Zygmunt Frankel



In 1943, some time after Stalingrad, the Internationale, the rousing and lovely Soviet national anthem, calling the wretched of the old miserable world to destroy it and build a new one on its ruins, was replaced by a dull and pompous abortion about great Russia having forged forever an indestructible union of free nations and so on, with a tune to fit. Whatever I felt against the Soviet regime - my father's arrest, our deportation, poverty, and hunger, and the stories of purges and famine - did not extend to the Internationale. To my mind there were only two really decent and inspired national anthems, the Marseillese and the Internationale, and now one of them was gone, although it did remain the anthem of the Communist Party. In the movies about the Civil War, the Red Army would attack with the commander being the first out of the trenches, raising his pistol and intoning the Internationale, which would then be taken up by the ranks surging after him, an invisible orchestra somewhere out of the range of enemy fire providing an accompaniment. I was not sure whether this was still being done at the front in the present war - the standard battle cry seemed to be "For the Homeland! For Stalin!" ("Za Rodinu! Za Stalina!") - but you couldn't do it with the new product even if you tried.

(At about the same time, shoulder straps were reintroduced in the Russian army. We were flabbergasted. From the very start of the Revolution, shoulder straps were associated with the old regime, the Tsar, and the oppression of the people, and the Red Army always wore its insignia of rank on the collars of their uniforms. We knew shoulder straps from films and book illustrations only, and all of a sudden here they were, in the street, on Soviet uniforms. The official reason was never given. It might have had something to do with tightening the discipline in the Red Army or boosting its morale through pride in their uniforms, or perhaps to facilitate distinction between soldiers and civilians, many of the latter wearing clothes similar to those of soldiers.)

There was one point on which the Party and the people, including me, were in full agreement: life was always easier with a song. A song would not feed you when you were hungry, get you out of prison, or deflect a bullet in the war, but it made things a little more bearable. There was the lovely tune from the movie "Merry Fellows": "Light is one's heart with a merry song", and a year and a half after I first heard it in a Lvov cinema I watched Poor Marusya in the Lenin kolkhoz, with her husband taken away and hungry children at home, get up and lead a dance on the First of May with the chastushka: "I got up to dance/ because there's nothing to bite at home;/ Dry bread and crusts/ And rags on my feet." In Barnaul I have heard - or rather acquired, because I was good at memorizing songs and poems, and once I learned one by heart it became a cherished part of my private collection - "Gop So Smykom"; literally "Hop With A Violin Bow", an untranslatable slang nickname of a criminal character, roughly "High-Spirited Hop". In the opening stanza he introduces himself: "Gop So Smykom happens to be me;/ Listen well, friends;/ For my trade I've chosen theft;/ I am hardly ever out of prison/ and when I am, the prison misses me./" And then: "But whatever prison I may be in/ Not a minute passes without me singing/ I stick my hands in my pockets/ And walk around, singing out of boredom/ What else can you do when you've been jailed?" (Literally "seated".) ("Gop so smykom eto budu ya/ Slushaytye vnimatyelno, druzya/ Ryemyeslom ya vybral krazhu/ Iz tyurmy ya nye vylazhu/ I tuyrma skutchayet byez menya./ No v kakoy tyurmye by nye sidyel/ Nye bylo minuty shtob nye pyel/ Zalozhu ya ruki v bryuki/ I khozhu, poyu so skuki/ Shto zhe budyesh dyelat kol zasyel?" )

There were also some romantic, occasionally kitschy, songs, not on the official repertoire, about faraway, sometimes foreign, places and adventures. In the midst of poverty, hunger, winter cold, drab clothes, cramped lodgings, worry, and homework, they were cherished by me and my friends, and we would sing them together, or defiantly solo under our breath trudging to school through a snow blizzard. There was "Our Harbour", presumably somewhere in America because one of the characters is called "Harry The Cowboy", and the girl's name is Mary. Ships would come into our harbour. Our harbour is pleasant and cosy. The sailors would gather in the tavern and drink the Captain's health. There's noise and bustle in the tavern, and the sailors delight in Mary's dancing, captivated not so much by the dancing as by her beauty. And then, with a squeak, the door opens, and Harry the Cowboy is standing there. He advances towards the Captain. Mary goes pale. (It is obvious that she not only knows the reason for the confrontation, but is the cause of it. I don't think we blamed her too much; we could understand the attraction of an old sea-wolf, the toast of the tavern, but also realised that he was away at sea most of the time, while Harry The Cowboy was always there and might perhaps, in addition to his burning passion, eventually also offer the prospect of home, children, and security. Daggers are drawn. Steel flashes. The Captain falls to the ground, and Mary whispers something inaudible. The seaman is dead. The ocean will weep for him. And the blood is slowly dripping from the knife.

