The Prose of Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam led a tragic life. He was a poet, a writer of tremendous talent cursed to have lived in the days of Stalin’s totalitarianism. He wrote a poem about Stalin, reading it to perhaps six friends at a dinner. One of them was an informer. It was unlucky, and perhaps they were not to be blamed. They likely had some sort of prior record, and were afraid that somebody else would report about the poem and that they were there and they would die tortured in the gulag, so they did the reporting first.

That’s how totalitarianism works. Turns people into that which they say they will never become; and in normal circumstances would never even consider. Fear does that to people – and until you fear being tortured for no good reason, you cannot judge them. But I digress, Osip was betrayed. Stalin decided he should be “isolated but preserved” so he ended up being exiled. With only a few courageous friends willing to try and find him work. Unable to feed himself and his wife. Afraid to write.

Until he was picked up again, randomly, for whatever reason that Stalin decided. And he died, nobody really knew where and when but it was likely December 26th in 1938.

Mandelstam was a Russian writer. Russian writing is so complicated – and it cannot be adequately understood in a foreign language. We don’t understand the Russians – that at least is obvious, especially in these days of war. They are western, but are they? They are sophisticated painters and writers and they love dance music and to drink at parties. They are like us, right? Then out of nowhere, levels of wickedness and brutality that are beyond comprehension. Cue Ukraine right now.

The Black Sea basin is my heartland, somehow. Russia is fascinating, I can’t wait until it is free to get to know it. I will visit the places that Mandelstam wandered. I’ll visit the Hermitage and the Kremlin and commune with Russians and try and understand the sorrow of their ancient story. A story of which Mandelstam was a tiny part – but emblematic.

About Joel D. Hirst

Joel D. Hirst is a novelist and a playwright. His most recently released work is "Dreams of the Defeated: A Play in Two Acts" about a political prisoner in a dystopian regime. His novels include "I, Charles, From the Camps" about the life of a young man in the African camps and "Lords of Misrule" about the making and unmaking of a jihadist in the Sahara. "The Lieutenant of San Porfirio" and its sequel "The Burning of San Porfirio" are about the rise and fall of socialist Venezuela (with magic).
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2 Responses to The Prose of Osip Mandelstam

  1. I learned of Mandelstam about a year ago and wrote this about him: Just ran across Osip Mandelstam – Russian poet who was sentenced to a Gulag for a poem critical of Stalin. His life was spared after Stalin contacted Pasternak to see if Mandelstam was as good as his reputation. “He is a genius, right?”, Stalin is reported to have asked.

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    • Then stalin decided to kill him. I’m rereading journey to armenia right now. his trip to armenia marked a before and an after in his life and his work. it sort of did for me as well, i read the little book during my first month in armenia so I’m rereading it now 3 years later – he seems to have felt the same way I did about that little country.

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