An Englishman with a Russian Soul

Richard McKaneThen it was there and then

Now it is here and now

But in time the here and now

Will become the there and then.

Time, Richard McKane, 2015

Richard McKane was born on 31 October 1947 in Melbourne, Australia. Being a man of amazing wit and humour, he sometimes called himself jokingly ‘a Halloween child’. Brought up and educated in Britain, Richard was truly a world citizen, who in his heart and mind could bridge both the East and the West with love and appreciation of their history and culture. From early childhood he was exposed to different cultures and languages. He became fluent in French as a young boy and wrote chansons and quatrains in his later literary life (2005). He travelled extensively across the Middle East, including Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, Israel and spent several years in Turkey (1970-1977) – a country and people that he deeply admired, where he became proficient in Turkish and was absorbed and inspired by her culture. He could read Greek, Persian, Uzbek, Hungarian, and ‘get-by’ in a number of languages of Eastern Europe, but of all, Russian became his greatest passion.

Richard first started learning Russian at the age of thirteen, whilst studying at Marlborough College, and then went on to read it at Oxford between 1966-1969. Since he was not able to travel freely to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, his ultimate Russian companion was Prince Dmitri Obolensky’s Penguin Book of Russian Verse, which potentially coined his love and appreciation of Russian poetry. During his last year at Oxford, Richard completed his first translation of Anna Akhmatova Selected Poems, which was published soon after his graduation by Oxford University Press and Penguin. Unfortunately, that year was also marked by Richard’s first ‘catastrophic breakdown’, as he described it. He was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, which he bravely managed over the years, with miraculous strength and exceptional humour.

In 1978, Richard was awarded the Hoddar Fellowship in the Humanities at Princeton University and moved to the US, where he met Joseph Brodsky, and his future wife Elizabeth, a therapist and a painter. They were married a year later in Oxford and worked together on Osip Mandelstam’s Moscow Notebooks, which were published in 1990. In 1979, their daughter Juliet was born, and soon after Richard returned to England. Nineteen eighty-four was another crisis year, when, according to Richard, ‘friends, family and Russian poetry came to the rescue’ and helped him to recover. In 1989, to mark Akhmatova’s 100th Anniversary, his extended volume of poems was published in English. Peter Levi, Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford in his review of the publication noted:

‘McKane’s Akhmatova versions are unparalleled, and a great advance on his admittedly brilliant early work on that wonderful poet. They have a restrained brilliance and an extraordinary personal power’.

That year Richard travelled to the Soviet Union for the first time. He was invited by the Writers’ Union to go to Akhmatova’s Conference in Moscow and returned a year later for the Pasternak Readings; he also visited Leningrad. He had many friends in Russia, especially in literary circles. His favourite Russian poet was Leonid Aronzon, and Richard dedicated several years of his life opening up Leonid’s world to the English public. “Life of a Butterfly: Collected Poems” was published in 2011. Richard tried to reconstruct the short life and to do justice to the works of the Russian poet, with whom he shared love for humanity and fragile health. He aimed to create better exposure for his talent, which ostensibly remains unknown to many Russians.

Richard McKane also translated Nikolai Gumilyov, Osip Mandelsham, Olga Sedakova, Larissa Miller, Arseny Tarkovsky, Viktor Krivulin and other ‘survivors’, as he dubbed them and himself. Once a squash school champion and golf player, he was confined to a wheelchair after a severe injury, however he never gave up his love and passion for poetry, people and justice.

Richard started writing poetry when he was in college and continued until his last days. Among his published works are “Poet for Poet” (2001), “Coffee House Poems” (2005), “Out of the Cold Blue” (2009) and “Poems from my Care Home” (2015).

For over eighteen years, he has worked as an interpreter from, and into, Turkish and Russian at the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture. He helped and supported many people across the world. He has acted as co-chair at The Pushkin Club in London for twenty years. After retirement from his translating career, he continued writing and reciting poetry. Richard possessed a gift of remarkable memory and feel for the language, which allowed him to reproduce literary pieces in impeccable Russian even during the moments of severe downturns in health.

When asked why he had such a strong connection to Russia, her language and culture, he used to reply ‘I believe that I have a Russian soul’.

Richard was an extraordinary person. Always in tune with what was going on in the world; he took news about war, injustice, and sufferings very close to his heart. He was an aesthete and pacifist. Richard loved the world, its people, its beauty and tried his best in his own way to make it a better and happier place for us all.

This October Richard McKane would have turned 69 years old. His Russian spirit and poetry will always stay with us. We will continue to remember and celebrate life, personality and the legacy of this remarkable man! You are welcome to join Richard’s friends and family for his funeral at 11am on Friday 7 October at St Bride’s Church, Fleet Street, London EC4Y 8AU.

Ksenia Afonina

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