Grigory Pasko: Mikhail Tanich, Poet and Ex-Con

[Editor’s note: just this week Mikhail Tanich, the poet profiled below by Grigory Pasko, would have celebrated his 85th birthday.] Mikhail Tanich: «Jail – is the Russian melody…» Grigory Pasko, journalist Если Вы хотите прочитать оригинал данной статьи на русском языке, нажмите сюда. Over the past 16 years – from 1992 through the year 2007 – there have been more than 15 million people convicted of a crime in Russia. More than one in ten out of a population of 140 million. Nearly a million people per year. Of these, 5 million and then some have been deprived of liberty. Vladimir Radchenko, first deputy chairman of the Supreme Court (ret.), head of the center of the Institute of Legislation and Comparative Legal Studies under the government of the RF, considers that humanization of criminal legislation and of the practice of its application can not be evaluated simply as a manifestation of liberalism. On the contrary, it is a necessity for the gradual return to health of the social situation in the country. Procurator-General of Russia Yuri Chaika considers it imperative to change criminal policy in the sphere of judicial proceedings, in order to improve the situation in places of the deprivation of liberty. Even representatives of the service for the execution of punishments have begun to talk of the imperativeness of changing criminal policy. They are practically screaming that the jails are overcrowded. Not long before his death, the poet Mikhail Tanich wrote such lines:

Такая родина, такая родина,Мы все отсюдова – и вы, и я.Тюрьма – российская мелодия,Куда мы денемся, друзья.[Such a motherland, such a motherland,We’re all from here – both you and I.Jail – is the Russian melody,Have we got a choice, friends.]tanich-3091908Mikhail Isayevich Tanich, ex-con, poet (photo by Grigory Pasko)Recently on one of the Russian television channels they showed once again a story about the conducting of a competition of performers of songs among prisoners. Just like 20 years ago, just like five years, just like last year, the zeks sing songs to the verses of Mikhail Tanich.Mikhail Tanich died this year, in April. It so happened that he and I had a chance to get together not long before his death. I offer for the attention of readers an interview with the poet whose verses literally the entire country knows.(I will recall several lines from several songs: «А белый лебедь на пруду…» [And the white swan on the pond…], «Уходит бригантина от причала…» [The brigantine is leaving the quay…], «Идет солдат по городу…» [The soldier is going through the town…], «Жил да был черный кот за углом…» [Once there lived a cat around the corner…], «На недельку до второго я уеду в Комарово…» [For a week until the second I will go to Komarovo…], « На дальней станции сойду…» [At a distant station I’ll get off…], «Для кого-то просто летная погода, а ведь это проводы любви…» [For someone simply flying weather, but after all this is the farewell of love…], «Аты–баты, шли солдаты…» [Hi–ho, the soldiers were going…])* * *In one of the long-ago interviews lead singer of the group «Lesopoval» Sergey Korzhukov said: “The words to the songs are written by one of the few remaining masters of the pen – Mikhail Tanich.…They are truly capable of getting through to any normal person”.And they do get through. What’s your secret, Mikhail Isayevich?The camp theme – is a painful theme for Russia. It’s hard. Probably, to find a family in which someone of the dear or close ones, or relatives, has not done time. The same people keep going to concerts of the group «Lesopoval» time and again. Our fans – are not necessarily people who have been inside… But the creativity of «Lesopoval» is closer to folklore. It is more sincere. And in this is the answer to the riddle of popularity. By the way, the nature of creativity – has more riddles. And the success of some song is at times hard to second-guess. I, for example, didn’t think that «White swan on the pond» or «The weather in the house» [«Погода в доме»] would become so popular.

In one of the interviews you recalled how in the year 1947 they were transporting you by stage [Russian term for “prisoner transport”—Trans.] to Solikamsk to fell trees [“lesopoval” in Russian—Trans.], how they beat with wooden mallets on the back, how they fed with frozen bread… Some things have changed for the better. For example, they no longer feed with frozen bread, supposedly. What do you think, will the Russian system – not only the correctional one, but the law-enforcement, judicial one in general – become like in other civilized countries?

