Kirill (later called Konstantin) Simonov was born in Petrograd (St Petersburg) in 1915. His mother had been born Princess Obolenskaya, in one of the oldest noble families of Russia. His father was a senior army officer: he went missing in the First World War and Kirill never knew him. The War led to the chaos of revolution and civil conflict; Simonova and her little son found themselves in the provincial town of Ryazan, where she met and married another older ex-Tsarist officer – Colonel Alexander Ivanischev. He brought up Kirill as his own son and no other children were born.
Kirill's stepfather was now an instructor in a Red Army military college. Kirill's earliest memories were of barracks life – the parade ground was outside the window of their flat. He was close to his stepfather; Ivanischev was a strict disciplinarian for whom everything had its time and place, but he was very fond of his stepson: When the older man was preparing lessons in strategy and tactics, he sometimes let Kirill help him; military matters became familiar to the future war poet very young.
At the same time, the softer Obolensky influence pulled him another way. His mother wrote verse; and in the Leningrad home of his librarian aunt Sofia Obolenskaya he wrote his first poem. These two influences - the military traditions of the Russian army and the cultural legacy of the Russian aristocracy - contributed to the man he became.
Kirill was a sensitive, lonely boy, conscious of belonging to a barely tolerated pre-revolutionary minority and suffering from the embarrassing disadvantage of not being able to pronounce his own first name properly. (His later recordings suggest that that he always had difficulty in pronouncing the Russian ‘r’ and hard ‘l’ sounds). But he was ambitious; somehow, he knew how to progress in the new Russia in which he had grown up. Against the opposition of his stepfather, he left school after basic education and become an engineering apprentice. In the new Communist Russia, this proletarian background would be an advantage rather than the reverse.
Not long after he left school, his stepfather was arrested and Kirill and his mother were thrown out of 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. Kirill found engineering work in Moscow (in a film studio) and managed to publish a few poems. Encouraged by the publisher, he started a course at the Gorky Literary Institute, at first part time, then for three years full time.
The Gorky Institute was a forcing ground for the new generation of Russian writers who were to help build socialism in Russia. It offered encouraging opportunities to publish and be performed and it attracted some very talented students. In this exciting new environment, Simonov found his feet for the first time. He changed his name to Konstantin and left the embarrassment of Kirill behind him. He had poems published; he married and his first child was born. Then he had a play accepted and found himself in the intoxicating but dangerous world of the Russian theatre. He fell passionately in love with the actress Valentina Serova.
Valentina was a rising star of stage and screen. Two years before, she had married Anatoly Serov, a fighter ace hero of the Spanish Civil War. But after one brief year of marriage, he was killed in a flying accident. Soon afterwards, she gave birth to their child.
Valentina had many lovers, but she judged every other man by the standard of Serov. The contrast between the very mature and masculine Serov and the brilliant student Simonov, with his speech impediment, could not have been greater.. She found him, at first, a nuisance rather than a man to whom she could respond. But he was persistent: he would not let her say no. At her every performance, she saw him in the front row of the stalls with flowers. His initial poems to her are imploring, almost childish. But he had a new play in prospect, with a part for her in it. He was intelligent and ambitious. He was rising, likely to be increasingly successful. Perhaps he would grow up. One night, probably in early 1941, she came to his flat.
And then, on 22nd June 1941, Hitler invaded Russia. Simonov had trained as a war correspondent; he knew that war was coming sooner or later.In 1939 he had briefly reported on the Russo-Japanese war in Mongolia. Now he was mobilised and ordered to report to a military newspaper at Brest, on the frontier. As Valentina bade him goodbye, she told him for the first time that she loved him.
The troop train bore him westward towards, as he thought, the frontier. But by this time the blitzkrieg had already penetrated deep into Russia and the train never reached its destination. After a series of adventures, Simonov found his way back to Moscow with much excellent material and perceptive analysis of the situation at the front. This was favourably received at a time when communications between Moscow and the front were erratic. He was noticed at the top. For the rest of the War, he served as a war correspondent for Red Star, the Soviet army newspaper.
He was an aristocrat by birth. He had always felt an outsider in Soviet Russia and some of his close relatives had disappeared. But the invasion of his country changed everything. He knew now the direction his life must take. He felt himself to be a soldier, utterly and fearlessly devoted to expelling the invader and winning the War. And 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 to how to wield – his pen. His work as a war correspondent made its contribution. But some of his poems, in a country where everyone read and recited poetry, were even more important.
