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Mandel’shtam Osip Emil’evich

(1891–1938), Russian poet, prose writer, and literary essayist. Most of Osip Mandel’shtam’s new writings went unpublished in the Soviet Union during the Stalin era (1929–1953) and were almost unknown to generations of Russian readers until the mid-1960s. Mandel’shtam (also spelled Mandelstam) grew up in Saint Petersburg in a middle-class Jewish household. His father, a native of Riga, had abandoned rabbinical training for a secular education in Germany; Mandel’shtam’s mother, Flora Werblowsky, was a cultivated member of the Russian Jewish intelligentsia of Vilna.

After graduating from the elite Tenishev School in 1907 and an unsuccessful attempt to join a socialist revolutionary terrorist organization, Mandel’shtam studied at the Sorbonne and later at Heidelberg University. Returning to Russia in 1911, he traveled to Finland where he was baptized in the Finnish Methodist Church. Christianity—at first Roman Catholicism and, later, Eastern Orthodoxy—held a powerful attraction for him throughout his life, but his conversion to Methodism was a formality, a way of circumventing the civil disabilities imposed on Jews by the tsarist regime. Indeed, a “Finnish baptism” was a well-known strategy for members of the Jewish intelligentsia who wished to reside in and earn a living in the imperial capital. Now exempted from the numerus clausus, Mandel’shtam studied at Saint Petersburg University, leaving in 1915 before receiving a degree.

Mandel’shtam’s first poems appeared in the Saint Petersburg journal Apollon in 1910. In response to early futurist manifestos, he joined poets Nikolai Gumilev, Anna Akhmatova, and Sergei Gorodetskii in founding a school of poetry called acmeism. Like the futurists, the acmeists rebelled against the older generation of their mentors, the symbolists, but they demanded clarity and concreteness of representation, as well as precision of form and meaning. These features combined with a broad-ranging erudition that embraced classical antiquity and European history with a special emphasis on art and religion. Mandel’shtam’s manifesto Utro akmeizma (The Morning of Acmeism; 1913, 1919) cited François Villon, François Rabelais, and medieval Gothic architecture as the mainsprings of acmeist inspiration. Also in 1913, he published his first slim volume of verse, Kamen (Stone), followed by larger volumes with the same name (1916 and 1923). The title was emblematic of his identification with the classical tradition of Western European civilization, expressed in Saint Petersburg’s architecture. The first two editions of Kamen established Mandel’shtam as a full-fledged member of a new cohort of Russian poets. His subsequent collections, Vtoraia kniga (Book Two; 1923), and Stikhotvoreniia (Poems; 1928) made him a leading poet of his generation.

Disinclined to serve as a mouthpiece for political propaganda, Mandel’shtam considered “dialogue with his time” a moral imperative for a poet. He responded to World War I and the revolution with a series of historical-philosophical, meditative poems that are among the best and most profound in the corpus of Russian civic poetry. By temperament and conviction a supporter of the Socialist Revolutionary Party, he welcomed the collapse of the old regime and initially opposed the Bolshevik seizure of power. However, his association with the Left Socialist Revolutionaries, who joined the Bolsheviks in 1917–1918, as well as his experiences during the Civil War when he barely escaped a pogrom and execution, demonstrated that he had no place among the anti-Bolshevik Whites.

Emigration was an option, but Mandel’shtam felt that as a poet he had a responsibility to share the fate of his country. As was the case with many Russian intellectuals, he made peace with the Soviets without identifying wholly with Bolshevik methods or goals. His Shum vremeni (Noise of Time; 1925) regarded old-regime Russia as a complex frozen form, as beautiful as it was savage and brutal. In 1922, after the publication of a new volume of poetry, Tristiia (echoing Ovid’s Tristia, or “Sorrows”), he settled in Moscow and married Nadezhda Iakovlevna Khazina.

At that time, Jewish themes began to emerge openly in Mandel’shtam’s poetry and prose. Earlier, a poem on his mother’s death (“Eta noch’ nepopravima” [This Night Is Unavoidable]; 1916) and the few surviving fragments of his paper “Pushkin and Skriabin” (1916–1917), intended for delivery at the Religious-Philosophical Society, suggest that Mandel’shtam saw himself as a Christian Jew evangelizing among lapsed Christians. Influenced by Nietzsche, the young Mandel’shtam had parsed Western civilization into two fundamental lines: the first was Helleno-Christian—closest to the ideal of aestheticized life, with which he identified; the other, which he rejected, combined Judaic and Roman cultures into a blend of religious formalism and naked will to power.

