The Death of
Poetry

    The Stalin Epigram is a fictionalized account of the later years in the short life of the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938). A notorious non-conformist, Mandelstam was heard to mention aloud the terrible famines of 1931-32 caused by the forced collectivization of the peasantry; and at private poetry readings, he went so far as to recite his "Stalin Epigram," a short poem that was sharply critical of Josef Stalin. In 1933, he was arrested and sentenced, rather mercifully, to internal exile. Arrested again in 1938, he was sentenced to the gulag, and died at a transit camp in Siberia. Earlier, he had written: "Only in Russia is poetry so respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

    In the excerpt from the novel below, the speaker is his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam.

"Osip Emilievich! What brings you out on a night like this? It's New year's Day according to the old style Julian calendar. So happy new year to you, friend."

The voice came from an unshaven ruffian holding court at two tables dragged together at the back of the canteen. The five young women around him, all wearing padded winter overcoats and sipping what I supposed to be vodka from tea glasses, turned to gape at us as if we were ghouls wandered in from a cemetary. I could tell from the way Mandelstam saluted the speaker with his half-raised walking stick that he wasn't sure of his identity; Mandelstam often had a hard time putting names to faces when people were out of context.

"Hello to you, Ugor-Zhitkin," I called, and I could see my husband nodding in relief as he grasped the identity of his interlocutor.

"Ugor-Zhitkin, at long last," my husband exclaimed, turning from the seller of Bulgarian cigarettes. "I have been leaving messages with your secretary for weeks."

"Come drink in the new year with us," Ugor-Zhitkin was saying, waving to the free chairs at the end of the two tables. He was clearly hoping to avoid the subject of Mandelstam's original manuscript of "Stone". "The girls and I" --- the females at the table, who enjoyed the reputation of being his proteg├ęs, were counting on Ugor-Zhitkin to use his considerable influence to get their short stories or poems or plays into print; what they gave him in return for this service was the subject of more than one supper conversation in Moscow --- "the girls and I are celebrating something beside the Julian new year. Listen, Osip Emilievich, this is a great occasion in Soviet history. We've just come away from seeing our first talking motion picture. Surely you've read the fabulous review in Pravda --- there are some who are convinced that Stalin himself wrote it since he is known to admire the film. I'm talking about 'Chapayev', by the Vasilyev brothers. It's based on the Furmanov novel about the Civil War hero Chapayev."

The expression on the face of the Mandelstam who no longer beat about the bush darkened. I knew what was coming and tried to catch his eye and head him off. No such luck. "The trouble with Soviet films, silent or talking," he allowed, slipping into an exaggerated Georgian drawl that was supposed to remind people of how Stalin spoke Russian, "is that they are marked by a wealth of detail and a poverty of ideas, but then propaganda doesn't need ideas."

Mandelstam might as well have poured ice water from the Moscow River over Ugor-Zhitkin and his entourage.

"What is he saying?" gasped one of the girls.

"He is suggesting that Soviet filmmakers are propagandists," another said.

"It sounds awfully like an anti-Soviet declaration to me," a third girl observed uncomfortably.

My great friend the poet Anna Akhmatova claims there are moments in life that are so momentous, it apears as if the earth has stopped dead in its tracks for the beat of a heart. This was such a moment in the life of Osip Mandelstam.

"Who are you?" one of the girls demanded.

I caught my breath. Mandelstam elevated his chin. "I am the poet Mandelstam."

"There is no poet of that name," another girl declared. "Once, long ago, there was such a poet."

"I thought Mandelstam was dead," said the first girl.

The earth resumed rotating around its axis, though nothing would ever be the same. My husband started toward the door, then turned back to the editor. "You are living proof that a man's character is written on his face," Mandelstam said so agreeably it didn't dawn on Ugor-Zhitkin that he was being insulted. "Do you happen to have cigarettes?"

Ugor-Zhitkin collected the two partially filled packages on the table and handed them to Mandelstam. "Happy nineteen thirty four to you, all the same," he said.

Kicking at a drift of snow outside the canteen, Mandelstam managed a cranky laugh. "Mandelstam dead!" he said, making no effort to conceal the anguish in his voice. The words that then emerged from his mouth seemed to be transported on small billows of frozen breath. "Dead. But . . . not . . . yet . . . buried."

I can tell you I shivered, not from the gut-numbing cold, but from a presentiment of terror.

---From The Stalin Epigram
Robert Littell
©2009 Simon and Schuster
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