The trial of Joseph Brodsky, 18 February 1964 (excerpt)

Transcribed by Frida Vigdorova

Joseph BRODSKY was a Russian poet and translator who lived in the U.S. after being expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972.

His publications include numerous books of poems and essays, among them A Part of Speech (1977) and To Urania (1988) and the essay collection Less Than One (1986), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award. He wrote in both Russian and English, self-translating and working with poet-translators including W. H. Auden, Derek Walcott, and Anthony Hecht. In 1991, he was named Poet Laureate of the United States.

Brodsky was at the beginning of his career when the Soviet authorities found him guilty of “social parasitism” and sentenced him to five years of exile and hard labour. The transcript of his hearings, bravely recorded by the journalist Frida A. Vigdorova (1915-1965), was first circulated in samizdat and then published in numerous periodicals in France, [West] Germany, England, the U.S., and Poland.



Session of the Dzerzhinsky district court, Leningrad,
36 Vosstanie Street, 18 February 1964

Presiding Judge: Mme. Savelyeva
Defence Counsel: Mme. Z. N. Toporova

Judge – What do you do for a living?

Brodsky – I write poetry. I translate. I suppose …

Judge – Never mind what you “suppose.” Stand up properly. Don’t lean against the wall. Look at the court. Answer the court properly.

(To Vigdorova) Stop taking notes immediately! Or else—I’ll have you thrown out of the courtroom.

(To Brodsky) Do you have a regular job?

Brodsky – I thought this was a regular job.

Judge – Answer correctly!

Brodsky – I was writing poems. I thought they’d be published. I suppose  …

Judge – We’re not interested in what you “suppose.” Tell us why you weren’t working.

Brodsky – I had contracts with a publisher.

Judge – Did you have enough contracts to earn a living? List them: with whom, what dates, and for what sums of money?

Brodsky – I don’t remember exactly. My lawyer has all the contracts.

Judge – I’m asking you.

Brodsky – Two books with my translations were published in Moscow. (He lists them.)

Judge – How long have you worked?

Brodsky – Approximately  …

Judge – We’re not interested in “approximately.”

Brodsky – Five years.

Judge – Where did you work?

Brodsky — At a factory. With geological groups  …

Judge – How long did you work at the factory?

Brodsky – A year.

Judge – As what?

Brodsky – A milling-machine operator.

Judge – And, in general, what is your specific occupation?

Brodsky – Poet. Poet-translator.

Judge – And who said you’re a poet? Who ranked you among poets?

Brodsky – No one. (Unsolicited) Who ranked me as a member of the human race?

Judge – Did you study for this? Brodsky – Study for what?

Judge – To become a poet. Did you attend some university where people are trained  … where they’re taught …?

Brodsky – I didn’t think it was a matter of education.

Judge – How, then?

Brodsky – I think that  … (perplexed) it comes from God  …

Judge – Do you have any petitions for the court?

Brodsky – I’d like to know why I was arrested.

Judge – That’s a question, not a petition.

Brodsky – Then I have no petitions.

Judge – Does the defence have any questions?

Defence Counsel – Yes. Citizen Brodsky, do your earnings support your family?

Brodsky – Yes.

Defence Counsel – Do your parents also work for a living?

Brodsky – They receive pensions.

Defence Counsel – Do you live together as a family?

Brodsky – Yes.

Defence Counsel – Consequently, your earnings contribute to the family budget?

Judge – You’re not posing questions, but making general statements. You’re helping him answer. Don’t make statements: ask questions.

Defence Counsel – Are you registered at a psychiatric clinic?

Brodsky – Yes.

Defence Counsel – Have you undergone treatment in a hospital?

Brodsky – The Kashchenko Hospital in Moscow.

Defence Counsel – Don’t you think that your illness prevented you from working at one place for a long time?

Brodsky – Perhaps. Probably. However, I don’t know. No, I don’t know.

Defence Counsel – Did you translate poems for a collection of writings by Cuban poets?

Brodsky – Yes.

Defence Counsel – Have you translated Spanish romanceros?1

Brodsky – Yes.

Defence Counsel – Were you affiliated with the Translators’ Division of the Union of Writers?2

Brodsky – Yes.

Defence Counsel – I ask the court to add to the file a reference from the office of the Translators’ Division  … A list of published poems  … Copies of contracts  … A telegram: “We request that you sign this contract as soon as possible.” (She specifies these in order.)

I ask that Citizen Brodsky be sent for medical examination to determine the state of his health and whether it has interfered with his ability to do regular work. In addition, I ask that Citizen Brodsky be released immediately from custody. I think that he has committed no crimes and that it is illegal to keep him in custody. He has a permanent place of residence and could appear before the court at any time.

(The court withdraws for consultation. Then it returns and the judge announces its decision.)

Judge – Brodsky is to be sent for a court-ordered psychiatric examination to resolve the question: does he suffer from some psychiatric illness and will this illness prevent him from being sent to a remote location for forced labour?


Excerpted from a new translation by Michael R. Katz of the full trial transcript. First published in The New England Review, 2014 (issue 3-4, pp. 183-207) during the 50th anniversary of Brodsky’s trial.