Mercy: A Poet’s Memory

By Yevgeny Yevtushenko — Set in Russia

Unknown artist, pen and watercolor
Artur Cherov, ink
Unknown artist, pen and oil pastel
Unknown artist, pen and watercolor
Unknown artist, pen and watercolor
Unknown artist, pencil and watercolor

In 1944 Mama and I returned to Moscow. And for the first time I saw our enemies. About twenty thousand German prisoners—if I have the numbers correct—were to pass through the streets of Moscow in a single column. The sidewalks were crowded with people. The soldiers and police could hardly hold them back.

They were mostly women—Russian women with hands rough from hard work, lips unaccustomed to lipstick and thin stooped shoulders that had borne the brunt of war. Every one of them must have had a father or husband, brother or son killed by the Germans. The women gazed in hatred at the spot where the column of German prisoners was due to appear. There it was at last.

First came the generals, sticking their arrogant chins out, pressing their scornful lips together, everything about them aiming to show superiority over their lowly victors.

“They smell of deodorant, the bastards,” said someone in the crowd.

The women clenched their fists. The soldiers and policemen battled to hold them back. And suddenly something happened to the crowd.

The people saw a column of German soldiers, emaciated, unshaven, all in pitiful rags and filthy, bloodstained bandages. Leaning on their comrades’ shoulders or on crutches, they walked with their heads bowed low. The street fell silent. The only thing you could hear was shuffling boots and creaking crutches.

All at once I saw an elderly woman in tattered boots lay her hand on a policeman’s shoulder. “Let me through,” she said. There must have been something about her that made him step aside. The woman went up to the column of Germans, took something wrapped in a kerchief from inside her coat and unfolded it. It was the heel of a loaf of black bread.

And suddenly women started running up to the soldiers from all sides, shoving bread, cigarettes, anything into their hands.

They were enemies no longer.

They were people.

Translated by Michael Henry Heim