You’re young enough to be my son. But you’ve already done time in the zone. I did time in the long-ago forties-fifties. You – just recently. They rehabilitated me. That’s still ahead for you. What does such a time spread tell us? That the law didn’t function then, and it doesn’t function now either. Now there is no law, now is a time of lawlessness. It’s been that way in the past and, I’m afraid, it will be that way in the future too. There will always be found a party (or a mafia – the word – is a synonym for party) that will appoint itself empowered to control us supposedly in our name.For many, probably, it was something unexpected when after lyrical songs you came up with the group «Lesopoval». Probably, it was sitting inside, and then burst out? Why did you decide to turn to this theme?I did time in Usollag, under Solikamsk, breaking my back on tree-felling. In camp I went through everything, I tried all the jobs. I survived, because they took me into the bookkeeping office to work, moreover far from immediately, and then as an expediter for the despatch of fuel-and-lubricant and technical materials. After a great time lag I decided I wanted to tell about myself, about camp life. I spent six years in the camps and know the criminal world very well: its psychology, structure, norms of behavior. But the success of these songs became for me an unexpectedness. My new book of verses is coming out in the nearest time. «Overtime», it’s called. And in it I also turn to the theme about which we’re talking – the theme of freedom and non-freedom. There’s a poem there, «Frigging freedom…» [«Свобода, блин…»]. This is about who understands freedom and how. After all, you can feel yourself free even in a jail cell or a courtroom cage.Someone wise said: “A person is measured not by the depth of his fall, but by the ability to rise up and move on”. What do you think in this regard? What would you say to those who are doing time, from the elevation of your experience?Good phrase. All correct. I would not say that it’s good that they’re doing time. Jail experience – is not positive and not negative. This is – experience. It teaches something in the format of life. For example, understanding that jail, camp – this is our country in a concentrated form. Everything there is in the creativity of Shakespeare, that is in a person himself, here is reduced to a focus.There is a penitentiary system in all states. Including in democratic ones. It’s more civilized there, but still those doing time do not have freedom. I empathize with those doing time.In one of your interviews there are such words: “A thief is also a person. So let’s hear him out.” Do you think that a person can be corrected with poetry?Yes, I remember those words of mine. And I do not renounce them. Indeed, I did not write in a single song that a thief – this is a good person, but I assert that a thief is also a person and that he has the right to be heard. By the way, in the songs of «Lesopoval» too is spoken of how a thief does not have happiness, that the thief’s life is sad and that brief success – is illusory. Our lyrical hero always regrets what has happened with him. But as concerns the educative significance of verses, and of the arts in general – I don’t believe in that.Some in jail whine – fate has twisted me, all around are “ignominious wolves”…That depends on character. I don’t hang my head despondently, in difficult moments I pull myself together. I have been in many stressed situations: both in the camp and at the war as a gun commander. I could have died many a time, but, as you can see, I’m alive. By the way, in their time they even introduced me to a hero’s title. But they have the order of Glory [lower than the highest title, Hero of the Soviet Union—Trans.] And recently they reported that they’re going to try to find that introduction to hero. I think that it disappeared without a trace. And the second order of Glory came when they had already locked me up. And the one that was, they took away. But then they returned it. After the rehabilitation.What would you wish the army of people doing time on the eve of the new 2007 year?Everything gets forgotten. All unpleasantness does not live in us. What lives in us is pleasantness. People in whom black thoughts live don’t live long themselves. Hold your tails up high! It doesn’t matter what kinds of deeds we committed that were punished, there are more – that were unpunished. In the USA there are automobile courts, and I saw such an inscription there: driver, don’t hang the head! Remember how many times you’ve violated the rules without punishment! And about jail… May God grand that something like this never happen with you again.