On December 27, 1938, Russian-Jewish poet Osip Mandelstam died, in the gulag in the far east of the Soviet Union. He was 47 years old. Mandelstam was a pioneer of a new school of naturalistic poetry, but also wrote fiction and essays. Because he refused to toe the party line, and under the rule of Joseph Stalin, even dared to criticize and mock the totalitarian leader by name, nothing he wrote during his final years could be published until some three decades after his death.
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Osip Emilyevich Mandelstam was born on January 15, 1891 in Warsaw, then under Russian rule. His father, Emil Hackel Mandelstam, was a Riga-born leather merchant who had given up his rabbinical training in order to pursue secular studies in Germany. His mother, the former Flora Werblowsky, was from a well-off, cultivated Jewish family from Vilna. She worked as a music teacher.
Emil had permission to live with his family outside of the Pale of Settlement, and Osip grew up in the imperial capital of St. Petersburg. There, beginning at age 8, he attended the prestigious Tenishev school, in whose literary journal he published some of his first poems.
Conversion of convenience
Toward the end of high school, a period of high revolutionary ferment, Osip had a flirtation with a socialist-revolutionary organization. To remove him from harm’s way, his parents sent him to Paris. He spent the next three years there, and in Heidelberg and Switzerland, studying, writing poetry and meeting with like-minded fellow artists.
He returned to St. Petersburg in 1911, and on a brief visit to Finland, joined the Finnish Methodist church, a move apparently intended to allow him to gain admission to St. Petersburg University, which had a strict quota on Jewish students. He was only a mediocre student, and left the university before graduating, in 1915.
At the same time, Mandelstam was becoming involved with a group of poets, including Anna Akhmatova and her then-husband Nikolai Gumilyov, who rejected the then-fashionable mysticism of Russian Symbolism, and forged a literary movement they called Acmeism. Mandelstam began publishing in Russia’s leading literary journal, Apollon, and in 1913, he brought out his first small book of poetry, called “Kamen” (Stone), whose publication was underwritten by his father.
Mandelstam did not enlist in World War I, and though he was sympathetic to the revolution in 1917, he did not support the Bolsheviks in the civil war. In 1919, he began a relationship with writer Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina; they formally married in 1922 and settled in Moscow. That same year he published the poetry collection “Tristia,” a masterpiece of romantic humanism.
'Slayer of peasants'
Mandelstam’s political troubles began in the 1930s, under Stalin. By then, he had given up poetry for essays, travel literature and fiction, before returning to verse. As he witnessed the communist regime’s cruel experiments in social engineering, he gave voice to his revulsion in poetry, writing his “Stalin Epigram” in 1933, in which he referred to the dictator as a “slayer of peasants.”
For his own reasons, Stalin did not have Mandelstam executed, but instead had his henchmen “isolate, but preserve” the poet, sending him into exile in the northern Urals. He was accompanied by Nadezhda, who did her best to preserve every page he wrote, and also to memorize his work.
After a failed attempt at suicide, Mandelstam was permitted to move to a more comfortable place of his own choosing, which was Voronezh. There he wrote some of what became his best-known poetry, published decades later as the “Voronezh Notebooks.” But his health was poor, and he and Nadezhda had almost no income, and there was no question of any of his work being published.
In 1937, his term of exile ended, Mandelstam returned to Moscow. But he was considered too dangerous to the regime, and he was arrested in May 1938 and sent to a labor camp after being tried for “anti-Soviet agitation.” He died at the Vtoraya Rechka transit camp, near Vladivostok, on December 27, and was buried in an unmarked grave.
Years later, after Mandelstam’s posthumous political rehabilitation, a street at the site of the transit camp where he died was renamed for him.