He had a week's break in Moscow, waiting for a vehicle to take him on a wide survey of the various fronts. His editor lent him his dacha outside the city so that he could have peace to write. One day that week, among much else, he wrote what became his best known poem, Wait for me.
At first, he thought of Wait for me as a personal poem, for Valentina alone. But on his subsequent trip to the North, his companion got him to read it aloud wherever they went, because, he said, the poem helped him to come to terms with separation from his wife. Soldiers loved the poem and copied it out on scraps of paper to send home. The poet gradually realised that he had written something important.
He submitted it to Red Star – it was rejected. But the Pravda offices were in the same building and he happened to meet the editor of Pravda in the corridor. Pospelov invited him into his office for a cup of tea and Simonov read Wait for me to him. After consulting a colleague, Pospelov said he would publish it. Pravda was the national daily of the Soviet Union. The young poet had reached the widest readership possible. The effect was immediate. In the words of a later editor of Simonov's poems:
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 girl-friends; 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 a wide general impact as Wait for me. It made the Soviet officer and Russian poet – Konstantin Simonov – world famous.
Alexei Surkov, Simonov's friend and colleague, related that ‘in the first year of the War, it was hard to find anyone at the front who hadn't seen the Pravda edition which contained Wait for me. On the home front, the impact of the poem was as great or greater. After the War, the wife of a soldier who had not returned wrote to Simonov:
Do you realize what your poem meant to young wives like me who were left at home? We didn't believe in God, we didn't know how to pray, and we had such a need to say to someone ‘Protect him, don't let him die.’ And then your poem came. It was sent from the rear to the front and from the front to the rear. It gave hope to those who waited and to those for whom they waited. Every day, I looked in the postbox and whispered your words like a prayer, repeating ‘Yes, my love, I shall wait, I know how to wait.’
When With You and Without You, a volume mainly of love poems which included Wait for me was published later in 1942, it was a best seller and sold out immediately.
Simonov commented bitterly after the War ‘It was ironic that I, the poet, for whom no one waited, survived the War, whilst others, who had someone waiting, did not.’ Valentina was not faithful to him. But she had made his name. Suddenly he was famous, his poem was on everybody's lips. Over time, at least three composers set it to music. He continued his work as a war correspondent. It was normally a very dangerous job; but he was now treated as a VIP and the commanders of the units he visited his took care to keep him from harm. He survived; and as the War went on, he sometimes even took Valentina with him.
Much of his best poetry had been written in the second half of 1941, when during a brief period, his belief in Valentina's love - his initial self-deception - sustained him, often in extreme danger. As 1942 progressed, he was less and less in love with Valentina; but he was less in danger and she valued him the more because of his new national status. He wrote the screenplay for a film Wait for Me, in which she played the role of the girl who waited.
They married and he tried to convince himself that her infidelities need not prevent him from loving her, but he knew she would never love him in the way he needed. In a sense he now needed her love less, because his life was (in every other way) now more secure. They remained together (whilst often separated) throughout the War. She had his child. But the after the War ended, they gradually drifted apart. Valentina was now fighting a losing battle against alcoholism, which gradually destroyed her acting career, her marriage and finally her life. The final parting, when it came, was decisive:
I just no longer love you, dear, and so
I cannot write you one more line of verse.
They divorced and he married the widow of another young poet. The marriage seems to have been happy, although his new wife specifically discouraged him from writing poetry, particularly to or about her. Simonov became increasingly known primarily as a prose writer, dramatist, and editor. He never ceased to write about the War, although censorship sometimes prevented him from publishing everything he wrote. He died in 1979.
The love affair of the poet and the star has remained endlessly fascinating to some Russians and articles still appear in the popular press. The actress Tatiana Kravchenko published a penetrating article in which she analysed the relationship from the woman's point of view:
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.
Perhaps this was true of their relationship during the brief period of their intimacy before the poet went off to the War. Blindness (translated here), a poem which Simonov published during the war but subsequently excluded from his collections, shows him in this state of mind. The War taught him, among other things, that this kind of relationship was not enough.
