In February 1942, when the Germans were being driven back from Moscow, Pravda published a lyric which immediately won the hearts of our troops. It was "Wait for me". Soldiers cut it out of the paper, copied it out as they sat in the trenches, learned it by heart and sent it back in letters to wives and girlfriends; it was found in the breast pockets of the killed and wounded. In the history of Russian poetry it would be hard to find a poem which had such an impact on the people as "Wait for me". It made the Soviet officer and Russian poet - Konstantin Simonov - world famous.
(Editor's introduction to Simonov's Selected Poems, 1964)
"Wait for me" is still one of the two or three most familiar poems in the Russian language. These days, it is frequently parodied. The man who wrote the poem is in danger, in post-Soviet Russia, of being dismissed as a conventional product of his time. He was much more than that; and this website is devoted to his poetic achievement.
He was born Kiril Mikhailovich Simonov in 1915 in St Petersburg. His father, an army officer, was soon to be lost in the War. His mother had been born Princess Aleksandra Obolenskaya - a member of one of the oldest families of the aristocracy, though not rich. Following the death of her husband, she remarried - to another army officer, Aleksandr Ivanishchev. Kiril's new stepfather was a veteran of the the 1905 Japanese war; he had been wounded and gassed in the First World War. After the Revolution, a soldier by profession but no longer fit for active service, he joined the Red Army and became an instructor at the Ryazan Military Academy.
Simonov's earliest memories were of barracks life. His stepfather was a strict disciplinarian for whom everything had its time and place. But at the same time, the Obolensky influence pulled him another way. It was in the Leningrad home of his librarian aunt Sofia Obolenskaya that he wrote his first poem.
He grew up in the Soviet Union of the thirties - a time when for those who were not aware of the dark side, new life and new opportunities seemed to be springing up everywhere. As a child and as a teenager, he wholeheartedly believed in the new Soviet society - yet also, perhaps, he was conscious, with his family background, of not entirely belonging to it. Perhaps this was why, after basic education, he chose to leave school and look for a role in the new industrialising Russia - he became an engineering apprentice.
His enthusiasm for the new Russia was soon severely tested. Not long after he left school, his stepfather was arrested. Kiril and his mother were expelled from their home. Six months later, Ivanishchev was released and rehabilitated - there had been a "mistake". But as a result of this experience, the old soldier resigned from the Army and took a civilian job in Moscow. Kiril also found work in Moscow, and managed to publish a few poems. Encouraged by the publisher, he started a course at the Gorky Literary Institute.
The next 5 years were dramatic ones for Russia and for Simonov. By 1940, when he was 25, having changed his first name to Konstantin - a name common enough in Russia, but particularly common in the Obolensky family - he had established a considerable reputation as both poet and dramatist. But the Russia which encouraged and responded to his genius was passing, in those years, through all the hideous drama of the purges. And in 1935, most of the remaining Obolensky family in Leningrad, including his beloved aunt, were deported to Orenburg in the East. There subsequently she and her sister were arrested; both died in prison in 1937.
The young pre-War Simonov was ambitious and believed passionately - theoretically - in the collectivist ideal, but he was by no means completely in harmony with the new Russia in which he found himself. The most interesting of his early poems make this clear. "Hours of Friendship" is about a dream. The dream is a terrible evocation of loneliness - an empty world in which, it seems, few children survive more than a few weeks. Or so he thinks; but a strange old man makes the true position clear:
He said 'You are mistaken, passing stranger!
Here people live into the depths of age.
Here in these graves lie men as old as I am.
You have misread the funerary inscriptions.
We do not count the passing years as you do.
We reckon, when we measure length of living,
Not years that we have lived, but hours of friendship.'
At that rate (the poet suggests) he himself would not live long either:
........................ If life's reckoned thus,
Perhaps not all of us would live a year! Russian
In "Comrades in Arms", written about the same time, the poet turns deliberately away from such friends as he has had, in favour of the comrades with whom he believes he will at last experience true friendship - in war:
They are not those with whom I started
And learned my letters, in my place,
Nor those with whom I shaved moustaches
Still scarcely noticed on the face.
