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Reading Mandelstam on Stalin

David King
One of Nappelbaum’s portraits of Stalin; from David King’s Red Star Over Russia: A Visual History of the Soviet Union from the Revolution to the Death of Stalin, published recently by Abrams. According to King, Stalin once threw Nappelbaum’s photographs on the floor in fury. ‘It was a bad idea,’ King writes, ‘to show the “Leader and Teacher” reading with his index finger when the campaign for literacy was in full swing.’

According to Sarnov, Stalin wanted Mandelstam to write a poem dedicated to him: “Stalin knew perfectly well that the opinion future generations would have of him depended to a large degree on what the poets wrote about him.” And especially Mandelstam, so perceptive that he had understood precisely the type of individual—the “scrawny-necked chieftains”—who surrounded the dictator, as well as the way he toyed with and dominated them. Such subtle understanding of the leader’s life seems to have impressed Stalin. This may explain the insistence with which, in a famous conversation, he would ask Pasternak whether Mandelstam could be considered a “true master.” His question was: “But is he or is he not a master?”

Indeed, Stalin proved to be a penetrating psychologist. For in the city of Voronezh in January 1937, Mandelstam did write a sad “Ode to Stalin” that includes this line: “I would like to call you not Stalin but Dzhugashvili.” That is to say, not the official Party pseudonym but the more human name that the man was born with, thereby approaching him from his softest, most redeemable side. It did not save Mandelstam from being transported to the gulag in which he died. A similar “commission” was given to Mikhail Bulgakov, who would also spend almost a year at the end of his life, already mortally ill, writing a play called Batum about the heroic youth of the young Yugashvili in pre-revolutionary Batumi.

Pasternak, always more subtle, sent Stalin, during the period of mourning for his wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva, a telegram, subsequently published in the Literary Gazette, which some believe saved him from the gulag: “I join in the sentiments of my comrades. I spent yesterday evening lost in long, deep thoughts about Stalin, as an artist, for the first time.” It was a veiled promise to someday use his talent to leave a “human” or literary image of the dictator.

Many years later, when I was studying in the largest technical university in Siberia, in the deep hinterlands of the Soviet Union, I spent half an hour in one of its lecture halls in conversation with the son of Lev Kamenev, one of the “chieftains” who was executed in 1936. The son had lived all those years under the false name of Glebov and had not yet emerged from his relative anonymity. I realize now, looking back at the memory, that he didn’t have the scrawny neck Mandelstam alludes to, though he did have the hairless wattles of a gospodin professor. Short and stout, he smoked incessantly in an auditorium where smoking was strictly prohibited. He was a brilliant philosophy professor and I well remember our discussion of Aristotle’s Poetics. At the end of the 1980s he reclaimed his true surname and I have since seen him interviewed about his father and himself on television, cigarette permanently in hand.

he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
Он играет услугами полулюдей.
The USSR of the 1930s saw the blossoming and expansion of a complicated system of patronage between the Party high command and the intellectual elite, described by Sheila Fitzpatrick in Everyday Stalinism (1999). It was common for writers and poets to attend the “salons” of the new governing class, and it was that sort of friendship that united Nikolai Bukharin, “the Party favorite,” and the Mandelstams. Bukharin is among those who, when the affair of the epigram explodes, first tries to intervene and then recoils from the situation in terror.

To write to Stalin, to turn to him directly and ask him to straighten out a matter of political persecution or imprisonment, had become a habit among Soviet writers who were in trouble with the state. In 1931, Yevgeny Zamyatin, author of the celebrated dystopia We (1921)—precursor to Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World and George Orwell’s 1984—had written to Stalin asking for permission to emigrate, which was granted. Mikhail Bulgakov would also write with the same request, but his petition was rejected.

Curiously, in Mandelstam’s case, it is Stalin himself who decides to call Pasternak, with the clear intention of interceding on the poet’s behalf, and even throwing in Pasternak’s face the fact that he and his colleagues have done nothing to save Mandelstam. What takes place then is the famous conversation in which the dictator, above and beyond all else, wants to know the opinion that Pasternak and his fellow writers have of Mandelstam’s skill as a poet. The conversation takes place at 2:00 AM. Pasternak is in his dacha. The phone rings.

