INTRODUCTION TO OSIP MANDELSHTAM’S ‘ODE TO STALIN’

[H]is reproachful eyes caressed and gnawed me from his portrait.
(From Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks)

For many years the existence of Osip Mandelshtam’s “Ode to Stalin” was in doubt. With the publication of Nadezhda Mandelshtam’s Hope Against Hope, this doubt was resolved and the “Ode” became better known, though often indirectly through Nadezhda Yakovlevna’s authoritative account of its tortured birth as “a hymn of praise to Stalin” that was “required” of Mandelshtam, but that “did not achieve its purpose in saving his life”. In retrospect Mandelshtam wished to have the poem destroyed (he told Anna Akhmatova that “it was an illness”) but while isolating it from the Mandelshtam’s Voronezh Notebooks, Nadezhda Yakovlevna decided to preserve it: otherwise “the truth would be incomplete”. Unlike the Notebooks, the “Ode” was composed at a table: “He had never done anything like this before: paper and pencil were always needed only at the end of his work on a poem, to copy it out when it was already composed in his head. But for the sake of the ‘Ode’ he changed all his habits. … Every morning he seated himself at the table and picked up the pencil as a writer is supposed to. To write an ode to Stalin it was necessary to get in tune, like a musical instrument, by deliberately giving way to the general hypnosis and putting oneself under the spell of the liturgy which in those days blotted out all human voices. Without this, a real poet could never compose such a thing; he would never have had that kind of ready facility. M. thus spent the beginning of 1937 conducting a grotesque experiment on himself. Working himself up into the state of mind needed to write the ‘Ode’, he was in effect deliberately upsetting the balance of his own mind” as he struggled to celebrate “the man… [who] so dominated our minds”.1

Some readers have joined Nadezhda Yakovlevna in judging the “Ode” harshly. Czesław Miłosz, who admired Mandelshtam, regarded it as “a disgusting [piece of] Byzantianism whose exaggerated compliments know no shame nor measure”; he wondered whether Mandelshtam might not have tried a little harder to write less accomplished verse. Joseph Brodsky, on the other hand, praised the “Ode” as a remarkable accomplishment, and inasmuch as it is a remarkably accomplished work of “a real poet”, the “Ode” is necessarily more than the hyperbolic compliment that disgusted Miłosz. “To my taste, the best thing written about Stalin is Mandelshtam’s ‘Ode’ of 1937”, Brodsky told Solomon Volkov. “In my view, this may be the grandest poem Mandelshtam ever wrote. Even more. This poem may be one of the most significant events in all of twentieth-century Russian literature. … You know, if I were Joseph Vissarionovich, I wouldn’t have been at all cross over the [1933] satirical poem”, the Stalin “Epigram” which led to Mandelshtam’s arrest in spring 1934, “but after the ‘Ode,’ if I were Stalin, I would have slit Mandelshtam’s throat immediately. I would have realised that he’d violated me, he’d moved in, and there’s nothing more frightening or shocking than that.” Mandelshtam “was taking a remarkable theme that runs all through Russian literature, ‘the poet and the tsar’. In the final analysis, this theme is resolved to a certain degree in the poem inasmuch as it points to how close the tsar and the poet are. To do this Mandelshtam makes use of the fact that he and Stalin share the same first name [Osip=Iosif=Joseph]. So his rhymes become existential. … Say what you like, but I repeat that Mandelshtam’s poem about Stalin is brilliant… the most stunning poem Mandelshtam ever wrote. I think Stalin suddenly understood what it was all about. Stalin realised that Mandelshtam wasn’t his namesake but [that] he, Stalin, was Mandelshtam’s. … I think it was this that suddenly hit Stalin – and served as the reason for Mandelshtam’s death. Evidently Stalin felt someone had come too close to him.”