We have not drunk our tea together,
Divided bread in equal shares.
Quite unaware of my existence,
They go about their own affairs.
And yet the time will come when fortune
Will bring us side by side in war...Russian
The coming war will, he feels (it was 1938), give at last a real meaning to friendship. He will at last belong to a larger unit than himself:
The sacred hot offensive frenzy,
The bitter, brutal toil of war
Will bind as one our generation -
An iron knot for evermore! Russian
He was already very conscious of the inevitability of war with Germany - certainly in a sense looking forward to it. But his perception of war seemed primarily an identification with military values for their own sake. When there was a clear ideological identification to be made with one side rather than the other - as there was, for him, in the Spanish Civil War - there was no doubt of which side he was on. But elsewhere, he found it easy to empathise with the patriotism of others - even of those who had, in the past, invaded Russia. In "The British Military Cemetery at Sebastopol" he is in sympathy with the British Crimean War dead and their need - honoured by their government - to retain their links with their own country:
The soldiers far from home will sleep more soundly
Knowing the sheltering mounds above their heads
Are roofed across with tiles from distant England
And English grass is planted round their beds. Russian
By contrast, in "The Lieutenant ", the finest of his early poems, he shows that the valour and patriotism of the Russian soldier has not always been honoured by his government. The Lieutenant is an old soldier, like Ivanishchev, whose service, like that also of the poet's librarian aunt, receives little gratitude. In command of a remote Russian outpost on Kamchatka and unaware that the Crimean War has broken out, the lieutenant unexpectedly finds his fortress bombarded by the Royal Navy. After inflicting great damage, the flotilla sends an officer to demand surrender. But although the lieutenant knows that the "scrap of land" he holds is of little value, and conscious though he is of the power of the enemy, he is determined to fight on.
The British attack fails, the flotilla withdraws, the dead are buried and the roofs repaired. And then, delayed by a year, come orders from St Petersburg. The outpost is to be prepared for war, upgraded, a captain is sent to take command, the lieutenant is retired:
The poor old soldier walked about the fortress...
He knew the ship was ready to depart -
But in his mind, the cold official paper,
The useless bit of land that claimed his heart! Russian
Further disillusionment awaited the poet. His first experience of the actual reality of war came when he was sent to Mongolia as a war correspondent at the end of the Soviet-Japanese campaign of 1939. His principal sensations were of pity and admiration for the defeated enemy. His first glimpse of the reality of war came, he tells us, in a staff tent, where officers were going through captured Japanese papers. On the floor lay the material they had rejected - including dozens of photographs of Japanese wives and girlfriends. Their "paper smiles" looked up from the floor - "even from the photographs with blood on them..."
The more serious poems of the Khalkhin-Gol campaign celebrate the bravery and discipline of the Japanese and express pity for them as fellow human beings. One poem asks: which soldier was the bravest? The Japanese who, driven mad by thirst, ran for water in broad daylight? Or the one who, for seven nights, endured without it? No, the bravest was the POW who at the moment of repatriation and under the eyes of the officers sent to meet him, waved goodbye to the Soviet captors who had treated his wounds. Only in this conclusion - which is perhaps not entirely convincing - is there any sense of moral superiority on the Russian side.
None of the Mongolian poems are remarkable in themselves; they are interesting as expressions of the poet's state of mind. In 1939-40 we have a young Simonov who is still ambitious, who still believes at least theoretically in the collectivist ideal; but whose idealism and ambition are being undermined by half-conscious doubts and too easy success. Doubts (and perhaps, semi-consciously, more than doubts) - springing from the purges, the fate of his aunts and his sympathy with the enemy point of view; success - coming perhaps too easily both to himself and (it seemed - he was not there at the more critical earlier stages of the Mongolian campaign) to the Soviet Army.
Idealism and ambition require obstacles to overcome. Success must not be too easy. But they can also take another form, where perhaps there will be fewer doubts, and success will not be easy at all. Konstantin Simonov fell passionately in love with a beautiful woman who was never to be entirely his - the young actress Valentina Serova.
