A Word is the Search for It, part 1: In the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror

Russian poet Osip Mandelstam circa 1930sIn the autumn of 1933 Osip Mandelstam (left) composed a seditious poem that sealed his fate. Regarded by many as the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century, Mandelstam was steeped in the tropes and meters of classical verse. Many of his poems seemed to sustain an intimate conversation across space and time with Homer, Ovid, and Dante. So the poem composed that autumn in Moscow was an anomaly, overtly political and filled with Old Testament wrath. On a journey to Armenia in 1932, Mandelstam had seen firsthand the consequences of forced collectivization and deportation of millions of peasants — famine and death on a genocidal scale. Mandelstam blamed Josef Stalin for all of it. Although his poem did not name the Soviet leader, the identity of its protagonist was unmistakable:

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips [1]

Mandelstam knew the poem would never be published in his lifetime. He never wrote it down on paper. He recited it aloud to a handful of his closest friends. Some who heard the poem were horrified by the risk it took; they urged Mandelstam to forget it. His wife Nadezhda Yakovlevna [2] remembered it three decades later as “a gesture, an act that flowed logically from the whole of his life and work… he did not want to die before stating in unambiguous terms what he thought about the things going on around us” (Hope Against Hope 161). All in all, only eleven people heard Mandelstam recite the poem, but that was enough for it to reach the ears of the Kremlin mountaineer. Genrikh Yagoda, head of the Soviet secret police at the time, knew the poem by heart. When he was safely beyond Stalin’s earshot, Yagoda would recite it with sadistic relish.

In May 1934 the secret police arrested Mandelstam. His interrogator at the Lubianka Prison in Moscow, confronting him with a faithful transcript of the poem (right), called it a “counter-revolutionary document without precedent” (Hope Against Hope 32). The ensuing cat-and-mouse game between Stalin and Mandelstam was played out in a time that has come to be known as the Great Terror. It typified how the dictator’s cult of personality destroyed the lives of countless people. The poet was not shot immediately. In an apparent act of the Great Leader’s benevolence, Mandelstam and his wife were sent into internal exile. They were reprieved for a time, then Mandelstam was arrested again and sentenced to forced labor. He died anonymously in a Siberian transit camp sometime in 1938.

In such perilous times, according to Nadezhda Yakovlevna, nearly every Soviet citizen withdrew into a “protective coloring” of reticence and fear (Hope Against Hope 155). Even so, a remarkable assortment of people were drawn to the Mandelstams’ apartment in the autumn of 1933. Prominent among them was the poet Anna Akhmatova, whose lifelong friendship with Mandelstam and Nadezhda Yakovlevna would encompass most of the history of twentieth-century Russian literature. The biologist Boris Kuzin and writer Alexander Margulis, close friends also destined to die in Siberian labor camps, were frequent guests. Stage actor Vladimir Yakhontov and concert pianist Maria Yudina stopped by on occasion. So did the Greek and Hebrew scholar Vladimir Nilender and the psychologist Lev Vygotsky.

It is not known whether Vygotsky heard the “peasant-slayer” poem, although he certainly was familiar with Mandelstam’s other verse and critical writing. No
one has suggested that he could have been the informer in Mandelstam’s circle. When Nadezhda Yakovlevna wrote her memoirs — a monumental account of her life with Mandelstam and how she stubbornly survived the Stalinist era — she carefully weighed the evidence for and against those who might have betrayed her husband. In the end she refrained from naming the culprit. Vygotsky was never included in her list of suspects. In fact, in a thousand pages of memoir she mentioned Vygotsky only once, describing him as “a very intelligent psychologist (though somewhat hampered by the rationalism of the time)” (Hope Against Hope 223).

An equally oblique reference to Mandelstam appeared in the psychologist’s treatise Thought and Language less than a year after the Stalin poem entered the Terror’s oral tradition. Vygotsky’s book was published posthumously, for he died of tuberculosis at age 38 just a month after Mandelstam’s arrest. The final chapter of Thought and Language opens with an epigraph from another Mandelstam poem:

The word I forgot
Which once I wished to say
And voiceless thought
Returns to the shadow’s chamber. [3]

The lines come from “The Swallow,” a poem composed in 1920. In it Mandelstam evoked the fluttering of a blind swallow with amputated wings to suggest the restless movement of thoughts that do not become fully realized in words. In Thought and Language Vygotsky tried to elucidate the same process in psychological terms.