I love you was probably written in the train for Brest, before he had realised quite what lay ahead of him in the War. Until that parting, Valentina had been for him a wonderful sensual experience, a mistress. At the moment of parting, he became aware of a need in him for something more. As he went off into an unknown future, he needed the devotion, the loyalty and the love of a wife. She had never previously told him she loved him except in the heat of passion. And now she said it coolly, calmly, as if she meant it. And it to him it meant everything:
That you could say what you said that evening,
Seemed, till that evening, past belief!
‘I love you! Love you!’ Night; the station;
Your little hands so cold with grief.
Supported by those few words (and perhaps some self-deception) he was able to gain strength to face the dangers and challenges that lay ahead.
When he came back, but had not yet faced up to the reality of their relationship, his sense of her love enabled him to write Wait for me and even, amid the dangers of the War, the two light-hearted poems Letters and In Heaven. Buoyed up by his sense of her love, he was able to give himself, not just to her, but to his national loyalty to Russia.
But he was only able to see her occasionally and it seems that others were not going to allow him to deceive himself: she had not been faithful to him. He was going to have to come to terms with her promiscuity. And all the time he was living the life of a war correspondent, always busy and intermittently in danger; he didn't feel able to tackle the risk of losing her.
In My Wife he asks himself what it is that makes him want to be able to call her his wife. It's not that he wants the prestige of marriage with a celebrated star. Everyone knows about their relationship already. It's not that he wants to take her to meet his parents. And he comes to the conclusion that it is precisely her unreliability, her unpredictability, that makes him love her. And yet as a soldier who may not return, he needs to feel that she is waiting for him. It was an impossible situation – and one that, as he increasingly realised, was only to be resolved after the War.
In two poems, the fact that Valentina did not really belong to him was explicitly dramatised. Probably neither poem describes actual events. In At the Stage Door, a beautiful lyric in the Russian, he waits for her outside the theatre with two young fans – and she pays more attention to them than she does to him. He is able to imagine her without him. Her life, her career, will continue, the fans will still follow her and the snow will continue to fall, but he will not be there.
In The Hostess, one of his most powerful poems, his presence is finally only that of a ghost. 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... But then what if he himself is among those who do not come back?
The soldier's need for the support and love of the woman who is waiting for him, who is faithful to him in his absence in war, is a theme to which Simonov, in these poems, constantly returns. Initially, the poems show it as an intense personal problem; later, as he objectified his emotions, he wrote about it in relation to the soldiers of the war in general. The later poems translated here were written after the success of Wait for Me, when Simonov was probably less often in physical danger but increasingly aware of the need to develop the theme of Wait for Me in relation to others rather than himself. Wives makes it clear why this was important for the morale of the army:
I've got to trust her. If I didn't,
How could a man get through this hell?
In An Open Letter he wrote just what was needed for morale – although the poem undoubtedly benefits also from intense personal feeling. It was based on a real event. On one of his journeys to the front, he was told that a young lieutenant had recently been killed. The day after he died, a letter arrived from his wife, in which she informed him that she was now living with another man. She asked him to cease ‘pestering’ her. His fellow officers had opened and read the letter, and it had made them very angry; they asked Simonov to write a suitable reply. He took the letter away with him and wrote this devastating letter in verse.
There was also, of course, another side to it. Men also can be unfaithful – especially soldiers and especially in time of war. Later, after the War, he wrote the very moving The Colonel's Son. It seems to be a true story. He spent a great deal of time, after the War, in interviewing veterans, gathering material, mainly for his trilogy of war novels The Living and the Dead. One of those he interviewed was a nurse who had served at the front. Like many girls in her situation, she had found herself in a relationship with an officer. It lasted until the very end, when he died outside Berlin. She hadn't told him she was pregnant. After the War, she is bringing up their son alone, on a nurse's wages.
The War was the defining event of Simonov's life. He was probably never again so creative and fulfilled as he had been when the war was in its most dangerous phase; and all his later writings drew on his wartime experiences. In his introduction to a reading of his verse in New York in 1960, he said:
I don't know how others may feel, but for me, human friendship is the most precious feeling on earth. That feeling has its greatest strength when life is hard; and in war, life is very hard.
The House at Vyazma presents this ideal. But the poem is an idealisation, probably not based on personal experience. Simonov's life, after his initial adventures in the first few weeks of the War, was never the comradely life of a soldier; it was the much more lonely life of an itinerant war correspondent. He was great poet and a great man; but also perhaps a lonely man, to the end.
© 2019-23 Mike Munford