Russian Winter Journal, February–March 1967

Penetrating the Soviet Union in 1967

Lawrence Ferlinghetti
A photograph of a train station in Russia at night.
Creative Commons

On this trip across vast Siberia, I felt I penetrated the very heavy heart of its great Revolution at the time of its 50th anniversary.

9 February

Soviet Air Flot, Berlin to Moscow—an enormous bunch of furry citizens flood out onto the dark field to take plane at East Berlin airport, crowd looking like they just were de-mobbed from the “Battleship Potemkin” crowd scenes, 1917 … They all succeed in getting on jet and we’re off, in sunny clear weather, Berlin tilted below as plane climbs & banks North & East … No announcements at all on P.A. system, no oxygen masks stowed anywhere to be seen, cabin very bare, circa 1950 U.S. plane … But jet works & it’s two hours to Moscow above the clouds, an excellent cold lunch served with white wine & caviar … German students, 12 to 15 years, from East Berlin on excursion for six days in Moscow, some teachers, Soviet business men, no beards but fur hats and heavy coats, women all hefty & healthy, ready for any scrimmage … A price list of articles available for purchase on plane includes recordings of “Lonely Accordion,” “Evenings in the Moscow Woodlands,” “Sevastopol Waltz,” “Song About Leningrad,” “Kiev Waltz,” “Field, Wide Field,” “Ensemble of the Soviet Army,” “Snowball Tree,” “The Volga Flows,” “Flowers Were Blooming in the Fields,” “Song of Russia,” and “Do the Russians Want War?”—the author of the last being E. Yevtushenko … Also, available for purchase: a memorial medal of Gagarin’s space flight …

Light brown flat land visible clearly below … We fly over what history? We’ll be coming down soon, into what snowland, thirty below zero … snow & frozen tundra below … limitless weightless fields & fields of snow lost in some Klondike, windswept ice plains in white sun glimmering. Ivan spurs his White Steed somewhere still & gallops into Siberia, thru Tashkent Nowheres … almost sunset here now while the West still freaks in afternoon, great forests visible, small cities banked in snow, straight railway into nowhere, snowhere, over the horizon, forests washed back stand frozen like islands in dry-ice seas … sun gone, dusk down, still we swoop across the land-escape, and so down now at last, smoothly, into Mockba, Mock-haven … Fall out, in Russian winter light, balled in fur, looking for igloos & cold men, find self in same old body instead, passport extended, a would-be moksha in Mockba, lost in his samsara. Trans-ported? We take our selves with us wherever we go.

Thru “In-Tourist” + Customs and out into a car to Metropol Hotel, thru the first darkness midwinter snow landscape way outside of the city, great snow world and white birches in the gloaming, on both sides of straight single highway, snow farms + crossroads, no billboards or roadsigns anywhere, finally more houses, then huge housing developments stretching for miles, then the beginning of long straight boulevard into the city, streetcars + buslines, lighter waiting rooms glassed in, and the black figures of the people against the white snow under high streetlamps, Gogol night-scene, Gogol night-tale, black figures against the white landscape, “eternal Russia” … Life still noble and tragic …

Two days in Moscow, full up with sound + sight of strange city … Went to Writers Union + made contact with people Allen [Ginsberg] had told me to look up, Yelena Romanova, Frieda Lurie, and Andrei Sergeyev, the latter Allen’s + my translator here. Zoja Voznesensky, Andrei’s wife, took us to see the production of Ten Days That Shook the World—a Brechtian dramatization based on but distant from the John Reed book. This was at the Drama Theater on Taganka Square + the director was Yuri Lyubimov. Really brilliant direction with many great scene effects, devices such as banks of spotlight-footlights raised to shoot a sheet of light from downstage edge of stage. At one point, an anvil was placed close to the light + hands waved behind + above it, looking like flames, with men hitting the anvil with great sledges …

History of the Russian Revolution, with Lenin speeches woven in (using his voice); then very satiric characterization of Stalin, very sharp + caustic + really laying him out; ending of course with triumph of the Revolution (in the future + in the past) with handbill dated October 1917 showered down on the audience at play’s end + Brechtian crowd scenes of masses rejoicing + dancing … We met director in his office at intermission, were invited to write on his wall + I wrote “To a great Director + great ‘Ten Days That Shook America’?”

On the walls of the Writers Union Café I saw Allen’s three-fish symbol drawn by him here in summer 1965 + I drew woman nude with inscription “The door to the invisible is visible” … [This was a paraphrase from the unfinished novel Mount Analogue, by the French writer and spiritual seeker René Daumal. An English translation of the book would be published by City Lights in 1968.]

Impossible to get Moscow down on my paper, of course, or to give any real idea of great cold city in Russian Winter Light … Walking in Red Square at midnight with young Russian poet Pietr Vegin and his beautiful wife Marina, we go past the huge night Kremlin, and past the fantastic Arabian Nights Basilica built by Peter the Great, the whole square a kind of surrealist nightdream in the snow, dark fur-hatted + fur-coated figures going by silently over the hard snow + cobbles, a big Red Star illuminated on a high steeple against the ink sky, the buildings inside the walls of the Kremlin floodlighted and yellow, not black + forbidding as always imagined … Red Star over Russia … The Metro here the deepest in the world, 450 feet underground in some places, and one Metro Station at a great depth having a salle filled with dozens of great bronze nude heroic statues, in alcoves + niches, on balustrades etc, as if the whole station were peopled with bronze figures … The Writers’ Union at 52 Vorovsky St. a big complex of handsome old buildings with offices, reading rooms, libraries, and the Club with restaurants + cafes + exhibition rooms with portraits of great Russian writers + a big auditorium. (Pasternak’s portrait had been removed + not put back yet.) The functionaries of the Union seem to be such kindly old, tough, gold-toothed ladies as Yelena Romanova, probably widows of writers of the first years of the Revolution, generation of 1917 … Lunched at their Club with Yelena Romanova, Frieda Lurie, Andrei Sergeyev + Zoja.

