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“It gets people killed”: Osip Mandelstam and the perils of writing poetry under Stalin

The cat-and-mouse game between the poet Osip Mandelstam and the Soviet dictator could only end in death.

One of the most revealing photographs of Osip Mandelstam still in existence is a mugshot taken in the Lubyanka, on the occasion of his first arrest, in 1934. In the side-on view, it’s of little significance: he looks like any balding 1930s labourer from almost anywhere. Face on, though, arms folded and lips firmly pursed, he presents another proposition entirely. In this shot Mandelstam looks directly into the lens as though he is staring down the photographer. His eyes conceal any trace of the fear that must have been coursing through him; rather, his expression is the very manifestation of contempt. It is the face of a man who has never and will never let anyone, including himself, off the hook.

By the time of this first arrest, Mandelstam had already lived for several years with the knowledge that the long-term aim of the Soviet state machine was to take his life – the method and the timescale were all that remained to be revealed. “Only in Russia is poetry respected,” he is quoted as ­saying. “It gets people killed. Is there ­anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”

The truth of this statement had been borne out long before Russia arrived at the great Yezhov terror of 1937-38, which was to provide Mandelstam and so many others with their end. Anna Akhmatova’s former husband, the poet and founder of the Acmeist movement, Nikolai Gumilev, had been arrested by the Cheka, the secret police, framed for participating in a fictitious tsarist plot and summarily executed in 1921. Vladimir Mayakovsky, initially a vigorous supporter of Soviet ideology and evangelical in his profound personal admiration for Lenin, had fallen from grace and been driven, by a series of public accusations, to shoot himself in 1930. Later, in 1941, after years of torment at the hands of the state, including the execution of her husband and the imprisonment of her daughter, Marina Tsvetaeva hanged herself.

Nadezhda Mandelstam – the poet’s wife and invaluable support throughout his, and their, many years of persecution and exile – wrote in her powerful memoir of both the poet and the era, Hope Against Hope, about the many instances when, confronted with the desperation of their situation, they had asked each other if this was the moment when they, too, could no longer bear to go forward. The final occasion was to be the last night they spent in their Moscow apartment before being banished, without means of providing for themselves, to a succession of rural towns situated beyond a hundred-kilometre perimeter of all major cities. She awoke to find Mandelstam standing at the open window. “Isn’t it time?” he said. “Let’s do it while we’re still together.” “Not yet,” she replied. Mandelstam didn’t argue but she later reflected, “If we had been able to foresee all the alternatives, we would not have missed that last chance of a ‘normal’ death offered by the open window of our apartment in Furmanov Street.” Opting, in that moment, for a little more life changed nothing and Mandelstam soon found himself being moved inexorably towards Stalin’s endgame in the camps.

What has now been established – with as reasonable a degree of certainty as possible for a time in which wives, upon receiving official notification of their husband’s sentence to hard labour in the Gulag, were often casually informed that they were now free to remarry – is that in the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp, en route to Vladivostok in December 1938, Mandelstam, frail and worn out from his many years of oppression, malnourished, severely mentally unstable and without adequate protective clothing for the ferocious Siberian winter, succumbed possibly to typhus, probably to a heart attack. Nadezhda Mandelstam first discovered his death when a package of warm clothing she had sent was returned unopened, bearing the stark message: “The addressee is dead.”

Over the years, she patiently tracked down whom she could of the very few of his fellow inmates who had managed to survive their ordeal, both physically and mentally. Their often highly dissociated memories were her only source of information about the last days of the man whose life and work she had endured so much to save.

It was a strange and cruel death for a man whose early life had somehow evaded the usual traps laid for the children of successful Jewish merchants in pre-revolutionary Russia. Born in Warsaw in 1891 but raised in the virulently anti-Semitic turn-of-the-century St Petersburg, Mandelstam still succeeded in gaining admission to the city’s prestigious Tenishev School and, despite his lacklustre performance there, went on to study abroad both at the Sorbonne in France and the University of Heidelberg in Germany, although without completing his studies at either.

On his return to Russia, and after the requisite conversion to Lutheranism, he was accepted into St Petersburg ­University. The publication in 1913 of his first collection of poetry, Stone, established his reputation as one – alongside Akhmatova (who became both his and his wife’s truest friend and most loyal ally in the years of anguish ahead) – of the pre-eminent poets of his generation. His vigorous rejection of the prevailing dominance of the symbolists nailed Mandelstam’s Acmeist colours to the mast early on. (Acmeism was a literary movement advocating a poetry that directly reflected human experience in the physical world, and of which Mandelstam was the foremost exponent.)