Valentina at 21 was already a rising star of stage and screen. She had been briefly married to Anatoly Serov, a fighter ace hero of the Spanish Civil War and favourite of Stalin who soon after was killed in an flying accident. She had many subsequent lovers, but she never loved another man in the same way, and she always bore Serov's name. The nature of her relationship with Simonov has been well described in a recent article by the actress Tatiana Kravchenko, who clearly sympathises with her:
It was as if there were two strands to the love of Simonov and Serova - and both can be clearly followed in his verse. One strand was that of external events; here Simonov played the active role. He insistently pursued her, he had his way with her, and she simply yielded or resisted, responded or failed to respond. The other strand was the inner one - the real story of their love. And here, strange though it seems, she led the way and he followed. She set the tone, he followed her. She had by nature and even to excess a woman's intuitive understanding of how to make herself loved: the more one gives, the more firmly one entangles. And he learned from her to give himself thoughtlessly, generously, demanding no guarantees, without bargaining, without counting the cost.
There was physical passion, of course. And yet, despite all appearances to the contrary, these two were held together by more than just physical passion. Passion, like thirst, passes when satisfied. A woman who was no more than beautiful and superficially sexy would scarcely have been able to monopolise such a man as Konstantin Simonov. What he wanted from her was the sense of 'two hearts beating as one'. Her body she gave lightly, her soul belonged to her alone. And he wanted to gain her soul.
All this and more, as Kravchenko says, is there in the poetry. For Simonov, Valentina was an obsession:
Well may I curse in years to come
The features of your face.
My love is like a cataclysm,
Transcending time and space.
There's not a friend or comrade dear
Who in the light of day
Could come into this flaming fire
And pull me clear away.
Despairing of escaping you
And raving like a fool,
As harnessed to an earthquake,
I live under your rule.Russian
And yet the next lines of this poem, written in 1942, are:
But when I come to free myself
From this hallucination,
I shall defend you when I hear
Their words of condemnation.
"Why do you number up her sins?
She's neither wrong nor right!
She's not a woman, she's a force,
A tempest in the night;
And feeling the approaching threat,
I went to meet the storm!
I did not stay, like you, indoors,
Where it was dry and warm.ussian
The detachment which is clearly emerging here was made possible by the War. Without Hitler's invasion and its catastrophic results, Valentina might have destroyed him. As it turned out, when June 1941 came, he knew there was something which was even more important to him than Valentina. And sadly, she, in the end, was the one who was destroyed.
Almost overnight, the invasion resolved all Simonov's inner hesitations. Suddenly and at last, he knew with absolute certainty the direction his life should take, and felt completely in harmony with the society to which he belonged. He was a soldier, utterly and fearlessly devoted to expelling the invader and winning the war. And at the same time, he was in the fortunate position that the weapon entrusted to him with which to fight Hitler was the one he knew better than anyone else how to wield - his pen.
In the course of the first year of the War, he was catapulted into a unique position as the patriotic war poet par excellence and a significant contributor - in verse, plays, films and prose - towards the revival of Soviet morale after the shock of the invasion:
Wait for me, and I'll come back!
Wait with all you've got!
Wait, when dreary yellow rains
Tell you, you should not.
Wait when snow is falling fast,
Wait when summer's hot,
Wait when yesterdays are past,
Others are forgot.
Wait, when from that far-off place,
Letters don't arrive.
Wait, when those with whom you wait
Doubt if I'm alive.
As an expression of personal feeling, "Wait for me" - his most celebrated poem - was no more than a moment of self-deception: he knew that Valentina would probably not wait very long. But for innumerable others as well as for the poet, it expressed what they wanted to believe. And as an expression of national self-confidence, it was very important.
The Britain of 1914-15 had its war poet too - almost as celebrated in his time. But although Rupert Brooke was, at his best, a fine poet, the poem by which he is often remembered and which had the greatest impact at the time it was published, had a very different message from Simonov's:
If I should die, think only this of me
That there's some corner of a foreign field
Which is for ever England...
