Tag Archives: Osip Mandelshtam

Osip Mandelshtam monument, Voronezh

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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.

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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.

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Osip Mandelshtam plaque, Voronezh

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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.

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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.

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Andrei Platonov plaque, Moscow


Andrei Platonov (1899-1951, real last name Klimentov) is a writer about whom you will often see the words, “the best writer you’ve never read.” At least that’s true in the English-speaking world. Most of Platonov’s works – he wrote novels, stories, poetry and plays – were buried in the noise of their time. The vast majority of them have come back to us in recent decades. He was already in the process of being rediscovered in the late Soviet period, but it was after the fall of the wall that he came to us more or less in full light and full flight. The plaque commemorating the fact that he lived at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard (not to be confused with Tverskaya Streeet) from 1931 until his death in 1951 is the work of sculptor Fedot Suchkov. According to Suchkov’s memoirs the bas relief that he created for the plaque originated in a bust he had made for the Platonov family and which was kept in the family home. Heinrich Boll, the great German writer and an admirer of Platonov, purchased a copy of the bas relief for his own personal collection. The plaque hangs not far from another honoring the fact that the poet Osip Mandelshtam also lived at this address for a brief period in the early 1930s. This is the same home in which the 19th-century publicist Alexander Herzen was born, and where the Gorky Literary Institute is located, all of which I have written about previously in this space.
Platonov’s sister-in-law Valentina Troshkina would later recall: “Andrei worked here a lot, he would take his writings to publishers, but only rarely could he publish under a pseudonym. Friends would sometimes gather on Tverskoi. Guests included [Mikhail] Sholokhov, [Alexander] Fadeev, Georges Chernyavshchuk, a marvelous person, although people said various things about him.” Troshkina’s comments, like those of Suchkov, are published in memoirs published on Platnov.narod, a fan-maintained website for the writer.


Troshkina tells another story I had never heard: When the Germans approached Moscow during World War II many Muscovites were evacuated, Platonov among them. According to Troshkina, he left almost his entire archive of unpublished writings with Troshkina’s husband Pyotr for safekeeping. Platonov took only one thing with him – a piece he called Journey from Leningrad to Moscow, based in spirit, at least, on the great Journey from Petersburg to Moscow by Alexander Radishchev (about whom I have written in this blog). The work apparently meant so much to Platonov that he actually tied the manuscript to his arm when he slept in the train, but somewhere, at some point, the string holding the valuable work of literary art  either slipped from the author’s arm or was clipped by a thief who surely had no idea what he or she was stealing. Thus disappeared a potentially major work by Platonov, one he worked on for eight years, mostly at the home on Tverskoi Boulevard.
It is impossible to imagine Soviet literature now without Platonov somewhere in the center of it. His strong, unique, innovative language conjures up a whole era of Russian/Soviet history. His unblinking pictures of the difficult human condition, along with his unbending humanist convictions, make for literature of genuine power and impact.

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Osip Mandelstam plaque, Moscow


I’ve been hanging around the same basic place in Moscow this week. The Yermolova House, which I wrote about a couple of days ago, is a few doors down from the home we’re talking about today at 25 Tverskoi Boulevard. Yesterday I wrote about the Alexander Herzen statute which stands right next to it, because Herzen was born here. Today we’re interested in the house because the great poet Osip Mandelshtam lived here in 1922 to 1923 and then again from 1932 to 1933. This was quite a place actually. Aside from the Herzen connection, and the fact that Mandelshtam and Andrei Platonov lived here (I’ll write about Platonov soon), this was the site of a popular literary salon hosted in the 1840s and 1850s by the Russian diplomat and memoirist Dmitry Sverbeev. The so-called Sverbeev Fridays were frequented by Herzen, philosopher Pyotr Chaadayev,  poets Nikolai Ogaryov and Yevgeny Baratynsky, and prose writers Konstantin Aksakov and Nikolai Gogol. The literary critic Dmitry Blagoi lived here, as did, more briefly, the writers Mikhail Prishvin, Vsevolod Ivanov and Boris Pasternak. Russia’s primary literary institute, named after Maxim Gorky, has been located here since the 1930s. Finally, this is the place that Mikhail Bulgakov had in mind when he satirized the writers club in The Master and Margarita, in part because this is where the notorious RAPP, Russian Association of Proletarian Writers, was located in the 1920s.


Mandelstam (which is pronounced “Mandelshtam”) wrote about his humble abode, which he shared with his wife Nadezhda, to a friend in the spring of 1932: “They gave me a space in a damp wing that is not suitable to be lived in. It lacks a kitchen, the faucet for drinking water is located in a rotting bathroom with moldy walls and plank partitions, a freezing cold floor, etc. I didn’t get the room that was allocated to me in the wing right away and was temporarily situated in a tiny hole of 10 meters where I spent the whole winter.” So much for any sentimental thoughts of the great poet living it up in one of Moscow’s most famous buildings. Of course, the notion of sentimentality and Mandelstam do not mix in the least. He was a spectacular poet of superb technical prowess. His prose writings are considered to be among the crispest and cleanest of any in the language. Born in 1891, he published his first verses as a student in 1907 and published his first book in 1913. He studied abroad in Germany but chose to return to Petersburg to enter the university in 1911. This is important in regards to the plaque that was erected in honor of Mandelstam on the facade of 25 Tverskoi Boulevard.  Because in order to enter Petersburg University the Jewish Mandelstam was compelled to convert to the Methodist faith. This explains, I guess, why the plaque commemorating this great Jewish poet is designed in the form of a cross. The bulk of Mandelstam’s work came between 1922 and 1933, coincidentally, perhaps, the years that begin and end his time in this building. Somebody in Soviet Russia had it in for Mandelstam and that became doubly true after he wrote the poem “Stalin Epigram” in November 1933. He was arrested and exiled a couple of times, and ended up dying of typhus Dec. 27, 1938, in transit to the Siberian labor camps.

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