A Foreign Travel Memo, by Vladimir Vysotsky (1977)

Last night, forging in the foundry, I poured twice the monthly plan
And, as a reward, I found I’m sent abroad by my own plant.
So, I ate some cold smoked bass, I showered off the grime and goo,
And I sat in a special class on what to do, what not to do.

Over there, they’re better-heeled than us for now,
And to make sure that I do not goof somehow,
They made me read a little pamphlet so I’m clear:
There, I can’t act like the dimwit I am here.

He told me, very sympathetic, of them shifty foreign pests
And my trip to the democratic Polish town of Budapest:
“They have their own ways, it’s rather hard to get them figured out;
Try to show respect, my brother, even just a small amount.

If vodka enters the debates, do not agree!
Say: no, my democratic mates, I’m choosing tea.
Turn your face away, be gruff if offered gifts.
Say: at home we have this stuff in piles and drifts!

Live in a comfortable fashion, save your funds but don’t go nuts,
Don’t go crazy with dry rations, don’t go croaking like a klutz.
This Czech town of Budapest right now is going through a lot:
They may provide drinks, food and rest, or they may offer diddly squat.”

I’ll check out the German market, yes-siree!
See Romanian chicks out there in Hungary!
Guys said democratic chicks are a good time,
They won’t charge us Soviet citizens a dime.

“Their bourgeois disease ensnares, it always trails you everywhere!
Extramarital affairs are worse than evil eye, beware!
Their shapely spy chicks have their ways, you shove them out, back in they go!
Tell them that we did away with all that nonsense years ago.

But they could also work in ways that aren’t so crude:
Sneak in your train car and act like they’re a dude!
She’d stuff her corset with explosives like a wiz…
So be sure to check what sex your bunk-mate is.”

Here I really had to press him:”I don’t know that I’m that apt!
Do I check her up the dress? But that’s how people get bitch-slapped!”
But the instructor was hardcore, he was all business, he knew best!
He went on and on to bore me with his shifty foreign pests.

I’ll explain not for the brains but for the rest:
I’m off to see Bulgarians in Budapest.
If they raise some iffy topics, shut them up.
But no punching! What they don’t get, we’ll clear up.

I can’t yammer in their grammar, all I can is gawp and gape.
If I only had a hammer, I would quickly give them shape!
But I am no agitator, I’m a blacksmith like my dad!
I won’t go to Ulan-Bator to those Poles, and that is that!

I’m in bed next to my wife and I can’t rest:
“Dusya, should I just forget the foreign pests?
I am not baked from that batter, I will scram,
I don’t know a single letter, not one damn!“

Dusya, sleeping like a baby, all her curlers in their place,
Answers half-awake: “Just maybe, you know, Kolya, shut your face.
Kolya,you are way too scared, I’ll divorce you, yes I will.
Twenty years that we’ve been married, you whine “Dusya, Dusya!” still!

You promised me and then forgot – now that is fresh! –
That you would bring me some oilcloth from Bangladesh!
So save up a couple rupees, don’t be thick!
Buy me stuff! Buy me a devil on a stick.”

I slept cradling my wife Dusya who’s my darling tender elf.
I dreamt I made a blade, a shield and a chainmaille shirt for myself.
They have standards we don’t know, you miss a beat, that’s it, you’re gone!
I dreamt of Hungarian ladies and they all had beards and guns.

I dreamt of Dusya’s tablecloths a shade of flesh
And those sassy lady spies from Bangladesh.
I’ll stay awhile with the Romanians, hopefully.
They come from the banks of Volga, just like we.

Women do the darnedest things: she sends me off, she starts to sing!
She irons all my shirts so nice they look like they would fit a king!
Bye, my foundry, bye, my plant, all nails my own down to the last,
Bye, my five-year-counter-plan, which I myself have now surpassed.

Vodka seeped through my aorta, we drank up,
The whole way to the airport I had hiccups.
At the steps, I heard a wail behind,”Oh why,
Why have you forsaken us, dear Nikolay!”

A Spoof of a Shoddy Whodunit (by Vladimir Vysotsky)

Treating spooks with due anxiety,
Steering clear of high society,
Sporting a fake English name of Mr. John Lancaster Peak,
Always wearing gloves of leather,
Leaving no prints altogether,
Lodging in the Hotel Soviet was one not-so-Soviet freak.

John Lancaster, unattended,
Mostly after night descended
Clicked his nose in which an infrared device he did conceal.
And then later in broad daylight
He presented in a bad light
Everything we love and cherish, our collectivist ideal!

Hill Street Workers’ Club and Restaurant
Would be made a public restroom!
And our dear old Central Market now looked like a dirty shed!
Our Central Store, through his ill wish,
Was made a hut in microfiche!
And what was done to Moscow Theater, that is better left unsaid.

Although, working with no backing
Could get dull or lead to slacking.
And our foe, he had a thought and forged a check, ’cause he was slick,
And in a murky restaurant
A certain man named Yepifan
Was led aside and led astray by the not-really-Soviet freak.