Brodsky imagines Stalin as Mandelshtam’s reader, and what Brodsky imagines is also very likely. The “Ode” was among the poems that Mandelshtam offered the Writers Union for publication in 1938. It is mentioned in the review of those poems that accompanied a 16 March 1938 letter from Vladimir Stavsky, the General Secretary of the Writers Union, to Nikolai Yezkov, the Soviet Commissar of Internal Affairs. The letter describes Mandelshtam as “a writer of obscene, libellous verse about the leadership of the Party and all the Soviet people” and while the accompanying review finds “some good lines in the ‘Verses about Stalin’”, it concludes that the “Ode” is “worse than its individual stanzas”: “There is a great deal of clumsy phrasing which is inappropriate to the theme of Stalin.” Of the “Ode” and the other poems Mandelshtam offered the Writers Union, the review recommends against publication: “If I were asked, should these poems be published? I would answer, No, they should not.” The reviewer, Pyotr Pavlenko, admits that “it is hard for me to review these poems” because “I neither like nor understand them” and “cannot assess their possible significance or value”. In the letter to Yezhov that accompanied the Pavlenko review, Stavsky recommends Mandelshtam’s arrest. Vitaly Shentalinsky, who has studied the NKVD archives, believes that Yezhov held the Stavsky letter for a month, discussed it with Stalin, and only then ordered the report to be drafted which said that it was “necessary … to arrest and isolate Mandelshtam”.2 While Stalin did not initiate Mandelshtam’s arrest, it is likely then that he had read “Ode” when he approved the arrest. Mandelshtam’s five-year sentence to hard labour in the Gulag turned out to be a death sentence (Mandelshtam was afflicted with a chronic heart condition), but it is unclear whether a death sentence was the intent. The Stavsky letter was written a day after Nikolai Bukharin, Mandelshtam’s patron, was shot. In 1934, when Mandelstam was first arrested, then exiled, the order from Stalin was “to isolate but preserve”. In 1938, preservation may no longer have been required though it is unclear whether it was precluded. What did Stalin do? Would he have remembered Bukharin’s warning in 1934 that “the poets are always right” because “history is on their side”? Did he still wonder whether Mandelshtam was “the master”, the question he asked Pasternak in 1934? But perhaps Brodsky is right, perhaps Stalin did feel that Mandelshtam “had come too close”.

The ode that Brodsky celebrates is quite different from the hymn that Nadezhda Mandelshtam described and that Miłosz denounced. It is, however, the poem that I have tried – and am still trying – to translate: this poem that came too close.3

It “is both an ode and a satire”, Brodsky thought, not a satire of an ode, but an ode taken to such an extreme that it becomes a satire: “out of the combination of these two opposite aspirations arises an utterly new quality … a fantastic work of art … cubist, almost poster-like … with fantastic, constantly changing angles”. A reader can approach the seven sections of the poem as seven attempts to sketch a portrait of Stalin, but the force of each of these sketches, of their cubism with their “constantly changing angles”, depends on readers’ perspectives, on how each reading is performed. As such the “Ode” resembles Shostakovich’s 1937 ode to joy, his Fifth Symphony, where, played to its extremes, celebration also becomes satire and “the rejoicing is forced, created under a threat” (Shostakovich’s description of the symphony near the end of his life when he felt he could speak explicitly about his intent). Brodsky compares the “Lines about Stalin” to the 1933 “Epigram”, another example of Mandelshtam’s poster-art, whose intent – unlike the “Ode” – is unmistakably clear. According to Nadezhda Yakovlevna, Mandelshtam told his Lubyanka interrogator in 1934 that he had composed the “Epigram” because “more than anything else he hated fascism”. He “was tired of the deafness of his listeners”, Nadezhda Yakovlevna writes. “He was concerned to make his Stalin poem comprehensible and accessible to anybody. … [H]e did not want to die before stating in unambiguous terms what he thought about the things going on around us.” In the “Epigram”, Stalin, the “Kremlin’s Gorets [кремлевского горца]”,4 is simply monstrous, his fingers are like maggots, his moustache like a cockroach, his taste for executions like his appetite for raspberries.5 For those to whom Mandelshtam recited the “Epigram”, it must have often felt like a curse. It was dangerous to hear, better not to hear or to forget what you heard, but how to forget, and once heard should it be reported or should listeners put themselves at risk as accessories. “The first people to hear the poem were horrified”, Nadezhda Mandelshtam writes. To experience the menace that the “Epigram” stirred was to experience fascism, the fascist Gorets, as terror. The relation to fascism is more subtle in the “Ode”.

Where the 1933 “Epigram” offers an unambiguous attack on a fascist dictator, the “Ode” can be read as a celebration of fascism, but inasmuch as the celebration is fascist, it exposes Stalin as fascist as well. If the “Ode” were simply “a hymn of praise”, it would still be the hymn of a terrified man. Insofar as the terror is apparent (shown if not said, showing through without saying), the praise becomes terror’s legible index and the celebratory words, terror’s many names. At the same time, inasmuch as the “Ode” offers its indices as moments of potential revelation, the fascist hymn of praise (a Stalinist genre) can turn into a form of prophecy, where “rising from the dead, I say the sun is shining” – a prophecy that can be realised by any reader since with each reading, Mandelshtam does rise from the dead; he does say “the sun is shining”. The “Ode” as prophecy transforms the hymn of praise, a metamorphic becoming that, despite Mandelshtam’s terror, offers its poetry as blessing. Perhaps as a “grotesque experiment”, the “Ode” discovered this prophetic vision. The “Ode” may seem to end with Stalin’s name: “for courage and for love, for honour and for steel, / there is a given name that glories on my Reader’s / taut lips”, but inasmuch as the name “on my Reader’s … lips” is also a first name [имя] – not a last name [фамилия] – the name that goes unspoken is not “Stalin” (the revolutionary name that Stalin adopted as his new фамилия), but the имя, Christian (or Jewish) name, that Stalin and Mandelshtam shared: “Osip”, “Iosif”.6 Is Mandelshtam’s poem only an ode to Stalin, then, to the Gorets who “griev[es] mountains” and “looms above the mounds of heads”, or is it also an ode to himself, to the poet who is “rising from the dead”? When we listen, whose name do we hear?7

