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


Ordinary Gazans Are Turning against Hamas—and Its Western Sympathizers

In the past few days, difficult-to-confirm reports have emerged of unrest in the Gaza Strip, and of civilians throwing stones at Hamas operatives. A recent video from Al Jazeera showed a Gazan declaring that “God will bring Qatar and Turkey to account” for the suffering of Palestinians in the current war. Being an agent of the Qatari government, the journalist turned away, and then pushed the interviewee with his hand to prevent him from getting near the microphone. Yet this brief exchange contributes much to the ongoing debate about Palestinian support for Hamas, and belies the frequent assertion by experts that the Israeli campaign is only “further radicalizing” the population.

For some time, Joseph Braude has worked with a number of journalists and researchers to interview ordinary Gazans under circumstances where they don’t fear reprisals. He notes that the sorts of opinions they share are rarely heard in Western media, let alone on Al Jazeera or Iran-sponsored outlets:

[A] resident of Khan Younis describes how locals in a bakery spontaneously attacked a Hamas member who had come to buy bread. The incident, hardly imaginable before the present war, reflects a widespread feeling of “disgust,” he says, after Gazan aspirations for “a dignified life and to live in peace” were set back by the Hamas atrocities of October 7.

Fears have grown that this misery will needlessly be prolonged by Westerners who strive, in effect, to perpetuate Hamas rule, according to one Gazan woman. Addressing protesters who have taken to the streets to demand a ceasefire on behalf of Palestinians, she calls on them to make a choice: “Either support the Palestinian people or the Hamas regime that oppresses them.” If protesters harbor a humanitarian motive, she asks, “Why don’t we see them demonstrating against Hamas?”

“Hamas is the destruction of the Palestinian people. We’ve had enough. They need to be wiped out—because if they remain, the people will be wiped out.”

You can watch videos of some of the interviews by clicking the link below.

Read more at Free Press

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Palestinian public opinion