Stalin: Mandelstam’s case is being analyzed. Everything will be worked out. Why haven’t the writers’ organizations come to me? If I were a poet and my friend had fallen into disgrace, I would do the impossible [I would scale walls] to help him.

Pasternak: Since 1927, the writers’ organizations have no longer dealt with such matters. If I hadn’t taken steps, it’s unlikely you would ever have learned of the situation.

Stalin: But is he or is he not a master?

Pasternak: That is not the issue!

Stalin: What is the issue then?

Pasternak: I would like to meet with you…and for us to talk.

Stalin: About what?

Pasternak: About life and death…

At which point Stalin hangs up.

One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;

Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
In Russian, literally, “one whistles, one meows, one snivels.” The Russia of 1933 has yet to witness the Moscow show trials, which began in 1936 and continued through 1939, during which the majority of the “scrawny-necked chieftains” would find themselves in the defendant’s box. Nor was the nation yet acquainted with the spectacle of self-incrimination by former Bolshevik leaders accused of every imaginable crime. Mandelstam’s description foresees the trials with prodigious exactitude: more than one of the defendants wept on hearing his sentence and fell to his knees to beg forgiveness from Stalin and the Party.

When Mandelstam is taken prisoner on the night of May 13, 1934, the NKVD does not yet have a definitive version of the poem. The presiding judge asks the poet to write out an authorized version of the poem for him and the poet obligingly does so. The first two lines read:


He wrote out the poem with the same pen the judge used to write the sentence that sealed his fate.

he prowls thunderously among them,

Он один лишь бабачит…
I translated the Russian babachit, a neologism, as “campea tonante” or “prowls thunderously.” Though previously nonexistent, the verb presents no difficulty to the Russian speaker because it is an onomatopoeia: ba-ba-chit,in other words, is to say “blah, blah, blah” in thunderous tones, to talk nonsense in the authoritative voice of the boss.

…showering them with scorn.

…и тычет,
Here, both the Spanish and the Russian reflect Stalin’s use of the familiar second-person pronoun, the Spanish , the Russian ty. A primary meaning of tykat (the verb meaning “to address someone as ty“) is also to point with a finger, to force something onto someone, to treat someone in an insolent and inconsiderate manner, and the word’s meaning moves between those usages. In Russia, it’s unusual for two strangers to use the familiar voice with each other; proper etiquette demands the most rigorous use of vy, the formal style of address, equivalent to the Spanish usted. The familiar voice is the prerogative of street sweepers and top bosses. During a sidewalk altercation, using ty is immediately perceived as a violent act of aggression. Mandelstam uses it here as an example of the abuse to which Stalin subjects his subordinates.

Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,

Как одкову, кует за указом указ:
The word for decree here is ukase, widely used in the West, as well, to refer to an order that takes effect immediately and is without appeal. The image of decrees forged like horseshoes echoes a more quotidian Russian phrase, “to do something as if making blinis or blintzes,” in other words, rapidly and without thought, which amply conveys the banalization of the act of governing.

In 1929, Stalin believes that the moment has arrived to strip Russia of the useless appendix of capitalism. Yevgeni Preobrazhensky, the celebrated economist, theorizes about how to use the wealth the peasantry has undoubtedly accumulated during its years of greater freedom as a platform to launch the nation’s industrialization. But forced collectivization meets with generalized rejection, the peasantry fiercely resists, and Stalin launches a terror campaign. At least six million Ukrainian peasants die of hunger. The cities fill with fugitives who speak of the horror in hushed voices. By 1934, it is clear that the country is living under the tyranny of a police state compared to which the rule of the tsars seems benign and magnanimous.

he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.

Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.
However shoddy a dime-store emperor he may be, his decrees have fatal consequences: the banalization of government has become a banalization of death. The zoom-in by which the poet shows the parts of the body struck by the horseshoe/ukase resembles the close-ups in Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, where an enormous pupil looms behind the lens of a pair of pince-nez, a mouth opens in a scream, the rictus of a face fills the whole screen.

