Guest post: John High on Osip Mandelstam

Over the weekend, Calque posted a translation of Osip Mandelstam’s “Ode to Stalin,” which provided the perfect opening for this guest post by John High, whose translation of Mandelstam’s short poem “Now We Sit at the Kitchen” ran in PEN America 9: Checkpoints. In addition to translating Mandelstam’s work, John has been researching Mandelstam’s life – in particular, his relationship with Stalin.

Exile: Osip Mandelstam’s Voronezh Notebooks

Mounds of human heads travel into the distance,

I diminish there—no one notices anymore,

But in embracing books and children’s play

I’ll arise from this death and again speak the sun’s light.


In 1934 Joseph Stalin sent Osip Mandelstam into exile because of a poem he wrote depicting the dictator’s body with references to “worms” and “cockroaches.” Mandelstam had read the poem only to a small group of close friends -- but one turned informant, and Mandelstam was arrested.

When Stalin learned of the “counter-revolutionary” poem, he called Boris Pasternak. (Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda describes the now infamous conversation in her memoir, Hope Against Hope.) Stalin told Pasternak that Mandelstam’s case had been reviewed and everything would be fine. Then he reproached Pasternak for not intervening. “If I were a poet and a poet friend of mine were in trouble, I would do anything to help him,” Stalin said. Pasternak explained that the writers’ organizations hadn’t bothered with cases like this since 1927 and that Stalin himself would never have been told of his efforts.

Stalin interrupted: “But he’s a genius, he’s a genius, isn't he?” When Pasternak suggested that they meet to talk, Stalin asked, “About what?” Pasternak replied, “About life and death.” Stalin hung up. For the moment, at least, Pasternak’s response probably saved Mandelstam’s life. The darkest period of the purges was about to commence, but by calling Pasternak Stalin revealed his anxiety over the power poetry still held in the Soviet Union. The poets were not all as frightened as Stalin needed, though they soon would be.

New information from previously confidential NKVD/KGB archives confirms that Pasternak and other friends did much to intervene on Mandelstam’s behalf and that Nadezhda’s account of the phone conversation is accurate. But as Gregory Freidin and others have pointed out, Mandelstam later did all he could to save himself and his wife. He wrote letters and poems (including his infamous “Ode” to Stalin), and made frantic efforts to redeem himself with the regime. He doubted his own certainty and the path of Soviet history. Perhaps Stalin and the Bolsheviks were only doing what was necessary to transform the past? He wanted to save himself and his family, yes—and he wanted his poetry published and accepted by the regime that eventually made him vanish.

After her husband’s death, Nadezhda altered his poetry to create the illusion that he never yielded to Stalin. Who would blame her? They both had struggled to retain a sense of dignity and individuality in an era when neither was tolerated. Yet her changes to Mandelstam's final work in exile about Stalin affected the poet's image in the west and even led to translations that smoothed over the complexities of his politics -- and his atttiudes toward the Soviet state. His infamous “Ode” painfully reflects this. The poetry of Mandelstam’s final years is immensely complicated by his own uncertainty as to what power should achieve in the wake of revolution -- a revolution he embraced in 1917 as a liberating force.

As far as we know, he spoke to no one about the torture he endured after his arrest. He attempted suicide twice, once while in the infamous Lubianka Prison after writing the Stalin epigram, and then in Cherdyn before his relocation to Voronezh. He came to see his own fate bound to the “mounds of human skulls.” To endure the circumstances of his banishment, his fear, and his remorse at having betrayed Anna Akhmatova and others during his interrogation and torture, he immersed himself in the black earth’s vast landscape. His exilic poems are vibrant with the objects around him, the inanimate taking on a breath of its own.

Mandelstam wrote The Voronezh Notebooks from 1935-1937, primarily by composing them in his head while walking; his poetry by then was strictly forbidden and Stalin’s reign of terror was at its height. He never relinquished hope of returning to publication, but, unlike Pasternak, he was never able to navigate his poetry into “acceptable” Soviet culture. He wrote under the constant threat of death, which finally came in a transit camp near Vladivostok on December 27, 1938. Last year, a monument in his memory was erected in Moscow marking its 70th anniversary.

1 comment:

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