“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.