As Nadezhda Mandelshtam suggests in Hope Against Hope, the “Ode” plays on the phonetic likeness between Mandelshtam’s and Stalin’s given names. In its image of “the mir’s axis [мира ось]”,8 in its “axis of a likeness [сходства ось]”, a syllable common to both names appears.9 As a phonetic image, “the ось of a likeness” may recall the concluding innuendo in the 1933 “Epigram” where Mandelshtam called Stalin an Ossetian.10 The same “likeness” recurs in other Voronezh poems. The syllable “осъ” might be regarded as a phonetic centre on which the semantic force of many of the poems turns, an axis for which the given names of the poet and the dictator provide the poles.11 Of course the English word “axis” does not offer this phonetic image, the overdeterminations that the ось stirs, but I have tried where possible to translate Mandelshtam’s Russian with English words that offer the “Ode”’s phonetic image: in the words “loss”, for example, or “cost”, “close”, “whose” – or “oscillation”: “Were I to work in charcoal that would draw the highest praise – / my ode to joy – its silent oscillation…” While the phrase “silent oscillation” does not translate any specific Russian phrase in the “Ode”, perhaps it translates faithfully by offering a brief commentary on the dynamics of the poem as a whole, its oscillations between Mandelshtam and Stalin. A literal translation of the “Ode”’s concluding lines would read: “for honour and for steel [стали], / there is a given name that glories on the Reader’s / taut lips and we’ve grasped it [or grasped him, и мы его застали]”. The “Ode” ends with the sound of Stalin’s name (стали, застали) even as a different name (or names – Иосиф, Осип) is indicated. In order to translate this misdirection, I have added the English phrase “gasping still” – its half rhyme with “steel” as another brief commentary and as a way in conclusion of translating Mandelshtam’s audacity. Who is the “warrior” that the “Ode”’s hymn of praise celebrates? Who is the “wise man” for whom the future is a comrade as “it listens”, as “it dares”?12 “No truth is truer than the warrior’s candour”, the “Ode” says, but whose правда, whose truth? In the Voronezh Notebooks, Mandelshtam refers to the “Ode” and its truths in this way:

At the slaughter, clear words guide me to protect
the living – with the earth my country where my
death sleeps like a Soviet owl in daylight and
a Moscow lens burns crystal facets through my ribcage.

I know the Kremlin’s words will not protect me,
but with Kremlin-words, with militant gestures
and the head, the brow, the loving eyes – his portrait,
my collage – I have strengthened my defences …

And earth listens – earth, the other country –
to the slaughter chiming with a chorus that
“the slaves must not be slaves, the slaves must
not be slaves” – a chorus that I arm with hours.

NOTES

1 As Nadezhda Mandelshtam recalled in Hope Against Hope, “M. never talked of ‘writing’ verse, only of ‘composing’ it and then copying it out.” With the exception of the “Ode”, a poem always began for him apart from paper and pencil or pen, not as words to write down but as a humming in his ear that was too insistent to ignore or escape. Then as he paced up and down – sometimes in a room, sometimes in the street – his lips would begin to move, he would murmur, the humming would turn into words. Only when the poem had settled would he write it down or – more often – speak it aloud to Nadezhda Mandelshtam for her to record. For the Stalin “Ode”, on the other hand, Mandelshtam adopted a different approach: he tried to become like other writers.

2 Inasmuch as Stalin had taken an active interest in the Mandelshtam case in 1934, it seems improbable that Yezhov would have had the temerity to act independently in 1938. Hence the one month delay in acting on Stavsky’s recommendation. “[T]he police had to wait for a decision from Stalin”, Nadezhda Mandelshtam writes. “[W]ithout such authorisation it was impossible to arrest M. on account of Stalin’s personal order in 1934 to ‘isolate but preserve him’.”

3 This translation is a reworking of an earlier attempt that Raina Kostova and I published in 2003. Whenever it feels as if we were living in a time of troubles – and what is the present if not such a time – I find it cathartic to return to the effort to translate Mandelshtam’s poetry. Of course no translation is ever finished. Every translation is provisional, at best waiting silently for another wording.

