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This full-length statue of Osip Mandelshtam in the south corner of the Orlyonok Park in Voronezh is something of a sleeper. When I first approached it I had just spent quite awhile standing outside one of the homes in which Mandelshtam had lived on Fridrikh Engels Street for a short while in 1936. (I wrote about that home and the plaque that hangs on one of its walls earlier on this site.) That proved to be a fairly emotional experience and maybe I just wasn’t ready yet for more when I walked across Tchaikovsky Street to the monument in the park. At first it seemed underwhelming. It seemed ignorable. It seemed not to have much of a presence. But then I began photographing and I could not stop. I shot from every angle, from a distance, from close-up, from below, from behind… The more I shot the less I wanted to leave. The image changed and took on new nuances when people walked by, when they stopped and looked. In short, this monument by Lazar Gadaev turned out to be very much alive.
There is something incredibly vulnerable about it. Mandelshtam seems to be wounded and in pain, although he is bearing it. He is holding out. He’s giving that tie a bit of a tug, he lifts his face up. He’s struggling for a position of dignity. This is the poet that the authorities hounded from about 1932 until they finally succeeded in killing him on Dec. 27, 1938. He spent a couple of years here in Voronezh in exile, having to move from apartment to apartment, never able to settle down into a normal life. He was ripped out of the literary life he had chosen for himself, and was ripped out of life itself, left to die in a prison camp outside of Vladivostok. Gadaev sculpted a man who is still alive but probably knows he will die, if not this year, then next, and if not next year, then surely the following year – and this death will not come by natural causes.
The emotion that visited me when wandering around outside the poet’s apartment building across the street returned to me when I went in for the close-up photos. From a distance you clearly recognize Mandelshtam’s face. But the closer you come to him, the less defined he is. He becomes more abstract, more of a suggestion, more imperfect. There is something right about that. The closer you come to greatness, the less clear you are about what it is.
There is also something moving about the very public placement of this monument. There are people walking by all the time – it’s a public park, after all, and the sculpture is located at a crossing of streets and paths, and just over a fence from a kiddie playground. At least in the time I was there, virtually no one paid Mandelshtam any attention. Everybody just walked on by, lost or buried in their own worlds, their own conversations, inner or shared. And this makes the poet’s sculpted loneliness even more cutting. He’s right here, ready to be wounded, open to hurt, but even that isn’t enough to make people notice. Ahhh!!!
A sculpture, if it’s any good, is always something that exists in a symbiotic relationship with its surroundings. And that sense of open vulnerability combined with a seeming indifference around it gives this sculpture a truly devastating effect. I was barely able to keep my composure by the time I was taking my last photos.
This monument was unveiled Sept. 4, 2008, two weeks before the sculptor died. Lazar Gadaev was born in North Ossetia on June 20, 1938. He died in Moscow Sept. 21, 2008. He was one of the most famous and accomplished sculptors ever to come out of Ossetia.
The popular satirical poet, scholar and playwright Dmitry Bykov lambasted this monument when he traveled to Voronezh in 2009. He was there to promote his recent books about Bulat Okudzhava and Boris Pasternak and, when asked about the Mandelshtam monument, he, well, he unloaded.
“I like the fact that it was put up,” he told Komsomolskaya Pravda. “But the monument is horrible. Don’t take that as ‘Ah, a Muscovite comes to town and unloads on our local tourist attraction!’ I don’t want to insult anyone, and, of course, I understand nothing about sculpture. But I don’t like the fact that it is done in an aesthetic that is diametrically opposed to that of Mandelshtam. It has nothing to do with him. Mandelshtam was a subtle poet. The monument is rough-cut. Maybe it symbolizes the poet’s rough fate and the way he was dealt with?”
A few other celebrities dissed the monument, too. Maybe they had too many people around them? Maybe they weren’t as lucky as I was to have a camera in hand, which forced me to see this work better? Maybe they spoke before they thought? Or maybe I’m just wrong. Although in this particular case, that is the last thing I would believe. Whatever the case, I love this sculpture. I think it does just what a sculpture should do: it makes us think; it makes us see its subject in and out of the usual context; it uses the surroundings to expand the effect of the work. There is an open wound “walking” the streets of Voronezh – the sculpture of Osip Mandelshtam by Lazar Gadaev. It remains one of the most memorable “visits” I paid to “friends” during my short time in Voronezh.