Russian Roulette. Blotter Magazine
In 1976, four years after Canada defeated the Soviet Union in the Summit Series, the Canadian poets Ralph Gustafson and Al Purdy travelled to the USSR on a cultural tour sanctioned by Ottawa and Moscow. Their reception behind the Iron Curtain was, by all reports, considerably warmer than that of the visiting hockey team. The Canadian ambassador, Robert Ford, was also a poet—A Window on the North (1956) won the Governor General’s Award—and this convergence of authors and international diplomacy marks an odd and comical episode in the history of Canadian literature. Gustafson and Purdy were unlikely companions, the former an urbane enthusiast of high culture, the latter an uncouth and accidental poet, or so it seemed. Purdy’s colloquial and essentially autobiographical poetry is unlike Gustafson’s elliptical and often formally conservative verse. Yet the two were genuine friends, each respectful of the other’s works; their letters to each other sometimes close with “love.”
Gustafson and Purdy saw Moscow, visited Yasnaya Polyana (Tolstoy’s former estate), and travelled to Tashkent, Samarkand, Kiev, and Riga. Each poet published a book based on the journey: Gustafson’s Soviet Poems: Sept. 13 to Oct. 5, 1976 appeared in 1978, Purdy’s Moths in the Iron Curtain the following year. (An abridged American edition of Purdy’s collection was issued in 1977.) Purdy’s titles suggest the scope of the poets’ adventure: “Visiting Tolstoy,” “On Getting Drunk in Kiev,” “At Babiiy Yar,” “At Lenin’s Tomb,” “Monastery of the Caves.” The poems however are not Purdy’s finest. In my copy of Moths in the Iron Curtain, which is inscribed to the poet Doug Beardsley, Purdy wrote that the book includes “maybe three poems of any merit: ‘Monastery of the Caves,’ ‘On Realizing [He Has Written Some Bad Poems],’ ‘At Lenin’s Tomb.’” The assessment is strict but fair.
The Canadian poets were not alone in the USSR. They were accompanied by, in Purdy’s phrase, their “female chauvinist chaperones,” namely Betty Gustafson and Eurithe Purdy, and by a Soviet interpreter named Victor Pogostin (Moths xii). Purdy writes in Moths in the Iron Curtain that Pogostin’s “command of English is excellent. Short, broad and bearded, age 30, he is a specialist in American Literature at Moscow University” (xiii). After the official visit, Purdy and Pogostin maintained a correspondence; much later, in 1993, Pogostin emigrated to Canada, where he met Purdy once again. In 2012, Pogostin published, in this journal, a brief reminiscence of his time with Gustafson and Purdy. This recollection is now reprinted in Russian Roulette (2021), an entertaining, anecdotal memoir of Pogostin’s life and especially his literary-diplomatic-military career. (His book is not to be confused with another of the same name, Richard Greene’s recent biography of Graham Greene .) Although Russian Roulette provides a vivid impression of the USSR, and despite Pogostin’s talent as raconteur, it is of interest to Canadianists primarily because of its depiction of Purdy and Gustafson, the other chapters having little to do with Canadian literature. Nonetheless the book is an occasion to reconsider the events of 1976 and the poetry that followed. Its description of the Soviet tour will remind readers today that Purdy, who was born only seven weeks after the Armistice in 1918, lived virtually his entire adult life under the spectre of war and nuclear annihilation—from Mackenzie King’s declaration of war in 1939 until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, when Purdy was in his early seventies. Much the same is true of Gustafson, who was born in 1909. In effect, they were poets of the Cold War. Purdy’s military service during the Second World War was undistinguished, but even if he was never put in harm’s way, his imagination was conditioned by his experience. And although Pogostin’s remarks on Gustafson and Purdy were available before Russian Roulette, his book as a whole affords a sense of who Purdy’s guide and correspondent was, or is. Pogostin is no longer simply one of Purdy’s “unpronounc[e]ables,” but instead a compelling figure in his own right (Moths v).
As might be expected, Pogostin and Purdy treat the same events: a discussion of Arthur Miller, the excursion to Yasnaya Polyana, sightseeing in Red Square, travel in Uzbekistan, a function in Riga. (The prose introduction to Moths in the Iron Curtain is reprinted in Purdy’s Starting from Ameliasburgh .) Pogostin adds certain details: “Some episodes that Al called ‘international incidents’ we remembered differently. But there was one that neither Al nor Ralph ever knew about” (Russian Roulette 42). Yet in general the accounts are complementary. For example, Pogostin notes that the poets were driven in a “Chaika, a big black powerful limousine usually used by high-ranking Communist officials and the military brass” (41), while Purdy begins his introduction in the same car: “I am dozing in the front seat of the limousine, a big 300-horse-power Cheika [sic]” (Moths xi). At times Pogostin even refers directly to Purdy’s narrative. Here is Purdy: “When the light turns green our driver guns the car like a rocket; he cuts left of our line of traffic . . . Riding with this mad Soviet cosmonaut, I gasp” (xi). And Pogostin: “Driven like a rocket by what Al called a ‘mad Soviet cosmonaut,’ the limo cut left of our lane of traffic with cops standing at attention” (41-42).
Elsewhere in Russian Roulette Pogostin describes the bureaucracy and hierarchy of Soviet society, the entrenched anti-Semitism that hindered his career, the black market, and his professional accomplishments and frustrations. To scholars of Canadian literature he may have been merely a name in footnotes, but here he emerges as the protagonist of a full and complex life. Intentionally or not, Purdy failed to convey as much. Russian Roulette gives a view from across a cultural and political divide and is valuable for that reason alone, but it is equally a testament to shared interests and sensibilities. Much remains to be written about the lives and works of Purdy and Gustafson, and other Canadian poets besides, but the three weeks in 1976 can now be apprehended in greater detail.
Pogostin, Victor. “Moths in the Iron Curtain, or Roaming in the USSR with Al Purdy and Ralph
Gustafson.” Canadian Literature, no. 212, spring 2012, pp. 197-202.
— Russian Roulette. Blotter, 2021.
Purdy, Al. Moths in the Iron Curtain: An Adventure. Paget, 1979.
—. Starting from Ameliasburgh: The Collected Prose of Al Purdy. Edited by Sam Solecki,
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