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.

Read more at Poetry Foundation

More about: Jewish literature, Joseph Stalin, Soviet Jewry


The ICJ’s Vice-President Explains What’s Wrong with Its Recent Ruling against Israel

It should be obvious to anyone with even rudimentary knowledge of the Gaza war that Israel is not committing genocide there, or anything even remotely akin to it. In response to such spurious accusations, it’s often best to focus on the mockery they make of international law itself, or on how Israel can most effectively combat them. Still, it is also worth stopping to consider the legal case on its own terms. No one has done this quite so effectively, to my knowledge, as the Ugandan jurist Julia Sebutinde, who is the vice-president of the ICJ and the only one of its judges to rule unequivocally in Israel’s favor both in this case and in the previous one where it found accusations of genocide “plausible.”

Sebutinde begins by questioning the appropriateness of the court ruling on this issue at all:

Once again, South Africa has invited the Court to micromanage the conduct of hostilities between Israel and Hamas. Such hostilities are exclusively governed by the laws of war (international humanitarian law) and international human-rights law, areas where the Court lacks jurisdiction in this case.

The Court should also avoid trying to enforce its own orders. . . . Is the Court going to reaffirm its earlier provisional measures every time a party runs to it with allegations of a breach of its provisional measures? I should think not.

Sebutinde also emphasizes the absurdity of hearing this case after Israel has taken “multiple concrete actions” to alleviate the suffering of Gazan civilians since the ICJ’s last ruling. In fact, she points out, “the evidence actually shows a gradual improvement in the humanitarian situation in Gaza since the Court’s order.” She brings much evidence in support of these points.

She concludes her dissent by highlighting the procedural irregularities of the case, including a complete failure to respect the basic rights of the accused:

I find it necessary to note my serious concerns regarding the manner in which South Africa’s request and incidental oral hearings were managed by the Court, resulting in Israel not having sufficient time to file its written observations on the request. In my view, the Court should have consented to Israel’s request to postpone the oral hearings to the following week to allow for Israel to have sufficient time to fully respond to South Africa’s request and engage counsel. Regrettably, as a result of the exceptionally abbreviated timeframe for the hearings, Israel could not be represented by its chosen counsel, who were unavailable on the dates scheduled by the Court.

It is also regrettable that Israel was required to respond to a question posed by a member of the Court over the Jewish Sabbath. The Court’s decisions in this respect bear upon the procedural equality between the parties and the good administration of justice by the Court.

Read more at International Court of Justice

More about: Gaza War 2023, ICC, International Law