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One of the most prominent achievements of Stalin’s first five-year plan was the construction of a canal to link the White and Baltic Seas in northern Russia. Built between 1931 and 1933, the White Sea-Baltic Canal involved the labor of approximately 150,000 criminal and political prisoners and the relocation of nearly 4000 peasants.1 Historians estimate that 25,000 prisoners died during its construction.2 Once operational, it served as a transportation route for timber, coal, and other materials from the Far North.

The Canal quickly became a fixture in Soviet propaganda. In August 1933, two months after its completion, Maksim Gor’kii organized a tour for 120 writers from the newly formed Writers’ Union. In January 1934, a 600-page book appeared, The White Sea-Baltic Canal in the Name of Stalin, collecting collaboratively written contributions from thirty-five of these writers, including Viktor Shklovskii, Aleksei Tolstoi, and Mikhail Zoshchenko—“almost all the best of Soviet literature and criticism,” notes Nikita Struve.3 The book celebrates the Canal’s economic and moral significance, while modeling a new form of collective authorship.4 A section of the introduction begins, “[the Canal] is one of the most dazzling victories of the collective organization of people over the harsh, elemental nature of the north. At the same time, it has successfully transformed former enemies of the dictatorship of the proletariat and the Soviet public into qualified members of the working class” (Gor’kii et al., Belomorsko-Baltiiskiii, 11). Later in the book, a photograph of a female prisoner with a jackhammer, possibly by Aleksandr Rodchenko, has the caption, adapted from Marx, “Changing nature, man changes himself” (fig. 1).5 [End Page 161]

Fig. 1. Untitled, in Belomorsko-Baltiiskii Kanal imeni Stalina: Istoriia stroitel’stva ed. M. Gor’kii, L.L. Averbakh, and S.G. Firin (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo “Istoriia fabrik i zavodov,” 1934), positioned between 206 and 207.
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Fig. 1.

Untitled, in Belomorsko-Baltiiskii Kanal imeni Stalina: Istoriia stroitel’stva ed. M. Gor’kii, L.L. Averbakh, and S.G. Firin (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo “Istoriia fabrik i zavodov,” 1934), positioned between 206 and 207.

[End Page 162]

The Canal and the propaganda campaign exemplify two goals of Soviet utopianism: to harmonize individual interests under a single authority (the Communist Party) and remake individuals into ideal Soviet subjects (the Soviet New Man). These goals affected nearly every aspect of life in the Soviet Union during the early Stalinist period. As the historian Jochen Hellbeck writes, “individuals were expected to refashion their very selves, by enacting revolutions of their souls, paralleling the revolutions of the social and political landscape” (Autobiographical Practices, 341–42). In autobiographies and diaries, he adds, Soviet citizens recorded how they “made the Revolution, constructed a factory, built the Metro, and so on, and at the same time, how they themselves were made by the Revolution and how they were forged as subjects in the course of the Stalinist industrialization drive” (343).6 The female prisoner with the jackhammer represented a mass project in which every person was supposed to perfect his or her self by perfecting the state.

This article examines two attacks on Soviet utopianism: Osip Mandel’shtam’s anti-Stalin poem (known as the Stalin epigram), which he first performed in 1933 and which led to his arrest for counterrevolutionary activity in 1934 and his death in 1938, and the memoirs of his widow, Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, which she began to write in the late 1950s. The epigram and memoirs, I argue, illuminate the connection between a series of important concepts in modernist studies and literary studies more generally: aesthetics and politics, complicity and dissent, martyrdom and victimhood, world literature, and witness literature. At the same time, the epigram and memoirs tell an important story about the transnational circulation of texts during the Cold War.

The Stalin Epigram

But there is always the drop that fills the cup to overflowing. By 1933 we had made great progress in our understanding of what was going on. Stalinism had shown its colors in one large-scale undertaking—the mass deportation of the peasants, and in the lesser one of bringing the writers to heel.

—Nadezhda Mandel’shtam7

Disgust for the White Sea-Baltic Canal—and for Gor’kii and his collaborators—might have been the specific “drop” that caused Osip Mandel’shtam to compose and perform the Stalin epigram.8 For the poet, the Canal was not simply a construction project that cost thousands of lives. It was a testament to the immorality of Soviet utopianism as an idea. The use of prison labor was wrong; the forced relocation of peasants was wrong; and the attempt to unify the interests of artists and the state was wrong. In his essay “Fourth Prose” (1931), Mandel’shtam declares, “I divide all world literature into authorized and unauthorized works. The former are all trash; the latter—stolen air. I want to spit in the face of every writer who first obtains permission and then writes. I want to beat such writers over the head with a stick.”9

This, in brief, is the story of the epigram’s performance and its aftermath. In November 1933, Mandel’shtam performed a short poem (quoted in full below) for friends [End Page 163] and neighbors criticizing Stalin. In May 1934, Mandel’shtam was arrested, interrogated, and found guilty of counterrevolutionary activity. To his surprise, he was sentenced to three years in exile, rather than forced labor or death. Stalin had issued an order to “isolate, but preserve.” The poet was sent to Cherdyn, a town in the northern Urals, and then allowed to move to Voronezh, a small city in southwest Russia.10 In 1937, after three years of forced unemployment and near-starvation, he was permitted to return to Moscow. He was rearrested in May 1938, again for counterrevolutionary activity. In December 1938, he died in a Gulag transit camp at the age of forty-seven. His widow, Nadezhda Mandel’shtam, shared his exile in Cherdyn and Voronezh, and their experiences are the subject of her memoirs.

Seamus Heaney has described Mandel’shtam’s performance in this way: “David . . . faced Goliath with eight stony couplets in his sling.”11 The analogy seems misguided—David did not die in a prison camp as Goliath terrorized his rivals—until one realizes that, for Heaney, Mandel’shtam triumphed over Stalin because the epigram caused Mandel’shtam’s death and by doing so, vindicated his account of Stalin’s cruelty. The epigram, in other words, outlasted Stalin and Stalinism, and confirmed Stalin’s guilt. “[T]he death of an artist should not be excluded from the chain of his creative achievements, but viewed as its final, closing link.”12 This sentence, from Mandel’shtam’s “Pushkin and Skriabin” (1915–20), anticipates Heaney’s perspective: Mandel’shtam’s death was a creative act that defeated Stalin by transforming a man into a martyr.

This view of Mandel’shtam’s epigram has helped canonize the poet both inside and outside Russia. In addition to Heaney, the epigram’s non-Russian commentators include Robert Alter, Isaiah Berlin, Bruce Chatwin, J. M. Coetzee, Guy Davenport, Wai Chee Dimock, Robert Littel, Czesław Miłosz, Jose Manuel Prieto, Adrienne Rich, Salman Rushdie, George Steiner, and Susan Stewart.13 For most of these commentators, Mandel’shtam’s triumph is a triumph for poetry—evidence for Shelley’s dictum that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”14 (“Poetic legislation thus trumps the murderous official variety,” the scholar and translator Clare Cavanagh declares.)15 Today, the epigram is a touchstone for a specific tradition of world literature and especially Nobel-worthy world literature: daring acts of witness and resistance that promote liberal values—free expression, mutual understanding, and universal human rights.

