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.