Wednesday, 16 July 2014

The final days of Osip Mandelstam

In October 1938 Osip Mandelstam sent his final letter to his brother, Alexander. The poet was being held in a transit camp near Vtoraya Rechka railroad station – in present-day Vladivostok – and seemed to sense that the end was near: “My health is very bad, I'm extremely exhausted and thin, almost unrecognizable, but I don't know whether there's any sense in sending clothes, food and money. You can try all the same, though. I'm very cold without proper clothes.” From the very start of Bolshevik rule, Mandelstam lived with the firm belief that he would be locked up sooner or later – at a minimum. He was strongly opposed to the official literature of the time, writing poetry that was extraordinary in its freedom. He detested imitation and censorship and made no effort whatsoever to pretend that he was loyal, even though this could have drastically improved life for him and his wife. For Mandelstam, compromising his beliefs in such a way was simply out of the question.

In November 1933, Mandelstam finally launched a stinging attack on Stalin himself in a poem that he recited to several friends and never committed to paper: “His unwieldy fingers are greasy like worms. / His words are as staunch as the weights made of lead. / Like roaches his whiskers lengthen in laugh. / And teasingly shine, his polished boot-flaps.” The writer Boris Pasternak was one of those friends Mandelstam chose to hear these lines. When the poet had finished speaking, Pasternak said: “What you just read … is not poetry, it is suicide. You didn’t read it to me, I didn’t hear it, and I beg you not to read this to anyone.” This advice fell on deaf ears, and Mandelstam was arrested for the first time in May 1934. News of the arrest was met with concern by a number of famous writers, including Pasternak, who received a notorious phone call from Stalin, of which there are more than 12 known versions. “He is your friend isn't he?” the party leader asked, referring to Mandelstam. Pasternak was flustered and didn't know how to respond. “But he’s a master, isn’t he? Is he a master of his art?” Stalin pressed on. “This does not matter,” Pasternak replied finally. “Why are we talking about Mandelstam and only Mandelstam? I've wanted to meet you for a long time and have a serious discussion.” “What about?” Stalin asked. “About life and death,” Pasternak answered. Stalin hung up without replying. Apparently Pasternak was so utterly terrified by Stalin's phone call that he was unable to petition him on his friend's behalf. However, Nikolai Bukharin, an old Bolshevik, did defend the poet, and it was thanks to his influence that Mandelstam's sentence was lessened. Mandelstam was exiled with his wife to Cherdyn. The poet was suffering from intense mental strain as a result of being held in prison and was admitted to hospital, where he tried to end his life by jumping out of a window. After this suicide attempt, his sentence was commuted to exile in Voronezh for three years, which ended in 1937 when he returned to Moscow for the last time.


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