Here is the Stalin epigram, followed by my literal, prose translation:

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны, Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны, А где хватит на полразговорца, Там припомнят кремлевского горца. Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны, А слова, как пудовые гири, верны, Тараканьи смеются усища И сияют его голенища. [End Page 164] А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей, Он играет услугами полулюдей. Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет, Он один лишь бабачит и тычет, Как подкову, кует за указом указ: Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз. Что ни казнь у него—то малина, И широкая грудь осетина. Ноябрь 193316

(We live, not sensing the country beneath us, / our speeches are not audible ten steps away, / but where there’s enough for half a conversation, / we commemorate the Kremlin highlander. / His fat, greasy fingers like worms, / his words true as thirty-six pound weights, / His cockroach moustache laughs / and his boot-tops shine. // And with a rabble of thinnecked chiefs around him, / he plays with the services of half-men. / Some whistle, some meow, some whimper, / he alone babbles and prods. / He forges decree after decree like horseshoes: / one gets it in the groin, one in the head, one in the brow, one in the eye. / His every execution—a raspberry / and the broad chest of the Ossetian. // November 1933)

How does the poem achieve its transformative effects? Primarily, by not being a poem at all. A Russian version of my prose translation would have ensured Mandel’shtam’s arrest and death just as effectively as the lineated, rhyming original.17

What is the Stalin epigram then, if not a poem? It is an act of civil disobedience and a test. About twenty people heard the epigram before Mandel’shtam’s arrest, including Shklovskii, Anna Akhmatova, and Boris Pasternak. The epigram tested their convictions as it demonstrated Mandel’shtam’s own. It was an invitation to join in protest or report the poet to the authorities. (At least one person did the latter.) The epigram, in this way, highlighted each individual’s complicity in the Soviet regime and called on him or her to do something about it. Indeed, it forced the matter: after hearing the epigram, auditors were implicated in its message. They had to choose sides, for they would have been punished for remaining silent—a fact Pasternak immediately recognized. “What you have read me has nothing to do with literature, with poetry,” he proclaimed. “It is . . . an act of suicide, which I do not accept and in which I do not want to participate. You have not read me anything, I have not heard anything, and I ask you not to read it to anyone else.”18

At the same time, the epigram was also a test of poetry. In her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandel’shtam writes:

In choosing his manner of death, M. was counting on one remarkable feature of our leaders: their boundless, almost superstitious respect for poetry. “Why do you complain?” M. used to ask. “Poetry is respected only in this country—people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”

(Hope against Hope, 161)

The epigram tested the validity of this claim: would Mandel’shtam’s speech be audible ten steps away?19 The irony is obvious: as a test for poetry the epigram did not rely on the features that made it a poem—save one, that it was written by a poet. [End Page 165]

But the Stalin epigram is also a poem, of course. Its sonic and semantic complexity cannot be captured in paraphrase (or translation). The rhyme that links “верны” (the true) with “жирны” (greasy) lampoons Soviet morality. The syllable-rhyme linking “полразговорца” (half-conversation) with “голенища” (boot-tops) and “полулюдей” (half-men) creates a sound pattern that unites the poem as a whole. The neologism “бабачит,” which takes the form of a third-person, singular, present-tense verb, works to suggest something like “babble” and the sound of a heavy blow (“бабахнуть” [to bang]).20 The pun on “малина”—literally “raspberry” and figuratively “a thieves’ den”—recreates Stalin’s point of view: every victim is a treat and an easily neutralized threat.

As the epigram exploits these formal devices, it improves its efficacy as propaganda. It delights as it teaches. Rhyme is an aid to memory: the poem does not need to be written down because it will be remembered.21 As a result, it is able to address audiences outside Mandel’shtam’s immediate circle. The epigram can be passed from friend to friend; no one need fear being caught with incriminating evidence. It can survive even the most censorious environments.

The epigram is a poem in yet another sense as well: it is an instrument of discovery. Its opening lines present a dysfunctional public sphere, an insensate, anonymous “we” lost in endless commemoration of its leader. This public catches glimpses of Stalin’s immense body—his fingers, boot-tops, moustache, chest—as his physique literally overwhelms the poem. Each glimpse is met with a corresponding blow—to the head, brow, eye, and groin. Taken together, these body parts compose a single body, which is also a body politic—powerful and ignorant, decorative and emasculated. (Stalin’s greasy, prodding fingers and shiny boots substitute for the public’s injured eye and groin.) This is the Soviet Union: a picture of immense and ongoing self-harm, a body destroying itself.

There are thus two “versions” of the same text: non-poem and poem, civic test and aesthetic instrument. There is an act of “pedagogical clarity” and an act of “genuine poetry,” to borrow two phrases from Mandel’shtam’s essay, “Conversation about Dante” (421, 414). What unites these versions? One answer might be genre. An epigram is a poem that deploys a statement in verse. But the Stalin epigram’s generic features only supplement its efficacy—they do not constitute it. As I have been arguing, Mandel’shtam could have performed any anti-Stalin text to ensure his death—and without his death, Heaney would not be reading the epigram, let alone describing it as “eight stony couplets.”22

For Mandel’shtam something else unites these two versions: a conception of purity. As a non-poem, the epigram displays the moral purity of a would-be martyr. Its dissent is direct and concise. The poet’s willingness to sacrifice himself for justice is unmistakable. As a poem, the epigram displays the aesthetic purity one would expect from a former Acmeist. Its imagery is direct and concise. Its craftsmanship and musicality are unmistakable.23 But what unites these instances of purity? The idea of purity itself. To be pure, everything must submit to a single organizing principle—in this case, the will of the artist. [End Page 166]

This idea of purity is best understood in relation to Mandel’shtam’s reading of Dante’s Divine Comedy. “The structure of the Dantean monologue,” he writes, “can be well understood by making use of an analogy with rock strata whose purity has been destroyed by the intrusion of foreign bodies” (“Conversation about Dante,” 407).24 The Divine Comedy, he argues, unifies this rock without, paradoxically, removing these “foreign bodies”: “[I]magine a granite monument erected in honor of granite, as if to reveal its very idea. Having grasped this, you will then be able to understand quite clearly just how form and content are related in Dante’s work” (407). Despite the presence of old substrates and the constant absorption of new ones—new readers, new readings—the Divine Comedy remains pure: self-contained, self-sufficient, self-referential. “Examining the structure of the Divina Commedia as best I can,” he adds, “I come to the conclusion that the entire poem is but one unified and indivisible stanza. Rather, it is not a stanza, but a crystallographic figure, that is, a body” (409). This last metaphor is especially revealing: the Divine Comedy is a body, purifying all it ingests. Likewise, the epigram. It is a body, Mandel’shtam’s body, purifying itself as it purifies the body politic it simultaneously represents and opposes.

But perhaps “purity” is not the best word to choose, with its connection to racial hygiene, on the one hand, and abstract art, on the other.25 “Aesthetic unity” or simply “form” might be better, insofar as both describe an artist’s power to assimilate and redeem previously disparate ideas and aims, and persons and communities. Ultimately, the reason why Mandel’shtam’s civic test must also be an aesthetic instrument is that they are both products of a great artist. This is what great artists do, at least in Mandel’shtam’s view: unify the ununifiable and, in the process, make the contingent necessary.

In a 1934 speech on poetry to the first Soviet writers’ congress, Nikolai Bukharin proposed that “The forms of poetic creation should be the most diverse, unified by the one great style or method of socialist realism.” As Bukharin explained:

Unity does not mean that we must all sing the same song at the same time—now about sugar beets, now about the “live man,” now about the class struggle in the countryside, now about a Party membership card. Unity does not mean the presentation of the same ideal types and the same “villains,” nor the abolition—on paper—of all contradictions and evils. Unity consists in a single aspect—that of building socialism.26

Bukharin’s definition of socialist realism would prove optimistic. Yet its logic captures a central feature of official Soviet ideology in the period: the belief that socialism would simultaneously preserve and purify the diverse interests of Soviet citizens. This logic parallels the logic of Mandel’shtam’s reading of the Divine Comedy—indeed, Dante’s granite monument represents the Soviet conception of pluralism in miniature. This is not pluralism at all, but the subordination of difference to a single unifying principle. Bukharin admits as much; where heterogeneity exists, it exists “on paper”—that is, it does not really exist at all.

This correspondence suggests a need to reevaluate the epigram’s relation to the strand of world literature outlined above. The epigram does not fight Stalinism with liberal values, but with its own competing conception of purity. “The central impulse [End Page 167] behind the domestication of literature [under Stalin] was to preserve its crucial function as generator and repository of myth,” writes Katerina Clark. “Consequently both intellectualist tendencies among writers, on the one hand, and the production of countervailing myths on the other, were equally anathema to those watchmen (both within and without literature) who would guard its purity.”27 The Stalin epigram presents just such a countervailing myth—a myth in which Mandel’shtam becomes a martyr and thereby defeats Stalin, his Goliath.

The epigram replicates other aspects of Soviet utopianism as well. “The hallmark of the new man was the extraordinary—not to say superhuman—feat,” Clark writes. “The secret of his success lay in his daring to discount established empirical norms,” rather than his “sheer human strength” (“Utopian Anthropology,” 189, 186). Mandel’shtam represents a détournement of this hallmark—Soviet in method, yet anti-Soviet in form and content. (Mandel’shtam did not physically resemble the ultra-masculine Soviet archetype of the New Man.)28 Performing the epigram, he becomes a superhuman man of daring, violating established norms of behavior and modeling new norms for his community.

