restricted access Osip and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and Soviet Utopianism
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Osip and Nadezhda Mandel’shtam and Soviet Utopianism

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...


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