Category Archives: Writing

“It comes from God”: the trial of Joseph Brodsky

brodskyThere’s a fascinating read up at The New England Review: Frida Abramovna Vigdorova’s transcript of the 1964 trial of Joseph Brodsky, translated by Michael R. Katz. It ends with the judge pronouncing this sentence on the future Nobel laureate: “Brodsky will be sent to remote locations for a period of five years of forced labor.” And the guards, passing the defense counsel, sneer, “So? You lost the case, comrade lawyer!”

I found this particularly telling as an example of the clash between the state and the individual writer:

JUDGE: How long did you work at the factory?

BRODSKY: A year.

JUDGE: As what?

BRODSKY: A milling-machine operator.

JUDGE: And, in general, what is your specific occupation?

BRODSKY: Poet. Poet-translator.

JUDGE: And who said you’re a poet? Who ranked you among poets

BRODSKY: No one. (Unsolicited) Who ranked me as a member of the human race?

JUDGE: Did you study for this?

BRODSKY: Study for what?

JUDGE: To become a poet. Did you attend some university where people are trained … where they’re taught…

BRODSKY: I didn’t think it was a matter of education.

JUDGE: How, then?

BRODSKY: I think that … (perplexed) it comes from God…

JUDGE: Do you have any petitions for the court?

BRODSKY: I’d like to know why I was arrested.

JUDGE: That’s a question, not a petition.

BRODSKY: Then I have no petitions.

Read the whole thing.


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Filed under Books, Poetry, Writing


I have wanted a complete Oxford English Dictionary since I was 17 and I lived in Sydney with the Bishops, who had one that they regularly consulted. Now I finally own one, the same compact edition with four pages reproduced on every leaf.
For years I did without an OED, what with the moves abroad, my status as an impoverished small-town reporter, or my lazy reliance on American Heritage. Then ten years ago, after we returned to the States from Cyprus, I found out you could get free access online with an Oak Park Public Library card, so I never bothered to buy my own OED.

Last year, the library canceled its online subscription to the dictionary, citing budget constraints. This happened even as they remodeled the ground floor and added a lounge that is so unused, they had to place a Ping-Pong table in there to lure people in. (Maybe they should distribute free blankets for nappers and hobos.) When I complained, they told me the subscription was too expensive and hardly anybody used it.

Why, I use it every day, I said.

We value your opinion, they said.

Filled with righteous indignation, I FOIed the remodeling budget and the OED metrics. Turns out they were right: They got fewer than 30 look-ups a month. And the cost (I’ve lost their lawyer’s email) was pretty high for a service whose customer base amounted to: me. So much for my plan to write a stinging letter to the editor of the local weekly. (“Sirs: On behalf of aggrieved writers everywhere, I wish to register my indignation at the priorities of our public library.”)

But now, thanks to an Amazon gift card from our older kid, I have my own OED, complete with case and the little drawer containing the squarish magnifying glass.

The word “working,” by the way, only dates to the 1300s. “Work” first appeared in 971. Not that that’s really relevant; I inherited Working from German immigrants, the Werkingers, who were apparently confused about how best to blend in when they arrived in Pennsylvania.

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Filed under Books, Editing, Fiction, Writing

The Roommate: Vladivostok and the Ghost of Mandelstam

Here’s an essay of mine that just went up in Numéro Cinq. Much obliged to Douglas Glover for running it, and for his generous introduction. Check out that site for photos as well; I will add some here as I get time.

By Russell Working


Pictures in a Bookcase

The tenth-floor hallway was filthy: paint was peeling from the walls, the garbage chute stank, and the elevator, I was warned, tended to break down. But when Tamara Fyodorovna, the landlady, showed me Apartment 81, the interior was spotless, with linoleum floors and wallpaper of alternating vertical brown and yellowish stripes and columns of fleurs-de-lis. Although the kitchen and living room-bedroom were tiny, the place featured a telephone, which many residences in Vladivostok lacked in 1997. The bathroom exhaled a sewerish eau de toilette, but this was not uncommon in Russia. Tamara Fyodorovna closed the door on the smell. “The kitchen’s got all the pots and pans you’ll need for cooking; plates and cutlery, too,” she said.

But in the end it was the bookshelves that made me fall for the place; those and the view of the sea.

The bookcases were glass-fronted and crammed with fiction and poetry and scientific volumes, and I was charmed that my landlady, an oceanographer who had vacated the place to live with her sister, had clipped photographs of writers from the newspapers and taped them up inside the glass. This practice, I would learn, is commonplace in Russia. The eyes of the authors followed me: Pushkin, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Akhmatova, and someone new to me: the poet Osip Mandelstam.

Tamara Fyodorovna flung open the curtains on the window in the main room, and I said, “Wow.”

It was February, and far below, at the foot of the bluff, the sunset had turned the sea ice on Amursky Bay into molten glass. Vladivostok, on the Sea of Japan, lies at roughly the latitude of Marseilles, but the salt water had frozen so thick, coal trucks cut across it to the far shore. Antlike fishermen peppered the surface. Some had lit fires in barrels that would smolder and die overnight. Across the bay, the sunset silhouetted the torn-paper mountains, and because this salient of Russia lies east of China, I wondered if the farthest peaks might be across the border, not forty miles away. On this side, prefab concrete apartment blocks stairstepped down the hill to the waterfront, and a smokestack smudged the air below with a printer’s devil’s inky thumbprint. A giant water pipe snaked alongside a road, shedding insulation.

Yes, of course, I said. I wanted the place.

I had quit my job as a reporter on a newspaper in Tacoma, Washington, and moved to the Far East, as Russians call their Pacific maritime (Siberia lies to the west). I was editing a biweekly English-language newspaper for the equivalent of $400 a month, although the crash of the ruble the following year would bring the exchange rate down to $72 a month. But if Continue reading


Filed under Russia, Writing