But these correspondences are just that—correspondences. They are not equivalences. Mandel’shtam was a poet. Stalin was a dictator. I do not mean to suggest here that Mandel’shtam’s performance was unjust or unwarranted or unheroic. Stripped of his autonomy, he reasserted it. Yet the fact remains that the epigram promoted (or at least exploited) the specific conditions responsible for the oppression it opposed—a commitment to purity combined with a pedagogy of perfectionism. The epigram, in other words, did not tackle Stalinism as an idea, but as a cult of personality—as a cult of the wrong personality.29 For Mandel’shtam, the problem was not unanimity; it was state-sponsored unanimity.

I do not think Mandel’shtam would have disagreed with this argument. When asked during his interrogation by the state police about Akhmatova’s response to the epigram, he declared:

With her customary laconicism and poetic acuity, Anna Akhmatova pointed out the “monumental, rough-hewed, broad-sheet character of the piece.” This was a correct assessment. For while an enormous force of social poison, political hatred and even contempt for the person depicted has been concentrated in this foul, counter-revolutionary, libellous lampoon, she recognized its great power and that it possesses the qualities of a propaganda poster of great effective force.

(quoted in Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, 180)

Mandel’shtam was under duress when he made this statement. He wanted to protect Akhmatova. Yet Mandel’shtam does not apologize or express remorse. Instead, he describes a dialectic of complicity and dissent. Protest, he acknowledges, is never ahistorical.30 The epigram assimilated the power it opposed: it is a “propaganda poster” suffused with “an enormous force of social poison.”

Heaney’s reading of the epigram might thus be more insightful than it first seemed. The epigram marks a confrontation between two men, rather than alternative forms of governance, a ruined utopianism and a practical liberalism. The epigram demands that [End Page 168] its auditors submit to the poet and his art, rather than Stalin and his decrees. It is as utopian as the utopianism it was designed to undermine. Perhaps even more utopian. During the six months between Mandel’shtam’s initial performance and his arrest, he was free. By inviting his own death, he took control of his life, robbing Stalin of one of his most powerful means of oppression. The performance, in this way, was also an instrument of self-determination.31

If I have a target in this article, it is not Mandel’shtam; it is critics who view the epigram as a triumph for poetry. Investment in this view of the epigram is an investment in the hierarchies the epigram reproduces. It is an investment in a form of utopianism, the repercussions of which are evident in Mandel’shtam’s performance and the context that provoked it.

The Memoirs

The arts only ever lend to projects of domination and emancipation what they are able to lend them, that is to say, quite simply, what they have in common with them: bodily positions and movements, functions of speech, the parcelling out of the visible and the invisible.

—Jacques Rancière32

Rancière’s description of the connection between aesthetics and politics (and especially between art and “bodily positions and movements”) suggests a counterfactual reading of Mandel’shtam’s performance. When Mandel’shtam performed the epigram he not only tested his auditors’ allegiance, he made them complicit in a conspiracy. Everyone who heard the epigram was responsible for not informing on Mandel’shtam. Anyone who informed on Mandel’shtam was responsible for informing on those who did not. The epigram, in this way, had the potential to create a network bound by love and fear in which everyone was responsible for everyone else—a network in which care for family and friends had to become care for a wider community.

Latent in the performance were the conditions for the network’s infinite expansion. Had this counterfactual been realized, auditors who recited the epigram would have created their own networks, their own conspiracies. The epigram would have spread like a virus, from one reading to another, in apartments across Moscow and then the Soviet Union. The scenario suggests one reason why the epigram could not have been written down. The anonymity of a physical text would have threatened the network by weakening the bonds holding it together. Every expression of dissent had to have a human face. Intellectual affiliation had to be supplemented by emotional investment. The epigram’s character as a poem would have facilitated this investment. Its depth of feeling and semantic complexity, its musicality and wit would have humanized and popularized its message, helping to spread the contagion.33

This counterfactual and Mandel’shtam’s actual performance are mutually exclusive. One promotes the expansion of a rhizomatic community of co-conspirators, the other the heroism and autonomy of a single actor. One requires the poet’s obscurity, the other [End Page 169] his arrest and martyrdom. In the counterfactual, Mandel’shtam would have been no more important than any other node in the network. Arresting him alone would have been as pointless as quarantining one sick person during an epidemic.

The counterfactual, however, illuminates the efficacy of Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s memoirs. She began to write her memoirs in the late 1950s, during the Khrushchev-era reform period known as the Thaw. By the early 1960s, the first volume was in circulation in the Soviet Union in samizdat, and in 1970 it was published in English as Hope against Hope, translated by Max Hayward.34 (Despite changes in the political climate in the Soviet Union, state-sanctioned publication remained impossible until 1989.)35 The book describes the Mandel’shtams’ married life and combines a detailed account of her husband’s arrest, exile, and death with commentaries on his poems and poetics, the Soviet intelligentsia, and Stalinism. It is an act of witness and testimony: “the champions of terror invariably leave one thing out of account,” she writes, “namely that they can’t kill everyone, and among their cowed, half-demented subjects, there are always those who survive to tell the tale” (Hope against Hope, 320).

The second volume, written in the mid-1960s, after the first had earned her a position of “unofficial prominence” in the Soviet Union, opens with a promise to tell her own story, but soon refocuses on her life with her husband.36 (Guy Davenport describes the book, published in English in 1974 as Hope Abandoned, as a “sustained digression (621 pages) to the first volume” [“Review,” 298].) The book devotes substantial space to politics and cultural criticism and to descriptions of Akhmatova’s relationship with Mandel’shtam. A third volume, published posthumously in France in 1987, continues in this vein, collecting miscellaneous criticism and memories.37

The memoirs—especially the first volume—are masterly: suspenseful, witty, novelistic, terrifying. Davenport argues that they are “designed as a Formalist novel, its components arranged according to a sense of kinship amongst its subjects rather than according to chronology” (298). Short chapters are the main units of action; each focuses on a theme or problem, combining dramatic descriptions of people and events with incisive commentary. Each chapter is self-contained and easily excerpted from the whole. This is witness literature as a series of adventure stories. The first volume opens:

After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow. From there he rang Akhmatova every day, begging her to come. She was hesitant and he was angry. When she packed and bought her ticket, her brilliant, irritable husband Punin asked her, as she stood in thought by the window: “Are you praying that this cup should pass from you?” It was he who had once said to her when they were walking through the Tretiakov Gallery: “Now let’s go and see how they’ll take you to your execution.” . . . But in the end they overlooked her and didn’t arrest her. Instead, she was always seeing others off to their last journey.

(Hope against Hope, 3)

The passage establishes the memoirs’ central themes and actors. Mandel’shtam’s slap foreshadows his performance of the epigram; Punin’s prediction anticipates the poet’s fate.38 Akhmatova and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam are, from the start, survivors. The atmosphere is tense. The passage sets up the chapter’s main action: Akhmatova’s arrival [End Page 170] (from Leningrad, where she lived), Mandel’shtam’s first arrest, and the police search of the Mandel’shtams’ apartment.

This passage also introduces an important typology. Gregory Freidin notes that Mandel’shtam’s “scandalous slap cannot but be read in the Dostoevskian tradition of unmasking an antichrist in a sudden breakdown of social conventions.” “As befits an imitator of the One who prayed at Gethsemane,” Freidin continues, “Mandelstam pleads with his friend Akhmatova to come and keep vigil with him; and as befits one assigned the role of the poet’s apostle, she delays” (A Coat, 270). The scene assigns roles of Messiah, apostle, and gospel-writer to the memoirs’ characters. Readers are set up to expect Mandel’shtam’s sacrifice and to recognize its magnitude.

