Gold of Silver Age
One of the greatest poets of the 20th century, Osip Mandelstam, - a brilliant figure of Russia’s Silver Age, a prophet poet who fell out of favour, yet became a Russian classic, - would have turned 120 on January 15th. The fellow poets referred to him as whimsical, abrasive, soul-stirring and a man of genius.
The memorable date will be marked by literary soirees and conferences, a festival and a number of exhibitions in many Russian cities until the end of this month. But these will be basically held in the cities that have to do with the poet’s tragic life, such as St. Petersburg, where Mandelstam lived since early childhood and whence he left for Heidelberg University and the Sorbonne in Paris prior to 1917, to attend lectures. Another Mandelstam-related Russian city is Voronezh, in Central Russia, where he lived in exile under Stalin’s regime. Yet another such city is Vladivostok, on Russia’s Pacific coast, where Mandelstam died in a Stalin concentration camp at the age of 47.
Still, Moscow will account for the greater part of the celebration of Mandelstam’s 120th birth anniversary. It was in Moscow that Mandelstam fell in love with Marina Tsvetayeva, another Russian classical poet that introduced him into Moscow literary circles and made a critical analysis of his creative endeavour, says Vladimir Krizhevsky, a leading research fellow with the State Literary Museum in Moscow, in an interview with the Voice of Russia, and elaborates.
Tsvetayeva and Mandelstam had tender feelings for each other, says Vladimri Krizhevsky, and had a brief affair, but it was more about poetry, than about love. Mandelstam dedicated 8 poems to Tsvetayeva, and she dedicated to him about as many of her own poems. But in 1915 and 196 they grew aware of their differences. She was more of a futurist poet, while Mandelstam was closer to the 19th century poetry, namely to Gavriil Derzhavin, Fyodor Tyutchev, that is to poets of lofty style.
It is widely held that Osip Mandelstam was an unworldly person, had no house of his own, and was aloof from public and political life. But such claims are disproved by the fact that the punitive bodies of both the Imperial and Soviet Russia trumped up political charges against him. According to Vladimir Krizhevsky, Mandelstam did not engage in politics, he just acted in a dignified manner whenever coming across the manifestations of diktat by the authorities. Here’s more from Vladimir Krizhevsky.
Situations of this kind arose, Vladimir Krizhevsky says, whenever the authorities breached moral statutes that could never be violated by anything or anyone, or so he thought. Once Mandelstam saw in what was known as the Poets’ Café in Moscow a man at a table, filling in a written form with the surnames of people that were to be arrested or even executed by shooting. When Mandelstam realized what was going on, he grabbed the forms and tore them to pieces. The move was prompted by his moral sense, and it would be wrong to make a politician of him. But this was only true until 1934, when he realized that he ought to adopt a position of active citizenship.
In the early 1930 he assailed Stalin with an epigram and read it out loud on many occasions. He was arrested, exiled and deprived of his civil rights. But the second report to police in 1938 resulted in his death in a concentration camp under unclear circumstances.
Besides attacks against despotic rule, his creative effort has yet another “mutinous” quality, namely it was not clear to a majority of the population. According to the famous contemporary poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko, the larger part of Mandelstam’s poetry is meant for just as culturally educated people as Mandelstam himself. According to Yevtushenko, the Soviet ideological bureaucracy instinctively felt implicit danger in his poetry just because they could not understand it.
Small wonder that Mandelstam’s name was blue-pencilled from Russian literature, but decades later it resurfaced both in Russian, and in many languages of the East and the West. Some like Mandelstam as a classical poet, as “Pushkin’s echo”, - as the outstanding 20th century poet Iosif Brodsky put it. But others, Brodsky says, “like him for staring the world in the face, a look that’s comparable with an attempt to describe its molecular substance from within. This is something that no one else can boast of”…