But the reigning queen of all the underground songs and characters was Murka (pronounced Moorka, with a fairly long "oo"). Decent girls who had been named Maria at birth might later be known as Marusya, Manya, or Masha. An even more caressing diminutive made them Marusyenka, Manyushka, or Mashenka. Slightly more derisive forms were Maruska, Manka, and Mashka. To be known as Murka, you had to be something else, with sharp teeth and claws. It is a common phonetic cat's name in Russia ( "to purr" is "murlykat"), and I personally can't remember ever meeting anyone called "Murka", the sharp "r" and "k" in the deceptively purring name warning of some hidden danger in the deceptively soft and cuddly creature.

The famous refrain, "Hello, my Murka/ Darling Murka,/ Hello, my Murka, and goodbye/ you've betrayed/ all our gang/ and here's a bullet for it" absolutely limps in translation. To start with, the original rhymes are gone. ("Zdravstvuy, moya Murka/ Murka dorogaya,/ Zdravstvuy, moya Murka, i proshchay/ Ty zashukherila/ vsyu nashu melinu/ a tyeper maslinu poluchay.") Then, some of the words are in criminal slang: to "shukher" (German or Yiddish ?) means to betray to the police; "melina", (probably from the Yiddish , of Hebrew origin, "meluna", a dwelling) is a gang's hideout. ("Melina" in this song is often mistakenly sang as "malina" (raspberry), which seems to suggest loot only.) "Maslina" (an olive) is here the slang for a bullet. And, slang apart, the Russian "proshchay" (occasionally "prosti"), springing from the same root as "forgive", is deeper and more tender than a simple "goodbye" or "farewell"; upon parting, one asks a friend to forgive any offence one might have given in the past.

(Apart from the origins of "shukher" and "melina" - there must have been some Jews in the Russian criminal world, especially before the revolution, and some Yiddish words have found their way into the slang - the song is not a Jewish one in any sense.) There are some indications that the events described - possibly based on a real case and persons - occured shortly after the revolution: the police in the song is the Cheka ("Chrezvychaynaya Komisya" - The Emergency Commission), later changed to GPU and then to NKVD.

Once we went out on a job and felt a bit thirsty. We stepped into a port tavern, and there was Murka sitting there, in a leather jacket, and in her pocket she had a gun.

The tavern is "a restaurant" in the original, obviously of the sort that also served drinks, akin to a tavern or a bar. A leather jacket, black or brown, had always been a status symbol in Russia; expensive, smart, and durable, it acquired an extra dimension during the revolution and the civil war when commissars, Red Army commanders, and drivers wore it if they had one. And the gun that Murka carried in her pocket is also precisely defined because "Nagan" had become a Russian noun since the introduction of the Nagant revolver of Belgian design into the Russian army in 1895. It had remained the standard side arm with the military, the police, and the underworld ever since, and was only slowly beginning to be replaced by the Tokaryov automatic pistol during the war.

Murka takes up with the gang, and especially the leader ("ataman"). Whether she had turned sour later, or was a Cheka agent from the start, we don't know. The narrator seems inclined to the former view, asking "Why didn't you get on with us, Murka? Were you short of (glad) rags? Before you met us, you went about in torn goloshes (this somehow contradicts the leather jacket, not to mention the gun), and now you've started going to the Cheka. Whatever the case, the result was the same; most of the gang in jail, but a few, including the leader, still outside and planning a revenge.

We gave the job to Kostya the Ataman. (No explanation given or needed. It must have been him who had chatted Murka up in that restaurant, and he enjoyed the affair with her afterwards. Serves him bloody right to have to put things right now; if he can't get the guys out of prison he should at least avenge them, and prove that loyalty to one's gang is stronger than whatever there was between him and Murka. And he did rise to the occasion. "In a dark little dead-end lane, Murka lies covered in blood." One can see the bullet holes in the leather jacket, with her gun presumably still in the pocket. Was Kostya the Ataman faster on the draw, or has he faced her in the dark lane with his own Nagant already drawn and cocked? Most probably the latter, judging from the last words she heard in her young life: "Hello, my Murka, darling Murka; hello, my Murka, and goodbye", and so on.

We would sometimes wonder whether the song was based on a real Murka and a real case, and preferred to believe that it was, vacillating between Odessa and Leningrad for the location (there had to be a port), Odessa being the warmer and more exotic. If you can be a little in love with someone who had either never existed or had been dead for a long time, then all of us, I think, were in love with Murka, and, no police files and photographs being available, each of us was free to imagine her as he pleased. My own Murka was a cross between Zoya Speranskaya and Ada Korsakovich; almost my own height on high heels, blond, with a sexy slightly plump body and a melodious low voice; usually cool and composed, and a good shot with her revolver, she would grow soft and breathless when I held her tight.

May, as they say, the earth lie lightly upon you, Murka. You remain as real as Zoya Speranskaya and Ada Korsakovich, and will not grow old like them. Had we met, I am not sure you would have looked at me twice, thin, skinny, hungry, Jewish, and without money or gun in my pocket; and if you did, my mother would not have approved of you. This little wreath of little black printed letters on your grave, Murka, wherever it might be. Sweet dreams.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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