Nonfiction from NER 34.3–4
Translated from the Russian by Michael R. Katz
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Over fifty years ago was the first hearing in the trial of Joseph Brodsky (1940–96), who was, in 1964, a 24-year-old poet and translator at the start of his career. In the Soviet Union, every able-bodied adult was expected to “work”—those who refused risked being criminally charged. The poet Brodsky was, by this logic, accused by Soviet authorities of crimes against the state and found guilty of “social parasitism.” A smuggled copy of Frida Vigdorova’s court transcript, newly translated and annotated here by Michael R. Katz, documented the courage and candor with which Brodsky responded to the Judge, and brought his work to the attention of the West.
First hearing of the case of Joseph Brodsky.
Session of the Dzerzhinsky District Court.
City of Leningrad.
February 18, 1964.
Judge: What do you do for a living?
Brodsky: I write poetry. I translate. I suppose . . .
Judge: Never mind what you “suppose.” Stand up properly. Don’t lean against the wall. Look at the court. Answer the court properly. (To me) Stop taking notes immediately! Or else—I’ll have you thrown out of the courtroom. (To Brodsky) Do you have a regular job?
Brodsky: I thought this was a regular job.
Judge: Answer correctly!
Brodsky: I was writing poems. I thought they’d be published. I suppose . . .
Judge: We’re not interested in what you “suppose.” Tell us why you weren’t working.
Michael R. Katz is C. V. Starr Professor Emeritus of Russian and East European Studies at Middlebury College. He has written two monographs on Russian literature and has translated a dozen or so Russian novels into English. He was recently named a Mellon Emeritus Fellow and is currently working on a compilation that includes a new translation of Tolstoy’s Kreutzer Sonata and the recently discovered “counterstories” written in response to it by his wife and son.