We are defined by the language we speak, whatever else may be true of us as humans. “My language is the sum total of myself.” (Charles S. Peirce).

This story begins with three elegiac distichs (dactylic hexameters) by Pushkin (with rough prose translations):


Урну с водой уронив, об утес ее дева разбила.
Дева печально сидит, праздный держа черепок.
Чудо! не сякнет вода, изливаясь из урны разбитой;
Дева, над вечной струей, вечно печальна сидит.


[Statue at Tsarskoe Selo

Having dropped an urn with water, a maiden shattered it against a cliff.
The maiden sits sadly, holding the empty crock.
Miracle! the water doesn’t run dry, flowing out of the shattered urn;
The maiden, above the eternal stream, sits eternally sad.]


Невод рыбак расстилал по брегу студеного моря;
Мальчик отцу помогал. Отрок, оставь рыбака!
Мрежи иные тебя ожидают, иные заботы:
Будешь умы уловлять, будешь помощник царям.


[The Youth[1]

The fisherman spread out a net along the shore of the frigid [= White] sea;
A boy was helping his father. Youth, leave the fisherman!
Other nets await you, other tasks:
You will capture minds, you will be a helpmeet to tsars.]


Юношу, горько рыдая, ревнивая дева бранила;
К ней на плечо преклонен, юноша вдруг задремал.
Дева тотчас умолкла, сон его легкий лелея,
И улыбалась ему, тихие слезы лия.


[A youth, bitterly weeping, a jealous maiden was chiding;
Leaning on her shoulder, the youth suddenly dozed off.
The maiden immediately fell silent, cherishing his light sleep,
And smiled on him, shedding quiet tears.]

The story continues with the following homage to Pushkin by a twentieth-century Russian émigré poet, Constantine Shapiro (Константин Исаакович Шапиро [1896-1992], father of Michael)[2]

Другу японоведу

Резвой игрою увлекшись, над бездною отрок склонился.
Крепкой рукою его друг, подоспев, удержал.
Много за это грехов простится тебе, брат Михайло.
Видно, не даром Руси были питомцами мы.


[To a Japanologist Friend

Carried away by a playful game, a youth leaned over a precipice.
With a strong hand his friend, coming just in time, held him back.
Many sins will be forgiven you for this, brother Mikhajlo.
Apparently, we weren’t Russia’s foster-children for nothing.]

[1] Alludes to Mikhail Lomonosov (1711-1765), the great Russian poet and scientist.
The “back-story” (as they say now) is as follows. While living in Japan and mixing with other Russian refugees, my father was helped with his work on translating Japanese poetry by a certain fellow Japanologist named Mikhailov, hence the reference to brat Mikhajlo ‘brother Mikhajlo’ in the third line.
Constantine Shapiro was a musician, composer, poet, and essayist. A direct descendant through his father of the founder of the yeshiva system of Jewish education, Hayyim of Volozhin (the «Volozhiner Rebbe»), he was born in Saratov into a family that included the distinguished philologists, Viktor Zhirmunsky and Yury Tynianov. He graduated from the Medvednikov Gymnasium in Moscow in 1914 and in 1915 matriculated at the Law Faculty of Moscow University where he studied with I. A. Il’in, a direct continuator of the Russian philosophical tradition of Vladimir Solovyov and Sergey Trubetskoy. His studies were interrupted by the Revolution, and he emigrated to Germany in 1919, first to Freiburg, where he studied philosophy at the University under Edmund Husserl, then Leipzig, where he received a certificate in cello from Julius Klengel. Until his departure from Germany for France and Palestine in 1926, he was first cellist with the Frankfurt Opera Orchestra. Constantine Shapiro was among a small group of Russian and German Jewish refugees who pioneered the establishment of Western classical music in Japan. In 1928, at the invitation of Viscount Hidemaro Konoye, he settled in Japan where he remained through the Second World War, lecturing as professor of composition at the Tôyô Conservatory, conducting a number of Japanese orchestras, including the NHK Symphony, and concertizing extensively with his wife, the pianist Lydia Shapiro. In the 1930s they made recordings for RCA Victor (JVC) and Columbia Records (Japan). After the war he appeared on the U. S. Armed Forces Radio Service. Constantine Shapiro immigrated to the United States in 1952 and made his home in Hollywood, California, where he occupied himself chiefly with musical pedagogy and writing. He died in 1992 in his ninety-sixth year. (From the «Editor’s Foreword» to Constantine Shapiro, Selected Writings, 2nd. ed., ed. Michael Shapiro [Charleston, S.C.: BookSurge Publishing, 2008]).

It took my father twenty-five years to get over his nostalgia for Russia. This happened when he finally realized that he would never return to Russia and took up residence in America. At that moment he stopped being an émigré and became an immigrant, then finally an American citizen––and a proud one at that.