Osip Mandelstam: the Soviet Jewish Poet Who Rejected Propaganda and Denunciations—and Dared to Mock Stalin

Born in Warsaw in 1899 to a well-to-do Jewish family, Osip Mandelstam grew up in St. Peterburg, and eventually became one of the greatest Russian-language poets of his day. Reviewing a recent collection of translations of his work, Sophie Pinkham analyzes Mandesltam’s poetry, which resisted the radical avant-garde style of the early Soviet era, even as it marked a decisive break with the trends popular in his youth. She also comments on his return to Jewish themes later in his career, after a period when Stalinist repression became more severe:

Mandelstam almost stopped writing poetry between 1926 and 1930. Many writers, including Boris Pasternak and [Isaac] Babel—[who, like Mandelstam, were born Jews]—found that their “muses went silent” in the tumult of the early Soviet years. But Mandelstam’s violent satirical essay “Fourth Prose,” written after he was pilloried by party-minded writers, set him writing poetry again. He had been attacked not only for his supposedly harmful retrograde tendencies but also for irrelevance—in other words, for his refusal to worship at the altar of the future. According to his wife’s memoirs, claims that Mandelstam was a has-been may, however, have saved his poems from being hunted down and destroyed.

Although in his early career, Mandelstam often seemed eager to distance himself from what he called the “Judaic chaos” of his childhood and from the stigma that led other writers to call him a “jewboy” behind his back, he now set this vitriolic parody against a proud reclamation of his Jewish identity: “I must insist that the writer’s trade as it has evolved in Europe and especially in Russia has nothing in common with the honorable title of Jew, of which I am proud.”

In 1933, horrified by the devastating famine the Communist regime had inflicted on his own people, Mandelstam committed what Pinkham calls “attempted suicide by poetry,” by composing a ditty mocking Stalin. He was arrested, eventually released, but never cowed:

His stubborn rejection of propaganda and enforced denunciations, his loyalty to poetry until death, is central to the saint-like status he attained in the canon of 20th-century Russian poets. In May 1938, not long after returning from exile, he was arrested again. This time he was sent to the labor camps in the Russian Far East. He died that winter, still in a transit camp.

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Read more at Poetry Foundation

More about: Jewish literature, Joseph Stalin, Soviet Jewry

 

The Arab Press Blames Iran Rather Than Israel for Gaza’s Woes

Following the fighting between Israel and Islamic Jihad over the weekend, many journalists and commentators in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia didn’t rush to condemn the Jewish state. Instead, as the translators at the Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI) note, they criticized the terrorist group for “operating in service of Iranian interests and thus inflicting suffering on the Gaza Strip’s residents.” One Saudi intellectual, Turki al-Hamad, wrote the following on Twitter:

It is apparent that, if at one time any confrontation between Israel and the Palestinian organizations would attract world and Arab attention and provoke a wave of anger [against Israel], today it does not shock most Arabs and most of the world’s [countries]. Furthermore, even a sense of human solidarity [with the Palestinians] has become rare and embarrassing, raising the question, “Why [is this happening] and who is to blame?”

I believe that the main reason is the lack of confidence in all the Palestinian leaders. . . . From the Arabs’ and the world’s perspective, it is already clear that these leaders are manipulating the [Palestinian] cause out of self-interest and diplomatic, economic, or even personal motives, and that the Palestinian issue is completely unconnected to this. The Palestinian cause has become a bargaining chip in the hands of these and other organizations and states headed by the [Iranian] ayatollah regime.

A, article in a major Arabic-language newspaper took a similar approach:

In a lengthy front-page report on August 7, the London-based UAE daily Al-Arab criticized Islamic Jihad, writing that “Gaza again became an arena for the settling of accounts between Iran and Israel, while the Palestinian citizens are the ones paying the price.” It added that Iran does not want to confront Israel directly for its bombings in Syria and its attacks on Iranian scientists and nuclear facilities.

“The war in Gaza is not the first, nor will it be the last. But it proves . . . that Iran is exploiting Gaza as it exploits Lebanon, in order to strengthen its hand in negotiations with the West. We all know that Iran hasn’t fired a single bullet at Israel, and it also will not do this to defend Gaza or Lebanon.”

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Read more at MEMRI

More about: Gaza Strip, Iran, Islamic Jihad, Israel-Arab relations, Persian Gulf