They really quizzed me. What was my opinion of Steinbeck + his report on Vietnam? (A reactionary, who does not speak for young American writers + especially not for the poets.) What party did I belong to? (None. Registered as an Independent.) What is my opinion of Hemingway? (Worse than that of Steinbeck, intellectually + morally bankrupt by the time he committed suicide. Lived in Cuba all during the second Batista regime + never opened his mouth in public on the subject. Went fishing instead. Result: The Old Man and the Sea.) What American poets do you consider great since you are so critical of Ciardi, Lowell, Wilbur, etc? (Whitman, Dickinson, Hart Crane, e. e. cummings, Pound, William Carlos Williams, Kenneth Patchen, Allen Ginsberg.)

Zoja Voznesensky concluded, after a discussion of Ginsberg (who had visited Moscow summer ’65), that Ginsberg was concerned with the interior world while I was concerned with the outside world, and therefore my poetry was “more comprehensive” (or something like that—this was thru an interpreter). I asked why, then, was his poetry so much more universal than mine? She replied that because the interior was more important than the exterior … Later I reflected that, if she knew Allen better, she might realize that it was Allen who is in fact the extrovert, I the introvert …

Sergeyev said he had translated Allen, myself and Richard Wilbur, Denise Levertov, John Ciardi + Robert Lowell, and I told him he was more broadminded than I, both poetically + politically …

On the Trans-Siberian

11 February
Got the romantic idea of crossing Russia on the Trans-Siberian Railway after picking up Blaise Cendrars’s book Sur le Transsiberien (1913). I’d take a Soviet ship from Nakhodka to Yokohama, and after a trip to Kyoto to stay in Gary Snyder’s house and visit Zen Institute and temples I’d eventually take off for San Francisco.

Heiner and I are picked up by “In-Tourist” at hotel on night of Feb 11th + deposited in our car on the train, which leaves right on time, 8:50 p.m., off into the night … At the same moment that the train starts up silently, the compartment lights are switched on + the loudspeaker in the compartment comes on very loud with Russian music sounding like an opera of the Revolution about to happen, interspersed with heavy Russian voice making announcements, the speaker in our compartment very old + scratchy, the sound coming out as through a wall of gravel + static. Four berths in little compartment but only one other man beside Heiner + me. A silent type on his way to some mid-point in the wilderness … A nice old Russian lady in train uniform collects our tickets + serves us tea …

February 12
New day, we wake up late, the train gliding on smoothly over flat snowland. First glimpse out the moving window shows beautiful birch woods (the taiga), tall thin white birches all along the track, to the horizon on one side, bare snowfields on the other, single big birds perched on the very tops of trees. Freight train, very long, passes in opposite direction, loaded with all kind of wood. Birch logs on end, planking, split wood. No people. Finally come to a small town + see one small boy on skis, then a larger town, also made all of wood, with many children skiing on low slopes by the tracks, then about noon big freight-yards + big town-city of Kirov. Ten minutes + we’re out of there, gliding Eastward toward the Great Siberian Plain, the sun a faraway lost small dime disappearing in white winter sky … our compartment flies along the ground under it, four comfortable berths, and the conductor-porter-maid of our car an old Russian woman looking like she may have been a countess before the Revolution. She’s now shoveling coal into the hot-water stove at the end of the car …

February 13
Great Siberian Plain. It’s like the sea. Too huge to write about. Nothing but birch trees like the froth on endless white groundswells—Sometimes thin lines of black forest on the horizon. Forlorn wood towns, rail junctions, with switchmen standing outside of sentry houses holding up woodsticks from which the signal flags have long since worn off—a horsedrawn sled or two …

Our train full of five-feet-tall dark men + women in dark clothes + serious faces, hardly any smiling, the whole huddle of us rolling on, past the white birches of Russia. 5 days to go, to Nakhodka, north of Vladivostok, where we’ll sail for Yokohama. So far we’ve passed through Kirov, Perm, Sverdlovsk, and will reach Omsk this afternoon … Our Babushka Countess brings us tea in glasses set in silver holders … A man in a soiled white coat comes thru the car every once in a while selling buttermilk in bottles, and other men come thru selling hot meat-dishes …

We arrive at Omsk at 3 p.m., stay 13 minutes, and off again. By quarter of 4 the Siberian night has already settled in, and a thin crescent moon shines down … Babushka brings us tea … Pete Seeger recording of his concert in Moscow (1965?) comes on over the compartment loudspeaker, interspersed with applause + Russian interpretation, including Russian audience singing “We Shall Overcome” with Seeger … It’s getting colder—it must be 35° below outside—it’s about 45° in our compartment. This trip may get rough yet—a trip for fools + poets … I have the strange feeling we’re going to freeze to death in the Mongolian mountains … (We have two maps—a Lufthansa flight map showing the topography, mountains etc—and a “General map of Asia” published in England, in pretty colors—the Siberian part all in green. The Lufthansa map looks much colder + dangerous. “Better we should use the friendly green map,” says Heiner.) …

The Face of Siberia has ice eyes and a beard full of icicles … In order to arrive where I am not, I must go by a way I have never been? But is this route necessary? I believe Mount Analogue is a long way from this part of the world … Taiga and tundra flash by in the night, ghosts of shamans and tungus flash by over the landscape.

