Vladimir Ilyich Lenin in the Poetry of Bertolt Brecht

Tr. Fowpe Sharma

Letter to Boris Pasternak

Berlin, 9th May, 1956

Dear Comrade Boris Pasternak,

I have decided to request you to render a few of my small works (in Russian – tr.) knowing full well that this might disturb you. But I would like to publish a few of my Lenin-poems in the best possible translation in the USSR, since I have not yet tried to have this done before. Evidently, I would understand if you did not have the time or the inclination for this work.

With kind regards,


Bertolt Brecht

(Note: In a letter to Pasternak (25th April, 1956), Brecht had complained about the bad selection and bad translation of his poems in the USSR).   

The Book of Lenin’s Discipline

A Bolshevik describes the great authority which Lenin had acquired through his thirty years’ revolutionary work for the party. In order to carry through the peace treaty with the Germans, a threat of his resignation proved to be enough. The effect of his threat on the Bolsheviks was described by the narrator with the following sentence: It was as if the tree said to its leaves: I am going.

About 1928
From: Proletarian Anecdotes from the Reader for City-dwellers.

(The commentary from the Prose Volume of the Works notes: ‘The story refers to the controversy inside the Bolshevik Party about the acceptance of a special peace with the German Reich in the first world war. As on 23rd February 1918 the German answer to the peace proposals of Lenin and Trotsky of 18th February was received, the Central Committee advised against the signing that treaty. At the sitting Lenin threatened his exit from the government if the central committee decided against the peace treaty. Thereafter the immediate approval for signing the peace treaty was given by the central committee and on the next day by the central executive committee of the Soviets. On March 3rd the Brest-Litovsk peace treaty was signed.’ Translator.)


Besides a man with the name Ulyanov called Lenin
Living in exile in Zuerich
Socialist and agitator, a destructive element
On his request to be allowed to pass through our region
In a sealed wagon, so that in the east
Just like a bacterium
Could decompose the shapeless body of our eastern enemy
So unknowingly taking care of our work.

Fatzer (a projected play) 1928-29

The Carpet Weavers of Kuyan-Bulak Honour Lenin

Often he was honoured and profusely
The Comrade Lenin. Busts there are and statues.
Cities were named after him and children.
Speeches are made in numerous languages
Rallies there are and demonstrations
From Shanghai to Chicago, in honour of Lenin.
But thus they honoured him
The carpet weavers of Kuyan-Bulak
A small village in southern Turkistan:

Twenty carpet weavers stand there in the evening
Shivering with fever, in front of their humble loom.
Fever runs riot: the railway station
Teeming with buzzing mosquitoes – a thick cloud
Arising from the swamp behind the old camel cemetery.
But the train, which
Once in two weeks brings water and smoke, brings
Also the news one day
That the day for honouring Lenin lies ahead
And so decide the people of Kuyan-Bulak
Carpet weavers, poor folk
That for the Comrade Lenin also in their village
A gypsum bust would be installed.
But as the money is collected for the bust
All of them stand
Trembling with fever and contribute
Their hard earned kopecks with wobbling hands.
And the Red Army soldier Stepa Jamal, who
Carefully counts and meticulously watches,
Sees the readiness, to honour Lenin, and is filled with joy.
But he also sees the uncertain hands.
And all of a sudden he makes a proposal
To buy petroleum with the money collected for the bust
In order to pour it on the swamp behind the camel cemetery
From where the mosquitoes come, which
Cause the fever
Thus to combat the fever in Kuyan-Bulak, and indeed
To honour the late, but
Not to be forgotten
Comrade Lenin.

This was agreed to. On the day of paying respect to
Lenin they carried
Their battered buckets, filled with black petroleum
One behind the other
Over there and spread it on the swamp.

So they benefited themselves, in paying homage to Lenin and
Paid homage to him, in that they benefited themselves and had
Therefore understood him well.


