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There is no getting around the emotion that comes with the territory of artists and writers who were repressed during the Purges. It is a wound that does not heal. People do what they can – they write books, they translate poetry, they put up monuments or memorial plaques, they name festivals or streets or cultural centers after them – and that’s all great and wonderful. No doubt about it. But the pain and the anger do not go away.
Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938) was one of the finest and most distinctive Russian poets ever to live. “Russian,” of course, is a reference to language. Had Mandelshtam remained where he was born (Warsaw), he probably would have written in Polish and the Poles would have claimed him. He was born Jewish and so is often referred to as a Jewish writer, although he converted to the Christian faith in 1911 in order to be able to enter the Romantic and Germanic section of the History and Philology Department of Moscow University. Although I must immediately say that, indeed, Mandelshtam remained a Jewish writer throughout his life. His decision to accept Christianity was undertaken because of his love for literature, language and knowledge, and for no other reason. But I bring it up because I think this is a great opportunity to remind ourselves what difficulties we encounter when we begin labeling people and their work.
Mandelshtam began running into troubles with the Soviet authorities in the early 1930s. He was first arrested May 13, 1934 and sent into exile to the city of Cherdyn. Thanks to the intervention of Anna Akhmatova, he was able to move with his wife Nadezhda (who later became famous as the author of memoirs about Mandelshtam) to Voronezh. They occupied several different apartments while in Voronezh, but it is the one located at 13 Fridrikh Engels Street that has been graced with a memorial plaque. It is a huge, long building that runs almost half a long, city block. At one corner of the building – the farthest point from where the plaque is located – there is a food store with a picture of ground meat hanging outside. It seems rather fitting. The Mandelshtams lived here for part of 1936.
The plaque itself has been put under siege by an ignorant insurance company, Zhaso, that damn near set its little advertising marquee right on the top of the plaque. Just to the left of the doorway that Zhaso added to the building by way of an old window, you’ll see a proper doorway under an arch. One assumes, since the plaque is located at this end of the building, that this is the door Mandelshtam would have used to go in and out.
If you look closely at the middle photo in the trio above, you’ll see dots of wet spots caused by big rain drops hitting the building. The fact is that almost as soon as Oksana and I arrived at this spot in town, a cloud burst above us. It began as huge drops of rain whacking us, and others, in the face, but quickly turned into large chunks of hailstones that bounced off of everything like crazy. We took cover under an awning across the street and pondered our, and Mandelshtam’s, place in the world.
In April 1935, that is, before Mandelshtam moved into the apartment at this address, he wrote a short poem, which I will provide here in a hasty translation. It plays with verbs and nouns that echo the sound of the name “Voronezh,” for which I will not find adequate replacements. But here goes a translation for general meaning (followed by a transliteration and the original Russian so you can see his word and sound play):
Let me go, give me up, Voronezh:
Whether you drop me or you fumble me,
Let me slip or send me back –
Voronezh is bliss, Voronezh is a raven, a knife.
Pusti menia, otdai menia, Voronezh:
Uronish’ ty menia il’ provoronish’,
Ty vyronish’ menia ili vernyosh’, –
Voronezh – blazh’, Voronezh – voron, nozh.
Пусти меня, отдай меня, Воронеж: Уронишь ты меня иль проворонишь, Ты выронишь меня или вернешь,— Воронеж — блажь, Воронеж — ворон, нож.
According to one Russian poetry site, Mandelshtam wrote over 80 poems in Voronezh between April 1935 and May 4, 1937.
Back in Moscow, in the middle of the night between May 1 and 2, 1938, Mandelshtam was arrested again and, essentially, sent immediately to Siberia by way of a couple of Godforsaken towns in the outlying Moscow region. He died of typhus on December 27, 1938 in a labor camp near Vladivostok.
There are several sites that offer English translations of Mandelshtam’s poetry by A.S. Kline, Ilya Shambat, and others. But as you can see from the poem above, if you really want to know Mandelshtam, do what I did when I knew I had to know Tolstoy better: Learn Russian.