Appeared in Fall 1976, Vol. II, No. 2

Literature ought to be a powerful medium for the expression of faith. As such it should contribute to the building of genuine culture. Peter Krok is much concerned with all three—literature, culture and faith—in the following sensitive treatment of the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam. Hounded for his views by no less a figure than Stalin himself, Mandelstam proved to be possessed of remarkable strength and vision. His work survived largely through the equal strength and vision of his wife, and together the couple challenges men of all times and civilizations to seek only Truth —without which no faith endures, and no culture exists. According to the author, Mandelstam’s work provides something more as well: the revelation that the service of truth is to resist the self-serving official lies of the modern secular world.

“Who else will you kill? Who else will you worship? What other lie will you invent?” are testamentory lines that epitomize the individuality and tough sustaining dignity of the Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). In the same poem, January 1, 1924, Mandelstam, who as Clarence Brown noted “is the greatest Russian poet of the modern period,” (1) wrote, “Could I ever betray to gossip mongers / the great vow to the Fourth Estate / and oaths solemn enough to tears.” That great vow was the commitment to truth.

Mandelstam stood like Eliot’s Teresias “watching the hooded hordes swarming over the endless plains,” lamenting not only the crumbling of cities but the mighty tyrant boot in the face of conscience, freedom and the family. He not only witnessed man’s alienation from culture and society (the predominant theme of twentieth century Western literature) but watched the “bare-chested Ossete” (Stalin) ravage Russia and spread havoc and terror into the living room of every individual thought.

Like so many others, Mandelstam could have toed the party line and sought to fit his poetry into the current ideology and thereby appease his persecutors. He could have yielded to the latest party dictates and enjoyed the satisfaction of added food coupons or a dacha (country house). One might either compromise with the system in small doses only to be eventually petrified with its salt of lies or be a revolutionary. Mandelstam chose to be a revolutionary, for he clung stoically to truth and refused to prostitute his convictions.

He believed that the dying nineteenth century, the age of relativism and tolerance, had summoned up a monstrous and barbaric successor, a new Assyrian-Egyptian age. (2) He saw poetry as providing material for defense against the monumental slave cultures to come. In an essay Humanism and the Present that appeared in a Berlin newspaper in 1923, Mandelstam wrote:

There are epochs which contend that they care nothing for man, that he is to be used like a brick or cement, that he is to be built with not for. . . . If the social architecture of the future does not have as its basis a genuinely humanistic justification, it will crush man as Assyria and Babylonia crushed him. (3)

At the end of his greatest short essay, The Word and Culture, written in the early 1920’s, the poet stated:

In relation to this new age, with its immense cruelty, we are colonizers. To Europeanize and humanize the twentieth century, to heat it with a theological warmth—that is the task of those who have managed to emerge from the wreckage of the nineteenth century, thrown ashore by the will of the fates on a new historical continent. (4)

Mandelstam was implacably aware of the power of the word just as he understood the power of the state. He said, “Poetry is respected in this country because people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.” (5) In a conversation with the Russian poetess Akhmatova, he stubbornly maintained that “Poetry is Power” and that “if they killed people for poetry, then they must fear and respect it—in other words that it too was a power in the land.” (6)

Refusing to carry the devious waves of lies and deception in the Soviet air, Mandelstam embodied a stubborn antenna of personal honesty. In 1929 he announced to a group of local writers in Tiflis that the Formula, “National in form; Socialist in content,” was stupid and illiterate. It was Stalin’s prescription for correct writing. Mandelstam captured the Plowman, as Solzhenitsyn called Stalin in The First Circle, with apocalyptic vision in the Stalin poem of 1933. When he was exiled to the Russian province of Voronzeh, the poet said to his wife, Nadezhda, “Why is it when I think of him I see heads, mounds of heads? What is he doing with those heads?” (7) An historical note reveals the significance: the Tatar conquerors of Russia piled heads outside the cities as landmarks to the folly of opposition to their rule.

Mandelstam, like Solzhenitsyn whose novel The First Circle refers to the first circle of the Inferno, was a devoted reader of Dante. Is there a more vivid parallel of suffering than that between Dante’s hell and Stalin’s Gulag Archipelago? Mandelstam used to leave a small volume of Dante in his jacket in case he would hear a midnight knock, and in fact when they did commit him to Siberia he took with him one of his few permitted possessions, Dante.

