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For an Inch of Blue Sea

In May of 1934, Osip Mandelstam was arrested and interrogated by the OGPU for composing and reciting "The Stalin Epigram." This excerpt from Ralph Dulti’s new biography of Osip Mandelstam details Mandelstam’s life and work after his first brush with the Soviet authorities.


Ralph Dutli30 May 2023

For an Inch of Blue Sea

The sentence was pronounced on 28 May 1934: three years’ exile in Cherdyn, in the Perm district of the Urals, following the instruction handed down ‘from above’: ‘Isolate, but preserve.’ In view of the seriousness of the offence, this was an extraordinarily mild sentence, an act of particular clemency. Mandelstam could easily have been shot on the spot for his unprecedented ‘terrorist document’. He himself expected that this would be the outcome. Or he might have been sent to build the White Sea–Baltic Canal, which was being constructed rapidly at that time by an army of enslaved convicts, who were being worked to death. There was an even greater concession, a double miracle: Nadezhda was allowed to accompany her husband into exile, because of his mental instability. She was summoned to the Lubyanka on 27 May, and there she saw her husband for the first time since his arrest – with bandaged wrists. She learned that the final question he had been asked was ‘What is your attitude to Soviet power?’ and that he had replied: ‘I am ready to cooperate with all Soviet authorities, except the Cheka.’ He had said this to a representative of precisely that institution. 

This outcome was marked by several unusual circumstances. It was not without reason that Nadezhda employed the word ‘miracle’. None of the persons named by Mandelstam during the interrogation was arrested or, still worse, shot. The absence of further arrests is evidence that Stalin was not informed of the poem by his subordinates. The ‘broad-chested Ossete’ with the ‘cockroach whiskers’ and the ‘fat fingers’, surrounded by ‘a rabble of thin-necked half-men’, would certainly have taken vengeance on those who had heard the verses as well as the poet himself. Maria Petrovykh continued to be convinced throughout her life that Stalin did not know the poem. Admittedly, Lev Gumilyov, who was one of Mandelstam’s hearers, was arrested for the first time on 27 October 1935, but that was part of the wave of mass arrests after the murder of Kirov. As the son of the executed ‘counter-revolutionary’ Nikolai Gumilyov, and as a representative of his mother Anna Akhmatova, he was repeatedly detained, and eventually sent to a prison camp. 

One can only speculate about the reasons for the mildness – which was, of course, only temporary – of the 1934 verdict. Mandelstam’s arrest and imprisonment coincided with the preparations for the first Congress of Soviet Writers, which was expected to run from 17 August to 1 September 1934, and to function as a propagandistic manifestation of the unity of the party and the intelligentsia. In view of the book-burnings in Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union wanted to present itself to the world as a refuge for culture and humanity. This was the aim of the anti-fascist International Congress of Writers for the Defence of Culture, which was to be held in Paris a year later, between 21 and 25 June 1935. The shooting of Mandelstam for writing a political poem would not have been in keeping with this propaganda image. Another suicide – after Yesenin and Mayakovsky had taken their own lives in spectacular fashion in 1925 and 1930 respectively – would have been detrimental to a regime which was still striving to be recognised as legitimate. It was therefore only a miracle in appearance, and the holders of power themselves profited from it. It was a miracle at the time, but it was merely a postponement of Mandelstam’s fate. 

On 29 May 1934, the Mandelstams said goodbye at the Kazan station to their relatives and friends. Nadezhda’s brother Yevgeny was there, and Mandelstam’s brother Alexander. Anna Akhmatova had collected money for the exiles from people they knew at Nashchokinsky Lane. Elena Bulgakova, the wife of the author of The Master and Margarita (and the model for Margarita in the novel) tearfully turned out her pockets. The exiles were escorted by three armed and uniformed OGPU officials. The journey into exile lasted five days, from 29 May until 3 June 1934. The first leg was by railway to Sverdlovsk (which is now once again Ekaterinburg), followed by a narrow-gauge railway to Solikamsk, then by steamer up the Kama river to the small town of Cherdyn in the Urals, a miserable hole in the Perm district. For the whole of the journey, Mandelstam was in a psychotic state, suffering from hallucinations and a fear of being shot. One of the soldiers escorting them said to Nadezhda: ‘Can’t you calm him down? It’s only in bourgeois countries that people are shot because of poems.’ 

