The poet and translator Semyon Lipkin was born in Odessa in 1911. His father was a tailor.
At the age of eight, Semyon was admitted to an Odessa gymnasium, having passed the entrance exam with flying colors. During the Russian Civil War, quotas were imposed on the number of Jewish students in educational institutions in territories held by the White Army. As a result, Semyon was the only Jew in his class. Shortly thereafter, the Bolsheviks took Odessa, and the gymnasium was transformed into a labor school.
As a high school student, Semyon became an active member of a literature club. At the time, he made the acquaintance of Eduard Bagritsky, who had achieved fame as a poet and moved to Moscow.
In 1929, at Bagritsky's suggestion, Lipkin moved to Moscow, where he became fast friends with Osip Mandelstam. Decades later, in the early 1980s, Lipkin would describe this friendship in a book of memoirs titled The Flaming Coal.
Upon arriving in Moscow, Lipkin enrolled in the Engineering-Economic Institute. Simultaneously, he began to study oriental languages, including Persian. After his graduation, Semyon Lipkin became a prolific translator of poetry and wrote some poems of his own. His works were occasionally published in the magazines Novy Mir, Molodaya Gvardiya, Zemlia I Fabrika, and others.
In late June 1941, five days after the outbreak of the Soviet-German War, Lipkin was drafted. He was initially sent to Kronstadt, a port town near Leningrad. In late September 1941, Kronstadt was heavily bombed; the Maritime shipyard was destroyed; ships were sunk, and the entire city came under siege. During one such bombing raid, Lipkin's ship was hit and began to founder, but he survived. Lipkin was then transferred to a Kalmyk cavalry division. Once, his unit was surrounded, and he became terribly afraid, realizing that, as a Jew, he would stand no chance. However, the cavalrymen miraculously managed to break out of the encirclement. Lipkin was later posted back to the navy, where he served as a military correspondent in the Volga Military Flotilla, taking part in the Battle of Stalingrad in late 1942 – early 1943. Over the course of the war, Semyon Lipkin was awarded the Order of the Patriotic War and some medals.
After the end of the war, Lipkin worked at the Goslitizdat publishing house, in the department of the literatures of the peoples of the USSR. He was actively involved in translating the national epics, and other poetical works, of various Soviet ethnicities (Kalmyks, Tatars, the Kyrgyz people, and others) into Russian. He was deeply affected by the fate of his Kalmyk comrades-in-arms, who had been deported from their homes as part of Stalin's genocidal campaign. His subsequent literary career path was rather thorny, with his first book of original poems coming out only when he was 56.
The famous Soviet author Vasily Grossman was a close friend of Lipkin's. In 1961, the KGB confiscated and destroyed the manuscripts of Grossman's novel Life and Fate, deeming it "anti-Soviet". Semyon Lipkin acted heroically (by the standards of that time), rescuing one typescript of the novel from destruction by hiding it at his home. Only in the mid-1970s – with the help of the poet and playwright Vladimir Voynovich, the physicist and human rights activist Andrei Sakharov, and the singer-songwriter Bulat Okudzhava – was this typescript finally smuggled into Western Europe, where it was published, 16 years after the author's death.
In 1968, Semyon Lipkin was accused of Zionism for his poem "Conjunction", which had actually been written under the influence of a Chinese poetry collection describing small nations. Lipkin himself would later recall this controversy:
"I had repeatedly and openly written about the disaster that had befallen the Jewish people during World War II. Why, then, would I resort to veiled references and sly hints? But my attackers cared nothing for logic, regarding it as an enemy."1
In the late 1970s, Lipkin once again became the target of persecutions, after he and his wife, the poet Inna Lisnianskaya, had resigned from the Union of Writers in protest against the mistreatment of the young authors who had contributed to the Metropol anthology, which had not been approved by the Soviet censors. After this scandal, Lipkin was banned from publishing translations and original compositions, yet he continued to work intensively, with no hope of seeing his writings in print. He was ultimately rehabilitated and readmitted to the Union of Writers in the second half of the 1980s, after the onset of Perestroika.
Lipkin's works are shot through with Jewish motifs and grief for the Holocaust. They contain allusions to Biblical stories and reflect the poet's frustration with the prevailing antisemitism.
He composed a remarkable cycle of poems about the Holocaust: "On Tian Shan"(1959), "The Vilnius Compound" (1963), "Ashes", "Moses" (1967), and others.
In 1986, Semyon Lipkin published a book of memoirs titled Vasily Grossman's Stalingrad, which was followed by Vasily Grossman's Life and Fate in 1990.
In 2001, Lipkin was awarded the title Hero of Kalmykia. In 2002, he received the Presidential Prize for his contribution to literature and the arts.
Semyon Lipkin died in 2003 in Moscow.
Lipkin's poem "On Tian Shan"
The butterfly is fluttering in the neck of the jug;
The greying eagle is asleep on its perch;
They are both being watched by Sigmund Smetana,
A graceful tailor from Warsaw.
He has been brought here from afar by chance;
The others have been reduced to ashes
There, behind the barbed wire.
And now, he is all alone in the world.
The windblown leaves are dancing above the adobe hut,
Occasionally landing inside the workshop.
The mountains are shrouded in mist. And behind them
(As unbelievable as it may seem) lies China!
At this hour, the people appear:
The horse breeder on a mare named Sappho,
A family mounted on a camel,
And the financier of the Regional Committee in his velvet coat.
The day is fading in the dust, like a horseman,
The silent sheep are running into the pen.
The shivering vine is hiding its leaves,
And flatbread is being baked in the yurt.
The same bread used to be baked in Galilee,
Under the awning, at eventide...
And the graceful tailor from Warsaw
Stands with the measuring tape looped around his neck.
There are no motes or tears in his eyes, -
He is being burned by the dead fire.
It is Treblinka – now turned into dust –
That has marked him with its scorching ashes.