Joseph Brodsky died eighteen years ago today. Seamus Heaney, in his elegy for Brodsky, referred to it as “Yeats’s anniversary, | (Double-crossed and death-marched date | January twenty-eight)”. This year also marks the fiftieth anniversary of Brodsky’s show-trial on charges of “social parasitism.”
In observance of these milestones, below are some key passages from the trial, from a secret transcript taken by a reporter named Frida Vigdorova. The trial took place over two sessions in February and March, 1964 (at the second hearing, a sign welcomed attendees: “Trial of Brodsky, Social Parasite”), and ended in a five-year term of forced labour in Arkhangelsk. The appearance of the transcript in English, American, West German, and Polish publications shortly after caused a bit of a sensation outside the Iron Curtain and some embarrassment inside. By the time Brodsky was “strongly encouraged” to emigrate from the USSR in 1972, he already enjoyed a certain reputation in the West.
The trial had only one possible outcome, which everyone present well knew. Yet there are moments of unanticipated tension in the exchanges between the judge and the defence, which stem not from the absurdity and injustice of the situation (accounts are that these were taken for granted and not much protested by Brodsky or his lawyer) but rather from a competing understanding of what counts as a “profession” or “occupation” or “work”.
Here, for instance, the judge is asking about Brodsky’s official working credentials, which should have included specialist training as well as membership in a collective (in his case, the Leningrad Writers’ Union):
[note: this is from a version published in 1978 by Efim Etkind, in a translation by Peter France]
Judge: What is your profession?
Brodsky: Writing poetry. Translation. I think…
Judge: We don’t want your thoughts. Stand up properly! Don’t lean against the walls! […] Do you have any regular work?
Brodsky: I thought that was regular work.
Judge: Answer more precisely!
Brodsky: I wrote poems. I thought they would be published. I thought…
Judge: We are not interested in your thoughts. Answer me, why didn’t you work?
Brodsky: I did work. I wrote poetry.
Judge: That doesn’t interest us.
Here Brodsky’s lawyer is attempting to question him above the judge’s interruptions:
Counsel: Had you any relations with the translators’ section of the Writers’ Union?
Brodsky: Yes, I took part in the regular poetry readings called ‘For the First Time in Russian’ and read translations from the Polish.
Judge (To Counsel): You should ask him about useful work, not about public appearances.
Counsel: His translations are his useful work.
Judge: Brodsky, it would be better if you explained to the court why you did not work during the intervals between jobs.
Brodsky: I did work. I wrote poetry.
Judge: But that didn’t have to stop you working.
Brodsky: But I did work. I wrote poetry.
And here, in the most quoted excerpt of Vigdorova’s notes, the judge presses her basic point about Soviet credentials. Brodsky’s snark comes through briefly:
Judge: But what is your specialist-qualification?
Brodsky: Poet. Poet-translator.
Judge: And who declared you to be a poet? Who put you on the list of poets?
Brodsky: No one. (Spontaneously.) And who put me on the list of human beings?
Judge: And did you study for this?
Brodsky: For what?
Judge: For being a poet. You didn’t try to take a course in higher education where they train … teach …
Brodsky: I didn’t think it came from education.
Judge: How does one become a poet, then?
Brodsky: I think it comes … (embarrassed) … from God …
In the second session, labourers were brought in to stack the audience. They would break in from time to time to ridicule the arguments of the defence or heckle defence witnesses, providing a populist counterpoint to the authoritarian judge:
Judge: And what have you done that is of value to the fatherland? [* I believe motherland is a more accurate translation of R. rodina]
Brodsky: I have written poems. That is my work. I am convinced … I believe that what I have written will be of service to people not only now but in generations to come.
Voice from the hall: Go on! You’re kidding yourself.
Another voice: He’s a poet. He’s bound to think that way.
Judge: So you think that your so-called poetry is of service to the people?
Brodsky: Why do you say ‘so-called poetry’?
Judge: We call your poetry ‘so-called’ because we have no other conception of it.
It was the proletariat, too, who finally got Vigdorova to stop taking notes. At a certain point these turn abruptly from reported dialogue to narrative summary, which seems strange until we read the account:
[caveat: this is now my re-translation from a French version published in 1988]
After which is read a letter from a young woman who speaks of Lenin in terms lacking all respect. Impossible to understand the relation between the letter and Brodsky. He didn’t write it and it wasn’t sent to him.
Suddenly the judge addresses me:
Judge: Stop taking notes!
Me: I’m a journalist, a member of the Union of Writers. I write articles on youth education. I ask permission to take notes.
Judge: Who knows what notes you’re taking there! Stop immediately!
A voice in the audience: She has started taking notes again!
That’s the end of the transcript as such. What follows is a long narrative and analysis of the rest of the proceedings, the cases made, and the verdict. There are a few vignettes of comments from the audience:
These writers! They should all be expelled from the city!
Intellectuals, we’ve had all we can bear!
I’m also going to get a prose translation and write poems!
Hey, you heard what his lawyer said?
The lawyer, she says that for money. The prosecutor does it for free. So he must be right.
That’s a load of nonsense.
That’s it, insult me! I’ll call the guard!
You there, what were you taking notes for?
I’m a journalist. I write on youth education. I want to write about the trial.
What is there to say about it? It’s all clear. You’re all on his side. We ought to rip those notes off you.
Just try it.
And? What’ll happen?
Try and you’ll see.
Oh boy! Threats! Hey, guard! I’m being threatened.