Sunday, January 15, 2017

Birth of Osip Mandelstam (January 15, 1891)

Osip Mandelstam, a famous Russian poet, was the author of one of the finest essays on Armenia in the twentieth century. His sojourn in the country helped him end his poetic block during the years when Stalinism was in the rise and his own life would end in a concentration camp.
Mandelstam was born to a wealthy Jewish family on January 15, 1891, in Warsaw (Poland), then part of the Russian Empire. Soon after his birth, his father, a leather merchant, was able to receive a dispensation that freed their family from the Pale of Settlement—the western region of the empire where Jews were confined to live—and allowed them to move to the capital Saint Petersburg.
Mandelstam entered the prestigious Tenishevsky School in 1900 and published his first poems in the school almanac (1907). After studying in Paris (1908) and Heidelberg (1909-1910), he decided to continue his education at the University of St. Petersburg in 1911. Since Jews were forbidden to attend it, he converted to Methodism and entered the university the same year, but did not obtain a formal degree. He formed the Poets’ Guild in 1911 with several other young poets. The core of this group was known by the name of Acmeists. Mandelstam wrote The Morning of Acmeism, the manifesto for the new movement, in 1913. In the same year, he published his first collection of poems, The Stone.
Mandelstam married Nadezhda Khazina (1899-1980) in 1922 in Kiev (Ukraine) and moved to Moscow. In the same year, he published in Berlin his second book of poems, Tristia. Afterwards, he focused on essays, literary criticism, memoirs, and small-format prose. His refusal to adapt to the increasingly totalitarian state, together with frustration, anger, and fear, took their toll and by 1925 Mandelstam stopped writing poetry. He earned his living by translating literature into Russian and working as a correspondent for a newspaper.
In 1930 Nikolai Bukharin, still one of the Soviet leaders and a “friend in high places,” managed to obtain permission for Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam for an eight-month visit to Armenia. During his stay, Osip Mandelstam rediscovered his poetic voice and was inspired to write both poems about Armenia and an experimental meditation on the country and its ancient culture, Journey to Armenia (published in 1933): “The Armenians’ fullness with life, their rude tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to anything metaphysical and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things – all of this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.” As poet Seamus Heaney, winner of the Nobel Prize of Literature, wrote in 1981, “The old Christian ethos of Armenia and his own inner weather of feeling came together in a marvelous reaction that demonstrates upon the pulses the truth of his belief that ‘the whole of our two-thousand-year-old culture is a setting of the world free for play.’ Journey to Armenia, then, is more than a rococo set of impressions. It is the celebration of a poet’s return to his senses. It is a paean to the reality of poetry as a power as truly present in the nature of things as the power of growth itself.”
Mandelstam was ferociously criticized in Pravda for failing to notice “the thriving, bustling Armenia which is joyfully building socialism” and for using “a style of speaking, writing and travelling cultivated before the Revolution,” meaning that it was counterrevolutionary.
In November 1933 Mandelstam composed the poem “Stalin Epigram” (also known as “The Kremlin Highlander”), which was a sharp criticism of the climate of fear in the Soviet Union. He read it at a few small private gatherings in Moscow. Six months later, in 1934, he was arrested and sentenced to exile in Cherdyn (Northern Ural), where he was accompanied by his wife. After he attempted suicide, the sentence was reduced to banishment from the largest cities in European Russia, following an intercession by Bukharin. The Mandelstams chose Voronezh.
This proved a temporary reprieve. In 1937 the literary establishment began to attack Mandelstam, accusing him of anti-Soviet views. In May 1938 he was arrested and charged with “counter-revolutionary activities.” He was sentenced to five years in correction camps in August. He arrived to a transit camp near Vladivostok, in the far east of Russia, and died from an “unspecified illness” on December 27, 1938.
Like so many Soviet writers, after the death of Stalin, in 1956 Mandelstam was rehabilitated and exonerated from the charges brought again him in 1938. His full rehabilitation came in 1987, when he was exonerated from the 1934 charges. Nadezhda Mandelstam managed to preserve a significant part of her husband’s work written in exile and to hide manuscripts. She even worked to memorize his entire corpus of poetry, given the real danger that all copies of his poetry would be destroyed. She arranged for the clandestine republication of Mandelstam’s poetry in the 1960s and 1970s, and also wrote memoirs of their life and times, the most important being Hope against Hope (1970).