The Soviet Jewish Poet Who Died Because of a Poem

“Only in Russia,” said the great modernist Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam, “is poetry respected: it gets people killed.” Mandelstam’s 1933 poem “The Kremlin Highlander,” which mocked Stalin, didn’t get him get him killed—but it did get him arrested and then banned from the USSR’s major cities. In 1938 he was arrested again and sentenced to the gulag, where he died a few months later. Donald Rayfield reviews a biography of Mandelstam by Ralph Dutli, and an English translation of Mandelstam’s second book of verse—titled Tristia­—by Thomas de Waal:

Dutli is particularly enlightening on the beginning and the end of the poet’s life. Mandelstam was born in Warsaw in 1891 to a Polish-Lithuanian Jewish businessman and a Russophile mother with intellectual aspirations. Like Paul Celan (a Jew from Chernovtsy, now in Ukraine but formerly in Austria, Poland, and Romania), he could have written in Yiddish, Polish, Lithuanian, or even German. He opted, however, for Russian: the 1900s was a period when, despite widespread anti-Semitism, Jewish writers in the Russian empire were deserting Yiddish for Russian. Mandelstam received a very European education from the superb teachers at the Tenishev School, where Vladimir Nabokov a decade later also acquired a multilingual and thoroughly cosmopolitan education.

Dutli could have explored more deeply Mandelstam’s Judaism. Although it was for the baptized Russian poet a deplorable source of anxiety and seclusion, it gave him examples of heroism, from biblical episodes to the 15th-century expulsions from Spain and Portugal. As for the poet’s end, Dutli sifts the probable truth from the vague memories of his fellow prisoners in the camp where he died. But Dutli fails to convey Mandelstam’s strange twinship with his nemesis, Stalin, with whom he shared a first name (variants of Joseph).

Dutli and de Waal have taken large steps towards enhancing Mandelstam’s reputation among readers in Europe and America. In Russia, he remains a cult figure for a minority: the country today has no time for a poet of Jewish origin and a cosmopolitan outlook. He himself prophetically doubted that there would ever be a Mandelstam Street in Russia—“the devil of a name sounds crooked, not straight.” Voronezh, the town where he spent his exile in the 1930s, considered renaming a street after him but decided against it. The world’s only Mandelstam Street is on the campus of Warsaw University.

Read more at Literary Review

More about: Gulag, Joseph Stalin, Poetry, Soviet Jewry


Hamas’s Hostage Diplomacy

Ron Ben-Yishai explains Hamas’s current calculations:

Strategically speaking, Hamas is hoping to add more and more days to the pause currently in effect, setting a new reality in stone, one which will convince the United States to get Israel to end the war. At the same time, they still have most of the hostages hidden in every underground crevice they could find, and hope to exchange those with as many Hamas and Islamic Jihad prisoners currently in Israeli prisons, planning on “revitalizing” their terrorist inclinations to even the odds against the seemingly unstoppable Israeli war machine.

Chances are that if pressured to do so by Qatar and Egypt, they will release men over 60 with the same “three-for-one” deal they’ve had in place so far, but when Israeli soldiers are all they have left to exchange, they are unlikely to extend the arrangement, instead insisting that for every IDF soldier released, thousands of their people would be set free.

In one of his last speeches prior to October 7, the Gaza-based Hamas chief Yahya Sinwar said, “remember the number one, one, one, one.” While he did not elaborate, it is believed he meant he wants 1,111 Hamas terrorists held in Israel released for every Israeli soldier, and those words came out of his mouth before he could even believe he would be able to abduct Israelis in the hundreds. This added leverage is likely to get him to aim for the release for all prisoners from Israeli facilities, not just some or even most.

Read more at Ynet

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli Security