This Day In Literary History
On January 15th, 1891, the famous Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was born in Warsaw, Poland. He came from a wealthy Jewish family; his father was a leather merchant.
Because of his wealth and position, Osip's father was able to get a special dispensation exempting the family from having to relocate with other Jews to the "pale of settlement" region of Russia. So, not long after Osip was born, the Mandelstams moved to Saint Petersburg.
In 1908, at the age of seventeen, Osip Mandelstam entered the Sorbonne (the University of Paris) to study literature and philosophy, but left the following year and went to the University of Heidelberg in Germany.
In 1911, Mandelstam decided to finish his education at the University of Saint Petersburg. In order to enroll at the Methodist university, he converted to Methodism, but never practiced the religion.
That same year, Mandelstam and several other young poets formed the Poets' Guild. The group, led by Nikolai Gumilyov and Sergei Gorodetsky, would later be known as the Acmeists. Mandelstam wrote their manifesto, The Morning Of Acmeism, in 1913.
Acmeism was a Russian poetic movement that served as a counter to the works of Russian symbolist poets of the late 19th and early 20th centuries such as Andrei Bely and Vyacheslav Ivanov. Acmeism stressed compactness of form and clarity of expression.
Osip Mandelstam's Acmeist manifesto wouldn't be published until 1919. However, his first poetry collection, The Stone, would be published in 1913, and re-released in an expanded edition in 1916.
By 1922, he had married his girlfriend Nadezhda Yakovlevna and moved to Moscow. At that time, his second poetry collection, Tristia, was published. For the next several years, Mandelstam nearly abandoned poetry, as he mostly wrote essays, literary criticism, short prose, and memoirs.
He took a job as a translator and translated 19 books in a period of six months. His marriage began to sour and he had affairs, but he and his wife reconciled. Mandelstam started writing poetry again. In November of 1933, he wrote his most famous poem, Stalin Epigram.
The poem was a harsh criticism of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin, whom he referred to as the "Kremlin highlander." The poem was likely inspired by the effects of the Holodomor (the Great Famine) which Mandelstam had witnessed while vacationing in Crimea.
The Holodomor was caused by Stalin's drive to exterminate the kulaks - the affluent peasant farmers - and collectivize all of Russia's farms. Six months after Stalin Epigram appeared in print, Osip Mandelstam was arrested.
Amazingly, he was neither condemned to death nor sent to the Gulag. Instead, he was exiled, along with his wife, to Cherdyn in Northern Ural. After a suicide attempt, his sentence was softened; he was banned from the big cities, but allowed to choose another place of residence. He and his wife chose to move to Voronezh.
Unfortunately, this proved to be a temporary reprieve. Although Mandelstam wrote poems glorifying Stalin in 1937, (as was required of him and all Soviet poets) the Great Purge was beginning.
The pro-Soviet literary establishment assailed him in print, accusing him of harboring anti-Soviet sentiments. A year later, he and his wife received a government voucher for a vacation not far from Moscow.
When they arrived, Mandelstam was arrested again and charged with counter-revolutionary activities. In August of 1938, Osip Mandelstam was sentenced to five years in the Gulag and taken to a transit camp in Vladivostok at the Second River.
He died several months later, on December 27th, 1938. The official cause of death was an unspecified illness. In 1956, during the Khrushchev thaw, Mandelstam was officially "rehabilitated" - cleared of the charges brought against him during his 1938 arrest.
Thirty years later, he would be cleared of the charges stemming from his first arrest in 1934.
Quote Of The Day
"Only in Russia is poetry respected - it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?" - Osip Mandelstam
Today's video features a reading of five of Osip Mandelstam's poems. Enjoy!