Alexei Eisner | After Russia
Alexei Eisner
Alexei Eisner

Alexei Eisner’s family evacuated from the port of Novorossiysk in March 1920 — a flight so terrible that it was called the Novorossiysk Catastrophe. 

In exile, the very young Alexey Eisner pursued his studies at the Cadet Corps in Sarajevo before enrolling in the Philological Department of Charles University in Prague. Czechoslovakia was dubbed the Russian Oxford in the 1920s due to the state’s unwavering support for emigrant students and scholars. The legendary poetic union Poets’ Skete originated in Prague, and Eisner soon became its member. 

His homesickness turned into a passion for Eurasianism, and Alexei Eisner began to cooperate with the Union for repatriation of Russians abroad. The amnesty announced by the Bolsheviks for the returnees was, in reality, a cruel provocation with bloody consequences. 

In 1929, Alexei Eisner’s story was awarded second prize in the Prague magazine Will of Russia (Volia Rossii), which opposed the armed conflict with the Bolsheviks. Curiously enough, the hero of the story was returning from exile to the USSR. 

Poverty drove Alexei Eisner to cooperation. It also led him to the life of a clochard, a Parisian homeless man. Eisner fled to Paris, where he worked as a window washer and met Marina Tsvetaeva and Sergei Efron, who were already eager to return home. 

Many emigrants who gave in to homesickness had to earn the right to return. So Alexei Eisner went to the Spanish Civil War, where he met Hemingway. Eisner said that echoes of their conversations can be found in Hemingway’s novel For Whom the Bell Tolls. Forgiveness — along with a Soviet passport — was earned in 1940: 

In 1940, I came to the USSR. I was invited to Dzerzhinsky Square. The big brass were sitting around the long table, serving me strong tea and sandwiches and asking me what I had been doing in Spain. I told them. Hearing that I had crossed several state borders on my way to Moscow, someone asked:

— Which border was the hardest to cross?

I answered: the Soviet one.

Everyone laughed joyfully, congratulated me on my return to the motherland, wished me good luck.

I was arrested a week later.

Eight years in the Gulag, eight years of exile in Karaganda, before being freed in the Thaw — in a foreign country and with no possessions. His comrades from the Spanish Civil War helped him get a residence permit in the capital. 

For twenty years of his Moscow life, Alexei Eisner worked as a translator, journalist, theater consultant, wrote books of memoirs about Marina Tsvetaeva, Ilya Ehrenburg, Ernest Hemingway... By the way, his son, Dmitry Eisner, became an activist of the Moscow branch of the International Society Memorial.

All waves of Russian emigration, having lost the author’s name, recited after a shot of vodka:

Autumn nears. The branches yellow.

And again the heart is ripped to shreds...

A human’s life begins with sorrow, while you

cling to butterfly-brief happiness.

Translated by Bradley Jordan & Katya Zubritskaya

P.S. One day Alexei Tolstoy, having met Alexei Eisner and listened to the story of his life, exclaimed: Your story is worth a million rubles. You tell it — I write it down. We’ll split one million fifty-fifty! The book didn’t happen — and life is either priceless or worthless.


Man starts with sorrow
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Autumn nears. The branches yellow.

And again the heart is ripped to shreds...

A human’s life begins with sorrow, while you

cling to butterfly-brief happiness.

A human’s life begins with sorrow. Just look:

the hothouse roses in him choke to death.

While from some distant path awaiting sunrise

the steamboats wail of parting in the night.

A human’s life begins... No, wait a second.

There are no words to help us here at all.

Outside the window poured a heavy rain.

You’re ready for the rain, as a bird for flight.

In the woods our footprints melt,

as pallid passions melt into the past —

Those meagre storms in a glass of water...

And again the heart is ripped to shreds.

A human’s life begins ... Briefly. From the shoulder.

Goodbye. Enough. An enormous dot ...

Sky, wind, and sea. And the seagulls cry.

And from the stern a handkerchief is waved.

Sail away. Only circles of black smoke.

The distance already lasts one hundred years.

Take care of that many-coloured happiness of yours —

One day you’ll be a human too, you know.

The sky-blue world will ring, then fall to pieces,

your snow-white throat will moan like a dove,

and the polar night will swim above you,

and, Titanic-like, a pillow will drown in tears.

But already dipping in the Arctic ice,

those fervent hands are growing cold forever

and the wooden steamboat then casts off

and sails, rocking, for the Separation Pole.

The wet kerchief writhes and the trace grows foamy,

as on that day... But I see you’ve forgotten it all.

In thousands of versts, and for thousands of years,

the censer clangs, hopeless and doomed.

Well that’s that. Only dark, gloomy rumors of paradise...

The Mediterranean makes all indifferent noise.

It’s grown dark. All right, then. Sail and die:

A human’s life begins with sorrow.

Translated by Bradley Jordan & Katya Zubritskaya