds!
How relentless this frost!
A bourgeois at the corner
Hides his nose in his fur.

And who's that there? He has long hair
And under his breath he mutters:
—The traitors!
—Russia founders!
Must be a writer—
Big talker…

Behind that bank of snow
Sneak long robes, black and creased.
No longer jolly now,
Comrade priest?

Remember how your belly staunch
Preceded you? You strode so proud!
Your cross bounced on your paunch
And sparkled at the crowd.

A fine lady in a black lamb fur
Turns to another, recalls:
—How we wept, how we cried…
She skids on ice
And –splat!— falls down, sprawls!

Oh. oh!
Grab her, pull her up!

The wind is jolly
And glad and mean.
It riffles skirts,
Mows everyone down.
It wrinkles, billows and rips
A huge high flag:
"ALL POWER TO THE CONSTITUENT ASSEMBLY!"


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The wind wafts bits of talk;

…And we, too, held an assembly…
…Here in this building…
…We deliberated…
…Decreed:
Ten for a quickie, twenty-five the whole night…
…Don't give it to anyone cheap…
…Let's go sleep…

Evening deepens.
How empty the street.
One lone vagabond
Hunches his back.
How the wind shrieks…

Hey, you poor bastard!
Come here—
Let us kiss…

Bread!
What lies ahead?
Move along!

Black, black sky.

Evil, depressing evil, thick,
Boils in my breast…
Black evil, sacred evil…

Comrade! Watch out!
Stay alert!


II.
The winds carouse and shriek and blow.
Twelve men march through powdered snow.

Their rifle straps cling black as night,
Around them—lights and lights and lights.

Cigarette butts in their teeth, on their heads, caps,
A convict's brand could grace their backs!

Liberty, liberty,
Aye, but no cross!

Tra-ta-ta!

How cold it is, comrades, so cold!

…And Vanka's with Katka in the bar, how he swills.
…Her stocking hoards Kerensky bills!

…Vanushka too, now richer, bolder…
…Once one of us, but now a soldier!

…Vanka, you bourgeois S.O.B,
…Just try to kiss my girl, you'll see!

Liberty, liberty,
Yeah, yeah, but no cross!
Vanka with Katka's occupied…
Just how are they occupied?

Tra-ta-ta!

All around, lights, lights and lights…
Shoulder straps cling black as night…

Keep the revolutionary gait,
The restless foe still lies in wait!

Rifles, comrades! Don't lose heart.
Shoot Holy Russia for a start!

Russia, wooded,
Hutted, solid,
Fat-assed! stolid!

Aye, but no cross!

 

 

 

III.
How our boys marched off
To serve in the Red Guard—
To serve in the Red Guard—
To get their reckless heads shot off!

Oh you, bitter grief!
What a sweet life—
A torn overcoat,
An Austrian rifle!

Let all bourgeois despair.
We'll fan a world-wide fire,
In the blood, a world-wide fire—
Bless us, O Lord!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IV.
Snow whirls, the high-class cabbie shouts,
Vanka flies along with Katka.
The little electric light
Shines from the shafts.
Hey, hey, away!

In his soldier's coat
With his stupid mug
He twirls and twirls his black moustache.
Twirls it and pokes,
Teases and jokes…

There's our Vanka—such broad shoulders!
There's our Vanka, he talks bolder,
Enchants and hugs
Silly Katka.

She throws back her head,
Her teeth gleam with gems,
Oh you, Katya, my Katya,
My moon-faced girl…


 

 

V.
Katya, that cut the knife left
On your neck is not concealed.
Katya, under your breast
That scratch has not healed!

Oh yes, go on, dance!
Let your pretty legs prance!

White lace trimmed your fancy drawers…
Show them off once more!
You hustled officers before,
Now go sleep around some more!

Aye, aye, sleep around some more,
Your heart will pit-pat as before!

Remember, Katya, that officer.
He did not escape the blade.
Bitch, don't you remember?
Such memories don't fade.

I'll refresh them instead.
Let's find us a bed!

You once wore gray spats,
Gobbled Mignon chocolates,
Went around with fine cadets—
Are soldiers now all you can get?

Aye, aye, sin with me!
Your soul will rest more easily!


VI.
…Again the horse cab races by,
Flies as the cabbie shrieks and cries…

Stop, Andrusha, help me! Wait!
Petrusha, cover their tailgate!..

Trakh-tararakh-takh-takh-takh-takh!
Snowy dust floats to the skies!

The cabbie–with Vanka—on the run…
Get them! Once more cock your gun!

Trakh-tararakh! I'll teach you how
… … … … ………… ...
To steal another's girl right now!

The bastard's skipped! Halt! Oh, hell,
I'll square with you tomorrow just as well!

But Katka's where? She's dead, she's dead!
The bullet went right through her head!

You happy, Katka? Not a sound…
Then lie there, dead bitch, on the ground!

