Our words dying at 10 paces
And anything put edgewise
Concerns the Kremlin backwoodsman
His coarse fingers are thick, like worms
His statements trusty, like the weights
on a scale
Cockroaches smile on his upper lip
And the rims of his shoes blind
He is surrounded by a flock of
He plays on the servility of half-men
Who whistle, who meow, who sob
But he alone roars and sticks it in
Forging his edicts like so many
One in the groin, one on the brow, one in the eye
Execution is his relish, this Southerner
With an open heart
By Osip Mandelstam, November 1933;
translation © Roger Pulvers, 2008
Has there ever been a poet with more courage? This is Osip Mandelstam’s “ode” to the Russian dictator Josef Stalin (1878-1953). His reading of it to a small group of people, one of whom informed on him, led to his arrest and death on his way to the gulag 70 years ago, on Dec. 27, 1938.
Mandelstam’s take on the world had never adjusted to what was called “Soviet reality.” For one thing, he was a neo- classicist much too intimately tied, in his mind, his lifestyle and his poetry, to the pre-Russian Revolution idea of what constituted civilization. He himself wrote that he was dedicated to “the golden coin of the European humanist legacy.”
Jewish, born in Warsaw on Jan. 15, 1891 — when Poland was part of the Czarist Russian empire — Mandelstam grew up in St. Petersburg and studied in France and Germany before returning to St. Petersburg to enter university in 1911. Even his early poetry, from this period, is stunningly mature, with rich geometric lyrics always under intense control but replete with innovative rhyming and subtle, often mischievous, wordplay.
As a child he became enchanted by the “sacred and festive” architecture of St. Petersburg. What he wrote of the 1917 Russian Revolution tells us a great deal about how it assaulted his sensitivities.
“The door to the old world has been opened to the masses. All of a sudden, everything is common property. . . . Go and take. Everything is accessible . . . all labyrinths, all hideouts, all hidden passageways.”
I can think of no better way to describe his own poetry than as art with labyrinths, hideouts and hidden passageways.
By 1921, Mandelstam was living in the House of the Arts in St. Petersburg, writing that the city was “like a ship broken off its anchor.” Residents there, among them satirist Mikhail Zoshchenko and author/scholar Viktor Shklovsky, called him “the marble fly,” an apt epithet given his slight frame and enduring, classical tastes. To Mandelstam, St. Petersburg was like his own immense amphitheater in which to declaim and remonstrate.
On May 17, 1934, a year after writing the poem on Stalin, he was arrested, becoming Case No. 4108. By all accounts, the interrogation (read torture) he underwent broke his health, if not his spirit, and he never recovered. (The poem is cited in the interrogation record, and he even wrote it out for his interrogators and signed it!) He was forced to tell them who he had shown the poem to; and when his wife, Nadezhda, visited him, he asked her to warn those people.
After his release he was sent into exile, living in a series of towns, including Voronezh, where he wrote some of his most brilliant poetry. The poet Anna Akhmatova was, after his wife, the person closest to him, though as she was in trouble herself with the man on whose upper lip the cockroaches smiled, there was little she could do for him.
The only person who might have been able to save Mandelstam — though it is doubtful anyone could have — was fellow poet, and novelist, Boris Pasternak (author of “Doctor Zhivago”). Pasternak approached Nikolai Bukharin, a prominent Bolshevik and then editor of the daily newspaper Izvestia, but Bukharin, too, was on his way to becoming a non-person (and was executed in March 1938).
“Why didn’t you come to me instead of Bukharin?” said Stalin in an unexpected telephone call to Pasternak that was to become a traumatic event for the poet for the rest of his life. “If I were a poet and my friend were in trouble, I would do whatever I could to help him.”
Stalin, as was his wont, enjoyed maintaining a pretense of equanimity, even to the extent of defending those who, with his own pen, he condemned to death.
Mandelstam was rearrested on May 1, 1937. This description of his final days, made by another prisoner, is telling . . .
“He just lay [in his bunk] for four days . . . not saying a word, his left eyelid kept twitching, he said nothing, but his eye kept winking.”
If his wife Nadezhda had not committed his poems to memory, most of them would not have come down to us today. “In the last year in Voronezh,” she wrote, “he couldn’t go out alone. Even at home he was calm only when I was with him.”
In a letter to Pasternak in April 1936, Mandelstam saw his Voronezh exile giving him “a second life.” As he wrote to his father from there, he even started studying Spanish.
But he longed for someone to read poetry to, or with whom just “to have a conversation on the stairs.” He called Voronezh his “caprice,” his “knife” and his “raven” — the latter playing on sound associations in Russian between the words “raven” and “Voronezh,” as well as with the name given to the black cars that came to get you in the dead of night.
Mandelstam, as his wife describes him in her two wonderful books, “Hope Against Hope” and “Hope Abandoned” (nadezhda, her name, is also the Russian word for “hope”), was a man with “an infinite sense of joy.” This joy, and wonderment at all life’s beauty, permeates his poetry.
The untimely loss of a single life, particularly by violent means, is always a tragedy, whether that person be Ivan the plumber or Osip the poet. But the silencing of a voice like Mandelstam’s — lyrical, compassionate and profoundly humane — shouts to people across decades and centuries that this is a crime against all humanity.
It forces us to listen to — in a phrase that is the title of one of Mandelstam’s books — “the noise of time.”