This typology effectively binds the validity of Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s testimony about the horrors of Stalinism to her account of her husband’s martyrdom. To accept one is to accept the other. Conversely, to deny Mandel’shtam’s martyrdom (or to criticize his poetry) is to endorse Stalinism. Consider, for example, the depiction of the scholar Emma Gershtein, one of the epigram’s first auditors:

Emma Gerstein . . . looked on our apartment as a place where she met “interesting people” and unsuccessfully pursued her amorous designs on Lev Gumilev, Narbut, and whoever else happened to be there, but she paid little attention to M. and never understood his poetry. Needless to say, these were not favorable times for M.—his ideas, the brilliance of his conversation, his humor, could not be appreciated without equipment of a different order than anything produced in the first half of the century. We were surrounded by swarms of people who saw everything in another light from M., and they were always trying to turn me against him, tempting me with the thought of a more ordered and sensible existence, and the good things that would go with it: common sense, Marxism, innovation, an easy life, theaters and bars, a proper home, and all the latest trends.39

The scene quickly moves from gossip about Gershtein to her intellectual failings and from these failings to the failings of the Soviet intelligentsia as a whole. Gershtein-as-intelligentsia then becomes a representative of the Soviet government as it tempts artists with “theaters and bars,” “a proper home,” “common sense,” and “Marxism.” (Marxism is equivalent to the “easy life.”) The Mandel’shtams’ apartment becomes a Garden of Eden, with Gershtein as a less-than-cunning Satan, tempting the memoirist to abandon her husband and his values. Gershtein’s mundane self-interest, in this way, comes to represent the origin of Mandel’shtam’s persecution.40

As a genre, witness literature challenges readers to disseminate its testimony.41 Nadezhda Mandel’shtam addressed this challenge to two sets of readers in particular: a younger generation of intelligentsia in the Soviet Union, who came of age after Stalinism, and readers in the West. Joseph Brodsky, one of the most prominent members of the former set of readers, accepted the challenge without reserve. In a review of the second volume of memoirs, he proclaims:

I don’t think any other poet has been as fortunate in his widow: Mandelstam is resurrected. But not only Mandelstam—that which killed him, outlived him, and continues to exist and gain popularity is also reincarnated. . . . Her book is relentless, it breathes typical [End Page 171] Judaic devotion to justice. What Mme Mandelstam does in its 621 pages is nothing other than hold a Day of Judgment on earth for her age and its literature—a judgment administered all the more rightfully since it was this age that had undertaken the construction of paradise on earth.42

Note the passive voice (“Mandelstam is resurrected”) that implies Mandel’shtam’s divinity (he resurrects himself). Note too the identification of “that which killed him” with poetry, instead of the secret police. In this way, the epigram’s aims are realized: Mandel’shtam overcomes his Goliath.

In the West, the challenge was also effective. Consider two episodes in the history of the memoirs’ transnational circulation—one involving Clarence Brown and one, Carl R. Proffer. In 1965, Brown, a Russian literature professor at Princeton, traveled to Moscow “ostensibly to study the problems of translation.”43 On the recommendation of the scholar and translator Ryszard Przybylski, he visited Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and read the first volume of her memoirs. “I had little need to leave Nadezhda Iakovlevna’s apartment,” he writes, “to be in the mainstream of what liberal thought there was in the Brezhnev ice age. The kitchen table was the forum for an education that not even Harvard could have provided” (“Memories of,” 486). Brown was soon asked to smuggle the memoirs to the United States, which he did successfully.44 Back at Princeton, he organized a translation project:

Nadezhda is to blame for my first and only deliberate deception of the dean of the Graduate School at Princeton. I invented a seminar with some such phony name as “Studies in Twentieth-Century Russian Literature.” I recruited a group of graduate students. I swore them to secrecy. Then we set about translating the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandel’shtam. It just might have been the most personally gratifying (for me) and useful (for the students) of any graduate seminar I ever offered. As I sat with each student, revising his or her translation, we necessarily dealt with topics in twentieth-century Russian literature. What is more, the urgency, to say nothing of the secrecy, made this seminar, I hope, a memorable experience for my students.


“Our translation,” he concludes, was “doomed to remain an academic exercise”; Max Hayward had already agreed to translate another smuggled copy “with all possible speed” (488). Brown remained devoted to Mandel’shtam. In 1973, he would publish the first biography of the poet and co-translate (with W. S. Merwin) the first edition of Mandel’shtam’s poems in English.

In 1973, Carl R. Proffer, co-publisher of Ardis Publishing, traveled to Moscow and reported on the reception of the memoirs for the New York Review of Books. “Everywhere I went,” he writes, “I was given examples of what various people considered slander of other people—usually friends or relatives. ‘X is not mentally unbalanced,’ ‘Y was never an informer,’ ‘Z did not destroy Mandelstam’s poem.’” Proffer continues,

Almost everyone seems to have a friend, favorite, or relative whom they think she slanders—and for that matter, many of the victims themselves are still alive and kicking. The chorus of complaint began with the circulation of her memoirs in manuscript, intensified [End Page 172] each time one was published in Russian abroad, and has reached its peak with the publication of the translation of Hope Abandoned.”45

Proffer then quotes from an open letter from the writer Veniamin Kaverin to Nadezhda Mandel’shtam about her portrayal of Iurii Tynianov, the influential formalist critic (and Kaverin’s brother-in-law).46 “Spite drips from every line of your book,” Kaverin writes. “Those who have long ago evaluated Tynyanov’s works as a new stage in the history of world literary scholarship will also know how to evaluate the self-satisfied helplessness with which you have written about them.” Proffer defends Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and refutes many of Kaverin’s claims, noting that “For the non-Russian reader the specific individuals and names are not especially important—the Western reader cannot pronounce them and does not know who they are anyway. The larger picture and moral viewpoint of Mme Mandelstam are much more important to us” (“The Attack”).

The episode involving Brown highlights the memoirs’ geopolitical influence. (He involved his students in an act of espionage!) The episode involving Proffer, in turn, highlights the significance of the memoirs’ circulation between Moscow and New York. Kaverin’s final claim is revealing—for if it is true, so is its opposite: those who have not “long ago evaluated” Tynianov’s work will not know how to evaluate the memoirs’ accuracy. They will not, in other words, be able to extract Tynianov from Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s characterization. This is why Kaverin is so furious; he recognizes that Tynianov’s legacy (and his own) will be determined, in part, by the memoirs’ readers in the West (including Brown’s students). Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s “moral viewpoint” will determine both the legacy of Russian literature and the history of Stalinism.47

These two episodes are, of course, part of the history of the Cold War. (The New York Review of Books was a front in this war.) Beginning in the late 1940s, the United States Central Intelligence Agency funded a range of cultural institutions to counter the Soviet Union’s own robust use of “soft power” or “cultural diplomacy” and to promote democracy to the non-communist left in western Europe and to émigré communities in the United States. Through the Ford Foundation (to name one relevant institution), the CIA funded the Congress for Cultural Freedom, the Institute of Contemporary Arts, James Laughlin’s Perspectives magazine, and Melvin Lasky’s Der Monat, as well as a host of individual artists and intellectuals. Indeed, the Ford Foundation had an essential role in Mandel’shtam’s reception history. In 1951, on a recommendation from the diplomat and historian George Kennan, Brown’s friend and neighbor in Princeton, the Ford Foundation gave $523,000 to the Chekhov Publishing House to publish proscribed works of Russian literature and translations of western classics. “[F]or the first time,” Kennan writes, “[we] broke the monopoly of the Soviet government on current literary publication in the Russian language.”48 One of the books published by Chekhov Publishing House was the first collected edition of Mandel’shtam’s poems, which appeared in 1955.49

“[I]n reconstructing the past,” writes the scholar Irina Paperno, “survivors of the Soviet regime started a new utopian project: to inhabit the future.”50 This is what Nadezhda Mandel’shtam does in her memoirs, turning her past into a real community [End Page 173] defined by its anti-Stalinism and its devotion to her late husband. She defines what it means to support or resist Soviet power, and then compels readers to act out these definitions. Brodsky worships Mandel’shtam. Brown promotes the Mandel’shtams’ liberalism. Proffer publicizes (and refutes) Kaverin’s denunciation. Kaverin’s denunciation, in turn, corroborates the memoirs’ Manichaeism. (Kaverin’s liberalism is lost.)51 As the memoirs gain readers in the West, they attract a younger generation of readers in the Soviet Union—readers disgusted by the state-sanctioned literary establishment and attracted to Western culture and politics.

This community benefits from (but does not require) the constant circulation of new material. New memoirs lead to new translators, new smugglers, new letters of protest, new controversies, new readers, new disciples. These disciples, in turn, motivate new letters, new readers, new translations. The memoirs’ two main volumes, digressions and all, plus the essays that would eventually compose the third posthumous volume, facilitate this process. As does the memoirs’ form: short, discrete, non-chronological chapters—portable, accessible, memorable. Once released into their target communities, they assume a life of their own. Arresting their author would, at best, only slow their dissemination. The memoirs, in this way, realize the potential of the epigram as described in my counterfactual: they create a non-hierarchal, viral community with Mandel’shtam as its absent center.