Maintain the revolutionary gait!
The steadfast foe still lies in wait!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

VII.
And the twelve resume their pace
Rifles slung upon their shoulders.
Only the poor murderer
Completely hides his face…

He walks faster and faster,
Winds a scarf around his throat.
He cannot grasp,
Cannot figure things out.

—What then, comrade, not so jolly?
—What, my friend, you've got the shakes?
—What, Petrukha, nose in your collar
Or is her death now a mistake?

—Oh, my comrades, my countrymen,
How I loved that girl…
Such nights black and drunken
We spent, heads awhirl…

…For the daredevil spark
In the eyes of that jade,
For the crimson birthmark
On her right shoulder blade,
In blind rage I killed her,
In blind rage I killed her…Oh!

Don't grind out tired old dirges, bastard,
What are you, an old baba, Petka?
It sounds as if you had decided
Because of her to shoot your soul.
…Pull yourself together!
…Regain self control!

This is not the proper era
To coddle you like some wet nurse!
Future burdens we must bear,
Comrade dear, will be much worse!

And Petrukha slows
His hurrying pace…

He tosses his head:
A more cheerful face…

Oh, well,
No sin to raise a bit of hell!

Lock up your apartments tight—
Soon the plunder will begin!

Unlock your wine cellars tonight—
The ragged bums are coming in!


VIII.

Oh, you bitter grief!
Tedious boredom,
So deadly!

So, this tatter of time
I will pass, I will pass…

So, the top of my head
I will scratch, I will scratch…

So, sunflower seeds
I will crack, I will crack…

So, with my little blade
I will slash, I will slash…

Take off like a sparrow, bourgeois!
I will drink your blood
To my lady love
With dark eyebrows…

O Lord, may the soul of your handmaiden rest in peace…

What a bore!


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

IX.

Now quiet cloaks the Nevsky Tower.
Night has hushed the city's noise.
With no policemen on the prowl…
Though no booze, let's raise hell, boys!

A bourgeois stands there at the crossroads
And hides his nose deep in his fur,
While nearby with his tail down-curled
Crouches a mangy wire-haired cur.

The bourgeois like a mangy cur
Stands like a question, mute,
And like a mongrel, the old world
Behind him cringes, destitute.


 

 

 

 

 

 

X.

A blizzard breaks out from its traces!
The blizzard whirls, the blizzard races!
We can't see each other's faces
From a distance of four paces!

The snow curls up in funnels,
The snow piles into pillars…

…What a snowstorm! O Lord, save us!
…Petka! You are babbling crap!
What has the gold iconostasis
Protected you from in the past?
You're quite naive…
Shape up and at last use your head!
Aren't your hands already bloodied
Because of Katka's love?

…Keep the revolutionary pace!
The relentless foe will show his face!

Forward, forward, forward,
Working People!

 

 

 


XI.

…And, no holy name to guide them,
All twelve men march far,
Ready for anything,
Pity for nothing…

Their rifles of steel
Seek unseen foes…
They probe dead-end streets
Where just the storm blows…
Where you cannot see your boots
Through powdery snow…

Right in their eyes
The red flag beats.

Now measured steps
Sound through the streets.

The cruel foe
No longer sleeps.

And the blizzard blinds their sight
Day and night
Through many nights…

Forward, forward,
Working People!

 



XII.
They march far with lordly tread.
…Who goes there? You, come out quick!
Just the red flag up ahead…
The wind is playing us a trick…

Ahead, the snow piles like a hut.
…Come out, whoever's in those drifts!
That's just the wretched hungry mutt
Who hobbled there… The snowbank shifts…

…Run off, damn dog with mangy fur
Or you'll itch from my bayonet!
Stay back, old world, like that scabby cur—
I'll beat you so you won't forget!

…A hungry wolf, his cold lips curl,
He cringes but he still won't flee.
You freezing mutt, you mongrel cur…
—Hey! Halt! Who goes there? Answer me!

…Who waves that bright red flag ahead?
…Look closely now, damn night's so black!
…Who sneaks through there with stealthy tread,
Steals past dark houses, hides in back?

…Even so, my gun will get you!
Better give up live than dead!
…Halt, comrade, it will be worse for you—
Come out or you will taste my lead!

Trakh! Takh-takh! — The bullets' echo
Bounces from the houses' walls…
The blizzard pours across the snow
Only merry drawn-out peals…

Trakh-takh-rakh!
Trakh-takh-takh…


 

Thus they march with lordly tread—
Behind them, still the hungry cur,
Before them — with the bloody flag,
And unseen in the blizzard
And unharmed by the lead,
Stepping calmly through the blizzard,
Flecked with pearls of snowy ice,
In a wreath of pure white roses—
Right ahead there — Jesus Christ.

[January 1918]

[An earlier draft of this translation appeared in Ann Arbor Review,
and in a skinny chapbook they published, ©1968 Elisavietta Ritchie;
This revised draft © November 2014 and 2016 Elisavietta Ritchie;
Any copyright on Aleksandr Blok's original poem long expired.]

 

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