Sunday, November 23, 2008

The Russian Poet Osip Mandelstam Punctures the Stalin Myth

"You will go, my little book, without me to the city,
but I don't envy you. Go on--go to the city forbidden to me--forbidden to your master."
--The opening lines of Ovid's five-book poem Tristia

The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam is pictured above after his 1934 arrest by Stalin's NKVD for writing a biting epigram/suicide note that has become known as "The Stalin Epigram," an unflattering poem about Stalin and his literary syncophants.

The poem has been characterized as "a 16-line death sentence." To get in the mood, here is an article about the Polish Suicide Tango and the song in Russian.

Time (1-7-66) tells what happened next. Mandelstam went over to Boris Pasternak's apartment to recite his new poem. The brave but reckless poet was too excited to be careful; one of Pasternak's four other guests informed on Mandelstam, and he was sent to the GULag after being forced to write a humiliating panygeric to Stalin. Listen to Mandelstam's poem and the tragic story of Stalin's revenge against Mandelstam here. You can also watch Voronezh T.V. discuss Mandelstam's life and legacy when a statue to him was unveiled in the city where he was exiled and where the poet wrote a series of poems called Voronezh Notebooks. Wikipedia notes:

Nadezhda Mandelstam's Hope Against Hope, the first volume of her memoirs concerning the dreadful fate of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, provides many details about life and hardship in Voronezh in the 1930s under Stalinist rule.

Time (1-7-66) reports:

Mandelstam hated the Bolshevik tyranny from the day it took power, and with a crazy courage that still takes the breath away, he made his feelings known. One night he saw a secret-police official swilling vodka in a public house and drunkenly transcribing the names of political undesirables on a large stack of execution writs. Outraged, the pint-sized poet charged across the room, snatched up the warrants, ripped them to shreds and ran out into the night...

In 1937 Mandelstam was briefly set free. But his energies were drained away by illness, and he was still in a sickbed when he was arrested again on a trumped-up charge of counter-revolutionary activity and sentenced to five years in a concentration camp in far-eastern Siberia. The shock of his new sentence drove Mandelstam out of his mind. Under the delusion that his own food was poisoned, he began to steal food from other prisoners. Time and again his fellow prisoners caught him and beat him cruelly. In the end they threw him out of the barracks into 30-below-zero cold. Filthy, emaciated, dressed in rags, he lived on for several weeks, sleeping in sheds and eating garbage. And then he died.

Mandelstam's tragic fate after he penned his "sixteen line death sentence" reminds me of the tragic banishment of the poet Ovid to the Black Sea village of Tomi, for what Ovid has characterized as "a poem and a blunder." The reasons for Ovid's banishment remain obscure, but he may have composed a poem mocking the adulterous nature of Emperor Augustus' daughter, Julia.

The banished Ovid penned futile letters to Emperor Augustus whom he addressed as "Caesar" and even "God." Ovid begged the Emperor for a reprive from his harsh exile, but he died in Tomis 10 years after his banishment. In the opening lines of his five-book poem Tristia, Ovid laments:

You will go, my little book, without me to the city,
but I don't envy you. Go on--go to the city forbidden to me--forbidden to your master. [Full text of Tristia]

Mandelstam himself published a book of poems called Tristia and a poem of the same name which is performed in Russian and in Joseph Brodsky's English translation. [See another translation here.]

"Stalin's myth is still alive and it will live on from generation to generation in Russia until the last born in of 20th century has died or until the world looks upon his like again."---Monster: A Portrait of Stalin in Blood, a documentary made by Russian historians and film makers

This painting depicting the Soviet Dictator Joseph Stalin receiving flowers from children appeared in Harpers (1-29-08) and was followed by Mandelstam's "Stalin Epigram." The epigram begins "We live, not sensing our own country beneath us..." (1933).

See the excerpts from Monster: A Portrait of Stalin in Blood about the regime's creation of the Stalin myth and its mobilization of intelligentsia, writers, and poets: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, and part 6.

Stalin wanted to become a poet, according to part 6, and as a young person penned an "Ode To Freedom" on the theme of hope. Stalin failed to become a poet, so he became a god. The narrator says that "Stalin's myth is still alive and it will live on from generation to generation in Russia until the last born in of 20th century has died or until the world looks upon his like again."

Is our incoming President Obama, who appears to have let the Maoist communist Weather Underground terrorist Billy Ayers pen "his" memoir Dreams From My Father, a total fake made in his ghostwriter's image? Are the American people going to open their eyes and look behind Obama's glib promises about hope? Is the media going to continue to uncritically dismiss Obama's troubling relationship with a communist terrorist who wanted to overthrow the U.S. government, set up reeducation camps, and carry out mass-executions of 25 million Americans?

Unlike many gifted Russian intellectuals who leapt into Stalin's arms, Osip Mandelstam initially spoke truth to power. He mocked the writers who sang Stalin's praises as "half-men":

One whimpers/whistles, another warbles, a third miaows.

