Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Mandelstam Versus Stalin

"Mandelstam sailed through life with a cargo of manias. He lived in terror of his muse and his erection one day deserting him. He lived in everlasting fear of fear."

"Russia, the running riot we know and loathe and love and fear, is reserved for Russians."

"You have to have lived through the thirties to understand, and even then, you don't understand."

"Where are the swans? They went away, the swans. The ravens too? They stayed, the ravens." Marina Tsvetaeva, cited by Robert Little.

In life, Stalin triumphed over everyone; his brutal victories over his rivals was, more often than not, complete. He was once quoted as saying that there was no greater feeling in life than slowly and carefully plotting the destruction an enemy. The evidence of Stalin's capacity to deliver vengeance on his real and perceived rivals is everywhere; probably Stalin annihilated more opponents than any other figure in human history. Trotsky was killed with an ice pick; Bukharin, Zinoviev, and Kamanenv died as a consequence of elaborately staged show trials.

Hitler, Stalin's ultimate enemy, suffered at the hands of Stalin too. Oliver Hirschbiegel's German-language film, The Downfall, shows just how bad things got for the Fuhrer and his allies. In the final tens days of his miserable existence, Hitler was reduced to berating his generals in a small bunker for their inability to carry out his brilliant strategic decisions in the face of overwhelming odds. According to the film, which is based on a great deal of first-hand accounts by bunker survivors, Hitler even praised his nemesis, Stalin, for having the foresight to liquidate his military leadership prior to the advent of hostilities. Soon, even Hitler recognized that, despite his best efforts at averting the perceived catastrophe, the German people as a whole had been bested by a ruthless opponent, the Russians, who would soon overwhelm the decadent Western powers as well. "I didn't just do this for the Germans. Not just the Germans."

Stalin died, apparently, of natural causes. Stalin lived by the sword but did not died by the sword. Rather, he wet himself and lay paralyzed for hours, starring up in wrath--as his daughter tells us--at those who eventually surrounded him.

While he was alive, very few people can be said to have voiced any opposition to Stalin's reign of terror and lived to tell about it. Khrushchev, Stalin's greatest historical opponent, was a fawning admirer--one of Stalin's closest advisers--while Stalin lived. Osip Mandelstam, the unlikeliest of heroes, did oppose Stalin, although he, like so many others, died for his troubles. His act of defiance was odd, a simple epigram or satirical poem, repeated to a number of literary friends despite the omnipresence of political informers in every segment of Russian society. The poem, which became known to Stalin almost immediately, read as follows:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,
The murderer and peasant-slayer.

His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,

His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.

Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders--
Fawning half-men for him to play with.

The whinny, purr or whine
as he prates and points a finger,

One by one to be forging his laws, to be flung
Like horseshoes at the head, the eye or the groin.

And every killing is a treat
For the broad-chested Ossete.

According to Robert Little's The Stalin Epigram, a novel which relies heavily on the memoirs of Mandelstam's widow, Mandelstam's poem was a courageous act of existential defiance by an artist who believed that art and truth-telling were nearly synonyms. The novel, which is told from the point of view of multiple actors, including Mandelstam, Pasternak, Akhmatova, and his wife Nadezdha, but also Stalin and Stalin's personal bodyguard and others, tells the story of Mandelstam's decision to speak out against mendacity despite the danger and, more importantly, despite his own innate cowardice. Of course, Mandelstam suffered grievously for his bravado, being arrested, interrogated, banished to Voronezh, intimidated into writing pro-Stalin poetry, arrested again in 1938, and allowed to die in a transit camp.

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