In her second volume of memoirs, Nadezhda Mandel’shtam describes two responses to Soviet utopianism. In “our age,” she observes, people either embrace “blatant individualism” and treat life as “an accidental and fleeting windfall to be exploited for every drop of pleasure it can give” or they “sink into a torpor and think only of how to ‘shed the burden of time’” (Hope Abandoned, 5–6). This latter group “often cherish the mad hope of surviving to a future in which they will recover their lost selves. . . . Their whole life thus consists of waiting for the first glimpse of a promised land, like a radiant shoreline on the horizon” (5). This “mad hope” for survival is encoded in the memoirs as a genre; witness literature, by definition, assumes a future that will confirm its testimony. But the memoirs take this one step further, actively fashioning their own promised land. They turn waiting—or writing about waiting—into praxis. They realize a dream of independence, the recovery of one’s lost self, by assuming control over others. This is the significance of their characterizations. As the memoirs recover lost selves, they make sure others remain lost. This may be what all forms of memorialization do. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s memoirs do it incredibly well, turning a purge on paper into a purified community.

The Stalin Ode

Those myths that combine to form “culture!” Barely a half dozen or a dozen years pass, and people are already spinning threads and entangling a man, events, in a cocoon for their own benefit.

I have read many poems in several languages about Osip Mandelstam as a martyr for freedom. I have also heard the tapes of a Polish theatrical montage in his honor. All this has very little in common with the real Mandelstam. [End Page 174]

A question: Is distortion, banalization, inescapable? Is it true that the wid-er the range—of fame, for example—the smaller the number of complications that are permitted to survive? And what is our role, we who already belong to the past, in inciting the myth? Which of our features, in other words, promotes it?

—Czesław Miłosz52

In January 1937, Mandel’shtam, exiled and destitute in Voronezh, wrote a letter to his friend, the writer Kornei Chukovskii:

What is happening to me cannot go on any longer. Neither my wife nor I have the strength to prolong this nightmare. . . . I said those who condemned me were right. I have found historical meaning in everything. . . . [A]lthough I had done nothing else wrong, everything was taken away from me: my right to life, to work, to treatment. I was put in the position of a dog, a cur . . . I am a shadow. . . . There is only one person in the whole world to whom I can and must turn for help in this matter.53

That person was, of course, Stalin. Later that month, Mandel’shtam wrote an ode to the Soviet leader.

The eighty-four line “Stalin ode” (as it has come to be known) combines the rhetoric of Stalin’s cult of personality with the features of a classical ode.54 Mandel’shtam portrays himself as an artist trying to depict his inimitable leader. Stalin is a Georgian revolutionary, a warrior, an orator, a friendly harvester, and a Greek god. The poet-as-artist fixates on the leader’s face—the shape of his brow, mouth, and eyes—but cannot fully capture his greatness. The conditional mood marks Mandel’shtam’s modesty:

Я б воздух расчертил на хитрые углы И осторожно и тревожно. Чтоб настоящее в чертах отозвалось . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Я б поднял брови малый уголок, И поднял вновь, и разрешил иначе.

(Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 309)

(I would divide the air into intricate angles, Cautiously, anxiously. To make the present echo in his features . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . I would raise a small corner of his brow And raise it again, and settle it differently)

In the fifth stanza, the difficulty of representing Stalin becomes an opportunity for self-criticism: [End Page 175]

Я у него учусь—не для себя учась, Я у него учусь—к себe не знать пощады.


(I am learning from him—not learning for my own sake, I am learning from him—to be merciless to myself.)

In the seventh and final stanza, the poet-as-artist vanishes into a crowd assembled around the Soviet leader:

Я уменьшаюсь там. Меня уж не заметят. Но в книгах ласковых и в играх детворы Воскресну я сказать, как солнце светит.


(There I recede. They will not even notice me. But in tender books and in children’s games I will be resurrected to say that the sun shines.)

In these lines, Mandel’shtam denigrates his own work, reducing it to a celebration of the obvious and the inevitable. The shining sun is a figure for Soviet power.

The ode circulated widely. After Mandel’shtam’s exile ended in May, 1937, he performed it on numerous occasions in Moscow.55 In March 1938, Vladimir Stavskii, the head of the Writers’ Union, wrote to Nikolai Yezhov, head of the NKVD (precursor of the KGB), about Mandel’shtam and the ode:

[H]e quite often visits his friends, primarily among the writers, in Moscow. They support him, collect money for him, treat him as a “martyr”—genius poet, unacknowledged by anyone. Valentin Kataev, I. Prut, and other writers spoke openly in his defense. . . .

Recently [he] wrote a series of poems. But they are not of exceptionally high value, according to the opinion of those comrades whom I have asked to look at them (including comrade Pavlenko, whose opinion is attached).

Once again I beseech you to help resolve the issue of O. Mandelstam.

(quoted in Lekmanov, Mandelstam, 159)

Petr Pavlenko, in his attached opinion, notes that the ode is undeniably Soviet, but also flawed. It is “filled with strong feeling,” he writes, but contains “a great deal of clumsy phrasing which is inappropriate to the theme of Stalin.” It “is worse than its individual stanzas” (quoted in Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, 187). No one knows whether the ode ever reached Stalin. In May, 1938, at the end of the Great Purge, Mandel’shtam was re-arrested for counterrevolutionary activity. In December, he died in a Gulag transit camp near Vladivostok.

What should readers make of the ode? Is it a sincere celebration of Stalin’s power? An Aesopian act of subversion? An act of madness? As J. M. Coetzee observes, the question is important not only for “those concerned with the integrity of Mandelstam’s reputation,” but also for the “honor of poetry in general” (“Osip Mandelstam,” 73). Does the Stalin ode invalidate or counteract the Stalin epigram? [End Page 176]

Most accounts of the ode try to justify or excuse its “tone of profound sincerity” and “consummate skill,” to quote Freidin (A Coat, 255). Nadezhda Mandel’shtam claims that her husband had to enter a trance to compose the poem:

To write an ode to Stalin it was necessary to get in tune, like a musical instrument, by deliberately giving way to the general hypnosis and putting oneself under the spell of the liturgy which in those days blotted out all human voices.

(Hope against Hope, 205)

Freidin argues that the poet’s own messianism facilitated his conversion to Stalinism: his own cult of personality set the terms for accommodating Stalin’s. (Freidin also notes that it is not “unusual for a victim to identify with his tormentor, especially if the tormentor happens to be exalted and the victim either physically or psychologically isolated.” The ode’s composition, he concludes, “appears overdetermined” [A Coat, 255].) The scholar M. L. Gasparov claims that Mandel’shtam used the poem to realize a long-held ambition: to become one with the Soviet people.56 Coetzee reads the ode as an attempt to force a stalemate with the Soviet leader—to write a poem that would neutralize Stalin’s anger (“Osip Mandelstam,” 80–81). Matthew McGarry argues that Mandel’shtam’s descriptions are “laden with examples of Aesopian language” that caricature Stalin.57

Despite the range of these interpretations, they share an aim: to preserve Mandel’shtam’s purity. The poet is a lyre, a victim of ideology, a populist, a brilliant tactician, a satirist-hero. He is true to his beliefs or devoid of beliefs altogether. In these readings, the ode does not undermine the epigram’s legacy—it consolidates it. Indeed, one could argue that the ode simply replaces one act of self-destruction with another.

But these readings all neglect the most obvious interpretation of the poem: the ode is an apology. Mandel’shtam, worn out by his slow death in exile, wrote the poem to save his life. He disavowed the epigram and decided, finally, to submit to Soviet utopianism. The ode, in this interpretation, is neither sincere nor insincere—or, more accurately, it is both. It represents Mandel’shtam’s sincere desire to live, but not his true feelings about Stalin. Like most apologies, it is a compromise, and as a compromise it is impure.

Evidence for this interpretation may be drawn from the ode itself. The poem revises many of the epigram’s central images. For example, it celebrates the integrity of the Soviet Union by reassembling Stalin’s body: the head, brow, and eye in the ode belong to the Soviet leader, not his injured apparatchiks. Georgia, Stalin’s birthplace, is no longer a site of ridicule, but an occasion for intimacy. Quoting Stalin’s birth name (Dzhugashvili), Mandel’shtam proclaims:

Он родился в горах и горечь знал тюрьмы. Хочу его назвать—не Сталин,—Джугашвили!

(Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem, 309)

(He was born in the mountains and knew the bitterness of jail. I want to call him—not Stalin,—Dzhugashvili!) [End Page 177]

The ode also revises the terms of the poet’s sacrifice; Mandel’shtam disappears in a crowd, rather than at the hands of a joyous executioner.

When read as an apology, the ode is a human act in the face of inhuman conditions. It does not represent the triumph or failure of Mandel’shtam’s integrity, or the triumph or failure of poetry. It represents Mandel’shtam’s humanity, and the human cost of totalitarianism.

The ode was not Mandel’shtam’s only attempt to write a pro-Stalin poem. After his exile ended, he went on a tour of the White Sea-Baltic Canal. An official from the Writers’ Union had organized the trip with the hope that Mandel’shtam would write a poem that might facilitate his reintegration into Soviet society. The poem “describing the beauties of the Canal” was never published; Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and Akhmatova burned it after Mandel’shtam’s death. “If anyone happens to have kept a stray copy of this poem,” Nadezhda Mandel’shtam writes in her memoirs, “I beg and pray [he] . . . set aside his love of original manuscripts and throw it in the fire” (Hope against Hope, 47).

Miłosz asks: “Is distortion, banalization, inescapable? Is it true that the wider the range—of fame, for example—the smaller the number of complications that are permitted to survive?” The answer to these questions seems to be yes—at least in the case of the Mandel’shtams. To read Mandel’shtam as “a martyr for freedom” (or as a David facing a Goliath) is to simplify the complexity and efficacy of his poetry and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s memoirs.

But the answer might also be yes and no—for the banal is the very thing that Mandel’shtam’s martyrdom distorts. The most important lesson of the three texts I have been discussing might not concern their complexity or efficacy. The lesson might, instead, concern the banality of violence and the basic, unquantifiable value of human life.

Joshua Kotin

Joshua Kotin is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English and an affiliated faculty member in the Program in Russian, East European, and Eurasian Studies at Princeton University. His book, Utopias of One, is forthcoming from Princeton University Press.


For feedback on earlier versions of this article, I thank Robert Bird and Rachel Applebaum, as well as V. Joshua Adams, Lauren Berlant, Anne Cheng, Rachel Galvin, Michael Hansen, Eric Hayot, Walt Hunter, Oren Izenberg, Lee Konstantinou, Meredith Martin, Susan Stewart, and Robert von Hallberg. I would also like to thank the participants at the Poetry and Poetics Workshop at the University of Chicago, the Iconoclasm conference at the University of Toronto, ASEEES in New Orleans, ACLA in Toronto, and MSA in Brighton.

1. By the mid-1930s, the Gulag was the largest construction organization in the Soviet Union. For accounts of the Canal’s construction, see Cynthia A. Ruder, Making History for Stalin: The Story of the Belomor Canal (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1998), especially 12–38; and Nick Baron, “Conflict and Complicity: The Expansion of the Karelian Gulag, 1923–1933,” Cahiers du Monde russe 42, no. 2–4 (2001): 615–48. For a discussion of the economics of prison labor in the Soviet Union, see Mikhail Morukov, “The White Sea-Baltic Canal,” in The Economics of Forced Labor: The Soviet Gulag, ed. Paul R. Gregory and Valery V. Lazarev (Stanford: Hoover Institute, 2003), 151–62.

2. The estimate only includes deaths that occurred during the construction process itself—not from malnutrition or illness. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn estimates that 100,000 prisoner laborers died during the first year of construction alone. Official Soviet numbers put the mortality rate for the entire Gulag system in 1933 at 15.3 percent, almost one in six, and the total number of deaths between 1931 and 1933 at 87,777. See Baron, “Conflict and Complicity,” 643; and Aleksandr I. Solzhenitsyn, The Gulag Archipelago: 1918–1956, An Experiment in Literary Investigation, trans. Thomas P. Whitney (New York: Harper and Row, 1975), 3–4:98–99. [End Page 178]

3. Nikita Struve, Osip Mandel’shtam (Moscow: Russkii put’, 2011), 73. See Belomorsko-Baltiiskii Kanal imeni Stalina: Istoriia stroitel’stva, ed. M. Gor’kii, L. L. Averbakh, and S. G. Firin (Moscow: Gosudarstvennoe izdatel’stvo “Istoriia fabrik i zavodov,” 1934). In 1935, the book was translated into English and published in London and New York. The translation departs from the original; for example, it reduces the book’s original fifteen chapters to ten and omits Aleksandr Tikhonov from the list of contributors. See Belomor: An Account of the Construction of the New Canal between the White Sea and the Baltic Sea, ed. Maxim Gorky, L. Auerbach, and S. G. Firin (New York: Harrison Smith and Robert Haas, 1935). For accounts of the composition and reception, see Ruder, Making History, 39–153; Evgeny Dobrenko, The Making of the State Writer: Social and Aesthetic Origins of Soviet Literary Culture, trans. Jesse M. Savage (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001), 372–76; Katerina Clark, “‘The History of the Factories’ as a Factory of History: A Case Study on the Role of Soviet Literature in Subject Formation,” in Autobiographical Practices in Russia—Autobiographische Praktiken in Russland, ed. Jochen Hellbeck and Klaus Heller (Gottingen: V&R Unipress, 2004), 251–77.

4. Solzhenitsyn describes the book as the “first in Russian literature to glorify slave labor” (The Gulag Archipelago, 1–2:xii).

5. The slogan is adapted from Capital (1867): “Through this movement he acts upon external nature and changes it, and in this way he simultaneously changes his own nature” (Karl Marx, Capital, trans. Ben Fowkes [London: Penguin 1990], 1:283). Rodchenko was one of several photographers who contributed to the volume. All the photographs in the book are uncredited. In the archives for the book in Moscow, this particular photo (unlike many others) does not have an attribution; see Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossisskoi Federatsii (GARF) f.R-7952, op.7, d.74, l.139. I thank Katherine Hill Reischl and Aglaya Glebova for information about the photograph and for the citation.

6. The use of autobiography as a moral and political instrument was coextensive with, and dependent on, the rise of literacy in the Soviet Union. Between 1897 and 1937, the literacy rate rose from 28.4 percent to 75 percent. See Sheila Fitzpatrick, Stalin’s Peasants: Resistance and Survival in the Russian Village After Collectivization (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 225–26.

7. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope against Hope: A Memoir, trans. Max Hayward (New York: Modern Library, 1999), 159.

8. Struve speculates about the connection between Gor’kii’s book and Mandel’shtam’s decision to compose and perform the epigram (Osip Mandel’shtam, 73–74). Mandel’shtam’s reasons for performing the Stalin epigram are complex. During his interrogation by the state secret police—the OGPU, the forerunner of the NKVD and then the KGB—Mandel’shtam admitted that he had lost his “sense of ease in society” due to Stalin’s policy of dekulakization: “In 1930 a great depression afflicted my political outlook and my sense of ease in society. The social undercurrent of this depression was the liquidation of the kulaks as a class. My perception of that process was expressed in the poem “A Cold Spring” (“Холодная весна”) . . . written in the summer of 1932” (quoted in Vitaly Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, trans. John Crowfoot [London: Harvill Press, 1995], 177–78).

9. Osip Mandelstam, The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, trans. Jane Gary Harris and Constance Link, ed. Jane Gary Harris (Woodstock: Ardis Publishers, 2003), 316.

10. To protect Mandel’shtam, Nikolai Bukharin had contacted Stalin and argued that the poet’s death would upset other writers (especially Boris Pasternak) and would thus negatively impact the first Soviet writers’ congress, planned for later in 1934. For accounts of Bukharin’s involvement, see Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, 175–76, 183; and Oleg Lekmanov, Mandelstam, trans. Tatiana Retivov (Boston: Academic Studies Press, 2010), 135–40. For an account of Pasternak’s legendary involvement, see Olga Ivinskaya, A Captive of Time, trans. Max Hayward (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1978), 60–67. In her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandel’shtam remarks that her husband had originally been sentenced to hard labor on the White Sea Canal: “The sentence originally suggested—that M. should be sent to a forced-labor camp on the White Sea-Baltic Canal—had been commuted, by this same supreme authority, to exile in the town of Cherdyn” (Hope against Hope, 32).

11. Seamus Heaney, “Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam,” in Government of the Tongue: Selected Prose, 1978–1987 (New York: Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1988), 71–90, 72.

