Sergei Lebedev is the author of the forthcoming OBLIVION, a stunning debut novel about family, fate, untamed nature, Russia, and the legacy of the Soviet Union. Here’s a poem by Lebedev called “The Red Star,” which highlights some of the paradoxes and contradictions we must struggle with when examining Russia’s past. This poem, like Lebedev’s novel, was translated by the magnificent Antonina W. Bouis.
The Red Star
One grandfather was a bomber pilot,
he did not see the people he killed.
He dropped bombs in the Quadrant sixteen slash seven
and pulled the plane out of a dive.
In forty-three they gave him the Order of the Red Star.
My other grandfather worked for the NKVD.
He was a senior lieutenant, the equivalent of army major.
He saw the people he killed,
when he made them kneel at the edge of the execution ditch.
In thirty-seven they gave him the Order of the Red Star.
One grandmother was an orderly
in a Moscow hospital, where they brought
seriously wounded officers.
She remembered the handful of Red Stars
left by the dead.
My other grandmother stayed in occupied territory,
in the house of her forester father.
She remembered the retreating officers
burying their red stars in the garden
in the potato bed or beet patch
in the fall of forty-one.
The sisters of my grandfathers starved to death in the blockade,
no one knows where they are buried.
The brothers of my grandmothers were privates lost in action,
surrounded near Kharkov and Orel,
no one knows what happened to them.
Two Red Stars lie in my hand,
one for a soldier, the other for an executioner.
And I don’t know how to tell them apart.