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Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam, Russian Poet (1889-1938)

By Vitaly Charny, October 2003

Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam, the Russian poet and essayist who was born in Poland into a Jewish family, was regarded alongside Boris Pastenak and Anna Akhmatova as one of the greatest voices of 20th-century Russian poetry. However, most of Mandelshtam’s works were unknown outside his own country and during the during the Stalin era (1929-53) he went unpublished.

On January 15, 1991 the USSR Postal Administration issued a postcard with the original stamp and cachet (pictured above) commemorating Mandelshtam on the poet’s centennial birth anniversary. A special cancellation was used on the first day of the issue. The cachet shows the poet’s portrait as taken by the famous Russian Jewish photographer Moisey Nappelbaum. It was one of the last USSR postal issues. When the card appeared in circulation the USSR, the country in which he suffered and died, no longer existed. Nevertheless, he is still famous and loved by many of the Russian people.

The Mandelshtam family came from the mestechko (small town or shtetl) of Zhagory, in the uyezd (district) of Shavly in Kovno Gubernia of the Russian Empire, now the city of Zagare in Lithuania. Among the Mandelshtams who managed to leave the Pale of Settlement one can find scientists, doctors, and university professors so well known in Russia that their names often appear in Encyclopedias and other reference books.

Emil Venyaminovich Mandelshtam, the poet’s father, was born in Zhagory in 1835. Emil’s family spoke no Russian, for these orthodox shtetle Jews spoke mostly Yiddish. Thus learning German became the door to outside world and secular education for Emil. This was a time when the Haskala (enlightenment) movement began introducing Russian Jewry to the mainstream of economic and political life in that country. Jewish teenagers became interested in such German Romantics as the poet Schiller. Shortly thereafter, Emil Mandelshtam left his home and went to study in Berlin. Since he was lacking in financial support, his education was not fully finished. However, he still managed to learn not only German, but also Russian and Polish.

Osip Mandelshtam’s mother was Flora Osipovna Verblovsky, who came from an educated and assimilated Jewish family. Girsh Verblovsky was one of the first Jews to graduate the Law School of the St. Petersburg University in 1867 during the progressive reforms of Tsar Aleksandr II. Flora Verblovsky graduated from a Russian Gymnasia in Vilna (now Vilnius, Lithuania) and married Emil Mandelshtam in Dvinsk (now Daugaupils, Latvia) in 1889 at the age of 23. They settled in Warsaw where Emil received the license of a leather valuator. Osip, named after his grandfather, was their firstborn son. After the birth of their second child, Alexander, the family moved to St. Petersburg - the imperial capital. This city, which held the best business and educational opportunities in Russia, was out of the reach for most Jews who were locked up in ghettoes in the shtetls in the Pale of Settlement. In order to leave the Pale, Emil Mandelshtam had to enroll as a "Kupets of the First Guild" (rich merchant rank) and pay the highest taxes. In St. Petersburg he was a leather-goods dealer and his wife was a piano teacher. After Russia became a Soviet state Emil’s children were limited in many opportunities as members of what was considered the former "exploiter class." A new regime brings new discriminations.

At home Osip Mandelshtam was taught by private tutors. He attended the prestigious Tenishev School (1900-07) and traveled to Paris (1907-08) and Germany (1908-10), where he studied Old French literature at the University of Heidelberg (1909-10). At the time some non-religious Jews in Russia opting for educational or career opportunities were formally baptized and they often preferred to do it in rare Protestant congregations to avoid the official state Church - Russian Orthodox. Thus in 1911 he was baptized in the Methodist Church and enrolled at St. Petersburg University where he studied philosophy from 1911 to 1917. Mandelshtam became a member of the "Poets Guild" from 1911 and developed close personal ties with Anna Akhmatova and Nikolai Gumilev. His first poems appeared in 1910 in the journal Apollon.

As a poet Mandelshtam gained fame with an edition of his collected verses Kamen (Stone), which appeared in 1913. The subject matter ranged from music to such triumphs of culture as Roman classical architecture and the Byzantine cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople. It was followed by Tristia (1922), which confirmed his position as a poet, and Stikhotvorenia (Verses) 1921-25, (1928).

Mandelshtam welcomed the February 1917 Revolution, but was initially hostile to the October 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. In 1918 he worked briefly for the Education Ministry in Moscow. With his frequent visits to the south, Mandelshtam avoided much of the troubles that complicated everyday life during the Civil War. After the Revolution his views about contemporary poetry became harsh. To him, the poetry of the young people was like the ceaseless cry of an infant, Mayakovsky was childish and Marina Tsvetaeva tasteless. He only accepted Pasternak although he also admired Akhmatova.

In 1922 Mandelshtam married Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazin, who accompanied him throughout his years of exile and imprisonment. Several decades later his widow, Nadezhda Mandelshtam, published her memoirs Hope Against Hope (1970) and Hope Abandoned (1974), which depicted their life under the Stalin era. Ironically, Nadezhda means Hope in Russian.