The soldier whose mind is on the cemetery will achieve little; and in fact Brooke died of fever before he even reached Gallipoli. By comparison with the vigour and confidence of Simonov, Brooke's mood seems almost suicidal - and it was unfortunately typical of the war poetry of the young British subalterns of his generation - though Sassoon was a striking exception.
In the early years of the war, Simonov seemed indestructible. "If God in his almighty power" was written in Odessa under siege, when death stared him in the face. He answered that stare with a laugh - and with total acceptance of the future. What would he wish to take to Heaven with him? Everything he has experienced, or could experience, on earth - including, yes - even death:
Even death, if that could be,
I should not leave behind below.
All that is here our lot on earth
I'd choose to take with me - and so
God, in astonishment, would curse
The worldly loyalties of men,
And very soon, without a doubt,
Would put me back on earth again. Russian
If Valentina's constancy could not be relied upon to protect him, his own will to live certainly could. And unlike most of the British 1914 war poets, Simonov did survive.
The poems of 1941 to 1945 and particularly those dedicated to Valentina, subsequently collected as With you and without you are likely to be the basis of Simonov's continuing poetic reputation. The best of them are those which express the conflict between the two strongest motivations of his being - his love for Valentina and his military devotion to Russia. And at the back of it all, a sense of welcoming and enjoying the single-mindedness - or double-mindedness - that his situation had now given to him, and a fear of what life would be like if ever these two uniquely powerful motivations no longer guided him.
"The Hostess" is his masterpiece. We are to imagine that the poet and his friends - presumably war correspondents like himself - gather regularly, when they can, in Valentina's flat. After they disperse, they go off to the various fronts and some of them are killed. Each time, fewer attend. The purpose of the poem is to reassure Valentina that she is right, while his friends are present, to accord him, the poet, exactly the same treatment as the others. She has become an ideal to them, a kind of icon: she gives them something which sustains them in battle; they need her. Until the party breaks up, the poet expects and receives no special treatment from her. When all go, he quietly returns and is received as a lover: but until then, he is merely one among equals.
The first half of the poem establishes this principle; in the second, it is carried further. What if he, the poet, is the one who fails to return? Again, she must accord him no special priority: she must suppress her grief until the party is over. This arouses overwhelming emotion, because the possibility really does exist that she would feel "the show must go on". After all, that was how she had reacted when Serov died. It was her first night in a new comedy: she played her part brilliantly and only collapsed in misery afterwards. She was an actress...
We must not suppose that the poem exactly covers events which happened in the way described. It was written in the first winter of the War, when the German army had nearly reached Moscow. Although many of Simonov's colleagues were indeed being killed, absence from a party need not have meant death, or even hospitalisation: there can have been few occasions when all those who still remained alive could gather in one place. An event which no doubt did occur, perhaps once or twice over that period, is used symbolically, to express the conflict between the demands of love and those of war. And although the poem presents this conflict as taking place in the mind of Valentina, this is a projection of a conflict taking place in the mind of the poet.
The climax of the poem is more powerful and deeply felt than anything else Simonov wrote:
Don’t call it off - you must not spoil the evening!
What if for me you feel a special pain?
What if I loved you? What does it mean
That I shall never see your eyes again?
We gathered here as equals - only later
Fate gave you me alone when back I came,
But sitting in this room around this table
Our rights in you were equal and the same.
Later will be the time when you’ll remember.
Later, if need be, will be time for tears,
When, standing in the cold sheet at the window,
You’ll beg for mercy from the lonely years.
But now you must not spoil with tears and sorrow,
By grief for me deny the final right
To those who yet will go to war tomorrow,
And those, like me, who don’t return tonight. Russian
The emotion projected on to Valentina is the poet's own; and the tragic sense of loss has an entirely different cause, more likely to be associated with Valentina's unfaithfulness, Perhaps he knew that she had already commenced her affair with the future Marshal Rokossovsky. What the poem demonstrates is the poet's success (despite profound emotion) in reconciling himself to what has happened - of accepting it somehow as part of the fortunes of war. The positive presence in the poem is not the poet's love for Valentina but the ikonic significance, as a feminine symbol, which Valentina represents; and the comradeship in war which Simonov enjoys with his friends. Somehow, even in death, they are one.