In many ways, this allegiance dedicated him to the set of personal and artistic principles that eventually led his continued existence to be untenable for the Soviet state. It is not purely a bitter coincidence that in his 1913 essay “The Morning of Acmeism” he asserts, “To exist is the artist’s greatest pride. He desires no other paradise than existence . . .” He goes on to describe Acmeism’s simple humanism and individualism – as opposed to the exclusivist mysticism of what had gone before – thus: “There is no equality, there is no competition, there is only the complicity of all who conspire against emptiness and non-existence. Love the existence of the thing itself and your own existence more than yourself: that is Acme­ism’s highest commandment.” Towards the end of his life he was also reported, by Akhmatova, to have described Acmeism as “a homesickness for world culture”.

It seems unlikely that a man who had devoted his life’s work to such ideals could ever have learned just to rub along with the all-devouring beast whose ideological agenda could brook no dissent.

In line with most of the Russian intelligentsia, Mandelstam had been initially supportive of the ideals of the Bolsheviks and sought to embrace the spirit of revolution. He soon became disillusioned, however, by the increasing demands of the regime for poetry to serve the political and collective, rather than the personal and the human. The publication in 1922 of his collection Tristia, preoccupied as it was with love and the sanctity of the Word (a reverential phrase for the composition of poetry current at the time), only contributed to the antagonism between Mandelstam and his more pragmatic peers. Over time, the internal and ­external pressures created by the situation led him to lapse into a “poetic silence” similar to that experienced by Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak.

***

In 1928, Mandelstam published a book of collected poems, a volume of critical essays and The Egyptian Stamp, one of the few examples of Russian surrealist fiction. This was to be the pinnacle of his publishing career and literary reputation. However, his continued refusal to compromise the integrity of his work in service of the propaganda machine was energetically scapegoated by those with the foresight to realise that feeding their poetry into the meat-grinder would ultimately prove preferable to feeding themselves into it. Further publication of Mandelstam’s poetry started to become problematic and the poet found himself falling back on translation, editing, memoir and children’s books in order to make ends meet.

When a printer’s error in an edition of Charles de Coster’s German fable The Legend of Thyl Ulenspiegel and Lamme Goedzak credited Mandelstam as “translator” rather than “editor”, a carefully constructed uproar ensued, in which he was viciously denounced in the press. He vehemently denied the accusation of attempting to grab undue credit but the state-sponsored campaign was well organised and so the doors to any further opportunities for publication were now, conveniently, shut. It was only the direct intervention of the poetry-loving Nikolai Bukharin, Stalin’s ally in the defeat of Trotsky, that brought the matter to a close.

The Mandelstams were despatched to Armenia under the pretext of reporting on collectivisation but, in reality, Bukharin was removing them from the dangerous level of state scrutiny that the scandal had subjected them to. The ploy worked and Mandelstam’s life was saved but the Armenian episode also became an important turning point in his artistic life. The sense of closeness to Dante that he experienced there – because of the connection between the Black Sea and the Mediterranean, according to his widow – allowed him to reconnect to his poetic voice and write his personal manifesto/memoir Fourth Prose, thus bringing to an end his self-described “deaf-mute” period. Mandelstam was never to see his later poetry in print, and although a heavily censored version of his Journey to Armenia appeared in 1933, it proved to be the last significant publication of his life.

On his return to Moscow Mandelstam found the attitude towards his work had not improved and the situation in the country had deteriorated. People were either living in abject terror of being picked up in the by now nightly rounds of arrests or were the informers responsible for bringing the slightest idiosyncrasies of their neighbours to the attention of the authorities. As the mantra of the secret police – “Give us a man and we’ll make a case” – was well known, normal communication between people ceased to be possible. No one knew to whom they spoke or what construction would be placed upon even the most innocuous conversation. Any form of social interaction as previously understood was now impossible.

In spite of this all-pervasive atmosphere of dread, in an act of extraordinary philosophical conviction and supreme personal and artistic bravery, Mandelstam wrote what was to become known as “The Stalin Epigram”, which not only criticised but openly mocked the “Man of Steel” for his bloodthirstiness. As W S Merwin and Clarence Brown have it in their translation, the “Kremlin mountaineer” with the “huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip” enjoys toying with “the tributes of half-men”:

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Mandelstam read it in a closed room to a small group of friends, most of whom responded with horror and begged him to destroy it immediately. He did not, and although the phrase “peasant killer” was ­excised from later versions, the poem’s music was soon playing in the ears of those who so liked to hear the funeral dirge. The identity of the informer remains unknown and Nadezhda Mandelstam was never sure who their personal Judas was. That the poet had been betrayed, however, was immediately clear from the official drop in temperature surrounding their efforts to ­re-establish their lives.

