In pre-Revolutionary Russia, Osip Mandelstam was a leading figure in the poetic movement known as Acmeism; he went on to be one of the preeminent poets of the Soviet Union, until, in 1933—frustrated by his country’s increasing repressiveness—he read a friend a poem mocking Stalin. He spent the following years under various forms of arrest, until dying of typhoid fever in a Siberian labor camp. In his early work, Mandelstam rarely mentioned his Jewish upbringing or addressed Jewish themes, but eventually that changed. Reviewing a recent biography, Gary Saul Morson writes:
For much of the 1920s, Mandelstam supported himself by translating foreign literature and writing critical essays. As the decade waned, he gave up composing verse until, at last, he rediscovered his poetic voice. Accepting his permanent opposition to the regime, he also reclaimed his Jewish heritage.
Mandelstam’s autobiographical essay “The Noise of Time” describes his early alienation from his Jewish roots. The boy depicted in his Hebrew primer repelled him, and he never learned the language. At home, he saw only “the chaos of Judaism—not a motherland, not a house, not a hearth, but precisely a chaos, the unknown womb world . . . which I feared, and . . . always fled.” . . . Mandelstam once described Acmeism as “a longing for world culture,” though he regarded himself as having no past, neither the Russian culture that excluded him nor the Jewish traditions he rejected. A rootless intellectual, he observed, “needs no memory—it is enough for him to tell the books he has read, and his biography is done.”
As Mandelstam realized, this sense of exile itself had Jewish origins. “Joseph, sold into Egypt,” one early lyric intones, “could not yearn more powerfully!” As Gregory Freidin observed, although it was an accident that Mandelstam’s parents named him Osip—the Russian form of Joseph—he chose to identify with the exiled dreamer and interpreter of dreams.
At first, his Jewish origins conflicted with the mythic biography he constructed for himself, but later they became essential to it. Andrew Kahn’s new book, by contrast, argues that Mandelstam critics have paid too much attention to the Jewish theme. . . . Kahn rejects [Mandelstam’s widow’s] portrait of him as someone whose “alienation from Soviet life began in 1918,” which he dismisses as a product of the cold war (in literary critical jargon, simply naming a position as belonging to the “cold war” allows one to dismiss it).