Thus the ideal which Simonov had set before himself in 1939:
The sacred hot offensive frenzy,
The bitter, brutal toil of war
Will bind as one our generation -
An iron knot for evermore. Russian.
had indeed, as he predicted, been achieved - even if at a terrible cost.
Simonov's most definitive expression of the achieved unity and comradeship of war is in "The House at Vyazma", written in 1943. The poet and his companions share an old house in Vyazma, for one night. In the morning, they go their separate ways - some never to return. The house becomes a symbol of their moral unity:
That night, as we prepared to die
We had forgotten how to lie,
How to betray, how to be mean,
How to cling on to what is mine.
That night it was revealed to us
That life is sharing, bread and house. Russian
In introducing his recorded reading of this poem in New York in 1960, Simonov said:
Here is another poem about friendship, or rather not so much about friendship as about the thoughts that we had then, in the War, about what life would be like after the War, about what sort of people we would be; about how we would continue our friendship; would we not change? Would we not become worse, as people? Russian
The symbolic house will be reconstructed after the War. And if anyone betrays his friends, he will be sent back there, to feel the same pressure of moral force as before:
There let him sit alone as if
Tomorrow battle comes and death,
And if tonight a lie has passed
His lips, it yet may be the last.
As if he will not share his bread
With one who shortly will lie dead,
Or greet with cold and formal breath
The man who'll rescue him from death,
Instead of us, let bitter shame
Sit with him there in our old home.
And when we see him, we shall know
Whether he has been there or no. Russian
If once again he has felt the moral force of the house, he will be re-established among his friends. If not, he will no longer belong with them.
But the comradely unity of war could not survive in peace. For long, himself an immensely powerful figure in the postwar Soviet literary world, Simonov believed that it could. Until Khrushchev exposed the truth about the Stalin era, he was able to continue to believe in the Soviet ideal, whatever its faults in practice. Khrushchev's revelations, once Simonov was able to accept them, gave him a new sense of the triumph of honesty. But in the Brezhnev era, when the truth (which all now knew) could no longer be written, his life increasingly lost its meaning. He attempted to re-discover his wartime self in a mission to Vietnam. There he returned, briefly, to composing verse. It was not a success. In 1979, still only 64, he died.
What are we to think of the ideal which Simonov presents to us? In his perception, the highest value in life is unity among men - in which they share bread, home and yes, in some sense, a woman whom they all have in common. How can we accept this?
The unity which Simonov presents as existing among the men who shared - for one night - the house at Vyazma is a unity which we, in times of peace, might expect to achieve in the family. In a happy family, a life of sharing - of bread, of home, of all the resources and dangers of life - is taken for granted. After the War, once his relationship with Valentina had failed, Simonov married again, and his marriage seems to have been at least partially successful. Yet for him, the highest ideal was always friendship, and its highest expression the totally committed sharing between men which is perhaps only possible in war. To quote his 1960 New York reading again:
I don't know how others may see it, but for me, human friendship is the most precious feeling on earth. That feeling has its greatest strength when times are hard; and in war, times are very hard. Russian
Simonov's ideal was not just a personal one: it was the collectivist ideal on which the Soviet Union was established; an ideal deriving not only from Marxist theory but from the moral traditions of Russian society and of the Russian army: a society and an army for whom a strong sense of shared destiny had proved to be the only defence against a harsh climate and the vulnerability of the open plains of Russia. Throughout the Soviet period, Russia was always actually or potentially at war. Once Gorbachev started to take down the barriers round the Soviet Union, the sense of siege could not be kept up any longer and the Union fell apart.
Yet something very important - which Simonov more than any other writer expressed - was lost.