In the 1920s Mandelshtam supported himself by writing children’s books and translating works of foreign authors. He did not compose poems from 1925 to 1930 but turned instead to prose. Mandelshtam saw his role as an outsider and drew parallels between his fate and Pushkin’s. For this poet the importance of preserving the cultural tradition became a central concern. The Soviet cultural authorities were rightly suspicious of his loyalty to the Bolshevik rule. To escape his influential enemies Mandelshtam traveled as a journalist into distant provinces. Mandelshtam’s Journey to Armenia (1933) became the last major work to be published during his lifetime.

Aware of the fate of writers who did not support the regime Mandelshtam once commented prophetically, "Only in Russia poetry is respected - it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?"

Mandelshtam was first arrested in 1934 for his fourteen-line poem on the subject of Joseph Stalin. The poem wasn’t an epigram, as many foreign sources described it, but an expression of the evil forces of tyranny that had taken control over Russia. He didn’t try to prevent the circulation of the poem that begins with: "We live, with feeling no country under our feet.." and concluded with a personal insult to Stalin and his underlings.

People who read Mandelshtam’s poetry, or even those who knew him personally, judged this publication as an unacceptable venture. No other artist displayed such daring in that dangerous time, especially no one like Mandelshtam, who was far from the revolution, from the political struggles, living instead in his own world of poetry.

Indeed it wasn’t the first time when he couldn’t stay still. Working in 1918 for the Soviet government he had attended a party where Yakov Blyumkin, the deputy chief of the ChK (future KGB), became drunk and began signing the orders for the executions of counter-revolutionists as he loudly announced. Mandelshtam snatched away the orders from his hands and tore them to pieces in front of the astonished guests. Fortunately, the situation resolved itself peacefully for the poet that time. Felix Dzerzhinsky, the ChK chief, during a meeting with Mandelshtam the next day expressed appreciation for his brave behavior (and this was documented in the KGB archives.)

But nobody openly prized his suicidal bravery when Stalin took a personal interest in Mandelshtam. When Stalin called Boris Pasternak for his opinion, Pasternak tried to diminish the significance of the poem to divert the tyrant’s anger. Eventually, Mandelshtam was exiled to Cherdyn. After a suicide attempt, his sentence was commuted to exile in the big provincial city of Voronezh (1935-37) where he wrote three notebooks of poetry. Kept by his wife Nadezhda, Mandelshtam’s Voronez Poems, published in 1990, are the closest approximation to what the poet planned to write if he had survived.

Mandelshtam was arrested again for "counter-revolutionary" activities in May of 1938 and sentenced to five years in a labor camp. During his interrogation he confessed to having written counter-revolutionary poems. In the transit camp Mandelshtam was already too weak to stand. He died in the Gulag in Vtoraya Rechka, near Vladivostok, on December 27, 1938. It was said that he was last seen alive reading the poetry of Alexander Pushkin to criminals who spared him a place near the bonfire. His body was buried in a common grave.

International fame came to Mandelshtam in the 1970s. In 1973, 35 years after his death, the first large Soviet edition of his collected poetry was published and, subsequently, his works were published in the West. At the time I was in college when I first read his lines inspired by Homer’s Iliad, which I also loved very much. Mandelshtam was captivated by Mediterranean culture and wove many references to the themes of classical Greece into his poetry.

Homer. Insomnia. The sails are taut. The list
Of soaring ships I’ve read up to the middle.
This train of cranes, the longest brood, the riddle
Rose up and vanished over Hellas going East.
... (Translated by Alex Sitnitsky)

Portrait of Osip Mandelshtam
by Pablo Picasso


Mandelshtam’s present fame owes to his poetry being not so much a reflection of contemporary political events but instead a reflection of personal human feelings and major philosophical questions of humanity in general European cultural tradition. The classical motif design on the commemorative stamp from the postal card reflects this quality of the poet. Indeed the works of Osip Emilyevich Mandelshtam do not belong to a certain epoch but rather they have a touch of eternity.



about the author
Vitaly Charny

Vitaly Charny was born in Minsk in 1953 and was brought up there. He graduated from Belarus State University in 1975 with a major in Nuclear Physics but couldn’t pursue a scientific career in the Soviet Union. He immigrated to the US with his family as political refugees in 1989. He worked in different places and fields including as a librarian assistant at NYU and at a lizard breeding farm in Alabama. For the last few years he has lived in Birmingham, Alabama, and has worked as a programmer-analyst for a Computer Science Corporation. His hobbies and interests include  philately (with Judaica as one of the topics); butterflies and dragonflies monitoring and photography; Jewish history of the Russian Empire/ USSR, military history, and the history of Russian Art; hiking; Jewish genealogy, including the origin and distribution of Jewish surnames in Minsk Gubernia; aquariums, terrariums, and wild flowers.