February 14
Woke to the sound of a heavy Russian voice singing over the loudspeaker,

“Madame, I would buy you silks and laces,
Madame, I would be your lover,
Madame, will you marry me?”

In English. And then a Russian chorus replying,

“Oh no, no, no—no, no, no—no—no—no”

This is repeated with many verses, all with the same sad answer. In the passageway, Babushka is standing still, looking out the window. She does not understand English, but it is a sad song on her face … So we ride thru Siberia on a first class train with white tablecloths in the dining car over the land which bled + bled its white blood + its red blood. The Decembrists do not know us, neither does Kropotkin (though we know him), neither do the sailors of the Potemkin, neither do the 27-year-old workers on the Bratsk Hydroelectric Project, south of which we will pass tonight …

February 15
There are no red flowers in the taiga in winter … Raunchy, upland country here between Zima and Irkutsk, snow piled up everywhere, sledges full of wood drawn by black horses, fir replacing the birches a bit … Three days to go, to East Coast of Asia … out on the station platform at Irkutsk, where it must have been 40° below, our female porter was working with a crowbar, breaking ice off the big shock absorbers under our car. Call her Nushka from now on, in honor of the girl who worked at Bratsk in Yevtushenko’s poem …

Late-afternoon, train running along Lake Baikal now, great frozen lake with snow mountains high on far side, fishing boats pulled up along the near shore, by hamlets and double-ended black dories … Kids skiing on the ice, off shore … Mountains on both sides now, could be the U.S. Pacific Northwest. But they turn into huge forbidding glaciers, on the other side of which is Ghost Gobi … while the frozen lake goes on + on, on the other side of the train—a frozen sea … The great white snow mountains, rising up steeply, sun on their Western faces, the other sides in shadow—their sunny sides bright as mirrors …

February 16
Sometime during the night the electric engine was changed to steam, and we awoke to blue sky filled with white smoke from up front, mountains still to the East + South, desolate wooden hamlets on the other side, on a long plain … Six + a half days from Moscow to the East Coast of Asia, twice as long and far as the fastest train across the USA. Endless Siberia!

Under the continuous white cloud of our steam, we proceed quietly Eastward + North, skirting the northernmost province of China. At one station approaching Mogocha, we jump out + run up and down the platform + buy postcards with stars + sickles on them + Red Soldiers against a background of Soviet planes, tanks + submarines. Heiner sees one small very beautiful girl with slightly Oriental features. He wants to kiss her, pick her up, and carry her onto the train; but there is no time. The train is sounding its warning whistle. We dash aboard + off, leaving love on the platform …

February 17
About 500 miles from the Pacific now, we get out at a station at noon, and suddenly it’s almost spring. It’s warm in the bright sun, and the snow is melting on the eaves of the station-house which is painted red + decorated with clusters of little red flags. There is a little permanent display with pictures of Lenin and a postcard machine which dispenses photos of Soviet heroes. A three-star Russian general arrives with his staff and much saluting, and disappears into a first-class compartment. He is pretty tough looking, to say the least. No one is smiling as he goes by … Huge, with a pig’s neck and a pig’s face, with small eyes, wearing black knee boots and riding breeches with a four-inch wide crimson stripe down the outside of each leg. A tunic to match, in dark blue, breast covered with ribbons—several rows of them. The expression on his face is what is hard to describe. It isn’t hostile, it is indeed pleasant enough when he glances at you, but it is imperious + hard. He is like a ram standing there. A certain large imperiousness certainly elevates him above the other officers, probably filling them with unadmitted fears. You get the feeling he has been in command a long time + wouldn’t hesitate to blow up the whole train in an instant if it would further his ends. He would not stand for any foolishness on any account. He would kill you if he could …

We have had little communication with the Russians on the train. We don’t know any Russian and didn’t think to bring a phrasebook, and none of them speaks any other languages. All we can do is gesture, nod + smile. Although they’re shy with strangers, after they get to know you a little, they are liable to break up with laughter quite often. In the dining car, they sit very strait-faced and serious. Plain, square faces, straight hair, brown or black eyes, seldom a very good-looking young woman, though the old ones are often beautiful … Figaro in Russian blasts out of the 1930 loudspeaker in the car corridor. It’s like listening to a stuck bull roaring … meanwhile the eternal white birches fly by … The last night of the 6 days + nights on this train, two Finnish boys in the diner get drunk on four bottles of champagne they buy to use up their meal-tickets. We refuse to join them, calling them “decadent capitalists.” (When Yevtushenko came to San Francisco Fall 1966 he was going to the topless joints to see “capitalist decadence.”)

World’s longest train-ride coming to an end … I leave behind on the train Blaise Cendrars’s book. (Turned out he never went?) As he said, “Il y a des trains qui ne se rencontrent jamais” [There are some trains that never meet].

