Osip Mandelstam plaque, St. Petersburg

Click on photos to enlarge.

The words on the plaque say: “In this building, in December of 1930, the poet Osip Mandelstam wrote ‘I returned to the city I know as I know my own tears’.” Almost exactly eight years later he would be dead, starving and freezing to death on December 28, 1938 while in transit to Siberia for what was to be a five-year sentence in the labor camps. That happened following his second arrest. He had been arrested a first time in 1934 for writing a satirical poem about Joseph Stalin. These were not his only run-ins with the powers-that-be, however. He was sent by the Communist Party from Petersburg to the Caucasus in 1930 where he spent a few months before being allowed to return home. It was upon that return that he wrote the poem mentioned in the plaque.
The piece, which Mandelstam titled “Leningrad,” is no simple exercise in nostalgia, no simple declaration that, gee, it is “good to be back home.” It also hints at the way Leningrad, once called Petersburg, has declined in the years since he first moved there in his childhood. And it even seems to presage the bad end he would come to, with its final references to “important guests” – i.e., the authorities – to whom he will have to open his door by sliding back the “shackles” of the “chain on the door.” You see, he already perceived the chain lock on his door as shackles of a sort.
The late days of 1930, turning to the year 1931, were a difficult time in the Soviet Union, and things would get only worse after that. The poet Vladimir Mayakovsky, Mandelstam’s acclaimed colleague, had shot himself (or, less likely, been shot by the authorities)  in April. The Soviet government brought to a fruition the brutal attacks against the kulaks, wealthy peasants, throughout the year of 1930. The famed Cathedral of Christ the Savior was demolished in 1931. In 1932 several independent writers’ organizations were closed down and replaced by what would become the Communist Party-controlled Soviet Union of Writers. Arrests of writers and artists began increasing in 1932 and 1933. By the time Mandelstam was arrested for the first time in 1934, the machine of terror and repression was beginning to work voraciously and efficiently.
I don’t know whether it is the effect of knowing Mandelstam’s subsequent fate, or whether the poet really did fill his poem with foreboding, but I see doom and gloom everywhere in this short piece. I see it particularly when he declares he is not yet ready to die (he was not yet 40 at the time of the writing), and when he notes that he knows all the addresses in the city where he can find the “voices of the dead.”
I photographed the plaque and the building on which it hangs on a hot, sunny day in St. Petersburg in the spring of 2018. I knew at the time it would probably be my last trip ever to the city on the Neva River, so, over a five-day period, I took a riverboat-load of photographs. Here are some shots of the apartment building at 31, 8th Line on Vasilyevsky Ostrov, where Mandelstam once lived with his wife Nadezhda. His poem of return coincides with my farewell to the city.

The translation of Mandelstam’s “Leningrad” below is rather rudimentary. However, I offer my own version because the others I found on the net missed a thing or two that I thought needed inclusion. However, check out the translations by Dina Belyayeva and John Dougherty by all means. In some places, particularly in Dougherty’s rendition, these alternatives do better than I.
I returned to the city I know as I know my own tears,
To the veins and swollen tonsils of my childhood years,
You’ve come back again, so go on now, inhale
The river lamps of Leningrad filled with fish oil.
Go ahead, recall those days of December
Where egg yolks mix with evil-smelling tar.
Petersburg! No, I’m not yet ready to die
While  you still know my every telephone number.
Petersburg! I still know every address
Where I can hear the voices of the dead.
I live on the back stairs where my temples are pierced
By a door bell that barely hangs by a thread.
All night long I expect guests so important,
Constantly shaking the shackles of the chain on the door.



4 thoughts on “Osip Mandelstam plaque, St. Petersburg”

  1. Thank you for this soulful tribute. Tragic stories: Mandelstam’s, the Soviet people’s. (And maybe in some way your own, as it sounds like you are experiencing exile from St. Petersburg?) Gah. The heartbreak. We need the poets to bear witness and the cultural historians/translators/journalists like you to bring our scattered attention back to them with fresh urgency. Огромное спасибо.

    1. And thank you, Anna, for your response. I certainly do not want to overdramatize my own relationship with Russia, but it was a 40+ year love affair, 30 of which I lived and worked there. But as I increasingly saw signs of Mandelstam’s age returning to the Russia I lived in, I could no longer make a case for remaining. You’re a very good reader! Thank you, again.

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