Excerpts from a Grumpy Russian Poet’s Diary


First Person

Igor Kholin. Illustrations by Ripley Whiteside.


The Russian poet Igor Kholin died in 1999 an underappreciated talent, but his literary star is on the rise. His Selected Poems were published in 1999 to wide acclaim, followed by his collected prose. This year, a new collection of his diaries and prose will be published in Russia. Ugly Duckling Presse released Kholin 1966: Diaries and Poems this past spring. We’ve published an excerpt of these diary entries—selected from his 1966 diaries and translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich—below. —Ed. 


August 17

I remember that as a kid I was particularly sensitive to verbal insults.

I think that poems should adhere to three rules. They should be:

1) Formally solid.

2) Emotional.

3) Intellectual.

I came to these conclusions in part after reading a piece by Krishnamurti.

Both my neighbors were utterly drunk. One of them dragged the other one home on a horse. They’re both around 70. 


September 11

Not a soul in the house besides me and the cat.

Yodkovsky Edmund Feliksovich. 33 years old. A towering hulk. A human chart. Overall a pretty decent person. However, his shortcomings exceed his positive qualities. My note about him will contain certain contradictions. Such is his nature.

Positive quality—he’s kind. Negative—inhumane. Positive—he knows a lot. Negative—he’s incapable of making sense of phenomena. To be more precise—he’s not a thinking person. Messy. Eats for three. Clumsy. Bad dresser. Impossibly gross when it comes to women. I don’t know how he gets away with it. But then again, that’s the kind of woman he goes for. As they say: birds of a feather. I’ve never seen Yodkovsky with a smart woman. Except for his first wife, Tamara Gromova. But she, too, had her limitations. Though in the end, it did dawn on her to leave him. Otherwise she’d have been miserable her whole life. His second wife, Marina, is as dumb as a doorknob. When he married her he couldn’t take his eyes off her. Then things cooled off. She got pregnant. She was right about to give birth and he left her. Just couldn’t wait.

We asked him, “Why’d you leave her?”

He said: “I thought she was somebody, but she turned out to be a nobody.”

You thought Marina was somebody? It’s written all over her face: family and children come first!

The second reason was the baby. Would we be wrong in calling Yodkovsky a moron and a sleaze?

This Natalie of his is, to all appearances, a kind soul. But I feel sorry for her. Yodkovsky, the inveterate liar, is always conning her shamelessly. He promises a lot and never delivers. She’s a pretty little female of the bourgeois species.

Here’s the weird thing. He—Yodkovsky—has spent his whole life striving to be honest and considers himself as such. But you’d be hard-pressed to find a more inveterate liar. He lies, of course, to justify his ungentlemanly behavior. That’s about all he’s good for. Lazy. But he has a lot of potential. If he could only come up with a big project and make it happen. As long as it has nothing to do with literature. But he won’t even try. He’s just going to go on writing his poems. That’s how these people are. They don’t understand that not everyone is meant to be a poet.

I was over at his place the other day. While I was there, he got packed and left for Adler. That’s where his baby doll lives. I think he went to check and make sure she’s not out whoring. There’s another one of his traits. While he goes chasing after every skirt that swishes past.

His mother has disowned him. She told me herself.

Without a doubt, he’s a despicable person. I don’t care. It’s his life.

Yodkovsky is ingenuous. But his ingenuousness is covered in flies.


September 14

What’s more acceptable: a life filled with all kinds of stimulation, or a life of moderation.

For a thinking person, it’s the life of moderation. Leaves a lot of time for reflection.

It’s sunny, thank God. I ate. Going for a walk. Yesterday I wrote a poem, “Water” (for children). “Pigeons” the day before yesterday. Today I’m going to try to finish writing “Warbling.”


September 21

It’s horrifying how fast time flies. It’s cold. No rain today. A strong wind. Walked around a lot, slept a lot. I’ve been sleeping 12–14 hours a day. Maybe that’s why time is galloping by so fast.

September 19 I was in Moscow. Saw Sapgir. An insatiable traveler, he had barely gotten back from the south and was already taking off for Leningrad.

Turns out he had gone down south with a woman he knows from Riga named Lida. I know this Lida. I was actually the one who first made her acquaintance, but Sapgir has kept it up all this time. Love. Kira sniffed them out somehow and now she’s a raving Fury. So Sapgir took her to Leningrad. To absolve his guilt. He’s gotten very fat, which really doesn’t look good on him. The way he puts on weight is weird—his face is spreading. He’s still drinking a lot. But he still knows his limits. He was proclaiming some new ideas about poetry, but I don’t remember anything.