We have one more night’s train ride from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka, then to Japan and back to San Francisco.

“Ce que je perds de vue aujourd’hui en me dirigeant vers l’est c’est ce que Christophe Colomb découvrait en se dirigeant vers l’ouest” [What I lose sight of today in turning east is what Christopher Columbus discovered in turning west].—Cendrars

February 18—Khabarovsk—on the Amur (Blue) River (now frozen over)—

One grand boulevard with trees
with one grand cafe in sun
with strong black coffee in very small cups

One not necessarily very beautiful
man or woman who loves you

One fine day

Main boulevard, tree-lined, with cafés, etc, is Karl Marx Street, leading from waterfront park up to Lenin Square. Bright town with beaches, art schools, “Houses of Culture,” theatres, broad esplanades … We spend the day walking in Khabarovsk + sitting in its cafes + walking in its big parks, then get kidnapped again by In-Tourist at 5 PM + put on night train to Nakhodka, train winding South slowly in the winter dusk.

And we have come to the end of Siberia—The Sea of Japan rises up.

February 19
Thinking of Nagasaki today as I wait for a ship to Japan—Nagasaki which I saw in August, 1945. I was navigator and third-in-command of the attack transport AKA47, the USS Selinur, and we had docked in Sasebo, a few hours south of Nagasaki.

Sasebo was completely deserted, not a Japanese in sight anywhere. A ghost port, a ghost town, the Japanese all fled to the hills. After we had unloaded the troops for the “occupation,” we had shore leave for a day, and three or four of my shipmates and I took off for Nagasaki by train which somehow was still running. In my memory now that train trip was a blur, as are my comrades, whoever they were … rapt faces in a moving landscape …

Nagasaki itself was no blur. The site we were allowed to see had been totally “cleaned up.” That’s all there was—scorched earth. Sickening to see how the city of Nagasaki seemed to have just vanished from the face of the earth. … Except for one tea cup with bottom melted-out … skeletons of trees on the horizon … Not a soul in sight. All souls melted too.

And what the hell did we know about it, walking about in our neat Navy uniforms? We had been at sea for a long time before Sasebo, and we were permitted to know only that some huge new kind of “nuclear” bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima and then on Nagasaki. We walked around on the scorched earth, wondering if we were getting “radiation” from the scorched earth.

Now years later I can only see our bombing as a monstrous racist act which probably would never have been committed if the Japanese had white skin …

20 Februar
y—Sunday—“Day of Doom”
I was complaining a day or two back that we were hardly ever scratching the surface of Russia, of Siberia on our uninterrupted train ride from Moscow eastward, and that our journals wouldn’t be worth much, confined to what we could see from train-station on ten-minute stops. This day I got beneath the “surface” in a big way … We sailed along on our overnight train from Khabarovsk to Nakhodka, arriving at the latter part at 10 AM + transferring to a bus that took us to the dockside of the SS Baikal which we were to take for Yokohama. There we spent an hour getting thru Russian customs etc + boarded the ship itself. (Heiner got slowed up behind me + got held up by the Customs who went thru all his luggage + took down all the Moscow addresses he had, while he yelled at them.) When I got on board, I went into the main lounge + gave the official my ship ticket + passport. “Where’s your Japanese visa, please?” This was a flabbergasting question to get, since in the West Berlin “In-Tourist” agency we had inquired about this + had been told that no visas for Japan were required for Americans or Germans. (Heiner had a German passport.) I told the official this + she went to confer with someone + then with the Captain. Then they motioned for me + I stepped up + told the Captain my story. No go, he said … He shook his head + went off. He would not take an American who did not have visa. It was a Russian ship + the last time he arrived in Japan with visa-less Americans, the Japanese police were hard on him. He had since received a written notice warning him not to take abroad for passage to Japan anyone who was required to have a visa + did not have one. He had a list of countries whose citizens did not require visas, and the USA was not in that list, and that was that. German citizens did not need visas. So Heiner was clear. But I had to get off the ship!

It was sailing in 30 minutes. I had all the money for the two of us in Traveler’s Cheques + I couldn’t transfer them to Heiner. So I rushed ashore to cash a $100 cheque for him, carrying my luggage with me, including my new UHRE tape-recorder, which I had forgotten about, slung over my shoulder. I got the money + brought it back to the ship + Heiner came down the gangway for it + I handed it to him, but when I tried to hand over the UHRE, the Captain of the Russian Police at the dock at the foot of the gangway shouted that he wanted to look at whatever I was handing up. When I opened the case, he literally roared “forbidden! forbidden!” and I slunk away … Stood there + waited for the ship to sail without me, waving feebly at Heiner on board … Awful sinking feeling … Finally, I said the hell with it + went back into the Custom House + sat dully waiting for the In-Tourist woman to come + take me to the same hotel—Finally the ship did gaily sail away + she came + an In-Tourist car took me to a big stark hotel + gave me a small top-floor double room, my partner turning out to be a 20-year-old Japanese Youth Hosteller with knapsack covered with those international camping emblems, etc. He had lost his Japanese passport in Moscow + they took him off the ship too. He was gone off to Japan a day or two later, but in the meantime he served me in good stead.