We have heard how the Kuyan-Bulak folk
Paid their respect to Lenin. As now in the evening
The petroleum had been bought and discharged over the swamp
Stood up a man in the assembly, and he demanded
That a commemoration stone be erected at the railway sStation
Reporting these events, containing
The altered plan and the exchange
Instead of Lenin’s bust the fever eradicating petroleum barrel,
And all this in honour of Lenin
And they did that too
And mounted the slab.

(Note: Kuyan-Bulak is the railway station of Ferghana in Uzbekistan. The Slab had the text: ‘In this place there should have been a memorial to Lenin, but instead of the memorial, petroleum was brought and poured over the swamp. Thus Kuyan-Bulak, in memory of Lenin and in his Name smothered malaria’. Translator.)

Tirelessly Praises the Thinker

Tirelessly praises the thinker
Comrade Lenin, because he
Considering the possibilities of a great new order
Went to the market, bargaining
            And bribed the corruptible
            For getting the right to speech

And treat with contempt those
Who turned up with clean hands
Hands that are empty, and when asked, what
They had preserved, answered: only our own Self.

(about 1931)

The Brown Shirt


You and I run round with our hands in the pocket
But a walking-stick a lame man needs in fact
We need a jacket, as also a shirt
Still a shirt is nearer to us than is the jacket.
And if you fond men perishing in pole’s icy waste
With a half-chewed shoe:
They do not chew the leather, because they like its taste
As little do I and you.


Haffner Karle and I were without a job
We were on our feet from early in the morning till late, busy.
He wrote for the party-organ and I pulled out the sheets
There was nothing to eat, we shared a cigarette
About the Red Front we were well aware
And enough of the German Social-Democratic Party
And thoroughly we must take care, as the Russians had taken care
And learn Ilyich’s ABC.

About 1933

The Unconquerable Inscription

During the war
In a cell of the Italian prison in San Carlo
Full of imprisoned soldiers, drunks and thieves
A socialist soldier, with an indelible pencil, scratched on the wall:
Long live Lenin!
High above, in the semi-dark cell, hardly visible, but
Written in large letters.
As the warders saw it, they sent for a painter with a bucket of lime.
And with a long stemmed brush he whitewashed the threatening inscription.
Since, however, with his lime, he painted over the letters only
Stood above in the cell, now in chalk:
Long live Lenin!
Next another painter daubed over the whole stretch with a broad brush
So that for hours it disappeared, but towards morning
As the lime dried, the inscription underneath was again conspicuous:
Long live Lenin!
Then dispatched the warder a bricklayer with a chisel against the inscription
And he scratched out letter by letter, one hour long
And as he was done, now colourless, but up above in the wall
But deeply carved, stood the unconquerable inscription:
Long live Lenin!
Now, said the soldier, get rid of the wall!


(Based on facts, as narrated by Giovanni Germanetto, imprisoned in 1917, in a publication in Zuerich in 1930 after his release. The soldier was an Alps climber – Translator).

The Hole in Ilyich’s Boots

You, who are sculpting a statue of Ilyich
Twenty metres high, at the Palace of the Trades Unions
Do not forget that in his boot
There was the hole, attested by many, a sign of poverty.
I hear to be sure, he faces
The West, where many live, who in the hole in the boot
Will recognise Ilyich as
One of their own.


Cantata on the Day of Lenin’s Death


The day Lenin passed away
A soldier of the death watch, so runs the story, told his comrades: I did not want to
Believe it. I went inside, and
Shouted in his ear: ‘Ilyich
The exploiters are on their way!’ He did not move. Now
I knew that he has expired.


When a good man wants to leave
How can you hold him back?
Tell him why he is needed.
That holds him.


What could hold Lenin back ?


The soldier thought
When he hears, the exploiters are coming
He may be ever so ill, he will still get up
Perhaps he will come on crutches
Perhaps he will let himself be carried, but
He will get up and come
In order to confront the exploiters.


The soldier knew, that is to say, that Lenin
Throughout his life, had carried on a struggle
Against the exploiters.


And the soldier who had taken part
In the storming of the Winter Palace wanted to return home, because there
The landed estates were being distributed
Then Lenin had told him: stay on!
The exploiters are there still.
And so long there is exploitation
One must struggle against it.
So long as you exist
You must struggle against it.