4 In Russian горец means “mountaineer” or “mountain-man”, but the word is overdetermined by meanings of near homonyms: гора (mountain), горе (sorrow, grief), гореч (bitterness), and гореть (to burn or rot). As the Kremlin’s Gorets, Stalin is a man of the mountains and a man of sorrows, of a bitterness that burns and rots. While the “Ode” does not call Stalin a gorets, it sketches him as a man from the mountains: he was “born from grieving mountains [горах] and the bitter cost [горечь] of prisons”; “as if his dais were a mountain [горы] – he looms / above the mounds of heads”.

5       We live without feeling a strange country

        beneath us – so close but no one is heard –

        and wherever I grasp the half-words

        you murmur, the Kremlin’s Gorets stirs.

          His fingers are fat – maggots of grease –

        like old weights, his words are assured.

        He laughs, the cockroach-moustache bristles,

        the gloss of his boot-top dazzles.

        And sly-necked bosses circle around him – he

        plays with the lives of the half-men who chatter –

        who warble, who hiss, who whistle, who mew –

        he alone batters, he beats, he fingers –

        he hammers out horseshoes, he forges decrees –

        for you on the forehead, for you in the eyes,

        for you in the groin, for you in the face.

        The great chest swells – executions are

        sweet – as raspberries at an Ossetian feast.

6 In Russian, “Osip” and “Iosif” are two forms of the same name: “Joseph”.

7 Gregory Freidin, who thinks of the poem as an ode to the “two Josephs”, discounts any irony or satire in its panegyric: “Mandelshtam’s idea of himself and his art, his view of his ‘crime’ and approaching death, his vision of Stalin and the posthumous life of his poetry – all are contained in the ‘Ode’ and are presented with a skill that would have been appreciated in the Greece of the tyrants or Augustan Rome and should, therefore, be of aesthetic value in our own day. To judge by the formal features alone, the poem belongs to one of the most difficult genres of panegyric poetry, the Pindaric ode … and conforms to the basic scheme of the ancient genre of glorifying a supreme leader. … It is safe to assume that Mandelshtam, who must have been aware of his priority in the genre, wished to produce something unique – a fitting tribute from a great master of verbal art to a great master of political power.” Given Mandelshtam’s affinity for Ovid and Ovid’s subversions, I wonder if it would be more accurate to say that what Mandelshtam produced was an Ovidian imitation of a Pindaric ode in which a master of political power begins to feel monstrous.

8 In Russian, мыр means “world”, but also “universe”, “village” and “peace”.

9 Given the way in which ось evokes Stalin’s and Mandelshtam’s given names, the Russian can be read to almost say: “the mir’s Joseph [Osip/Iosif]” and the “Joseph [Osip/Iosif] of a likeness”.

10 Stalin was not an Ossetian, he was a Georgian.

11 In “Lines on the Unknown Soldier”, a scene from a World War One battlefield becomes a dreamscape that turns on this axis: “Beyond the craters [the воронки], behind embankments, / scree [осыпи] – where he lingered, darkened / overturning – gloomy, pockmarked [оспенныи], the unsettled graves’ belittled genius.” The “craters [воронки]” not only allude to Voronezh but also to the “little ravens” in which the Cheka transported its prisoners. Stalin, whose face was badly pock-marked, lingers over the “scree” that bears a close phonetic resemblance to Mandelshtam’s given name. At the same time, a draft-fragment for “The Unknown Soldier” offers the kind of difficult celebration that Mandelshtam’s resurrection at the end of the “Ode” may also offer: “I stand / in a strange country, a companion / of the living for whom resurrection is … a reckoning – / a feral child, frightened by the light world, / in union with her inmates / in a universe of comrades: / all the living – all of life – will name me.”

12 Alternatively, the pronoun его might be translated not as “it” but as “he”: “now he listens”, and “now he dares”. If translated in this way, would the antecedent of “he” – the “wise man”, the “warrior” – be Mandelshtam as well as Stalin? Freidin notes that the Stalin “Ode” mirrors the form of a Pindaric ode quite faithfully with “triadic divisions within stanzas that follow the pattern of strophe, antistrophe, and epode”. In the third stanza (“Artist, cherish, shield the warrior”), the warrior in the strophe, antistrophe and epode is clearly Stalin; the poet seems incidental. In the seventh stanza however (“And in my six-oathed consciousness I tally”), while the strophe celebrates Stalin, the antistrophe celebrates Mandelshtam (“I say the sun is shining”), and the antecedent for “warrior” in the first line of the epode could as easily be Mandelshtam as Stalin. Given that recognition – as “we listen” – we might well in retrospect begin to identify the warrior in the third stanza with Mandelshtam as well. Furthermore, while the poem is an ode to Stalin, the “Ode”’s protagonist is the poet who sketches with the Promethean coal, who thanks the Voronezh hills, who rises from the dead, who says the sun is shining.

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