I was feeling sick, with a bad headache, and I thought it was just a hangover from a bottle of bad port we’d drunk on the train, combined with the depressing effect of having been booted off the ship. But no. By 9 PM, my head was splitting and I had the chills. I put on flannel pajamas, bathrobe + two very heavy blankets, took aspirin + anti-histamine and I still shivered + shook. By then, I was getting alarmed, realizing I must have a high fever. The Japanese kid was in his narrow bed sound asleep—I debated for another hour whether or not I should get him to call a doctor for me. It got so bad, I was beginning actually to feel afraid of falling asleep because I might not wake up!

I had awful visions of L. Ferlinghetti’s biography reading “Died suddenly in Russia,” and of being buried there in, of all places, forlorn Nakhodka, wife + children never able to take the body home, etc, etc … That did it. I called my friend. No answer. I called much louder + finally aroused him + told him I was very sick + wd. he please call a doctor. He did it willingly, and in 10 minutes two doctors came + examined me thoroughly, consulted over me in Russian for some time, + then said I should be taken to hospital at once. I agreed, got up, dressed + went down with doctor who took me in ambulance, at midnight. At night the hospital seemed bare as a prison, though the Russian nurses were pleasant enough. They unlocked the ward doors to let me in, which also gave my already-morbid mind a prison impression. They immediately gave me another complete examination, then put me back in the ambulance, the original doctor still with me. They drove thru the night to another hospital nearby + there I got a 4 x 8 cell. It was a very bare room, with a single bare bulb. The whole thing was like a bad dream. With the Russian voices incomprehensible to me, leading me on thru the night from hotel to hospital to hospital, and then to this bare room. I undressed + lay down shivering under the blankets. They immediately started the full penicillin treatment for Influenza. (I would have called it the Mongolian Grippe.) They gave me injections + at least 6 pills to swallow at once. I went to sleep …

Next morning, dark dawn on bare ceiling with seven cracks in it. Nurses + doctors, more injections, pills, talk I can’t understand. Nothing to do but stare at the ceiling, still with high fever … Thinking … I am being punished for my sins at last! … All day lay there, looking at the ceiling, the bare walls, the bathtub, the toilet with a clean white cloth tied over it so it wouldn’t be used (across the hall is a row of usable toilets). Lay there thinking + thinking. So this is my Mt. Analogue? Come this far around the world, all across Asia, to Pacific far shore, and my Mount Analogue turns out to be this bare white 4 x 8 cell, with seven cracks in the high ceiling, bare floor, bare walls, silence. And if that Mt. Analogue exists only in ourselves, then mine is a low mound, or at best a bunch of detached vague pinnacles hanging in air, baseless … Thinking of that … All that poetic bullshit about setting out in search of My Mount Analogue + the door to the invisible visible … all nothing. Nothing but sick me + my body in this bare room. Monotony. Absolute, interminable boredom. Every minute is an hour … No books, no paper or pencil to write with, no tongue to ask for some with. Too foggy and feverish to read or write today anyway. But the mind nevertheless lying there, awake … That first day a real eternity. …

Second day, a small miracle. One young nurse they bring is able to understand a word or two of English. I ask her for books in English, French, Spanish, anything. And for paper. Late that day she brings some magazines, the next day paper + a pen … and I also receive a visit from a friendly Korean interpreter from In-Tourist who brings me books in English. Russian authors published in Moscow by the Foreign Language Publishing House. Chekhov + Tolstoy. I begin reading Tolstoy’s Resurrection. For three days I read Resurrection

The room, however, has gotten less + less bare, by very gradual stages. The first day, a little rug is brought in, then a table + a table-lamp. Next day, I get more pillows + coffee with breakfast. (The Russians seem not to know what coffee is for, certainly not to be brought steaming hot + right away in the morning.) Then a radio is brought in + hooked up. Then another day, a mirror is installed over the sink. The kind nurses have warmed up to me + all come in and gawk at me + smile. So they keep making the room better, and by the fourth day it is very warm-looking. I came in on a Sunday night + I’m discharged on a Thursday morning.

February 23
Thursday and I’m installed in the hotel. And a wire comes from In-Tourist Moscow saying they can do nothing for me about getting a visa + that I’ll have to do that myself directly with the Japanese! But here in Nakhodka there’s no Japanese Consulate or any contact with Tokyo, and the only way to get a visa is to appear in person at the Japanese Embassy in Moscow! Insane! Unless I can get a Japanese ship to take me to Japan without a visa, I am going to have to go all the way back across Siberia to Moscow! I can do it by plane, but once in Moscow, I might as well continue on that direction + go back to San Francisco via Berlin! Absolutely insane. The Korean interpreter, Kim, is getting a Japanese businessman with ship connections to go on board various Japanese freighters + ask the Captain to take me on … Now it’s Friday night + no luck so far. There’s one due tomorrow 4 PM, and there’s some hope. Purgatory continues. My Siberian exile!

Nakhodka—a new town the government decided to build 17 years ago. Big harbor surrounded by hills + mountains similar to San Francisco. But the town is forlorn … Muddy at this season … In hotel dining room at night, couples dance stolidly to 1940’s-type Western “jazz.” I go to the hotel barber, and he finishes the whole job in less than 5 minutes. Lonely + extremely depressed I lie on my bed in my little hotel room, writing this. …

February 25
In the stores, offices + restaurants, the abacus is used to count change and make calculations. Waitresses carry little abacuses with them … This workers’ city really seems a joyless place … . busy building a new city, a new world, not much time for frivolities or refinements … In the Buffet in the morning, people line up for their tea, looking glum. There is an insufferable heaviness + drabness about life here. Where’s the happiness? It must be in the intimacy of the private home.