12. Osip Mandelstam, “Pushkin and Scriabin (Fragments),” in Critical Prose and Letters, 90. [End Page 179]

13. See Robert Alter, “Osip Mandelstam: The Poet as Witness,” in Defenses of the Imagination: Jewish Writers and Modern Historical Crisis (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society of America, 1977), 25–46; Isaiah Berlin, “A Great Russian Writer,” New York Review of Books, November 20, 1980,; Bruce Chatwin, introduction to Osip Mandelstam, Journey to Armenia (London: Next Editions, 1980), 8–11; J. M. Coetzee, “Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode,” Representations 35 (1991): 72–83; Guy Davenport, “Review: The Man without Contemporaries,” Hudson Review 27, no. 2 (1974): 296–302; Wai Chee Dimock, “Literature for the Planet,” PMLA 116, no. 1 (2001): 173–88; Robert Littell, The Stalin Epigram: A Novel (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2009); Czesław Miłosz, A Year of the Hunter, trans. Madeline G. Levine (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994), 228; José Manuel Prieto, “Reading Mandelstam on Stalin,” trans. Esther Allen, New York Review of Books, June 10, 2010,; Adrienne Rich, “‘What Would We Create?,’” in What Is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (New York: Norton, 1993), 14–21; Salman Rushdie, “Whither Moral Courage?,” New York Times, April 27, 2013,; George Steiner, Death of a Poet,” New Yorker, December 26, 1970, 59–63; and Susan Stewart, The Poet’s Freedom: A Notebook on Making (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 186–89. Robert Littell’s contribution to the epigram’s reception is mass market thriller. In a blurb for the book, Martin Cruz Smith writes, “When Josef Stalin declared war on poetry, Osip Mandelstam, Russia’s greatest poet, declared war on dictators” (quoted on back cover of Littell, The Stalin Epigram).

14. Percy Bysshe Shelley, “A Defence of Poetry,” in The Selected Poetry and Prose of Shelley, 635–60 (Hertfordshire, UK: Wordsworth Poetry Library, 2002), 660.

15. Clare Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry and Modern Politics: Russia, Poland, and the West (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009), 115.

16. Osip Mandel’shtam, Polnoe sobranie sochinenii i pisem v trekh tomakh (Moscow: Progress-Pleiada, 2009), 1:184. In the 1967 edition of Mandel’shtam’s collected poems, the epigram is divided into eight couplets. (This is why Heaney refers to it as “eight stony couplets.”) See Osip Mandel’shtam, Sobranie sochinenii, ed. G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippova (Washington, DC: Mezhdunarodnoe Literaturnoe Sodruzhestvo, 1967), 1:202. More recent editions follow the version in Mandel’shtam’s police file, written in his own hand, which is divided into two eight-line stanzas. The poem was not included in the first collected edition of Mandel’shtam’s poems in 1955. In a 1964 edition, it is divided into three quatrains and a concluding couplet. In the 1967 edition, G. P. Struve notes an alternative version of the third and fourth lines: “Только слышно кремлёвского горца / Душегубца и мужикоборца” (Only the Kremlin highlander is heard / Murderer and peasant-killer). See the editorial apparatus in Osip Mandel’shtam, Sobranie sochinenii, 511.

17. To put this point another way: the epigram would have been effective in paraphrase. In “Conversation about Dante” (1933), Mandel’shtam writes: “where there is amenability to paraphrase, there the sheets have never been rumpled, there poetry, so to speak, has never spent the night” (in Critical Prose and Letters, 397).

18. “Zametki o peresechenii biografii Osipa Mandel’shtama i Borisa Pasternaka,” Pamiat’ 4 (1979/81): 316. Mandel’shtam describes other reactions to his performance in the transcript of his interrogation. The poet Vladimir Narbut, for example, supposedly responded, “This did not happen” (quoted in Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, 180).

19. There is a long history in Russia of poets speaking truth to power—and having it matter. For an overview of the relationship between Russian poets and Russian politics (and an account of Vladimir Maiakovskii’s own martyrdom), see, for example, Svetlana Boym, Death in Quotation Marks: Cultural Myths of the Modern Poet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991), especially 119–89.

20. Jennifer Baines provides an excellent description of the music of the epigram’s thirteenth line: “the staccato ‘к’, the vindictive splitting of ‘пах’ [groin] and ‘лоб’ [head], the brilliant use of the anaphoric ‘кому’ [to one] in such a way that the whole stress in each foot lands, like a violent blow, on its last syllable—on those vulnerable parts of the body where the blow of each iron ‘указ’ [decree] indeed falls” (Mandelstam: The Later Poetry [Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1977], 85). [End Page 180]

21. For an account of the importance of the poem’s oral transmission, see Cavanagh, Lyric Poetry, 113–19.

22. In his interrogation following his arrest, Mandel’shtam connects the epigram with a tradition of “old Russian literature of using a simplified presentation of the historical situation and reducing it to a confrontation between ‘the country and its ruler.’” “Indubitably,” Mandel’shtam adds, “this lowered the level of historical understanding of the group . . . to which I myself belong. Yet it was precisely this way that the poster-like expressiveness of the lampoon was attained, which makes it a widely applicable weapon of counterrevolutionary struggle which could be used by any social group” (quoted in Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, 181). I discuss the relevance of this conception of the epigram in the next section of the article.

23. For a history of Acmeism, see Justin Doherty, The Acmeist Movement in Russian Poetry: Culture and the Word (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995). In “Concerning Beautiful Clarity” (1910), an essay that inspired the Acmeist movement, Mikhail Kuzmin declares, “I implore you, be logical—may I be forgiven this cry from the heart!—logical in design, construction, syntax . . . be economic in means and parsimonious in words, precise and genuine—and you will discover a wonderful secret: beautiful clarity” (in Selected Writings, trans. Michael A. Green and Stanislav A. Shvabrin [Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2005], 226, 230). In “The Morning of Acmeism” (1919), Mandel’shtam takes Kuzmin’s advice to its logical conclusion, proclaiming, “A=A: what a splendid theme for poetry!” (quoted in Clarence Brown, “Mandelshtam’s Acmeist Manifesto,” Russian Review 24, no. 1 [1965]: 46–51, 50).

24. “Mineral rock,” Mandel’shtam notes, “is an impressionistic diary of weather accumulated by millions of natural disasters” (“Conversation about Dante,” 439).

25. For an account of the relationship between purity and the history of abstract art, see, for example, Mark A. Cheetham, The Rhetoric of Purity: Essentialist Theory and the Advent of Abstract Painting (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

26. Nikolai Bukharin, “Poetry, Poetics and the Problems of Poetry in the U.S.S.R,” in Problems of Soviet Literature: Reports and Speeches at the First Soviet Writers’ Congress, ed. H. G. Scott (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1981), 183–258, 246–47. The congress adopted socialist realism as the official “guiding line” of Soviet art, but did not give the term a clear definition. “Many of us try to be too clever about socialist realism,” notes A.I. Stetskii, the head of Central Committee Department for Culture and Propaganda (Kul’prop); “Socialist realism is not some set of tools that are handed out to the writer for him to make a work of art with. Some writers demand that they be given a theory of socialist realism complete in all its details. . . . [T]here is only one answer which we can give here, at this congress of writers: socialist realism can best be shown in those works of art which Soviet writers produce” (A. I. Stetsky, “Under the Flag of the Soviets, Under the Flag of Socialism,” in Problems of Soviet Literature, 259–71, 265). Boris Groys offers the following fluid definition of socialist realism: “‘The typical’ of socialist realism is Stalin’s dream made visible, a reflection of his imagination” (The Total Art of Stalinism: Avant-Garde, Dictatorship, and Beyond, trans. Charles Rougle [Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1992], 53).

27. Katerina Clark, “Utopian Anthropology as a Context for Stalinist Literature,” in Stalinism: Essays in Historical Interpretation, ed. Robert Tucker (New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction, 1999), 180–98, 180.

28. In his portraits of contemporary poets, Il’ya Erenburg describes Mandel’shtam as “Frail and small,” and compares him to a chicken (Portrety sovremennykh poetov [St. Petersburg: Nauka, 2002], 82).

29. For a discussion of Mandel’shtam’s creation of a cult of personality, see Gregory Freidin, A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and his Mythologies of Self-Presentation (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1987), especially 15–16.

