MOSCOW — “For example, there’s clearly too much dirt / Bottles, cans and other litter / They could use our snow to cover it like cotton / And the whiteness would soothe the eyes,” Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Adamishin wrote about Italy on a three-hour flight to Rome in 1981.
The rhythmic couplets, written in Russian, are among the first in a 541-page anthology of Russian and Soviet poetry by employees of the Foreign Ministry published in 2012.
Russia’s hard-charging diplomatic corps is best known for wrangling in the U.N. Security Council and testy bilateral summits, but it does have a softer side.
In fact, wordplay is part of the job description, career diplomats said in interviews, and for some of the well-read and overworked Russian officials who staff the Foreign Ministry, poetry is a natural way to blow off steam.
“Poets and diplomats use the same building blocks: the idea and the word,” said Vladimir Kazimirov, a former Soviet and Russian ambassador in Europe, Africa and the Americas. He is a member of the ministry’s poetry collective, Otdushina or “Release,” which has published seven anthologies of poetry since 2001.
The hundreds of poems, which include works by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and former Soviet leader Yuri Andropov, explore personal and professional topics: love, autumn, banquets, the Cuban sun, cats, emigration, “Don Quixote” and life after 40, to name a few. One is titled “To the diplomatic courier.” In another, the ministry’s former property director awakes at dawn and cannot sleep, a fate shared by “the peasant and the poet.”
Informally, staffers will fire off a few lines in verse to congratulate a colleague on a promotion or a professional holiday. Some riff on current events: One diplomat shared a ribald, collaborative poem about foreign officials puzzling over the Russian words “f------ morons,” which Lavrov grumbled during a November news conference.
“Being a diplomat does not mean that you stop being a person,” said Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for the Foreign Ministry, who published an ode in verse on her Facebook page to the Russian pilot shot down by a Turkish jet over Syria last year. “We sometimes work on extremely severe issues, and if you smother the person in yourself, you can’t have an objective view on the world.”
Russian diplomats claim three 19th-century poets as their most distinguished forebears: “Eugene Onegin” author Alexander Pushkin, “Woe from Wit” playwright Alexander Griboyedov and the romantic poet Fyodor Tyutchev, who wrote the now-famous maxim: “Russia cannot be understood with the mind alone.”
Today, young diplomats revere Lavrov, the often dour face of Russian foreign policy, who in 2001 published something akin to the battle hymn of the Russian diplomat, titled “Ambassador’s department.”
It begins as envoys work to unite the princedoms of old Russia under Moscow.
“And they served the country, feeling its nerves as their own / And learned the art of how to agree and to trade / And they learned how to live, respecting others on merit / And taught others how to respect Russia always,” he wrote.
“It is a historical work; it explains the core of our profession precisely,” said Anna Yangel, a young poet and diplomat in Russia’s embassy in Beijing.
“I like the minister’s poetry, and I’m not just saying that because he’s my direct boss,” chimed in Vitaly Orekhov, a writer and an attache at the foreign ministry.
“The story is about how politics act through people and how people move through politics,” he said, noting that some of the heroes were diplomats.
Older poets tend to join the poetry collective, and many turned to poetry to stave off boredom while working overseas. Mikhail Romanov, 80, served in an embassy in Nepal in the early 1980s, where he wrote poems for a series of puppet shows based on Russian children’s fairy tales put on by the staff.
“Imagine an embassy, especially a small one, far abroad, with a small, tight collective,” he recalled in an interview. “You have to find ways to entertain yourself.”
Vladimir Masalov, 75, was the general consul in Switzerland in 1999 when he had an argument with his wife.
“She said that everyone has a soul,” said Masalov, who was a medical student before joining the Foreign Ministry and now heads Otdushina. “I said, ‘What soul?’ I cut people open, could name all the organs and the bones inside, but I did not see a soul in there.”
The next day, he sat down to his desk at the consulate and wrote his first poem, beginning with the words: “What is the soul?”
Along with nine other poets, including Lavrov, he submitted several poems for the ministry’s first compendium of poetry in 2001.
Zakharova said that poetry at the Foreign Ministry was “neither a secret, nor do we publicize it,” stressing that it is an informal hobby.
But the poetry has generated more public attention recently. Last week, Zakharova published a response-in-verse targeted at Dmitry Bykov, a poet and member of the political opposition, who had poked fun at Lavrov for joining a soccer league.
“You don’t care about the essence of the world / But have the energy to discuss style,” read part of Zakharova’s poem, consummating the impromptu poetry slam.
“If I have brought a little bit more harmony to Maria Zakharova, having forced her to speak in verse,” Bykov replied wryly, “it merely shows that I have once again enriched our reality.”