Mandelshtam redirected his attention to Stalin, forcing himself to the act of degradation inflicted on almost every poet, doomed or saved, in the 1930s: an ode to Stalin. But, incapable of simulation, he failed. Stalin appears as a counterpart to himself, the negative of the poet, sometimes through the same image, as an ‘idol in a cave’ surrounded by bones, trying ‘to recollect his human guise’. Only in ambiguity could Mandelshtam attempt any conciliation. Like novelists such as Bulgakov and Zamyatin, he was interested in the mind and pathology of his enemy to the point of sympathy, but not of panegyric.
In April 1937, Mandelshtam was denounced as a Trotskyist: although his exile was coming to an end, he was living on borrowed time. That spring, inspired by the marriage of Natasha Shtempel as well as the suicides and disappearances in Voronezh, there is a final burst of lyricism, as though he were confident that the survival of his verse was assured. The influence of Keats (Nadezhda knew English poetry) seems to underlie his poems on the Cretan urns and the Greek flute, which stand for a continuous creative spirit that moves from one ephemeral vessel to another. The Greek flute commemorates not only a Voronezh musician who was purged, but the Hellenic creative spirit which the poet no longer has the strength to express: ‘Clods of clay in the sea’s hands… My measure has become disease.’ The Russian language seems to prove the involvement of death in creation: mor, disease, links with mera, measure, just as the syllable ub is present in the words for lips, murder, diminish. The Greek thalassa and thanatos, sea and death, are the beginnings and endings of poetry, as their assonance shows.
Mandelshtam was virtually the only important Russian poet writing in the mid 1930s. The purges had silenced every major talent. Pasternak wrote his Artist in 1936, during a brief lull in the terror, but soon succumbed to the prevailing atmosphere; Nikolay Zabolotsky relied on his Aesopic, fauve technique to write about the disjointing of the times, while appearing to praise the brave new world around him, but the censors understood him and he was swept away in the same wave that destroyed Mandelshtam. Even abroad, poetic inspiration had apparently deserted Marina Tsvetayeva: Mandelshtam had no cultural milieu, no critical response, no publications after 1934 and even his private readers were too frightened to respond. The Voronezh poems were written for the poet and a shadowy posterity: the lack of feedback is one of the reasons for their nervous, cryptic and compressed tone.
Their exile officially expired, the Mandelshtams managed to spend only three days in Leningrad and Moscow: they found temporary shelter in Kalinin. Then in spring 1938, with suspicious ease, they were found a place in a country sanatorium: on 2 May, Osip Mandelshtam was arrested. The protectors of poets at the court of Stalin were soon themselves to face the firing squad: Mandelshtam was processed as a counter-revolutionary and, starved, perhaps deranged, died in a transit camp in far-eastern Siberia on 27 December 1938.
With extraordinary determination, like the women at the cross, Nadezhda, Natasha Shtempel and Anna Akhmatova ensured his resurrection and the eventual triumphant entry of his poetry into the Judaic and Hellenic tradition. At enormous risk they preserved what they could in the chaos of the war years and the repressive years of Stalin’s senility. A very few Russian critics, such as Khardzhiev and Shklovsky, and a few intrepid foreign scholars ensured that Mandelshtam’s name, by the mid 1960s, became known not only to two new generations of Russian readers, but to virtually the entire world. As James Greene and, before him, Paul Celan have shown, Mandelshtam’s concern for precision, musicality and continuity make him one of the most translatable poets Russia has ever produced. In Russian poetry, his influence began in the 1960s: as a protégé of Anna Akhmatova, Joseph Brodsky became a vector of Mandelshtamian poetics for Russian poets. While we cannot say that a tradition of Jewish verse exists in Russia, Judaism, as Mandelshtam puts it, ‘like a drop of musk filling a whole house’, adds a tension and internationalism to a lyrical tradition which could not otherwise have survived the rarefaction of the atmosphere.
(1913, 1916, 1923 AND 1928)