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

Only Hamas’s Defeat Can Pave the Path to Peace

Opponents of the IDF’s campaign in Gaza often appeal to two related arguments: that Hamas is rooted in a set of ideas and thus cannot be defeated militarily, and that the destruction in Gaza only further radicalizes Palestinians, thus increasing the threat to Israel. Rejecting both lines of thinking, Ghaith al-Omar writes:

What makes Hamas and similar militant organizations effective is not their ideologies but their ability to act on them. For Hamas, the sustained capacity to use violence was key to helping it build political power. Back in the 1990s, Hamas’s popularity was at its lowest point, as most Palestinians believed that liberation could be achieved by peaceful and diplomatic means. Its use of violence derailed that concept, but it established Hamas as a political alternative.

Ever since, the use of force and violence has been an integral part of Hamas’s strategy. . . . Indeed, one lesson from October 7 is that while Hamas maintains its military and violent capabilities, it will remain capable of shaping the political reality. To be defeated, Hamas must be denied that. This can only be done through the use of force.

Any illusions that Palestinian and Israeli societies can now trust one another or even develop a level of coexistence anytime soon should be laid to rest. If it can ever be reached, such an outcome is at best a generational endeavor. . . . Hamas triggered war and still insists that it would do it all again given the chance, so it will be hard-pressed to garner a following from Palestinians in Gaza who suffered so horribly for its decision.

Read more at Washington Institute for Near East Policy

More about: Gaza War 2023, Hamas, Israeli-Palestinian Conflict