There were four of us: Tsyferov, Kira, Sapgir, and me. Plus Kira’s parents—her mom and dad. Naturally, it was mayhem. They made it completely impossible to pay attention. But he was saying interesting things. About the Leningrad poets Brodsky, Gorbovsky, and Rein, the last of which no one likes, neither in Moscow nor in Leningrad.

Kira Sapgir.


Oct. 17. Monday

[The following entry is written in Yodkovsky’s handwriting.]

Kholin, Igor Sergeyevich. 47 years old. Tall, gaunt, stomach problems. A cultured man, lowborn. An autodidact (finished 2nd grade). The most brilliant incarnation of “black literature”—barracks poetry.

I have a positive opinion of him, although people say all sorts of things about him: that he served in the NKVD, beat a prisoner half to death, and did time for it. If any of this is true, it’s not his fault, it’s the times. Positive qualities: a singular, severe worldview that manifests in both poetry and everyday life. For example: I went on for ages proving that Mayakovsky is “a great bad poet,” while he summed it up in a single epigram: “Mayakovsky is a great Chinese poet.” And he’s like that with everything.

Negative qualities—intellectually limited. It’s that provincial narrow-mindedness that results from insufficient education. He’s a bit like Tarsis: for him, communists and fascists were one and the same, and for Kholin, many things in life are “tarred with the same brush”—he doesn’t distinguish shades and nuances. Although, I repeat, in essence, he often turns out to be right because he sees the most drastic aspects of phenomena. Positive quality—he’s a moralist (in the lofty sense of the word); honorable in everyday situations.
 Negative—he’s bilious. For him “the whole world’s a brothel and all the people are whores.”

His personal needs are limited. Undemanding, practically ascetic.

He has bad luck with women. He and his wife split up a long time ago, the best he can do now is mademoiselles like Eva Umanskaya.

He recently endured the greatest passion of his life—he fell in love with a model who, they say, dropped him for being penniless and impotent.

A brighter spot was Anya Danziger, whom he treated like a daughter.

Hardworking. Is knowledgeable about painting and contemporary leftist artists.

I figure he’ll remain an old bachelor.

The best thing he’s ever made is a handwritten book, The Work-Week on Earth, about life in the barracks in Russia. He hasn’t topped it yet—he’s hampered by a general lack of culture. I suspect that he reads little and unsystematically, and gets most of his information from hanging out with better-read friends.

Kholin is a man with blinders on. The best lines he ever wrote—In short, the poet doesn’t fall far from the general secretary. And vice versa.

I think that his literary fate is to remain a second-rate children’s poet because he’ll never have the courage to publish his adult poems abroad—and anyway, no one would take them. Essentially, he’s a representative of the homespun “school of bleakness.” Rabin had the courage and the talent to make his name abroad, Kholin just doesn’t.

If he could only meet a nice girl like Natalie, he’d be a lot happier. But he won’t, and even if he did, she’d walk right past him. He’s old.

It’s not that I don’t care about what happens to him, but how can you help a man who, at 47, still makes horrifying spelling errors? Who conceitedly overestimates his capabilities? Who doesn’t understand the essence of editing?

Sometimes he’s childishly trusting and open and happy to be alive. That’s when I love him.

If war breaks out, I want my commanding officer to be Igor Kholin.

But his advice on writing is naive. Literature is not made by the semiliterate. Gorky also had a complex about being undereducated, but he managed to become the best-read man of his time. This is not going to happen for Kholin.

Is Kholin kind? I don’t know. But perhaps he will forgive this intrusion into his diary.

[Note in the margins in Kholin’s hand: “These several pages are the best thing that Yodkovsky has ever written”—I. Kholin, 11.4.66]


November 23

In addition to all his other failings, Brusilovsky lacks basic tact. Yesterday I was on the phone with Driz. He said he couldn’t invite us over to his house. Something was going on with his wife. I think she’s sick. Brusilovsky immediately came up with his own interpretation.

“Some people are so greedy,” he said, “not like you and me though, right?”

