I’ve always hankered after Russian literature since first imbibing Tolstoy and Dostoevsky as a teenager, supplemented by later readings in Chekhov and Pasternak. For a while, I even took up Russian and can still read the cyrillic script. On several occasions, I’ve taught Russian literature: Anna Karenina, The Brothers Karamazov, and The Cherry Orchard. In 1986, I was offered a government stipend for an advanced seminar in Russian literature, though I turned it down because of other interests at the time.
In 2000, I took a group of students to Russia in the cruel month of January. We saw where Chekhov composed most of his plays and stories during his short life. One of my students was allowed to play his piano. In St. Petersburg, we visited the apartment in which Dostoevsky spent his final years and saw the desk on which he wrote his masterpiece, The Brothers Karamazov. My own big moment came when we traveled 120 miles southwest of Moscow, traversing cratered roads of an unraveling post-Soviet nation, to Tula and nearby Nastaya Polyana, Tolstoy’s lovingly preserved residence.
Though the triad of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky and Chekhov spring to mind when we think of Russian literary prowess, the truth is that poetry may be its greatest legacy, beginning with Pushkin and continuing into our modern era with poets like Akhmatova, Pasternak, Brodsky and Mandelstam. I think it was Mandelstam who said that Russia is the only country that takes poetry seriously enough that you can get killed for it, which is just what happened to Mandelstam in the Stalin purge of 1937.
I started up again about Russian poetry after reading a 2011 Guernica interview with my favorite contemporary American poet, W. S. Merwin, in which Osip Mandelstam’s name came up in connection with the complexities of translation. Initially exiled, Mandelstam covertly composed subsequent poetry in his head, repeating his verse to his wife, the remarkable Nadezhda Mandelstam, who committed them to school exercise notebooks and then to memory in the event of police seizures, preserving his legacy following his death in the Gulag in 1938.
She would later write two remarkable books (Against All Hope and Hope Revived) in the late 1960s, detailing the sordid story of Stalinist repression of the arts and her efforts to preserve her husband’s mature legacy. It was thought that his work was done after 1928 prior to his initial exile to Voronezh, but thanks to Nadezhda, 200 of his exile poems have survived. Today, Mandelstam is largely regarded as Russia’s principal twentieth century poet, though he died at just 47.
Here is his most famous poem, clearly an attack on Joseph Stalin, that began his troubles. Mandelstam never cowered defending freedom. At the outset, you should be aware that poetry generally suffers greatly in translation. In Russian, it packs a wallop with its density of nuance that the average reader would pick-up on immediately. (See notes.)
We live without feeling the country beneath our feet,
our words are inaudible from ten steps away. (1)
Any conversation, however brief,
gravitates, gratingly, toward the Kremlin’s mountain man. (2)
His greasy fingers are thick as worms, (3)
his words weighty hammers slamming their target. (4)
His cockroach moustache seems to snicker, (5)
and the shafts of his high-topped boots gleam.
Amid a rabble of scrawny-necked chieftains,
he toys with the favors of such homunculi.
One hisses, the other mewls, one groans, the other weeps;
he prowls thunderously among them, showering them with scorn.
Forging decree after decree, like horseshoes,
he pitches one to the belly, another to the forehead,
a third to the eyebrow, a fourth in the eye.
Every execution is a carnival
that fills his broad Ossetian chest with delight.
1. our words are inaudible from ten steps away: Need to be judicious in conversation. Stalin was reputed to use listening devices in the Kremlin to check on colleagues.
2. mountain man: allusion to Stalin’s coarse background.
3. greasy fingers: It was widely circulated that Stalin employed listening devices to keep tabs on his Kremlin colleagues.
4. his words weighty hammers: Stalin had a marked Georgian accent.
5. cockroach mustache: obviously refers to Stalin’s landmark mustache. Derives from a Russian fairy tale in which a cockroach and a cat confront one another.
Mandelstam wasn’t your likely hero. Frail with a weak-heart and clearly aware of the dangers of the Stalin regime, he nonetheless devoted his art, not only to beauty, but to human freedom. Somehow I had missed out on him in my Russian pursuits. Maybe now I can make amends.