From then on, the Mandelstams waited day and night for the knock on the door. In 1934, it came. Their apartment was turned over several times, many of their papers were confiscated and Mandelstam was dragged away to be subjected to phy­sical and mental torture in the bowels of the Lubyanka.

Execution for both seemed inevitable but instead the couple received their final “miracle”. Bukharin, still a few years from his own downfall, managed to have Mandelstam exiled rather than shot, with Stalin declaring that the poet should be “isolated but preserved”. In accordance with this, the pair were sent first to Cherdyn in the Urals and from there on to Voronezh.

Upon recovering from a severe bout of torture-induced mental illness, which led to a suicide attempt, Mandelstam went on to compose several “notebooks” of his finest poetry during these years of exile. Life was harsh and comfortless but the couple were ever aware that having this time together, in which the poet could continue to work, was more than they could have expected.

On completing three years of exile they returned to Moscow but found they had been stripped of their residency rights. From then until Mandelstam’s final arrest in 1938, they lived in a state of utter desperation and total dependency on the willingness of others to provide them with succour. These were the days when giving a trouserless man your spare pair had the potential to be considered a political act, and many of the couple’s former friends now turned their backs on them. The waves of arrests gripping the country continued to drag people almost indiscriminately to their death or to the camps, sometimes both. The degree of terror in which ordinary people from every stratum of society were forced to conduct their daily lives was almost intolerable and waiting for his moment caused Mandelstam to suffer two stress-induced heart attacks.

***


“Conspire against emptiness”: Mandelstam c.1909

The great cunning of Stalin’s programme of mass arrests, torture and killing was his compartmentalisation of atrocity. Most victims could not, or dared not, see beyond the particularity of their own plight – or that of their family, profession or class – to reach the realisation that what had happened was only one small piece in a far wider plan to divide and declaw at any cost. Each victim felt special in the gross injustice of their fate. Each was preoccupied with either righting their individual wrong or getting from one day to the next without having the axe fall. Once Stalin had succeeded in breaking down the ability of ordinary people to communicate truthfully and perverted the instinct to come to the aid of those in distress, meaningful, interactive opposition ceased to be possible.

Mandelstam, however, had realised this early on. His natural opposition to the collective allowed him a deeper understanding of what is truly universal about human experience. This also left him unable to deny the knowledge that, ultimately, the poet suffers no better or worse a fate than those for whom his poetry has been written. In recognising this, he recognised that he, too, would find himself “herded in a herd”.

Yet what remains both specific and peculiar was Stalin’s personal preoccupation with the fate of the poets under his thumb. His own youthful poetry and publishing success in Georgia remained a source of pride to him throughout his barbarising progress across the 20th century.

Was some unspeakable jealousy at work in his 1934 phone call to Pasternak in which he reproached Pasternak for not pleading Mandelstam’s case directly with him? “If I were a poet and a poet friend of mine were in trouble, I would do anything to help him,” he said. When Pasternak defended himself, Stalin interrupted, “But he’s a genius, he’s a genius, isn’t he?” To which Pasternak replied, “But that’s not the point.” “Then what is?” asked Stalin. Pasternak proposed a meeting to talk. “What about?” asked Stalin. “Life and death,” Pasternak said and Stalin hung up.

Did Pasternak’s clever hesitation in confirming Mandelstam’s genius allow the Mandelstams’ final “miracle” to occur? Or was Stalin at this time, and despite the insult of the epigram, still unable to rid himself of the poet’s respect for the Word? All that can be known with certainty is that Stalin could easily have caused Mandelstam’s death years before he did and yet, for some mysterious reason, he held off.

In May 1938, while recuperating at a sanatorium, the Mandelstams received the visit they had been anticipating. By Nadezhda Mandelstam’s account, it happened so quickly that her husband hadn’t even time to put on his jacket before being hauled away. They were not permitted to say goodbye and she never saw him again.

“It is hard to believe,” she wrote, “that someone can be taken away from you and simply be destroyed.” Osip Mandelstam’s assessment of the times was even starker: “The aim was to destroy not only people, but the intellect itself.”

Eimear McBride is a former winner of the Baileys and Goldsmiths Prizes (the latter in association with the New Statesman). Her most recent book is “The Lesser Bohemians” (Faber & Faber).

This article first appeared in the 04 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Russian Revolution

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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