Mandelstam, a poet of deep lyrical inspiration, would never have written poetry exalting the Revolution, unlike other poets of his time who passionately saluted the advent of October. Alexander Blok published a poem called “The Twelve,” which celebrates the revolutionary triumph in images replete with evangelical symbolism. Vladimir Mayakovsky believed the Revolution was the apotheosis of the futurist aesthetic that had given rise to the “loudmouthed bossman” persona he adopted in his elegy “At the Top of My Lungs.” It wouldn’t be long before Mayakovsky realized that in Stalin’s Russia there could be only one “thundering voice.” By the time destiny places him on a collision course with Stalin, Mandelstam has published a number of books, but not one of them is in a political register. They are books of such poetic value that all Russia—or at least that one percent that reads poetry—views him as a Master, with a capital M.

Every execution…

Что ни казнь у него…
In the mid-1970s, Lev Razgon, a gulag survivor and author of the implacable memoir Nepridumannoye (“Not made up,” translated in English as True Stories), is hospitalized in a Moscow clinic for a heart problem. A neighboring bed is occupied by a former Party official who is kind to the other patients and, in particular, to the writer, whom he cares for solicitously. Gradually he and Razgon come to be friends and the man ends up telling him about something he had never before confessed to anyone: his work as a member of one of the thousands of brigades of executioners that operated in the USSR during the 1930s. Razgon listens: the 100 grams of vodka the executioners drank at the beginning of each night, the trucks loaded with prisoners driven to outlying forests, the women sobbing at the edge of the pit, the cheers for the Party some of the men give, the shot to the back of the neck, the swift kick that sends the victim into the pit at the precise moment the trigger is pulled because the executioners’ wives are tired of laundering military jackets splashed with blood…

…is a carnival

то малина
Literally: “is for him a raspberry,” a word with deep connotations of the criminal underworld. In Russian slang, malina (raspberry) refers to a criminal organization and the hideout from which crime lords carry out their schemes. Here, Mandelstam underscores the singular symbiosis between criminals and Bolsheviks, the impulse for vengeance and score-settling typical of the lumpen world the Bolsheviks allied themselves with. Every memoirist of the gulag mentions how the camps used common criminals against those incarcerated on the basis of Article 58—the “politicals,” accused of betraying the country. The common criminals did not participate in the original sin of being “class enemies” and therefore could be “reeducated”; they were assigned the easier service tasks as cooks, kitchen supervisors, or bathhouse workers—in Siberia, where heat, in and of itself, is a privilege.

that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.

И широкая грудь осетина.
In the original, the line begins: “And his broad chest…” Skinny, only 168 centimeters or five and a half feet tall, his face marked by smallpox, one arm half-paralyzed by polio, Stalin was a disappointment to people who had been expecting to meet with the colossus suggested by the supposed doppelgängers in granite and stone erected across the USSR. For Mandelstam, the broad chest that rejoices here is not a human chest but one made of iron. Inside, as if in the interior of a Minoan bronze bull, the millions of victims rage.

Was Iosif Dzhugashvili a Georgian or was he from Ossetia, the small Caucasian republic next door? Ossetians are deemed less refined and more violent; therefore Stalin was officially considered a Georgian. Curiously, the poem’s two final lines did not satisfy Mandelstam at all. It is astonishing that a fact as remote from politics as the verbal perfection of these final lines could occupy his mind during the suicidal sessions when he recited the poem aloud, but people remember him saying: “I should get rid of those lines, they’re no good. They sound like Tsvetáeva to me.” But there was no time for that, and the lines remained in the minds of those who heard the poem. Many years later when Vitaly Shentalinsky discovered the manuscript of the “Epigram Against Stalin” in the KGB archives, he found no variation at all from the samizdat version that had circulated across the USSR. The poem had etched itself faithfully in the memories of those who heard it recited in the distant year of 1934.

Translated from the Spanish by Esther Allen

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