The fall of the old regime, the revolution, and the civil war brought about changes in Mandel’shtam’s outlook, and he began to explore the theme of his Jewish identity with greater nuance and understanding. At first he did so wistfully. In “Vernis’ v smesitel’noe lono, otkuda, Liia, ty prishla” (Return to your incestuous womb, whence thou hath issued, oh Leah”; 1920) his muse was Leah, the unloved wife of the biblical Jacob, not the beautiful gentile Helen (a reference to Mandel’shtam’s earlier romance with Greek Antiquity), because the Poet had now begun to perceive himself as a “Judean,” a scion of the ancient Jewish tradition—one parallel to Europe’s Hellenic legacy. A few years later, this time in prose  (Shum vremeni), Mandel’shtam explored the coming of age of this “Judean”—in the context of late imperial Petersburg. In a series of masterfully crafted vignettes, Mandel’shtam tells the story of the birth of a poet—Russian by elective affinity—out of an incongruous mixture: the “Judean Chaos” of his middle-class family, the incomprehensible Orthodox Judaism of his Riga grandparents, the militarized magnificence of the imperial capital, the savagery of the Russian autocracy, brutal Russian winter, Tchaikovsky’s symphonies performed at the railroad station in Pavlovsk, an anglicized progressive education at the Tenishev School, embarrassing Hebrew lessons, the 1905 Revolution and Russian Populism, and most decisively, the family bookcase with the Hebrew Bible and German poets overlaid by the Russian classical writers who became Mandel’shtam’s adopted ancestors.

In the late 1920s, with the rise of popular antisemitism in Soviet Russia, Mandel’shtam began to take a serious interest in Jewish history and, judging by his writings (including correspondence) felt reconciled, even comfortable with being a Jew. His sole venture into fiction, Egispetskaia marka (The Egyptian Stamp; 1928), is about a day in the life of a hapless Jewish intellectual in Petrograd in summer 1917. Like much contemporary fiction about the Jewish intelligentsia, its patchwork of motifs includes alienation, obsessive erudition, psychological and social liminality, and victimization, as well as its hero’s instinct for justice and civic courage, combined with a deep aversion to violence.

Mandel’shtam’s writings of the early 1930s—Chetvertaia proza (The Fourth Prose) and Puteshestvie v Armeniiu (Journey to Armenia)—convey an affirmative sense of the poet’s Judaic roots. Both works suggest that for Mandel’shtam, biblical Jewish history has now merged with the heroic age of Greek antiquity. “The blood of patriarchs and kings courses through my veins,” he declared proudly and defiantly in Chetvertaia proza. Notably, Mandel’shtam’s explorations of the Jewish theme did not affect his poetry. Throughout the 1930s and, especially, after his incarceration and exile in 1934, his verse continued to be dominated by a Helleno-Christian mythology of the poet as a visionary Christ figure and martyr.

Mandel’shtam’s oeuvre, resonating with historical analogies and classical myths, placed him on the outer margins of the Soviet literary establishment but did not diminish his standing as a premier poet of his time both among the literary elite and the most astute readers of poetry in the Bolshevik leadership (Mandel’shtam’s patron was Nikolai Bukharin). After Tristiia, Mandel’shtam’s poetic output gradually diminished, and although some of his most significant poems were composed in 1923–1924 (“Grifel’naia oda” [Slate Ode] and “1 ianvariia 1924” [1 January 1924]), this type of composition came to a complete halt in 1925. As he turned away from poetry, Mandel’shtam produced some of the twentieth century’s best memoir prose (Shum vremeni) and Feodosiia (Theodosia; 1923) and the short experimental novella Egipetskaia marka. During the 1920s, he also published critical essays (“Konets romana” [The End of the Novel], “Deviatnadtsatyi vek” [The Nineteenth Century], “Barsuch’ia nora: Aleksandr Blok” [The Badger’s Hole: Alexander Blok], “O prirode slova” [On the Nature of the Word], and others). Included in the collection O poezii (On Poetry; 1928), these essays, along with his Rozgovor o Dante (Conversation about Dante; 1932, published in 1967), were to have a lasting impact on Russian literary criticism and scholarship.

Like many of his fellow poets and writers, Mandel’shtam earned his living as a translator. In 1929, in the tense, politicized atmosphere of the time, Mandel’shtam became enmeshed in a copyright scandal that further estranged him from the literary establishment. In response, he produced Chetvertaia proza (1930, not published in Russia until 1989), a stream-of-consciousness monologue mocking the servility of Soviet writers, the brutality of the cultural bureaucracy, and the absurdity of “socialist construction.” In 1930, thanks to Bukharin’s still-powerful patronage, Mandel’shtam was commissioned to travel to Armenia to record the progress of its Five-Year Plan. The result was Mandel’shtam’s return to poetry (the cycle Armenia and the poems collected in Moskovskie tetradi [The Moscow Notebooks]; 1934) and the travelogue Puteshestvie v Armeniiu (Journey to Armenia; 1932), an example of high-textured modernist travel prose, echoing Pushkin’s Puteshestvie v Arzrum (Journey to Arzrum). Some of this poetry, along with the Journey, was published in the periodical press in 1932–1933. These were the last publications in his lifetime.

