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

Aug. 10 2021

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.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at Poetry Foundation

More about: Jewish literature, Joseph Stalin, Soviet Jewry

 

Will Tensions Rise between the U.S. and Israel?

Unlike his past many predecessors, President Joe Biden does not have a plan for solving the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, his administration has indicated its skepticism about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran. John Bolton nevertheless believes that there could be a collision between the new Benjamin Netanyahu-led Israeli government and the Biden White House:

In possibly his last term, Netanyahu’s top national-security priority will be ending, not simply managing, Iran’s threat. This is infinitely distant from Biden’s Iran policy, which venerates Barrack Obama’s inaugural address: “we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist.”

Tehran’s fist is today otherwise occupied, pummeling its own people. Still, it will continue menacing Israel and America unless and until the internal resistance finds ways to fracture the senior levels of Iran’s regular military and the Revolutionary Guards. Netanyahu undoubtedly sees Iran’s growing domestic turmoil as an opportunity for regime change, which Israel and others can facilitate. Simultaneously, Jerusalem can be preparing its military and intelligence services to attack Tehran’s nuclear program, something the White House simply refuses to contemplate seriously. Biden’s obsession with reviving the disastrous 2015 nuclear deal utterly blinds the White House to the potential for a more significant victory.

To make matters worse, Biden has just created a Washington-based position at the State Department, a “special representative for Palestinian affairs,” that has already drawn criticism in Israel both for the new position itself and for the person named to fill it. Advocated as one more step toward “upgrading” U.S. relations with the Palestinian Authority, the new position looks nearly certain to become the locus not of advancing American interests regarding the failed Authority, but of advancing the Authority’s interests within the Biden administration.

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Subscribe to Mosaic

Welcome to Mosaic

Subscribe now to get unlimited access to the best of Jewish thought and culture

Subscribe

Read more at 19FortyFive

More about: Benjamin Netanyahu, Iran, Joe Biden, U.S.-Israel relationship