This Yepifan appeared needy,
Clever, predatory, greedy.
He didn’t have nor want restraint, be it his ladies or his wine.
The guy that John got on his team
Was every infiltrator’s dream;
This can happen to whomever when they’re drunk and have no spine.

“Now, your first job is this: you’re gonna
At three fifteen be by the sauna.
‘Round that time, before or after, you will see an idling cab.
You’ll get in, tie up the driver,
Act like you’re a common mugger,
It’s the kind of thing about which BBC will love to gab.

Later, get a shave and go
To Manezh, to the art show.
You will be approached by someone with a suitcase. Once you met,
He’ll say: “Would you like some fruit?”
You’ll say: “Yes, I surely would.”
He’ll give you a baguette grenade, and you will bring me the baguette.

And for all this, my drunk buddy
Yepifan, you will get money,
And a nice pad in Chicago, ladies, many cars, the life!”
But the foe did not know, the knob,
The man whom he’d been giving jobs
Was an officer, an agent, and devoted to his wife!

Yes, he truly was a master
Of tricks, that Mr. John Lancaster!
But alas, the calculations of that Peak turned out too weak!
He was caught committing treason,
Got a buzz-cut, went to prison.
And the Hotel Soviet now is housing some peace-loving Greek.


Netsuke, at the top of the pyramid.
At the bottom, wrappers.
For junior collectors, candy wrappers, cleaned, spread, straightened, stacked in boxes, or pressed under books on bookshelves. Value-free wrappers off karamel’ki the hard candy from your corner Produkty store, kept to pad volume; chocolate candy wrappers, somewhat more desirable; rare wrappers with foreign words on them. Foreign words graduated in bragging and trading value: Estonian words cheaper than English, Kazakh cheaper than Estonian.
Chewing gum wrappers. The domestic trinity of orange, strawberry and mint, boring in the metropolis of Moscow, rare and elusive in the provinces, a.k.a. everywhere else. Wrappers off the domestic Coffee Aroma gum. To Americans, coffee may seem like a strange gum flavor, yet it was perhaps the most available one in the USSR. Gum wrappers brought back by kids whose Army parents were stationed in Germany and Eastern Europe: super-valuable.
Pocket-sized calendars. Glossy, matte. Calendars commemorating cities, whether Leningrad or Blagoveshchensk; calendars themed on nature, transportation, industries, the glories of keeping money in a savings account, the glories of travel to Sochi.
If your family has traveled to Sochi, collections of shells and chicken gods. Chicken gods are pebbles with natural holes in them.
Matchboxes collected for their labels.
To match matchboxes, little villages of matchstick architecture, crafted on dreary winter nights when there is nothing on TV.
Model airplanes. Model airplane collections require dedication from your parents, not just you. Model airplanes are not candy wrappers; funds and resources are needed.
Pins and badges.
Pins commemorating cities, events, achievements, revolutionaries. Pins with Lenin heads; Fit for Labor and Defense pins; Moscow Olympiad 1980 pins.
Pins pinned to red fabric display banners sewn specifically for that purpose by your grandma.
Stamps. Beginner stamps, which can be bought at any newspaper kiosk: Cuba, Sochi, Moscow Olympiad 1980, Yuri Gagarin, Bela Kun. If you keep at it, one day you might grow a scruffy beard, obtain (not buy) a turtleneck sweater, and graduate from amassing these useless paper rectangles to real philately, which means “collecting stamps that are thought important by bearded dudes wearing turtlenecks.”
Also, after you get that beard, you can start collecting books with matching covers.
The Lives of Outstanding People series: Jack London, Gogol, Balzac, General Franco, Schubert, Sun Yat-sen. Two shelves’ worth of Lives is a decent collection.
The Library of Foreign Literature, rare on the periphery of the country: Kobo Abe, Stanislaw Lem, Robert Sheckley. The more, the better.
The Library of World Literature, 200 volumes in toto: Beowulf, Boccaccio, Chaucer, Diderot, William Thackeray, Pablo Neruda, the Goncourt brothers, and poetry of the socialist countries of Europe. Hard to get. Twenty volumes or more is a good collection. You may want to try ways to discourage people from borrowing those volumes. Get your own ex libris stamp; no dishonest borrowers will be able to claim your Boccaccio as theirs.
A more drastic protective measure is to write this popular poem on a sheet of paper, and tack the paper on the shelf:
“Don’t give my shelves those greedy looks! We will not let you borrow books. To let your friends just come and borrow, you’d have to be a total moron!”
(Не шарь по полкам жадным взглядом! Здесь не даются книги на дом. Лишь только полный идиот знакомым книги раздает.)
No, not a joke.
If you collect Books with Matching Covers for the impressive display they make, you may also consider collecting Oriental rugs and vases of cut crystal.
If you collect Books with Matching Covers because your turtleneck and your beard want them, you may also consider philately and netsuke.
Netsuke, at the top of the pyramid.
In the USSR, private property is banned; personal property is allowed.
Personal property.
Objects collected on dreary winter nights when there is nothing on TV.
Objects which never become subjects anaphorically.