Inevitably the same voice that snapped “What other lie will you invent” and who proclaimed his oath to the Fourth Estate was doomed, just as many of the scribes and spokesmen for the new creed of obsequity were doomed. On a night in May, 1934, Mandelstam was arrested and grilled in the infamous political prison, the Liubianka. It so happens that a few days earlier he had read his sardonic poem on Stalin in Pasternak’s apartment, and one of the nine friends there had informed the authorities. Since that poem sealed Mandelstam’s fate, it would be aptly instructive to present it. Here is that poem as translated by Max Hayward:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

But where there’s so much as half a conversation
The Kremlin’s mountaineer will get his mention.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot top gleams.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders—
Fawning half-men for him to play with.

They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger.

One by one forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete. (8)

Mandelstam was not eliminated as everyone supposed but spared death by what Nadezhda called a “miracle.” Through the efforts of Nikolay Bukharin, Pasternak and others, he was granted a four year respite. The poet was exiled first to a small Asiatic town in the Urals where, nearly insane from his prison experience, he attempted suicide by hurling himself out of a hospital window. Afterwards he was sent to Voronzeh and stayed there for nearly all of his enforced exile. For the next four years he and Nadezhda survived on meager rations and donations of friends. His exile expired in May, 1937, and for the following twelve months the poet lived a nightmare of terror while the wave of second arrests were under way. Although he had just suffered two heart attacks, Mandelstam was sentenced in May, 1938 to five years of hard labor in Siberia.

In January, 1939, a package which Nadezhda had sent her husband was returned. A stamped note informed her the sendee was deceased. What happened? Somewhere in the mounds of Asia stripped of his clothing with a tag attached to his leg, Osip was left in a common pit. Osip Mandelstam had died of heart failure in a transit camp on December 27, 1938.

But the spirit of Mandelstam would not die. It lived on in the furious zeal of his rebellious wife. The authorities had confiscated and destroyed every line of writing by Mandelstam that they could find. Thus for twenty years, during which time it was a criminal offense to possess his writings, she preserved the poetry and notes of her husband when he was a non-person and an outcast. For a generation she labored in silence, secretly copying, memorizing, and at nights, while working in a clothing factory, knitting his poetry into her blood. As Clarence Brown, Mandelstam’s biographer, wrote, Nadezhda carried the poems and prose of Mandelstam in the most ancient of repositories, the human memory. She carried his poems “entire in the interior dark” (9) until 1956 when the Supreme Court of the USSR “rehabilitated” Mandelstam. Yet his poetry is still not available to the Russian public.

The Soviets have published Mandelstam in very small editions which are not on general sale in the Soviet Union, but are shipped abroad for sale or sold in Moscow at special hard-currency shops patronized by foreigners. There is no little irony that when Mrs. Sakharov arrived in Moscow to give her husband the Nobel Peace Prize medal and the diploma, the customs officials searched her and removed four copies of Mandelstam’s poetry that had been published in the Soviet Union.

The fact that the collection of Mandelstam’s work mushroomed from a small brick-red book in 1955 to a three volume set is due to the heroic love and unrelenting faithfulness of his widow. The collected works of Mandelstam, edited by Gleb Struve and Boris Flipoff, grew slowly from copies and copies of copies smuggled out of Russia. I can think of no such instance when two such minds married and in their lives and characters embodied such genuine symbols: Nadezhda the wife who endured and Osip the husband who prevailed through her endurance. Her devotion to him was like an ancient drama; I think of the greatest heroine in literature—Antigone. Nadezhda would not rest until the remains of her husband were properly serviced, and so she pursued his memory with noble vigilance. In fact her two volumes totaling 1300 pages, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, both published and translated in the 1970s, are recognized as two of the great testamentory documents of our century.

Mandelstam was born and reared in what he called “the Judaic Chaos.” His parents were prosperous Jews who settled in the alien and anti-Semitic city of St. Petersburg in 1894, just three years after Mandelstam’s birth in Warsaw. His leather merchant family were outsiders not only in their land of settlement but also in their religion, for they had only a perfunctory attachment to Judaism. Osip attended the Tenishev school, an academy of very advanced learning from 1899 to 1907. When he graduated at the age of 16, he had completed two years of university study. For the greater part of the next three years he wandered throughout Western Europe, settling in Paris for awhile, and later attending for a semester at Heidelberg. Returning home in 1911, Mandelstam continued studies in the Faculty of History and Philology at the University of St. Petersburg, but never received a diploma.

1910 was the year of Mandelstam’s first appearance in print and his entry into literature coincided with certain developments in the literary life of Russia that were to change the complexion of Russian poetry completely. It was the year of what is commonly called the crisis of Symbolism, which had been the reigning school of poetry for some two decades. Other movements replaced the decaying Symbolism, particularly Futurism and Acmeism.