February 26
Sunday + no church bells ring in this town. Nothing but silence. Still waiting to hear if any Japanese ship will take me aboard for Japan. The suspense is terrible. There are three Japanese ships in port this morning, and Kim has gone out to them on a boat with the Japanese businessman to help him persuade a captain … Last night, in the hotel dining room, the administrator of the restaurant, Anna Gordeyevna, a buxom woman of about 55, brought two pussy willow twigs to my table, saying she had picked them on an excursion to a river outside town where the first Spring was stirring. The Moscow News, published every day in several languages including English, is replete with stories of “cultural interest” each with its propaganda slant—even stamp-collecting and match-box-label- collecting are attuned to the October revolution. The article concludes: “Matchbox collecting is very exciting!”

The answer is No! Not a ship captain will take me to Japan without a Japanese visa, fearing I would have to remain on board + go on to other ports indefinitely, etc … So I must return via Moscow + Berlin, what a fucking farce! Tomorrow morning, by train, first stage, back to Khabarovsk … The Transsiberian redoubled.

The hotel dining room should be described at greater length. A long narrow ballroom-type scene, graced by a five-piece Western-type “orchestra” in the evening. (It doesn’t deserve to be called a “group.”) Sometimes it sounds like Tommy Dorsey warming up + running down, sometimes like Guy Lombardo about to get constipated, accompanied by a Russian Jean Sablon bellowing into a mike. The musicians are all very serious in public, though they look like they might be “cats” if allowed to escape for a few years … The couples get up to dance when the music starts, very sedately, face each other straight, + put their arms up, expressionless. Usually the man puts one arm around the woman + the other he rests on her shoulder. She puts both her paws on his chest, and they march + wiggle around, avoiding eye contact. Some one or two daring types try the “latest” Western style of dancing without touching each other, even whirling about a bit, really wild. (Now I understand what Voznesensky must have thought when he saw the “free-form dancers in ecstatic clothing” at the Fillmore folk-rock dances in San Francisco, with psychedelic light show, the dancers rocking in strobe-light, and Buddha projected on the wall over the stage where the Jefferson Airplane was taking off.)

Underneath the glum exteriors (no doubt the result of years of public paranoia) the people I’ve had contact with all turn out to be very warm-hearted and generous, and when they decide they like you they start giving you presents, anything they have. (We found this out in Moscow where a young Russian poet + his wife gave us everything in sight off their shelves at home when we were leaving—dolls for the kids back home, books, drawings, photograph of Mayakovsky …) Kim has knocked himself out trying to get me a ship, spending most of his Sunday off on it today … Everyone’s very apologetic + sorry for me … but the closest consular services of any kind are in Moscow. So off into the night again, lost in the landscape, as ever. How many machines, in the ground + in the air, have to function perfectly for me to get back to San Francisco safely again. Japan + its orange blossoms never to be seen … except someday from another direction … In order to arrive where I am not, I must go by a way I have never been before? … Impossible to realize the absolute isolation of this particular northeastern province of USSR—no planes to Japan, Hong Kong, or anywhere Eastward—one plane a day from Khabarovsk to Moscow—No airmail to Japan, except via Moscow! Two weeks for an air mail letter this way. Telegrams go the same route + take two days.

Anna takes me to the movies late Sunday afternoon. There is a crush of people in the big hall. It has a floor slanting forward to the stage—about 15% slope—but the wooden seats were put in without putting them on levels, so that the seats slope downhill too. The film is Russian, about Nazis and Partisans fighting them in some port like Riga. The Russian Partisans keep blowing up ships. The Partisans get killed one by one. A grim film. Everyone sits silent throughout it, never once a laugh or a shout or a clap or a cry. At the end everyone files out perfectly silently under their fur hats + fur-collared coats.

One last look at that “dance orchestra” in the dining room. Asia’s first + last hope. It is my last dinner. I sit alone, as usual, staring at the band. The drummer is an older man with thick glasses + an implacable beat he must have picked up from a grandfather clock. He starts. It’s “Melancholy Baby,” believe it or not. The sax man gets right in there. He wouldn’t call his horn an axe, not he. The Jean Sablon-type singer probably can’t face it: he doesn’t get up + sing “Melancholy Baby.” The pianist holds up his end. You wouldn’t call him a piano player. He’s a pianist, and he’s Melancholy, baby. When it is all over he actually hangs his head over the keys, puts his arms up and cradles his head in them. There is a middle-aged, plain waitress sitting alone at one of the tables, looking at the musicians and then away with a sad, sad look. She just sits there unmoving. There is nothing to be done.


February 27
Voyagers on a certain old passenger train on the road to Khabarovsk and over the northern steppes of Russia in the long winter of 1967 might have noticed one lone passenger in a foreign-looking fur hat and a long Navy raincoat + scarf sitting silently, bundled up, + staring moodily into the landscape as it crawled by under the lead sky. This same passenger was of course none other but that same L. Ferlinghetti, poet + fool, sinner + absurd traveler, contemplating nothing so much as the insanity of his present return voyage across Siberia, all of which might be fittingly made into a stupid book entitled (beginning with the Sunday a week ago when he was taken off the Tokyo Ship) “Ten Days that Shook L. Ferlinghetti.”