Mandelstam turned to the swallow several times in his poems. It represented more than an image of fitful, darting motion. As swallows appeared with the spring in northern Russia, their image in Mandelstam’s poetry also signaled regeneration and return to life. The swallow is a haunting metaphor, too, for the life of the mind shared by poet and psychologist in the shadow of Stalin’s Terror. That life of the mind continues to resonate back and forth in the writing of Osip Mandelstam and Lev Vygotsky. This essay is a search to recover something of that life, to understand how it remains both elusive and resilient.

Read the complete essay: A Word is the Search for It

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4 Responses to A Word is the Search for It, part 1: In the Shadow of Stalin’s Terror

  1. Now I remember how I came to find ‘The Blind Flaneur’. I was doing a Google search for ‘The Stalin Epigram’ and found the translation by A.S. Kline which you had posted. I didn’t like that version, but I did like your site which I have been exploring with much pleasure ever since. The Google search also brought up translations by W.S. Merwin and Scott Horton, but not Max Hayward’s, which is, to my mind, the absolute finest. Relating this a bit to your essay The Word, I give as example the various renderings about the fingers: ‘slimy worms’ (Horton), ‘ten thick worms’ (Merwin), ‘slimy like slugs’ (Kline), and ‘fat as grubs’ (Hayward). Grubs is the exact right word to conjure the image of fingers, fat fingers of a murdering tyrant; the right thickness & shape, the right color; it automatically makes one feel the fingers are repulsive. The word worms does not bring up the right mental pictures; one thinks earthworms - not like fingers; pink, pink! of all colors is the image I see; no connotations of menace; slugs I concede are repulsive, but grubs is the better word.

    So I’m glad to see you have Max Hayward’s translation in this essay. I hope that you or someone reading this that knows how, will make the Hayward translation appear on a Google search.

    Une Flaneuse,

  2. Mark Willis says:

    I agree with you, Betty. I “grew up” with the Max Hayward translation in Hope Against Hope. Whenever I quote the poem in conversation, which I do whenever I can get someone to talk about the Mandelstams, I say “fat as grubs” to summon Stalin’s perfidy.

    I really appreciate your attention to the various translations. That kind of close reading is what led me to write the essay more than a dozen years ago. At your suggestion, I replaced the first translation in my 2007 post with the Hayward translation. It should show up now in Google searches.

    I am curious: how did you come to be interested in Mandelstam’s Stalin epigram? Have you read Hope Against Hope?

  3. Oh yes, I’ve read ‘Hope Against Hope’. It is one of my essential books, along with Brodsky’s essays. Fate put Max Hayward’s ‘Writers in Russia: 1917-1978’ iin my hands for a quarter at a library book sale. The introduction by Patricia Blake gives a wonderful portrait of Hayward. One has to love the man. I am no kind of scholar, but these books, these people, Mandelstam, Nadezhada, Akhmatova, Tsvetaeva, Pasternak, Brodsky, Hayward,Shostakovich, I hold close. And I can’t even pronounce their names.

    A new book, Robert Littell’s ‘The Stalin Epigram’, brought me to the Google search. I checked it out of the library with great anticipation. Then I read three pages and closed it. The inner voice clearly said “You can’t read this.” It could never come close to ‘Hope Against Hope’. I will read Nadezhda’s memoir again instead.

    Thank you for insuring that Hayward’s translation will now appear on Google. Mandelstam and Max would be pleased.
    Cheers, B.

  4. Mark Willis says:

    You’ve named the pantheon of 20th-century Russian poets. I feel close to all of them, too. Hope Against Hope was one of the last books that I read with my eyes. That was more than 35 years ago, and it remains one of my essential books. I need to write about how I came to it as a first-year Russian student in college, at the very same time I began to lose eyesight. Nadezhda Mandelstam became a wise grandmother for me then.

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