I didn’t respond to that. He recently got a colossal studio. Two rooms, one larger, one smaller. Some lousy sculptor had it before Brusilovsky. He plastered all the walls with stucco to make it look like a grotto. It didn’t work. Came out horribly tacky. I said as much to Tolya. Not sure he believed me. Whatever. He’s the one who has to get by on his puny provincial intellect. At this point, I have no choice but to make a small digression. As a rule, I tend to pay closer attention to the negative traits of my friends and people who I come into contact with. For the most part, they’re all good people. And, for the most part, they all have faults. In day-to-day life, I’m pretty tolerant. And it’s only here in my notes that I let it all out …

Genrikh Sapgir.

Not long ago—November 20—we all got really drunk on the occasion of my friend Genrikh Sapgir’s birthday. There was Genrikh Sapgir, Kira Gurevich, Oskar Rabin and his wife Valya Kropivnitskaya, Yulia Anurova (Rasheeva), her nine-year-old daughter Katya, Tolya Brusilovsky, his wife Galya, Alyosha Khvostenko (an artist from Leningrad), Eva Umanskaya—my former lover—and Tanya Bolshakova from the Modeling Office, who was posing all night like a top model. They’re all so identical. It’s horrible. They all have the same gestures, smiles. It’s a good thing I didn’t marry Valentina Filippova, now Sergeeva in her second marriage. Tanya Bolshakova is just as pretty. But because of those smiles and gestures I found her repulsive. Tsyferov and his wife Natasha were there, too. Natasha is as sweet and pretty as ever. She’s put on some weight since getting married, which really suits her. And she dropped those awful House of Fashion mannerisms. The menu: sandwiches with red caviar, ham, herbs, cheese and vegetable spread. There was also salad, grated turnip and red pepper. Roasted duck was the main attraction. The wine list included: pepper-infused vodka, regular vodka, and Gamza wine. It was an ordinary evening. Which is probably why I got drunk. I was the drunkest person there. Even drunker than Yulia Anurova. For the first time ever, Yulia didn’t pull any stunts. Though she did get into a fight with her daughter. They riled each other up into some real hysterics. Yulia ran outside without a coat and lay down on a bench. I went out to talk her down. After that I became so drunk I don’t remember anything else. I woke up in the morning in my room and turned on the light. Here is what appeared before me. A pool of vomit next to my bed. My suit and a lamp lying in it. My sheets were also covered in vomit. A cot against the far wall with Khvostenko sleeping in it. My head was coming apart like a badly glued box. I felt like I was on a swing set. I got up and cleaned up the vomit. But even afterward, there was a terrible stench in the room that lingered for a few more days. Khvostenko woke up, too. I woke up my landlady Lida Shevchuk. We all threw in for a fifth of vodka and six bottles of beer. Khvostenko and I went to the store. Sapgir and Yan Satunovsky came over. We drank everything we bought. I started feeling better. Khvostenko told me that when we got home the night before, I didn’t go to bed; instead, we went to see this unbelievably sophisticated lady named Aelita. She didn’t let us in. I tried to get him to go somewhere else, but he refused and we went back to my place. Lida told me that I had a talk with her about our relationship. I told her that she’s a good person but that I wasn’t going to sleep with her. Tolya Brusilovsky told me that I did a beautiful job setting up the cot for Khvostenko. I kept falling on it, getting up, and then falling again. And getting up again, et cetera.

I have decided to sell the paintings I have.

I’ve been offered a place in a co-op in Vishnyaki, two rooms, 24 [square meters] total at 170 rubles/square meter. They’ve just started construction on the building. Should be completed in the first half of 1967. I have 1000 rubles. I need another 600. Where am I going to find it?

I called up G. Sapgir today. He’s going to a Schoenberg concert. My daughter came by. She got 50 r. out of me for a collar. She’s having a coat made. We went to the bank together. I came home. Lida made noodles—spaghetti. They’ve started selling it now. They say we bought a whole product line from the Italians. Really good noodles. I’m not liking the weather in Moscow right now: it’s drizzling, dripping off the rooftops. 2–3 degrees Celsius. Khvostenko seems to have gone back to Leningrad. I didn’t make an effort to get to know him. I have enough close friends to last me the rest of my life. I’m not reading Balzac anymore. I’m reading O. Henry. He has such tantalizingly precise plots. I like it. I wrote one grown-up poem today. Otherwise I’m not writing anything right now. And I’m even making an effort not to write.