The weak do not fight. The stronger
Fight on perhaps for an hour.
Those who are stronger still fight for many years
The strongest fight on all their life.
These are indispensable.

In Praise of the Revolutionary

When exploitation is on the rise
Many get discouraged
But his courage grows.

He organises his struggle
For wage-pennies, for tea-water
And for taking over power.

He asks property:
What is your origin ?
He asks the viewpoints:
Whom do you serve ?

Wherever there is a hush
He will speak out
Wherever there is oppression, and the talk is of fate
He will call things by their right names.

Where he sits down on the table
There sits also dissatisfaction
The food is perceived to be awful
And the room too narrow.
Wherever they chase him away
Turmoil follows, and at the hunting place
Unrest remains.


When Lenin passed away and was missed
The victory had been won, but the land lay waste
The masses had set out, but
The way was dark
As Lenin passed away
Soldiers, sitting on the footpaths, wept
And the workers went away from their machines
And clenched their fists.


As Lenin went, it was
As if the tree said to its leaves
I am off.


Since then fifteen years have passed away
One sixth of the globe
Is freed from exploitation.
At the call: the exploiters are coming!
The masses, as ever, stand up anew.
Ready for the struggle.


Lenin is enshrined
In the large heart of the working-class,
He was our teacher.
He carried on the struggle along with us.
He is enshrined
In the large heart of the working class.


The music for this cantata was given its final shape by Hans Eisler in Denmark in August 1937. The eighth part ‘Praise of the Revolutionary’ was first written by Brecht for the 1933 version of the play, based on Gorky’s ‘Mother’. The first three lines were, however:

‘Many are too much
When they leave, it is better so
But when he goes, he is missed’.

These three lines were changed- as given above. Then in the 1938 revision of ‘The Mother’ the cantata version was retained – Translator).



Comrade X has there something said
Recently Comrade X read Stalin and look
When you the page 200 of Stalin’s book have read
You will find all that Comrade X says is also there in Stalin’s book!
Exactly, as he had thought
Exactly, as one could foresee!
Exactly, the way he does it, the same way did Lenin adopt!
What was clear to him now, Lenin had seen very clearly!


There Comrade X made a mess
Recently Comrade X drove down to Moscow
As he came back he said, he was there a big success
That somebody made a big mess there, oh, never, no….
Exactly, as one had thought!
Exactly, as one could foretell!
Exactly, as he does it, the same way there they adopt!
That what he had seen clearly, he now sees very clearly!


About Comrade X there is something one hears:
Recently Comrade Z drove down to Moscow
He asked about Comrade X and he swears
He saw him wallowing there in an abyss down below
Exactly, as we had thought!
Exactly, as one could foresee!
Exactly, as we laugh here, the same way laugh they there, that lot!
What was already clear to us, they now also see clearly!


Comrade X is a filthy rogue.
Comrade X drove down to Moscow, and oh heck
As he came back he told us, filth is there the vogue
And nobody there ever washes his neck!
Exactly, as he had thought!
Exactly, as one could foretell!
Exactly, as he does it here, the same way there they adopt!
What was already clear to him, is now clear to him all too well.

(About 1935)

Great October

For the Twentieth Anniversary of the October Revolution

O the great October of the working class!
At last stand upright those
So long bent down. O soldiers, who at last
Point their rifles in the right direction!
Those who tilled the land in spring
Did it not for themselves. In summer
They bent down lower still. Still the harvest
Went to the barns of the masters. But October
Saw the bread, at last, in the right hands!

            Since then
The world has hope.
The Welsh miner and the Manchurian coolie
And the Pennsylvanian worker, leading a life worse than a dog
And the German, my brother, who
Envies them all
Know, there is
An October.

Even the aeroplanes of the Fascists, which
Fly up attacking him, are seen
By the soldier of the Spanish militia therefore
With less anxiety.

