The great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, a victim of Stalin’s terror, has often been viewed as a martyr. It’s a critical reception that has veiled Mandelstam’s literary greatness, which was evident long before Stalin came to power.

Photo of Osip Mandelstam made by the NKVD after his arrest, 1938. (Wikimedia Commons)

Osip Mandelstam is an iconic figure. In Russia, and all over the world, he is seen as a martyr for poetry, someone who paid with his life for his verses. He is known, above all, as the victim of political persecution and the author of a trenchant poem exposing Stalin as the “corrupter of the human soul.” His death in 1938 under appalling circumstances, in a forced labor camp, also contributed significantly to his worldwide fame. Mandelstam, victim of twentieth-century totalitarianism, imprisoned in a Kolyma gulag: this is often the only way in which he is portrayed.

More than any other Russian poet, Mandelstam fills the bill of a legendary literary saint. All the elements of hagiography are ready to hand: his early vocation; his experience of poverty; his persecution; his martyrdom; and, finally, his triumph in the eyes of posterity. Mandelstam is seen as the embodiment of poesy, conforming to the cliché of the true poet’s path of bitter suffering on earth. The proud and self-confident, sharp-tongued and confrontational, witty and sensual Mandelstam, who loved life, and had absolutely no wish to become a martyr, is usually left out of the picture.

His posthumous fate also forms part of his legend. His widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam, played a leading role in this. Almost miraculously, she survived the Stalin epoch. She learned Mandelstam’s poems by heart, so as to preserve them from suppression by the dictator’s bloodhounds. She hid his papers in the attics and cellars of a few friends and accomplices. She finally had his work smuggled out of the country to the United States, and, in the first volume of her monumental memoirs, Hope Against Hope (1970), she revealed to an astonished world the extent of Mandelstam’s isolation and persecution, but also the courageous way he stuck to his convictions through the darkest years of the Stalin terror.

Myths and legends create their own truth. They cover up the unsightly and the unheroic. They are cut-down versions of reality. But they are not entirely mendacious. People have withstood political repression and spiritual emptiness, harassment and interrogations in prison, and even concentration camp life, not least because of the glow of their radiance. This applies both to the victims of an unjust regime who have remained anonymous and to those who have attained unofficial eminence, such as the popular singer Vladimir Vysotsky, he of the hoarse vodka-soaked voice, the idol of Soviet youth in the 1970s, who frankly recognized that Mandelstam’s poems had saved him from madness and death.

In her essay “Poetry and Anthropology,” the lyrical poet Olga Sedakova recalls the case of a dissident who was arrested in the 1970s and interrogated every day for several months. A certain moment arrived after which everything became a matter of indifference for him:

I awoke with the feeling that today I would sign everything that was laid before me. Not because of fear, but because I didn’t care. Nothing was important any more. Then Mandelstam’s poem “Theta and Iota of the Greek Flute” suddenly came into my mind. All of it, from beginning to end. And I experienced what religious people presumably feel during Communion. . . . I sensed the whole world, literally the whole world, with myself as part of it. After this experience I was absolutely certain that I would not sign anything.

Poems, of course, do not just bring comfort and allow people to hold out against oppression: they are complex aesthetic organisms. But we should not ignore the possibility that they may be magically effective in extreme situations. People who sleep safely in their beds and have not endured suffering should not be too quick to dismiss a captive’s spiritual means of survival as an empty solace.

Here is another example: Joseph Brodsky, who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1987, was proud to associate himself in his “Memories of Leningrad” with the generation of young Russian poets “for whom Giotto and Mandelstam were more imperative than their own personal destinies.” In his essay “The Child of Civilization” (1977) he emphasized Mandelstam’s significance for the nonconformist artists and intellectuals of the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s. Mandelstam’s voice, he said, was a voice:

that stays behind when its owner is gone. He was . . . a modern Orpheus: sent to hell, he never returned, while his widow dodged across one sixth of the earth’s surface, clutching the saucepan with his songs rolled up inside, memorizing them by night in the event that they were found by Furies with a search warrant. These are our metamorphoses, our myths.

In this passage, Brodsky calls on the supreme myth about poetry, as it has come down to us from Ovid’s Metamorphoses (Books 10 and 11) and Virgil’s Georgics (Book 4). It is the myth of Orpheus, the “flawless bard,” the demigod, whose verses were heard with pleasure by wild animals, trees, and even stones, who overcame the God of the underworld and even death itself with his singing, and who finally died a sacrificial death, decapitated by the Maenads. The epithet of the modern Orpheus encapsulates the terror of the twentieth century. Mandelstam, another flawless bard, also had to suffer political persecution, concentration camps, and infernal torment.

Beyond Martyrdom

But the persistent reduction of the poet’s life to a tale of martyrdom has led to a failure to recognize Mandelstam’s literary greatness, which was already evident long before Stalin came to power. In his obituary of Nadezhda Mandelstam (1981), Brodsky has this to say: “It is an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills. Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution.”

