The white cranes of West Hollywood

Red Army White Cranes
Red Army White Cranes | Photo: deVos/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Plummer Park in West Hollywood is the site, as far as anyone at city hall knows, of the only monument in the United States that honors veterans of the Soviet Union's Red Army. The monument is a triangular slab of red granite, slightly tilted. The slab is engraved with three cranes taking wing and the opening verse of a Russian poem. It imagines that the spirits of dead soldiers rise from tbe battlefield as white cranes.

This is my very rough translation of the entire poem:

White Cranes
It sometimes seems to me that
soldiers who never came back
from those red fields rested
not a moment in our land
but became white cranes.

Always they've flown and forever
calling from afar. Did we ever,
in silence, in grief, look up into the sky?
The cranes are flying in formation, weary,
into the mist, into the dusk.

Walking in the fields today I saw them.
Among them was a gap. Kept for me?
Maybe I'll rise like the cranes one day
into the same blue sky,
and call in their voice to those left below.

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This famous image of the cranes is one of the reminders that persists from what the Soviet Union called the Great Patriotic War. It's an image that resonates deeply among elderly Russian émigrés who live in West Hollywood. Their memories are served at the Plummer Park memorial, but the character of their memories is in dispute.

West Hollywood celebrated another Victory in Europe day on May 9 with Russian veterans, but the white cranes memorial had suffered a change. Part of the engraved dedication, written by Council Member Jeff Prang when the memorial was installed in 2005, had been covered with new words just days before.

Prang's sentiments were in English: Dedicated to the honor of and in tribute to the World War II Veterans from the former Soviet Union.

The new plaque, in three parts, has both English and Russian texts and between them a symbol of hands grasped in friendship inside a Soviet-era, five-pointed star. The English text reads: Eternal Memory and Glory to Those Who Defeated the (sic) Nazism in the (sic) World War II.

West Hollywood will replace the new words with the old ones, even though they had caused some unease in 2005. There was a problem in translation, because the Russian poem is about aching loss and Prang's dedication is about veterans. The old words are high-toned bureaucratic, with their "honor of" and "tribute to" parallel constructions and a mess of prepositions. Prang's words end with an unwanted, it seems, reminder of the Soviet Union and that failed state's passing. Perhaps that was too much memory.

The new words are overblown in precisely the way the Soviet state had appropriated meaning from the Russian Orthodox liturgy. The Soviet Union isn't mentioned in the new words, but the booming, empty sounds of the Soviet era are in the text. The English translation is pretty much a failure.

Neither the new nor the old words make much sense. They attempt to translate memories that by now are the fleeting property of a few dozen very old men and women who hear the calling of white cranes in our alien sky.

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