But in Moscow, the famous capital
Of all the workers
Moves over the Red Square yearly
The unending march of the victors.
They carry with them the emblems of their factories
Pictures of tractors and bales of wool of textile works.
Also the ears of corn of the grain factories.
Above them their fighter planes
Darken the sky and in front of them
Their regiments and tank squadrons.
On broad, cloth banners
They carry their slogans and
The portraits of their great teacher. The cloth
Is transparent, so that
All this can be seen on both sides.
Narrow, on thick sticks
Flutter the high flags. In the far off streets
When the march comes to a halt
There are lively dances and competitions. Full of joy
Progresses the march, many besides each other, full of joy
But to all oppressors
A Threat.

O the great October of the working class !

(1937 )

Truth Unites

Friends, I would wish you should know the truth and say it!
Not like the tired fleeing Caesars ‘Tomorrow we get the rations!’
But like Lenin: Tomorrow evening
We are done for, UNLESS…
As the little nursery rhyme has it:
            Brother, to the solution
            Of this problem now I turn
            No way out of our precarious position
            No way we can cut and run’.
Friends, a robust confession
And a robust UNLESS !


Song of the Rivers

Old Man Mississippi wreaks havoc
Our cattle it drags away, even our lands disappear.
Send to the devil the riffraff its masters
Who unleash it on us year after year

            We, whose fields are gone
            Nothing will be forgiven –
            When its masters are undone
            We will tame it then.

Our Ganges flows in India
And when it flows, everything can grow
And where it flows, there is hunger.
But it will not always be so.

            We who built the fields
            And watered the valley
            Know that the day is near, when
            There will be food in our belly.

Our Nile flows in Egypt
Temples and palace look on
And slavery is six thousand years old
Still its time is finally done.

            We, who built the houses
            And piled stone upon stone
            Know that the day is near, when
            All this we’ll own.

Our China! Our Chang Jiang(1)
Where it flows, we own the land till the sea
Merrily we work where it flows
And it also does its work merrily.

            And it always was not ours
            A bitter struggle had to be waged
            The banner fluttered in front of the shovel
            And its colour is red.

Dear Volga, our mother!
Lenin was your son, hesitation was not his style
The slave song of the barge haulers is now over
There now soars the song of the turbine all the while.

            Stalingrad was the name our city
            World’s enemy was there laid low.
            You, wherever you find him
            Like us, give him a blow.

Our Amazon no doubt flows in
Brazil, but the American flag there flies
Huge and powerful it is, and works for
The master, whom it never saw with its eyes.

            Still one day, which is approaching fast
            We have this solemnly sworn
            It will work full blast
            For us, who in this land are born.

(1) The Yangtze.


Translator’s note: The song was written at the request of Joris Ivens, in whose film it was reproduced in the taped voice of Paul Robeson . The following passages were not included in the Song, but are given in the commentary to the Poetry Volumes of the Works:

In this star, where we have our hearth
Ores and coal and other riches are plentiful
The earth and the rivers that water the earth
Make it liveable and beautiful.

            Hard working heads has this earth
            And many hands that are versatile
            On this star to secure now
            Our domicile

Mighty rivers has the earth
Fine and bountiful fruit they deliver
But we, the proletariat are
This earth’s most fruitful river.

            Friends it also is the mightiest
            And for it there is no barrier:
            Bathing the earth it goes on
            Its irresistible career.

The Murder

For a word comrade-ship
For the border of a field
Unploughed for thousands of years
For Lenin’s science:
As he wanted to pluck out the roots
Gripped by the earth’s thousand claws
He was killed on the tractor
As you others in tanks
With you he too fell down

In order that behind the mountain ranges of the Urals
The first city of land-workers comes into being
In order that electricity works at Volga
Become the driving force of crop factories
Pounced from behind
Hit with a flail
With a consecrated bullet, shot
The kulak-pack

You from Lenino
You from Warsaw
When you make the count, count him as one of your own
Like your fallen comrades, he too fell down.


Source: Bertolt Brecht, ‘Werke’, volumes 10, 12, 14. 15, 18, 30, Grosse kommentierte, Berliner und Frankfurter Ausgabe, 1988-1998. Translated from the German.

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