Cleansed of the scandal over copyright, Mandel’shtam settled back in Moscow as a prominent author, a development facilitated by a thaw in cultural policy in 1932–1934. However, Mandel’shtam’s independence, his aversion to moral compromise, his sense of civic responsibility, and his horror at the repression of the peasantry set him on a collision course with the regime. In November 1933, Mandel’shtam produced a searing epigram on Stalin. Aware of mounting opposition to Stalin within the Bolshevik Party, Mandel’shtam hoped his poem—the only gesture of this sort by a contemporary poet—would become urban folklore and broaden the base of the anti-Stalin opposition. In the poem, Stalin, “a slayer of peasants” with wormlike fingers and a cockroach mustache, delights in wholesale torture and executions. Denounced by someone in his circle, Mandel’shtam was arrested in May 1934 and sent into exile under Stalin’s verdict to “isolate but protect.” The lenient verdict was dictated by the Soviet leader’s desire to win over the intelligentsia and improve his image abroad on the eve of the much-publicized First Congress of Soviet Writers (August 1934).

The stress of the arrest, imprisonment, and interrogations, which forced Mandel’shtam to divulge the names of friends who had heard him recite the poem, led to a protracted bout of mental illness. While in the hospital in Cherdyn’ (in the Urals), Mandel’shtam attempted suicide and was reassigned to the more hospitable city of Voronezh, where he managed to regain some of his mental balance. As an exile under “protection,” he was allowed to work in the local theater and radio station, but the imposed isolation became unbearable.

Mandel’shtam became obsessed with the idea of atoning for his offense against Stalin and transforming himself into a new Soviet man. This Voronezh period (1935–1937) was, perhaps, the most productive in Mandel’shtam’s poetic career, yielding three remarkable cycles, collected in the three Voronezhskie tetradi (Voronezh Notebooks; 1935–1937), along with his longest poem, known as “Ode to Stalin” (which begins “Kogda b ia ugol’ vzial . . .”). In a way a culmination of the Voronezh Notebooks, the piece is at once a brilliant Pindaric panegyric to his tormentor and a Christlike plea to the “father of all people” to be spared the torments of the Cross. Composed by a great poet, it stands as a monument to the mental horror of Stalinism and the tragedy of the intelligentsia’s capitulation.

In May 1937, his sentence served, Mandel’shtam was released but not allowed to live within 100 kilometers of Moscow. Destitute, homeless, and ill, he persisted in trying to rehabilitate himself, making rounds of writers’ apartments and Writers Union’s offices, reciting the “Ode to Stalin,” and pleading for work and a return to a normal life. The poet’s friends in Moscow and Leningrad collected money for him and his wife Nadezhda. At the height of the Great Terror, however, organized charity of this sort could compromise the donors. For the official literary establishment, Mandel’shtam was becoming a dangerous nuisance. In March 1938, the General Secretary of the Writers Union, Vladimir Stavskii, denounced Mandel’shtam to secret police head Nikolai Ezhov for stirring up trouble among the writers. The denunciation included an “expert” review of Mandel’shtam’s oeuvre by writer Petr Pavlenko, who dismissed Mandel’shtam as a mere versifier, reserving grudging praise for a few lines of the “Ode to Stalin.” A month later, Mandel’shtam was arrested. The relatively light sentence—five years of labor camps for anti-Soviet activity—indicated the preposterousness of his case. Ill and exhausted by his ordeals, he died in a transit camp near Vladivostok. His “Ode to Stalin” remained unpublished until 1976.

Mandel’shtam was distinguished by his total commitment to his vocation as a poet-prophet and poet-martyr. Without permanent residence or steady employment except briefly in the early 1930s, he lived the life of an archetypal charismatic poet, dispersing manuscripts among his friends and relying on their memory for “archiving” his unpublished works. It was primarily through the efforts of his widow, who died in 1980, that Osip Mandel’shtam’s poetry was largely preserved; she kept his works alive during the repression by memorizing them and collecting manuscript copies.

Mandel’shtam’s first volume of poetry appeared in Russia in 1973. But it was the early American two- and later four-volume annotated edition of Mandel’shtam by Gleb Struve and Boris Filippov (1964), along with the books of memoirs by Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, that brought the poet’s works to the attention of new generations of readers, scholars, and fellow poets. In the last decades of the Soviet regime, Mandel’shtam was seen as an emblem of the intelligentsia’s martyrdom and commitment as well as an embodiment of the spirit of Russian poetry and its rootedness in European art and culture. In Russia at the turn of the twenty-first century, Mandel’shtam remains one of the most quoted poets of his day.

Suggested Reading

Clarence Brown, Mandel’shtam (Cambridge, 1973); Gregory Freidin, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelshtam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation (Berkeley, 1987); Nadezhda Mandelshtam, Hope Abandoned (London, 1989); Nadezhda Mandelshtam, Hope against Hope (New York, 1999); Osip Mandel’shtam, Poems, comp. and trans. James Greene (London, 1977); Osip Mandel’shtam, The Complete Critical Prose and Letters / Mandel’shtam, ed. and trans. Jane Gary Harris (Ann Arbor, 1979); Omry Ronen, An Approach to Mandel’shtam (Jerusalem, 1983).