Friday, September 19, 2008

The Poem That Killed Ossip Mandelstam

Hi, y'all!

I'm back from Russia, and I brought a souvenir: The poem that killed Osip Mandelstam. All you need to know is (1) that the poem is about Stalin, (2) that "Ossette" refers to a rumor that Stalin came from an ethnic group of Iranian blood living in Georgia, and (3) that the poem was untitled.

Or maybe all you needed to know was item (1).

Here's the poem:

Journey to Armenia
by Ossip Mandelstam
We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,

[All but first couplet of the poem removed because it’s still in copyright]

So there I am in front of the Urals Heavy Machinery Plant ("Uralmash") with a group of friends, and they start pointing out that those buildings across the street were built by captured Germans after the war, and those other buildings by Russian labor, people denounced as spies by "friends" who wanted their apartment or their job or were maybe just snatched up from the street by underlings who had a quota to fill.

Then they tell me about this poem.

Osip Mandelstam was one of the great Russian poets of the Twentieth Century. In 1933 he wrote the above poem, which he was not foolish enough to publish, but distributed quietly, by hand, among his friends. Somebody talked. Stalin read the poem. Not long after, Mandelstam was sent to the gulags. He died there.

They told me that what really pissed Stalin off was being compared to a cockroach.

All best,


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