From Russia with Burns: How the Russians can’t get enough of the bard



This time every year Scots tell ourselves a story about our national bard.

Robert Burns, we say, is big in Russia. And it is true. Kinda. Ish.

The ploughman poet really does have a following across the former Soviet Union, even if he was never quite the giant of Communist letters we sometimes imagine.

This weekend some Russians will join in global celebrations for the man they call Byorns.

But they are unlikely to give the bard credit for arguably one of his biggest cultural impacts: as the lyricist for some of the biggest music hits of 1970s Soviet cinema.

It is a nuance forgotten in Russia and always ignored in Scotland. But Burns’ poems provided the inspiration – and words – for movie songs still being whistled across much if the old eastern bloc.

Above all, his “My heart is sair”, in translation, became the lyric for the score for the legendary 1977 rom-com Office Romance.

It is hard to overstate how a big film this is. “It is one of those things that absolutely everybody has seen,” explains Pavel Iosad, a Moscow-born-and-raised scholar of the languages and literatures of Britain, Ireland and Scandinavia at Edinburgh University. “Office Romance is something you grew up with. It is part of the furniture.”

The story of a lowly statistician, a 40-something single dad, who falls for his seemingly severe and bureaucratic boss, Office Romance might not sound promising.

But the film, by comedy-maker Eldar Ryazanov, somehow squeezes the humanity and humour out of what can look like a documentary on the Soviet Union’s sometimes grim years of “stagnation”.

This is no small thanks to its music, composed by Andrei Petrov and sung by the film’s stars, Alisa Friendlich and Andrei Myagkov, both giants of Russian theatre and cinema.

Do Russian speakers know this classic is based on Burns? “I doubt it,” says Iosad.

And this is the key to understanding the impact on Scotland’s national poet on Russia. Some of his work has basically become Russian, it has penetrated the popular consciousness without being recognised as something foreign.

Burns verse appears in at least three other major films of the period. His “My Luve is like a Red, Red Rose” was the leitmotif of the 1978 coming-of-age drama, School Waltz. His “Winter is Past” was morphed from tragic to tragic-comic for the 1980 costume comedy “Say a Word for the Poor Hussar”, another Ryazanov hit. And then there is Burns as you have never heard him, in the 1975 budget comedy “Hello, I’m your Aunt”, a cult classic.

This was the Soviet cinema version of a Victorian English play – Charley’s Aunt – in which the main protagonist, a gent in drag, sings, in Russian, what he says is a Brazilian folk song but is in fact “O poortith cauld and restless love” translated and put to a waltz.

It is no to everyone’s taste. It’s bit “low-brand”, says Iosad. This is invisible Burns, secret Burns.

That is because the bard goes almost unacknowledged for his role in Soviet cinema – though his name does flicker among the credits.

But there is another person who does not get the shout-out they deserve for this astonishing success: Samuil Marshak It as his translations of Burns which provided the actual text used in songs from movies like Office Romance.

And this is where we start to understand why Burns is relatively big in Russia.

It is – to a large extent – because of Marshak.

Friendlich and Myakov in their 1977 hit are not singing “my heart is sair”, they are singing “moei dushe pokoya net”, or “my soul has no peace”. Marshak’s words, not Burns’.

Marshak was more than a translator. He was a distinguished poet and children’s author in his own right. And he changed Burns. A lot.

But how did somebody of the calibre of Marshak end up translating Burns’ verse – famously a mix of Scots and English – in to Russian?

Huge figures in Russian literature had to make a living in the early 20th century. Giants like Boris Pasternak – author of Doctor Zhivago – struggled to get published. So they translated politically safe poetry instead.

Marshak, a Jew from a shtetl near Voronezh in Russia’s Black Earth Region, was always something of an outsider though he carved a niche in the relatively safe world of children’s writing and publishing, and in translating Burns, Shakespeare and others.

“There was a whole industry if poetic translation,” Iosad says. “Some of the biggest names in Russian poetry were doing that instead of publishing their own work.

“If writers were viewed as politically suspect then they did not get published. Because publishing was in the hands of the state. They had to have a job. So they translated.

“A lot of the translations were quite free. To an extent there was an ideology which was that translating means making something accessible,” he adds. “If that meant losing some of the colour and some of the background of the original and introducing some more colour and background, then that was what had to be done.”

This tradition had some quite surprising effects.

Whisper it, but some poets were better after their verse was turned in to Russian.

“There are writers who are said to be bigger in Russia than in their native countries,” explains Iosad. “There is an old joke in Russia. We say that Kurt Vonnegut loses a lot in the original.”

Marshak’s translations of Burns were in this tradition. Gone – obviously – are the Scots words.

Is Burns better in translation?

“It’s hard to make that call,” answers Iosad. “I have read Burns in the original but not being Scottish, it is difficult. Is Burns more accessible to a Russian reader than to the average English reader outside of Scotland? Yes, for sure.”

Marshak was not the first to translate Burns – but his are the classic renditions of the poet in Russian.

But there is another reason why Burns stands up there in the Russian-speaking world alongside the likes of Milton and Dunne: his love of metre.

Russia has never quite taken to free verse in the way the English-speaking world has. Burns fitted a long-standing Russian tradition of ‘versification”, modern British or American poets would not. But versification, of course, means the Russian has to rhyme too. And that, as you might expect, forces translators to take liberties.

“There are freedoms you have to take when you are doing any translation, especially verse,” Iosad explains. “There is a view that Burns is one of the last English-language poets that is easily accessible to Russians.

“Burns is one of the last hurrahs of metered verse in English. Which for Russians is a big deal. Lots of Russians struggle with free verse.”

Marshak’s role is rarely highlighted. Though back in 1960 he was made an honorary president of the World Burns Federation. In his native Voronezh this is often understood as his being declared an honorary Scottish citizen.

In Scotland Burns’ supposed Russian success is often linked to his assumed leftist politics. There is some truth in this – but just some. He was known long before the revolution and his work has outlasted communism.

“He is one of a very small number of English-language poets that the average Russian would know,” says Iosad. “If anything, Burns was appropriated by the Soviet state. Burns was seen as striking a blow for what we today might call left-wing values of fairness and equality. He would have be a very safe poet to celebrate. He was seen as a socialist avant la lettre, so to speak.”

Iosad, laughing, adds: “The Scottish state has appropriated him too.”

There is an irony of Burns as proto-Communist. His words, Marshak’s words, “my soul has no peace”, summed up Office Romance, a rom-com which somehow came to document the slow decline of Russian communism.


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