The meaning of the word raspberry/malina in the poem's closing lines is unclear. Harpers suggests that the word "raspberry" in "The Stalin Epigram" is criminal jargon for "the underworld":

The word “raspberry” (малина) is code language from the criminal underworld, of which Stalin was a denizen under the code name “Koba.” Stalin hailed from the city of Gori in Georgia, near the South Ossetian region, which is why Mandelstam refers to him here as an Ossetian. This poem led to Mandelstam’s arrest in 1934, imprisonment and death in December 1938.

I think "raspberry" is thieves' jargon for a the criminal underworld or perhaps sometimes gang's hideout, like the hut in Pushkin's famous narrative poem Zhenikh, ("The Bridgroom"). The young bride in Pushkin's poem shows Russian people how to expose a gang of murdering thieves. She holds her tongue and plays along until she can expose the criminal with the evidence of the murder of a young girl.

The word "raspberry" may also be an allusion to Stalin's secret police chief Genrikh Yagoda, who was head of the NKVD from 1934-36. Yagoda's name means "berry." According to the poem, raspberry and Stalin are present whenever there is an execution. Perhaps the use of the enigmatic word "raspberry" has multiple conotations. The word raspberry/malina may be a complicated play on Yagoda's name and the word's meaning in criminal jargon--a den of thieves/the underworld.

Unlike the innocent bride in the Pushkin's Zhenikh, Mandelstam didn't hold his tongue. He bore witness to Stalin's criminal regime in his poem "Stalin Epigram."

Here is Scott Horton's translation in Harpers (1-29-08):

We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
Ten steps away they dissolve, our speeches,
But where enough meet for half-conversation,
The Kremlin hillbilly is our preoccupation.
They’re like slimy worms, his fat fingers,
His words, as solid as weights of measure.
In his cockroach moustaches there’s a hint

Of laughter, while below his top boots gleam.
Round him a mob of thin-necked henchmen,
He pursues the enslavement of the half-men.
One whimpers, another warbles,

A third miaows, but he alone prods and probes.
He forges decree after decree, like horseshoes–
In groins, foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.
Wherever an execution’s happening though–

there’s raspberry, and the Ossetian’s giant torso. [See the Russian here.]

Here is a second translation:

The Stalin Epigram

by Osip Mandelstam Translated by W. S. Merwin

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meows, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.

Here is some background about the poem and a third translation by A.S. Kline:

Stalin Epigram

We live, but we do not feel the land beneath us,

Ten steps away and our words cannot be heard,

And when there are just enough people for half a dialogue,

Then they remember the Kremlin Highlander.

His fat fingers are slimy like slugs,

And his words are absolute, like grocers' weights.

His cockroach whiskers are laughing,

And his boot tops shine.

And around him the rabble of narrow-necked chiefs-

He plays with the services of half-men.

Who warble, or miaow, or moan.

He alone pushes and prods.

Decree after decree he hammers them out like horseshoes,

In the groin, in the forehead, in the brows, or in the eye.

When he has an execution it's a special treat,

And the Ossetian chest swells.

Here is the Mandalstam's poem in Russian from Harper's:

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.
А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,

Он играет услугами полулюдей.
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет,
Как подкову, кует за указом указ:
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз.

Что ни казнь у него—то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Batshit Crazy.

4:23 PM  
Blogger Randy Wilharm said...

In the early part of the program you refer to (stalin and mind control) there are scenes from 1930s soviet spy movies.

Do you know the names of any of these?
They are very interesting and I want to read up about them...

And you have an excellent article here.

I video taped stalin: monster a portrait in blood in 1993, lost it to theft, and was thrilled to find it on youtube.

It's the best use of music + editing I have ever seen.

3:12 AM  
Blogger Snapple said...

I don't know the names of the movies, but maybe there are some books about popular culture during Stalin's time.

Ovid has a lot in common with exiled Russian writers.

That's for your comments.

11:00 PM  
Blogger Snapple said...

Randy W.

The Russians have a James Bond hero named Stirlitz.

In Russian it is штирлиц

Some clips are on youtube--maybe more if you paste in the Russian штирлиц

In this episode, Stirlitz gets to meet his wife briefly because he is undercover.

The Russians make a lot of Stirlitz jokes. I have some on my blog if you search Stirlitz.

11:46 PM  
Blogger Snapple said...

There is a famous Stirlitz film called 17 Moments of Spring.

Stirlitz poses as a Nazi in the German Military Intelligence, I think, so he wears a NAZI uniform sometimes.

You can buy that on DVD.

My favorite Russian movie is called Burnt by the Sun. It's on DVD and I write about it on my blog. There is also a Russian variety show of the same name, so it's a bit confusing.

The title is based on a popular tango of the same name, so sometimes you may get a tango site.

You may get more hits if you paste in Утомлённые солнцем

There is also a police series called The Meeting Place Can Not Be Changed.

12:12 AM  

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