November 26

Fredynsky, first name Volodya. A tall citizen with narrow shoulders. Black beard. Going for the priest look. In reality, all of these external features are rooted in his wimpy little soul. That day—and this was two or three days ago—I was dragged over to his place by Gena Tsyferov. He was with a girl. She was unexceptional, a little Tatar. Tsyferov spent the whole night being neurotic. The little Tatar was hitting the bottle hard and felt like being kissed and hugged by everybody, not just Gena. The table was covered in comestibles. The satsivi gleamed with a nutty sheen, the lobio lay there modestly concealed, as if hiding from the guests. The quails, cut in two, basked on a great platter, surrounded by a ring dance of the greens known as purslane. The vodka glittered in cut-glass carafes, towering above the table: as if to say, Look at me, this is all good, but I am the empress here, and without me none of this—the satsivi and the lobio, and the red pepper and the quails— will go down your throat. And indeed: we took her at her word and began demolishing her mercilessly, slamming back shot after shot, despite the fact that in her immediate vicinity, a bottle of Georgian champagne lay resting on ice. Everyone’s tongue quickly loosened, but that did not make the conversation any more lively. Fredynsky was, as it were, the heart of the gathering: all eyes were on him. We drank to his health. Why? I don’t know. It remained a mystery. When he was asked, he answered evasively: “Does it matter why we got together?” Maybe he’s right, who knows. He pontificated all night long: “Ilya Glazunov (a fashionable artist) came by the other day, he said my paintings are good.” Then an immediate digression: “Eat the satsivi first, then the lobio!” And again: “Ilya Glazunov said that when I have twenty paintings done, he’ll get me a show at the Manezh.” Basically, Ilya Glazunov came up about two hundred times. I remember that when Ilya Glazunov was still a total nobody, he used to drop Mikhalkov’s name in exactly the same way whenever he could: “My mentor Sergey Vladimirovich said this-and-that.” The guests at Fredynsky’s: Tsyferov, his beloved, some Ernest with his wife Katya. Yura—Fredynsky’s apprentice, also studies at the architecture institute—a worthless character, his last name didn’t stay with me. And two more colorless characters. Man and wife. She kept wetting her lips with her tongue to make them more sensitive. Seems like it was working. She was stocky, like a workhorse. I wonder what it would be like if you put high heels on a horse?

Right now, the Moscow intelligentsia is very taken with this game: you light a match and pass it around a circle. Whoever’s holding the match when it goes out has to answer any question asked by the other players. We played this game. The fundamental limitations of these people are evident from the kind of questions they were asking: How old are you? Who here don’t you like? Who do you like best? To break up the monotony, I asked one guy: Do you masturbate? He answered that he did in his youth. And immediately became furious with me. I asked Fredynsky’s beloved a question in an abstract language, something like, Aberdeh rukimeh eskeh tukimi cheloreh siliki? She didn’t answer. Later I said that I was 33,000,145 years old, and they made me forfeit. In this game, you’re also supposed to forfeit if you can’t answer the question. Everyone went home late. We went out and hailed cabs. No one was that drunk. We didn’t even sing. Tsyferov and his lover (can’t remember her name, and I’m too lazy to go look at the beginning of this entry) came over to my basement at Kirovskaya. I couldn’t refuse him, and they spent the night at my place. I set up the cot for myself and went to bed. They sat down on the bed. Tsyferov started making the moves on her. I pretended to be asleep. She was resisting, fighting him off, but silently. I watched them through a slit in the blanket. He hitched up her skirt, and things got a little more interesting. Then they turned out the lights and I fell asleep. I woke up a couple of times, and they were still at it. They finally left around six in the morning. She never did give in. Now I remember, her name is Roza, she works in animation. I told Tsyferov that he should ask me ahead of time before he comes over again.

Why do I keep a journal? Probably for practice. I don’t break the entries up into paragraphs in order to save space. As soon as I started writing this entry, I mean the one for today, six or seven Leningraders showed up. Irena, back again from Leningrad with her husband, Rodek, Lelya with her conductor husband. Some guy named Mirkin, a composer, and another one. Lelya’s husband (who everybody calls Yashka) came for a conductors’ competition. I’ll finish writing tomorrow. I’m tired. The time is probably around two in the morning on November 28th.


Excerpted from Kholin 66: Diaries and Poems by Igor Kholin, translated from the Russian by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich, and published by Ugly Duckling Presse this past spring.