On Feb 20 he was removed from the Tokyo boat—On March 1st, if he had any luck at all he would have flown back to Berlin—and one more day by plane would land him home in San Francisco. That’s the plot of it. We’ll see how it works out. It takes great fortitude + stupidity to undertake such a journey. Dark Night of the Soul Backwards. Descent of Mt. Carmel. Circum-renavigation up Dante’s fire escape … Mt. Analogue never even glimpsed … The train starts up from Nakhodka on time, 9:10 AM, bright sun over the harbor + Sea of Japan. Farewell, miserable, brave new town of Nakhodka—may I never come back to your literally godforsaken, joy-forsaken shores …

Missed all the mountains coming down here at night. Going back now, north, surrounded by beautiful open country with high hills + sharp mountains rising up on both sides, filling both horizons … Look like California mountains but closer in, steeper, all brown + rust in winter, the ground still frozen, marshes + ditches frozen over, no birds, some high mountains still full of snow … glacier peaks glistening in sun … Lost land + lost people … This is the milk train, stopping at every little dump, north into the snow country again, birches again. People are amiable + eager to please—but—they try to be understood by repeating the Russian phrases louder—and then writing them down. I’ve no inkling of what they’re trying to say.

In the dining car, the waitress steers the natives to other tables. Mostly rough looking men, the kind that you used to see on the trains of the Pacific Northwest. But instead of lumberjacks, these are mostly seamen + soldiers in civvies … Purgatory, this journey. This man needs time to reflect on his life, so we’ll give it to him; let him have it! Days + days + days + days waiting for time to pass, unable to write anything except this lame journal, nothing to do but think + think. A kind of enormous Paranoia takes over. Will I ever get out of this country alive? Will they search my papers at the border, read my journal for subversive passages, will I end up really in Siberia? … Out of desperation, I am reading the only book I could find in the In-Tourist library which was not hopeless to open: Gorky’s Tales of Italy. Such sentimental corn! Not a very original mind, this great Gork! Hymns of praise to Mother, Work, Labor, Love … I believe these Russians are in another world. About 35 years back. In everything but science …

I am sick still, my body aches, around the kidneys, I have a stopped-up nose + a slight fever again. I miss my friends + family, especially the family. I feel so very far from home. It is as if only a miracle will ever get me back. What is my 48-year old body doing, crawling over this far, snowbound landscape on the other side of the world from Home? If I ever reach home again alive, I don’t think I’ll be leaving for a long, long time … I want to live in the woods in Big Sur—but not alone …

Night outside now, train stops in some big rail-yard on a snow plain. It is snowing lightly + the flakes drop into the white rail-yard under platform lights + floodlights. On the ground, walking along at the same rate as our train, is a man in a fur cap + railway greatcoat. He is a young man, striding along in the snow night, holding a little flashlight. On the loudspeaker in our train some old Russian music is coming across, something slow + reminding one of long winters and the Russian steppes—maybe Prokofiev—The young man keeps striding along in the dark outside, hearing only the sound of our train. I look at him thru the Prokofiev—He looks in at me. I am standing in the corridor. He keeps striding along, abreast, not hurrying or altering his stride. He keeps coming on in the night. The train picks up speed + he drops out of sight. He is still striding along, eternal, over the steppes …

Thought I was really going to die about four AM on the train. Woke up with the cold sweats, thinking I had a ruptured kidney or something, thinking what an awful place to be buried—Khabarovsk—the bright town we passed thru coming down, never thinking here I might leave my body, halfway around the world from home. Took 2 aspirins + went back to sleep. In the morning, it’s all cleared up, my body feels better than in weeks—the fever all gone, etc … Blue sky with fields of cumulus outside, and the train going thru birch woods under snow. The white smoke from locomotive billows thru the woods and along the ground, threading the trees …

The morning radio intersperses music with lectures on Marxism + Imperialism … There is an enormous emptiness in Soviet life that stares out of people’s eyes everywhere … All this senseless retracking of Siberia back to Berlin because no doubt one little rat-faced German-Russian in the West German In-Tourist agency didn’t double-check our question as to Japanese visas. He’d taken a dislike to us anyway—and I’m not being paranoid—He had a cold, unpleasurable look on his mug when we first spoke to him—he wouldn’t let us use his phone—and Heiner had a short argument with him. Result: L. Ferlinghetti retracks Siberia, vowing he’ll never come back to this miserable country.

I find I have a reservation on a flight to Moscow. Then to Berlin pronto and, I trust, out! Into life again.