30. As Serguei Alex. Oushakine writes: “To become involved in a discourse is possible only by entering the discursive field that is already there, that is, only by accepting existing discursive conventions” (“The Terrifying Mimicry of Samizdat,” Public Culture 13, no. 2 [2001]: 191–214, 206). Alexander Zholkovsky makes a different, though complementary point: “Warring parties tend to develop mutual affinities. In the so-called ‘Stockholm syndrome,’ hostages adopt the value system of their captors” (“The Obverse of Stalinism: Akhmatova’s Self-Serving Charisma of Selflessness,” in Self and Story in Russian History, ed. Lara Engelstein and Stephanie Sandler [Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000], 46–68, 62.) [End Page 181]

31. “The logical culmination of the process of destroying everything through which I can possibly be wounded is suicide,” writes Isaiah Berlin in “Two Concepts of Liberty” (1958). “Total liberation . . . is conferred only by death.” Mandel’shtam’s performance fits this paradigm (Isaiah Berlin, “Two Concepts of Liberty,” in Four Essays on Liberty [London: Oxford University Press, 1969], 118–72, 140).

32. Jacques Rancière, The Politics of Aesthetics: The Distribution of the Sensible, ed. and trans. Gabriel Rockhill (2013; rpt., London: Bloomsbury, 2014), 14.

33. This counterfactual illuminates an important aspect of the epigram that I haven’t adequately discussed: its implied audience was not only Mandel’shtam’s friends and neighbors, but also average Russians, including, for example, Russian chauvinists who might object to a Georgian in the Kremlin. (Stalin was Georgian.) The final line about the “broad chest of the Ossetian” signals Stalin’s ethnic difference. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam notes that her husband wrote “the poem with a view to a much wider circle of readers than usual, though he knew, of course, that nobody would be able to read it at the time” (Hope against Hope, 162). See, also, Mandel’shtam’s comments about the poem during his interrogation, mentioned in note 22.

34. Other translations appeared across Europe at the same time: Swedish in 1970, German in 1971, and French and Italian in 1972. Samizdat versions in Czech and Polish appeared in the mid-1970s. The title, Hope against Hope, is a play on Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s first name, which means “hope” in Russian.

35. N. Ya. Mandel’shtam, Vospominaniia (Moscow: Kniga, 1989).

36. Beth Holmgren, Women’s Works in Stalin’s Time: On Lidiia Chukovskaia and Nadezhda Mandelstam (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1993), 140.

37. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Kniga Tret’ia (Paris: YMCA Press, 1987).

38. The slap has a complex backstory: Nadezhda Mandel’shtam accused the novelist Sergei Borodin (who wrote under the pseudonym Amir Sargidzhan) of assaulting her at a party. Tolstoi, a popular Soviet writer and former anti-Bolshevik émigré turned Communist, presided over an investigation that exonerated Borodin. See the appendix to Hope against Hope, 422, and Freidin, A Coat, 383.

39. Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned, trans. Max Hayward (New York: Atheneum, 1974), 235.

40. Gershtein published her own memoirs in 1998. The book, which sparked a series of controversies in Russia, disputes many of Nadezhda Mandel’shtam’s claims. See Emma Gershtein, Memuary (Moscow: Zakharov, 2002); and Emma Gerstein, Moscow Memoirs, trans. John Crowfoot (London: Harvill Press, 2004). For an overview of the memoir and the ensuing controversies, see Galina S. Rylkova, “Review of Memuary, by Emma Gershtein, and Vospominaniia, by Nadezhda Mandel’shtam,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 1, no. 1 (2000): 224–30.

41. In “Trauma and Ineloquence” (2001), Lauren Berlant describes the challenge of witness literature: “Mobilizing the putative universality of pain and suffering, . . . testimonials challenge you to be transformed by the knowledge of what you cannot feel directly: to re-hardwire your viscera, enabling your bodily impulses to archive the encounters of which you read. . . . To the degree that actual numbers are involved—so many dead, so many imprisoned, so many marked out for violence—the dialectic of testimony and witnessing has material consequences. One either commits to compelling new laws and practices, or not. One decides to count, or not. One makes further publics with one’s knowledge, or not” (Cultural Values 5, no. 1 [2001]: 41–58, 44).

42. Joseph Brodsky, “Beyond Consolation,” trans. Barry Rubin, New York Review of Books, February 7, 1974,

43. Clarence Brown, “Memories of Nadezhda,” Russian Review 61, no. 4 (2002): 485–88, 485.

44. Brown’s account of the operation is thrilling—“a scene from a Grade B thriller” (“Memories of,” 487–88).

45. Carl R. Proffer, “The Attack on Mme. Mandelstam,” New York Review of Books, February 21, 1974,

46. Nadezhda Mandel’shtam had written, among other things: “Tynianov declared that poetry had had its day and we were now in an era of prose. M. put it another way: jailers, he said, have more need of novels than anyone” (Hope Abandoned, 342–43). Tynianov appears in a positive light in the [End Page 182] transcript of Mandel’shtam’s integration after his second arrest, in May, 1938. Mandel’shtam notes that Tynianov gave him “material help” during visits to Leningrad (quoted in Shentalinsky, The KGB’s Literary Archive, 190).

47. Susan Sontag’s response to the memoirs captures their influence among New York intellectuals: “the shock came first,” she writes, “before Solzhenitsyn, from the book Against All Hope by Nadeshda Mandelstam [sic], this implacable testimony on what happened in the Soviet Union in the thirties and later” (Conversations with Susan Sontag, ed. Leland Poague [Oxford: University Press of Mississippi, 1995], 99).

48. George Kennan, quoted in John Lewis Gaddis, George F. Kennan: An American Life (New York: Penguin, 2011), 420.

49. For information on CIA support of culture during the Cold War (and a brief discussion of the Ford Foundation and Chekhov Publishing House), see Frances Stonor Saunders, The Cultural Cold War: The CIA and the World of Arts and Letters (1999; rpt., New York: The New Press, 2013), especially 139–44; see also Greg Barnhisel Cold War Modernists: Art, Literature, and American Cultural Diplomacy (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

50. Irina Paperno, “Personal Accounts of the Soviet Experience,” Kritika: Explorations in Russian and Eurasian History 3, no. 4 (2002): 577–610, 610.

51. Kaverin publicly defended Solzhenitsyn and other persecuted Soviet writers in the late 1960s. Shentalinsky discusses Kaverin briefly (The KGB’s Literary Archive, 194).

52. Miłosz, A Year of the Hunter, 228.

53. Mandelstam to K. I. Chukovsky, early 1937, in Critical Prose and Letters, 561–62, translation slightly modified. Shentalinsky quotes the letter (The KGB’s Literary Archive, 185).

54. “To judge by formal features alone,” Freidin writes, “the poem belongs to one of the most difficult genres of panegyric poetry, the Pindaric ode. The exuberant imagery framed in the rhetoric of praise, triadic divisions within stanzas that follow the pattern of strophe, antistrophe, and epode, and finally the lines of unequal length combining hexameter, pentameter, and tetrameter conform to the basic scheme of the ancient genre of glorifying a supreme leader” (A Coat, 260). Svetlana Boym notes how almost every sentence of the “manic” ode “is a quote either from the Russian poetic tradition or from Stalin’s slogans.” “The landscape of the poem is epic and Soviet,” she continues, “remade in the image of a larger-than-life leader who can move mountains” (Another Freedom: The Alternative History of an Idea [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2012], 71, 72).

55. See Bengt Jangfeldt, “Osip Mandel’štam’s Ode to Stalin,” Scando-Slavica 22, no. 1 (1976): 35–41, 41.

56. M. L. Gasparov, O. Mandel’shtam: Grazhdanskaia lirika 1937 goda (Moscow: Rossiiskii Gosudarstvennyi Gumanitarnyi Universitet, 1996), 88. Gasparov dates this desire to at least 1935 and Mandel’shtam’s short sequence “Стансах” (“Stanzas”).

57. Matthew McGarry, “‘Ode to the Great Leader’ or ‘Ode to the Poet’: Identifying the Hero in Osip Mandel’shtam’s ‘Poems about Stalin,’” Studies in Slavic Cultures 6 (2007): 67–81, 75. McGarry’s claims are anticipated and undermined by Gasparov, Coetzee, and others, who note that the authorities charged with identifying such Aesopian descriptions found none. Coetzee writes, “such [descriptions] mean nothing unless they can be detected, and no one is more skillful at such detection than the paranoid and therefore overdetecting censor” (“Osip Mandestam,” 74). [End Page 183]

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