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Updated on February 12, 2018

Samuil Marshak ‘s “Baggage”: Between the lines

The famous children’s poem was written by Samuil Yakovlevich in 1926, and it is no coincidence that in the Russian textbook the artist showed a “mammy” in a NEPman (or rather, NEPwoman) hat.

Having taught Russian for many years in Boston, I found what in my opinion is good material for reading and memorization. I suppose you already know that in American schools they hardly ever study poetry and students do not learn poems by heart.

While reading Edvard Radzinsky’s essay about Nicholas II I found many interesting details, and among them the railroad station of Dno that Marshak mentions in his poem. It was there that Nicholas II signed his abdication.

The little dog that “the madam checked in” in the poem could very well be “Joy”, Nicholas II’s family dog that shared all the trouble of their last days and was executed with the rest of the family.

Addressing the lady in the “Baggage” as “mammy” might be a hint at Rasputin, who called the tsar and tsarina “papa” and “mama”. Although the Romanov family had died before the poem was written, a lot of connections can be drawn between the poem and Radsinsky’s essay.

Marshak was born in Voronezh in 1887. He was homeschooled and later tried to enter a gymnasium in St. Petersburg, but since Jews were banned from big cities, his parents appealed to Stasov, a literary critic. Stasov later introduced the young gifted writer to Gorky and Shalyapin. Gorky became a big part of Marshak’s life. In 1912 Marshak went to study at University of London, which greatly helped him with his brilliant translations of Shakespeare and other works of English literature.

Porter 15 in “Baggage” most likely refers to the date of Nicholas II’s kidnapping, March 15, 1917.

“One piece of baggage missing” can be translated as “the country lost its ruler”.

The “shaggy dog” is a soldier of the revolution, the new ruler of the country. His intellectual growth is humorously shown in this line: “However, the dog could have grown on the way”. And can the line “they arrived in Zhitomir” hint at the author’s origins?

The very beginning of the poem is a description of the royal family leaving St. Petersburg, and the title is the symbol of our historical “baggage”.

It is also worth pointing out how some details transformed in one of the translations of the poem into English (by Margaret Wettlin “In the Van”, 1987, USSR). The green baggage slips became yellow; the dog got a name, “Snook”, and was no longer tiny.

It has been noted that Chukovsky’s poems were not simple children’s stories either, but rather allegories. In “Cockroach” we can see Stalin and his alleged murder by poisoning in the image of the sparrow swallowing the monster insect. We can tell that children’s poems, stories and fairy tales are full of historical facts that cannot be easily discerned. The adults might want to think about it while reading to their children. That might very well have been the author’s goal. Think of the Da Vinci Code. In a mystery novel primarily aimed at teenagers the author tries to unveil the unknown parts of the life of Christ that will undoubtedly become known to public in the near future. The same goes for unveiling the true message of “Baggage” with the help of Radzinsky’s essay.

So, always read between the lines.


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