The year 1913 is considered the beginning of Mandelstam’s writing career, when he published at his own expense his first book of poems, a green brochure of some 33 pages entitled Kamen (stone). The title is not only significant in understanding Mandelstam but also in focusing on the Acmeist movement of which he became the most inspired representative. Unlike gem, diamond or marble, the glitter that would have appealed to the Symbolists, stone is an ordinary material. The Acmeist’s principles were similar as a reaction to styles and as a criterion of verse to Ezra Pound’s Don’ts for Imagists. Images were to be concrete and sharply realized and the statement of the poems rigorously logical. (10) During a reading in the 1920s when a “provocateur” asked Mandelstam the loaded question, “What was Acmeism?” which by then was a thoroughly impugned movement, he answered to the rousing cheers of the audience that Acmeism was “a longing for world culture.”

The Acmeists considered themselves a guild of craftsmen with a moral commitment. Unlike the Symbolists and Futurists they were not fishers of men but masons intent on laying their stones to the Dom of the spirit. In an essay on Villon in 1910 Mandelstam wrote, “The man of the Middle Ages thought himself just as indispensable and as joined to the universal building as any stone in a Gothic structure. . . . Without being conscious of it, the medieval man regarded the unadorned fact of his own existence as service, as a kind of feat.” (11) He saw a relationship between his period and the Middle Ages, as he wrote in another article, The Morning of Acmeism: “The perception of the world as a living equilibrium makes us kin to this epoch and impels us to derive strength from works which arose on Romance soil around the year 1200.” (12) Mandelstam, who held a medieval conception of himself as a craftsman, said he was not a “creator” of verse, for he was too sincere and humble for such a label; instead, he said he was “a builder.” (13)

His attitude can be regarded as a par exemplum for the artist. As Nadezhda wrote, “he did not regard himself as someone standing above the crowd, but as part of it. Any self-exclusiveness was anathema to him—this was no doubt connected with his sense of belonging to the Judeo-Christian tradition.” (14) Nadezhda set down his principles in Hope Against Hope:

The work of the poet [is] as a vehicle of world harmony—that is, it is concerned with the doing of the poet’s fellow men, among whom he lives and whose fate he shares. The poet does not speak “for them” but with them, nor does he set himself apart from them; otherwise he would not be a source of truth. (15)

The period after 1913 was for the most part spent in wanderings and odd jobs across European Russia. In 1920 he married Nadezhda, and three years later his second volume of poetry was published in Berlin, Tristia. Judging by publications alone, 1928 was the height of his career. The following books appeared: Poems, On Poetry, and The Egyptian Stamp, which included his famous novella, The Noise of Time. the latter half of the Twenties dried up his poetry for an agonizing period of five years in what Mandelstam called his “deaf-mute” period. At this time he was unsure of himself and afraid of succumbing to falsehood.

Nadezhda suggests that perhaps the reason Osip stopped writing verse in the middle and late Twenties was that in this period of confusion he was no longer certain of being right. In The Morning of Acmeism (1913), Mandelstam had written: “The architect says: I build—that is to say, I am right. For us the consciousness of our rightness is dearer than all else in poetry.” (16) Listening to the chorus of those who accepted the new reality, he must have been sorely troubled by his isolation from it. Attacked by the Symbolists, the Left Front (lEF), the Russian Associatoin of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), and all the other groups which unreservedly supported the new system, he could scarcely help feeling that he was indeed a “drying crust in a loaf long since taken out.” Assailed by such doubts, he could not possibly feel certain of his own “rightness.” Mandelstam’s efforts to come to terms with the new era ended in failure, yet this troubled period helped him to define his place in the new world.

Osip was not the only writer to be torn with doubts. As Nadezhda pointed out, “the same thing happened for a time with Akhmatova, and with Pasternak it lasted a good ten years. ‘It must be something about the air,’—said Akhmatova.” Nadezhda went on to say, “there was indeed something in the air, the beginning, perhaps, of that general drowsiness which we still find so hard to shake off.” (17)

Nikolay Bukharin, who was later a victim in the first Stalin purge in 1936, liked Mandelstam and valued his poetry and saved the poet from several formidable campaigns of vilification. In 1928 Bukharin had a particularly bitter campaign stopped and arranged for Mandelstam and his wife to be sent off to Armenia. It was there that the Muse returned and in 1930 Mandelstam wrote his last book, Fourth Prose.

The book was literally his fourth book of prose, but there was also an association with the “fourth estate.” Mandelstam considered himself a member of the “fourth estate,” the raznochinstsy, intellectuals from the lower classes. (18) In the Fourth Prose, to signify his break with fellow Soviet writers, he stripped off his “literary fur coat” and stamped on it. (19)

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