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Authors: Robert Littell

The Stalin Epigram

BOOK: The Stalin Epigram
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Also by Robert Littell


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The Debriefing

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For the Future of Israel
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This edition first published in the UK in 2011

Duckworth Ovrelook

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London EC1M 6BF

Tel: 020 7490 7300

Fax: 020 7490 0080

[email protected]

Copyright © 2009 by Robert Littella

First published in the USA by
Simon & Schuster, New York

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopy, recording, or any
information storage and retrieval system now known or to be invented, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer who wishes to quote brief passages in connection with a
review written for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast.

Reprinted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., from HOPE AGAINST HOPE: A MEMOIR by Nadezha Mandelstam, translated from the Russian by Max
Hayward. Copyright © 1970 by Atheneum Publishers. All rights reserved.

By Anna Akhmatova from
Poems of Akhmatova
, selected, translated, and introduced by Stanley Kunitz and Max Hayward. Originally published by Houghton Mifflin/Mariner and
used courtesy of Darhansoff, Verrill, Feldman Literary Agents.

Excerpt form “Where are the Swans” from
The Demesne of the Swans
by Marina A. Tsvetaeva. Copyright © 1980 by Ardis Books.

Reprinted with the permission of Scribner, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., from OSIP MANDELSTAM SELECTED POEMS by Clarence Brown, and W.S. Merwin (translator).
Copyright © 1973 by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin. All rights reserved.

A catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library


Mobipocket 978 0 7156 4270 2

ePub: 978 0 7156 4269 6

Library PDF: 978 0 7156 42689

For my muse Stella

for whom the stars

(to borrow an image from Philip Sidney’s

Astrophel and Stella
, 1591)

still dance

. . . et chacun effectuera avec son âme, telle l’hirondelle avant l’orage, un vol indescriptible.


I am alone; all round me drowns in falsehood:

Life is not a walk across a field.

From Boris Pasternak’s banned poem “Hamlet,” which his friends defiantly read aloud at his funeral in 1960


Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam
, Nadenka to her husband, the poet Osip Emilievich Mandelstam. She is thirty-four years old when we first hear her voice in 1934.

Nikolai Sidorovich Vlasik
, Stalin’s personal bodyguard and occasional family photographer. He is in his mid-thirties when we meet him in the villa of the writer
Maksim Gorky.

Fikrit Trofimovich Shotman
, a popular Soviet weight-lifting champion. He is thirty-two years old when we come across him for the first time. Originally from
Azerbaidzhan, Shotman won the silver medal at the All-European games in Vienna in 1932. He subsequently retired from competition because of a botched operation on damaged knee cartilage. After his
weight-lifting career was cut short, he worked as a circus strongman.

Anna Andreyevna Akhmatova
, born Anna Gorenko, close friend to both Mandelstam and Pasternak, and a widely admired poet even though the Communist authorities have banned
publication of her verse since the mid-twenties. Tall and slender, she was the lover of the then little-known Italian painter Amedeo Modigliani in Paris in 1911 and sat for nude portraits he did of
her. Akhmatova, a “decadent poetess” according to her father (who forbid her to use the family name, Gorenko, professionally), “half nun, half harlot” in the eyes of the
Bolshevik cultural watchdogs, is forty-five years old when we meet her in these pages.

Zinaida Zaitseva-Antonova
, a very young and very beautiful theater actress who is on intimate terms with the Mandelstams.

Osip Emilievich Mandelstam
, Osya to his wife, Nadezhda. The publication of his first book of poetry in 1913, entitled
, established him in the eyes of many
great Russian poet of the twentieth century, a view that Stalin clearly shared.

Boris Leonidovich Pasternak
, famous lyric poet, forty-four in 1934, son of the painter Leonid Osipovich Pasternak. His first book of poems, published in 1914, was
Twin in the Clouds
, which may explain why Stalin, who had a certain admiration for Pasternak, nicknamed him
the cloud dweller
. It took years for Pasternak to accept that Stalin himself,
and not the Chekists operating behind his back, was responsible for the deportations and purges and executions.

























Nadezhda Yakovlevna

Saturday, the 13th of January 1934

our lifelines first coiled themselves around each other, fifteen years ago come May Day, in Kiev, in a seedy bohemian cabaret
called the Junk Shop, I must have heard Mandelstam give public readings scores of times, still the pure pleasure I take from the poetry of his poems is undiminished. There are moments when I am
reduced to tears by the unspeakable beauty of the words, which take on another dimension when they enter one’s consciousness through the ear, as opposed to the eye. How can I explain the
miracle of it without sounding like the doting wife swooning in blind admiration? This high-strung, headstrong, life-glad
homo poeticus
(his description of himself, casually offered up when
he mooched that first cigarette from me in the Junk Shop in what now seems like a previous incarnation), this nervous lover (of me and sundry others), is transfigured—becomes someone,
something, else. (It goes without saying but humor me if I say it: when he metamorphoses into someone else, so do I.) With one arm sawing the air awkwardly, the arc of his body scores the rhyme and
rhythm and layers of multiple meaning buried in the text. His head tossed back, the unmistakably Semitic Adam’s apple working against the almost transparently thin skin of his pale throat, he
loses himself in the thing we call poetry; becomes the poem. When he materializes at the lectern at the start of an evening, there are usually several barely suppressed groans of mirth from the
audience at the sight of this fussy, stage-frightened figure of a man dressed as if for his own funeral. On the particular evening I’m describing, he was wearing his only suit (a dark and
itchy woolen twill purchased at the hard currency shop using coupons bought with a small inheritance I once received), along with a silk cravat (a relic of his trip to Paris before the Revolution)
knotted around a starch-stiffened detachable collar. He reads as only the creator of the poem can read: with a slight pause for breath, an inaudible sucking in of air, at the places where the lines
break or bend or double back on themselves. This pause is critical to understanding the impact of a Mandelstam poem. I have compared notes with several of what Osya calls his first readers (with
him doing the reading and them doing the listening) and the savvier among them agree that he appears to be inventing the next line as he goes along. And this in turn gives even the listener who is
familiar with the poem the eerie feeling that he is hearing these lines for the first time; that they haven’t existed before, haven’t been composed, reworked, polished, memorized,
copied out on onion-skin paper by yours truly and stashed away in teapots and shoes and female undergarments in the hope against hope that our Chekists, when they come for him, will be unable to
arrest his oeuvre.

The line, the pause for breath, then the next line spilling freshly minted from his bloodless lips—that, my darlings, is at the heart of the heart of a Mandelstam recitation. For reasons I
have not entirely grasped, the effect is even more remarkable when he is reading a love poem—and still more startling when the love poem in question isn’t addressed to me, his best
friend and comrade-in-arms and lawful wedded wife, but to the plume of a theater actress perched on the folding chair next to me in the front row of the dingy
Literary Gazette
office, my fleshy arm linked through her slender arm, the back of my wrist grazing as if by inadvertence the curve of her very beautiful breast.

At the lectern Mandelstam turned away for a sip of water before starting to recite the last poem of the reading. The actress, who used her stage name, Zinaida Zaitseva-Antonova, even offstage,
leaned toward me, crushing her breast into my wrist. “Which poem is next, Nadezhda Yakovlevna?” she breathed, her voice husky with what I identified as sexual anticipation.

BOOK: The Stalin Epigram
12.11Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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