Arrived Moscow after 9-hour flight on strange Russian passenger plane with compartments like a Pullman + a load of Russian foot soldiers. Plane had about 8 propellers on each engine, with four engines. It looked and sounded like a nest of frozen white butterflies taking off …


Midnight Moscow Airport 
    sucks me in from Siberia 
      And blows me out alone 
                              in a black bus 
            down dark straight night roads 
                  stark snow plains 
                        eternal taiga 
                              into monster Moscow 
            stands of white birches 
                  ghosted in the gloaming
Where of a sudden 
                Segovia bursts thru 
                              over the airwaves 
They’ve let him in
                  to drive the dark bus 
Segovia’s hands
                  grasp the steering wheel 
Yokels in housing projects
      drop their balalaikas & birch banjos 
Segovia comes on the bus radio
            like the pulse of life itself 
Segovia comes on thru the snowdrifts
                              and plains of La Mancha
            fields & fields & fields 
                              of frozen music
                  melted on bus radios 
Segovia at his instrument
                  driving thru the night land 
            of Antequera 
                  Tracery of the Alhambra 
                  in a billion white birches 
                        born in the snow 
                  trills of blackbirds in them 
Segovia warms his hands
                  and melts Moscow 
            moves his hand 
                  with a circular motion 
                        over an ivory bridge 
                        to gutted Stalingrads 
Segovia knows no answer
He’s no Goya & he’s no Picasso
but also
            he’s no Sleeping Gipsy With Guitar 
                  Guarded by a Lion 
He knows black condors fly
He knows a free world when he hears one
His strums are runs upon it
He does not fret
He plucks his guts
and listens to himself as he plays
and speaks to himself
And he keeps driving & driving
                              his instrument 
            down the wide dark ways 
                              into great Moscow 
            down the black boulevards 
                  past Kremlin lit & locked 
                              in its hard dream 
                  in the great Russian night 
            past Bolshoi Ballet & Gorky Institute 
                  John Reed at the Drama Theatre
                        Stalyagi & heroin at Taganka 
            Stone Mayakovsky stares
                  thru a blizzard of white notes 
                              in Russian winter light 
Segovia hears his stoned cry
      and he hears the pulse in the blood 
            and he listens to life as he plays 
      and he keeps coming & coming 
                  thru the Russian winter night
He’s in Moscow but doesn’t know it
He played somewhere else
                  and it comes out here 
            in a thaw on an airwave 
                  over Gogol’s Dark People
               stark figures 
                  in the white night streets
            clotted in the snow 
He listens to them as he goes along
He listens for a free song
                  such as he hardly hears 
                              back home
                  Is Lenin listening
                              after fifty Octobers
Segovia walks thru the snow
                  listening as he goes
            down Vorovsky Street
                              to the Writers’ Union
He meets the old hairs that run it
            They dig him
                  & they know what it means to dig
                              in mahogany cities
Segovia teaches them open-tuning
            with which they can play anything
                  freely and simply 
            This is not his Master Class
He leaves them humming and goes on
Segovia plays in the loose snow
            and digs a bit alone
                  under the free surface
                              with his free hand
He strikes softly as he listens
He hears a dull thud
            where something is buried
                  a familiar thud
            such as he sometimes hears
                  back home
He turns away & goes on
                  down Vorovsky Street
His music has a longing sound
He yearns & yet does not yearn
He exists & is tranquil
                  in spite of all
He has no message
He is his own message
                  his own ideal sound
And he sounds so lonely to himself
            as he goes on playing
                in the iron-white streets
And he is saying: I say all I know
            & I know no meaning
He is saying
            This is the song of evening
            when the sphinx lies down
            This is the song of the day
            that begins & begins
            The night lifts
                  its white night-stick
            The ash of life
                  dries my song
            If you only knew
He is saying
            My love my love
                        where are you
            Under the pomegranate tree
He is saying
            Where is joy where is ecstasy
            stretched out in the snow
            where only the birds are at home
He is saying
            There’s a huge emptiness here
            that stares from all the faces 
            All that is lost must be
                              looked for once more
He is saying
            Far from me far from me
            you are the hour & the generation
            they marked for result
He is saying
            I am your ruin
                  unique & immortal
            I am your happiness unknown
            I am light
                  where you are dark
                  where you are heavy
He is saying
                  I am an old man
                  and life flowers
                        in the windows of the sun
            But where is the sun the sun
                              Soleares …
On the steps of a jail
            that looks like a church
                  he finds a white bird
What is important in life? says the bird
Segovia says Nada but keeps on playing
            his Answer
And he cries out now
            when he sees a strange woman
                        or sees a strange thing
                  And he hears many strange women
                        & many strange things
                        after fifty Octobers
                        & fifty strange springs
And Segovia follows them
                        down their streets
                        and into their houses
                        and into their rooms
                        and into the night of their beds
                  And waits for them to make love
                  And waits for them to speak
                  And waits & waits for them to speak
And he cries out now
            when he hears them speak
                  at last in their last retreat… .

Moscow–San Francisco

Lawrence Ferlinghetti was a poet, playwright, publisher, activist, and an essential voice in the Beat generation in San Francisco. He co-founded City Lights bookstore. His collections of poems include A Coney Island of the Mind, Endless Life: Selected Poems, and These Are My Rivers: New and Selected Poems, 1955–1993. Poetry as Insurgent Art was published in 2005. Writing Across the Landscape, from which ‘‘Russian Winter Journal’’ is taken, was published in 2015.
Originally published:
July 1, 2015


Rachel Cusk

The novelist on the “feminine non-state of non-being”
Merve Emre


Renaissance Women

A new book celebrates—and sells short—Shakespeare’s sisters
Catherine Nicholson

Fady Joudah

The poet on how the war in Gaza changed his work
Aria Aber

You Might Also Like

The Tolstoyans

On my father's followers
Alexandra Tolstoy
Spencer Barnes

Turning the Soil

Cultivating our gardens in times of trouble
Jane Costlow


New perspectives, enduring writing. Join a conversation 200 years in the making. Subscribe to our print journal and receive four beautiful issues per year.