The Mandelstam myth was woven not just by Russian artists, dissidents, and civil rights supporters. Western intellectuals who were strongly influenced by Nadezhda Mandelstam’s memoirs also played a part. Pier Paolo Pasolini wrote in 1972 that Mandelstam lived “like a dazzled creature on a completely unfamiliar meadow.” He therefore led a life of alienation, “the model of which can perhaps be found in Kafka’s novels or in his dreams.” Mandelstam’s life as Kafka’s nightmare? Mandelstam as a Russian Joseph K.? It is a tempting idea. After all, Osip is a Russified form of the biblical name Joseph. . . . Or should we perhaps see Mandelstam as world poetry’s Land Surveyor, struggling in vain against the obscure machinations of a hierarchy ensconced in an unfathomable Castle — or Kremlin? Does “A Hunger Artist” come to mind? Or the tormented figure of K. in The Trial? Or the short story “In the Penal Colony”? These are the twentieth century’s visions of hell, which Pasolini thought he could perceive in Mandelstam’s life. It should be added, however, that Pasolini was one of the few writers who also paid attention to features of that life other than martyrdom. Hence his evaluation concludes with a fine paradox:

Nimble, clever, witty, elegant, one might even say dandyish, joyful, sensual, always in love, honest, clear-sighted, and happy even in the darkness of nervous breakdown and political terror, youthful, indeed almost boyish, weird and sophisticated, loyal and imaginative, smiling and patient, Mandelstam has bestowed on us some of the most felicitous poetry of the century.

The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 — the hundredth anniversary of Mandelstam’s birth! — brought an end to the age of mythmaking. Mandelstam’s elevation to cultlike status, which made him the patron saint of Russian poetry and the movement for citizens’ rights, could not last forever. During 1990, the year before the end of the Soviet Union, it finally became possible to publish the whole of Mandelstam’s works in Russia, but that date also marked the start of his demythologization and of attempts to undermine his legacy. People started to produce anti-memoirs, which attempted to undermine the powerful hold exerted until then by Nadezhda Mandelstam’s autobiographical writings. We shall examine this phase of the reception of Mandelstam in Russia in the final chapter of our book.

The above remarks underline the two big pitfalls that need to be avoided when writing a biography of Osip Mandelstam: on the one hand, a continued weaving of the legend of his sanctity, and, on the other, a modish attempt to destroy his personal reputation. Mandelstam does not need to be portrayed either as a saint or as a monster. For the whole of his life, he could not be anything other than what he was: a poet. If we adopt this approach, we can concentrate on what is essential: not the transfiguring myths of the past, nor the scandalous revelations of the present, but the quality of his poetry. Mandelstam’s position as one of the most significant poets of the twentieth century has never been seriously challenged, irrespective of fashionable swings in the reputational pendulum.

Osip Mandelstam does not need to be portrayed either as a saint or as a monster.

We therefore have to be careful to avoid both stumbling blocks, so that we neither surround him with the halo of legend, nor do a hatchet job on his personal life. Indeed, perhaps the whole genre of biography should be shunned. Mandelstam himself repeatedly expressed his disapproval of the biographical approach. He viewed it as a precursor of the novel, a genre he thought hopelessly outdated in the modern age. In his 1922 essay “The End of the Novel” he writes:

What happens to the novel after this is simply a story of the dispersion of biography as a form of personal existence; more than dispersion — the catastrophic collapse of biography . . . Europeans are now cast out of their biographies, like balls from the pocket of the billiard table. . . . Besides, the interest in psychological motivation . . . is radically undermined and discredited by the . . . impotence of psychological motives before those real forces whose punitive verdict on psychological motivation becomes crueller from hour to hour.

Dispersed biographies, human existences chucked around all over the place like billiard balls: the “real forces” of the twentieth century and their cruel “punitive verdict” seem to have brought an end to both the conventional novel and the traditional biography. Despite the way it summons up the location and atmosphere of his childhood, Mandelstam’s essay in autobiography, The Noise of Time (1925), contains an abrupt denial of its autobiographical character:

My desire is not to speak about myself but to track down the age, the noise and the germination of time. My memory is inimical to all that is personal. . . . My memory is not loving but inimical, and it labours not to reproduce but to distance the past. The raznochinets needs no memory — it is enough for him to tell of the books he has read, and his biography is done.

Let us calmly follow Mandelstam in reviling biography: biography is tyranny, its enforced chronology — from birth to death — enslaves us. Voyeurism and fetishism are also inherent in the genre. To prise open the secrets of a person’s life is an act of outrageous impudence.

The essential task is to understand the literary work of a poet, not to accumulate facts about his life. The vicissitudes of the poet’s life-experience pale into insignificance in face of the eventfulness of his poetry, the miracles of his language. Poetry is a revolt against the rule of time, the tyranny of Chronos. A lifetime is nothing in comparison with the protracted and occult process of poetry’s emergence. No one knew this better than Marina Tsvetaeva, who set down her memories of Mandelstam in “History of a Dedication,written in 1931 during her Parisian exile: “Humour aside, I think that whenever he was not writing (and he was always not-writing, namely, one poem in three months) he was pining. Without poems, Mandelstam didn’t feel right sitting — or walking — or living — in this world.” It was poetry that determined his life, not the rigid laws of chronology.

It would in any case be impossible to produce a voyeuristic chronicle of his day-to-day life given the “dispersal” of his biography by the “real forces” of history. Even so, Mandelstam’s creations did not emerge in an empty space, devoid of history. They were neither imaginary nor esoteric, nor were they capricious flights of fancy. The life behind and within the poems is a concrete life in a particular epoch, constantly contemporary. Mandelstam’s poems are closely associated with the events and catastrophes of his life, particularly in the late 1930s. For this reason, and notwithstanding all the criticisms that can justifiably be leveled against biography as such, it is still possible to construct a biographical study of the poet’s work including the statements of witnesses; to depict a life’s work, placing this in the forefront, but also to treat this life as itself a piece of work, in order to peer into the eyes of the “time-beast,” the creature conjured up by Mandelstam in a poem written in October 1922 to encapsulate both his own epoch and other people’s :

My time, my beast, who will be able

To peer into your pupils

And with his own blood glue together

The vertebrae of two centuries

Excerpted from Osip Mandelstam: A Biography by Ralph Dutli (Verso, 2023).

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