In quieter moments, Nadezhda read Pushkin to him from a small volume she had brought with her on the journey. Pushkin’s 1825 poem ‘The Gypsies’ (which includes the old gypsy’s memory of the banished Ovid!) resounded through the carriage – the men of the escort listened as well. Mandelstam produced one small poem on the journey into exile, on 1 June 1934, while they waited for hours at the crowded station of Sverdlovsk for the connection to Solikamsk. It is a bitter, seemingly naïve poem about a tailor: 

A tailor, glory to him!
He had a good head
He was condemned to the supreme measure, listen! And what happened? Like a true tailor
He took his own measurements –
And so he is still alive.

The legal term ‘the supreme measure’ meant the death penalty and was part of the dismal daily routine in the Stalinist thirties. But the poem is an attempt to exorcise the danger of the ‘supreme measure’ through the magic of language: ‘And so he is still alive.’ 

It was a moment of clarity during this traumatic five-day journey, the nightmare images of which would only spread into his poetry a year later when he composed the poems in the Voronezh Notebooks. It was the journey up the Kama river by steamer that stuck in his mind most of all. Here is the poetic diptych ‘Kama’, written in May 1935: 

Thus I sailed down the river with drawn curtains at the window, With curtains drawn at the window and a blazing head. 
My wife stayed awake with me for five nights,
Stayed awake for five nights as she coped with the three guards. 

The exile did not have the right to look at the view through the window. The curtains in the train carriages and the ship’s compartments had to be kept closed. Despite this, some details of the journey shine out in the ‘Kama’ poem: a fir tree ablaze on the river bank corresponds with the fire in the tormented poet’s head. But the most remarkable echo of the sleepless journey into exile reverberates in the long-drawn-out anapaests of a poem composed between April and June 1935 in Voronezh. With a mixture of fascination and horror, the poet experiences a hallucinatory vision of the endless forest and the immense expanse of the Russian space, ‘risen with dough’: 

The day was five-headed. For five consecutive days
I shrank, proud of space because it rose on yeast,
Dreaming was greater than hearing, hearing was older than dreaming, 
together, sensitised ...
And the high roads chased us with coach horses. 
The day was five-headed, and driven mad from the dance,
The horsemen rode and the unmounted walked, a mass of black As the white nights dilated the aorta of power, the knife blades Turned the eye into coniferous flesh. 
Oh for an inch of blue sea, for just enough to go through the eye of a needle, 
So that the pair of us escorted by time could be carried well under sail 

Since Alexander Pushkin’s poem ‘To the Sea’ (1824), which addressed it as the ‘free element’, the sea has been a symbol of liberty. The condemned and deported poet Mandelstam saw an amount of freedom no larger than the eye of a needle as a fulfilment of his dreams; this indicates how little freedom he presently enjoyed. 

Mandelstam was not shipped off to the sea he yearned for, but into a cold environment consisting of empty spaces, forest and marsh. Cherdyn was an unprepossessing town in the Urals, covered with snow and ice for most of the year and popular with swarms of mosquitoes during the marshy summer. It was a remote location in a distant corner of Russia, with muddy roads and without a trace of culture, and it was unchanged from how Chekhov might have described it in the nineteenth century. Mandelstam had only just arrived when he was admitted to the county hospital, after first being registered with the local OGPU headquarters. There he did not meet a sympathetic physician, as Ivan Gromov had done in Chekhov’s famous story ‘Ward No. 6’. In Cherdyn, there was only a district doctor, who followed her instructions to the letter. 

Mandelstam’s traumatic psychosis continued: he thought he could hear crude and intimidating male voices rebuking him for his transgressions. And he imagined that his fellow poet Anna Akhmatova had been shot and he had to look for her corpse in a ravine. He was also under the delusion that he himself would be shot ‘at about six in the evening’. Nadezhda kept moving the hour hand of the clock on the wall back to deceive her husband about the time. He finally saw only one way out: suicide. During the night of 3 to 4 June 1934, he made another attempt. He jumped from a window on the third floor of the county hospital, fell into a dug garden, dislocated his right shoulder and broke a shoulder bone. But this leap into space ended his delirium. His renewed clarity of vision is evoked in the third of the stanzas written at Voronezh in May or June 1935: 

Made quite numb by rowdies and slanderers
I roll around in confusion, seven thumbs high,
I’m like a cockerel in the bright summer night – There is food and spit, and swindling too
I reject the woodpecker. I leap, and my mind is whole. 

In view of his threatened transfer to the Perm psychiatric clinic, which could have meant the end, Nadezhda acted immediately. She mobilised his fellow poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, and she spent the rest of her money on telegrams, to Bukharin and even to the Central Committee of the Communist Party. Bukharin wrote his famous letter to Stalin, which includes this weighty aphorism: ‘The poets are always in the right, because history is on their side.’ And he added: ‘Pasternak is also worried.’ 

The authorities did not want to be saddled with the suicide of yet another poet, only a few weeks before the first International Writers’ Congress. These were still, to use Anna Akhmatova’s phrase, ‘vegetarian times’: Stalin’s furious thirst for destruction did not find expression until the purges of 1936. On 12 June 1934, Mandelstam’s sentence was changed, on instructions ‘from above’. The next day, Stalin made his notorious telephone call to Pasternak, whom he wanted to sound out about Mandelstam’s significance as a poet: ‘He is a master of his craft, isn’t that true?’ Pasternak avoided giving an answer; he replied that he would prefer to discuss ‘life and death’. Stalin rang off. His sudden attack of hypocritical leniency after Mandelstam’s first arrest in 1934 also bears witness to his awareness that his future fame would essentially depend on the poets. Would it not be possible to extract an ode in praise of the Soviet ruler from the allegedly brilliant poet Mandelstam? But Stalin’s phone call to Pasternak is also an indication that the great leader was unaware of the devastating content of Mandelstam’s epigram. Perhaps his subordinates had given him to understand that the refractory Mandelstam had been arrested for slapping Alexei Tolstoy? After all, the dictator himself would not have forgiven anyone for a slap in the face.

The official telegram confirming the revision of the sentence arrived in Cherdyn on 14 June. Mandelstam could now choose his own place of exile, according to the ‘minus twelve’ formula: he could not go to Moscow, or Leningrad, or any of ten other important Soviet cities. On 15 June, in the presence of the local OGPU commandant, he chose the town of Voronezh in the central-Russian ‘black earth’ region, 600 kilometres south of Moscow. An acquaintance, the botanist Nikolai Leonov, whose father worked in Voronezh as a prison doctor, had once recommended the town in a conversation with Mandelstam. It offered better prospects for medical care and even – unlike the Uralian wasteland of Cherdyn – cultural life of a provincial type. And, as Mandelstam said to his wife, ‘Who knows, perhaps I might turn out to need a prison doctor?’ 

On 16 June 1934, the Mandelstams travelled back to Moscow, via Perm and Kazan. They again experienced a ‘five-headed day’, but, this time, with the temporary prospect of improvement. In February 1937 Mandelstam would still remember this return to normal life, along with the giant portraits of Stalin displayed all over the place. He wrote a poem presenting an ambivalent image of the ‘benefactor’ to whom he owed the postponement of his ultimate punishment: 

The Komi-Perm language was spoken,
Passengers were fighting,
And the reproving stare of those eyes on the portrait on the wall Looked at me fondly – and drilled into me.

When they arrived in Moscow, Nadezhda tried to speak to Bukharin again, but he was no longer willing to receive her. Yagoda, the head of the secret police, had, in the meantime, triumphantly confronted him with the anti-Stalin poem, whereupon a shocked Bukharin was obliged to dissociate himself from the poet. Politically, he could no longer afford to have any dealings with Mandelstam. After a short stay of two to three days in the capital, the Mandelstams again boarded the train, but this time the journey went in the direction most desired by the poet – southwards. They arrived in Voronezh on around 25 June 1934. It was the beginning of what Nadezhda Mandelstam would describe decades later in her memoirs as a ‘miracle’. 

Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam

This is the first full-scale biography of Osip Mandelstam to combine an analysis of his poetry with a description of his personal life, from his beginnings as a young intellectual in pre-revolution...