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Osip Mandelstam: founder of the Acemist movement in Russian literature

Part of the first generation of poets to write under Soviet rule

  • The Stalin Epigram
  • Our lives no longer feel ground under them. 
  • At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
  • But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
  • it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer, 
  • the ten thick worms his fingers, 
  • his words like measures of weight, 
  • the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip, 
  • the glitter of his boot-rims. 
  • Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses 
  • he toys with the tributes of half-men.
  • One whistles, another meows, a third snivels. 
  • He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
  • He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes, 
  • One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
  • He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries. 
  • He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
  • Still I Have Not Died, and Still Am Not Alone
  • Still I have not died, and still am not alone, 
  • while with my beggarwoman friend 
  • I take my pleasure from the grandeur of the plain 
  • and from its gloom, its hunger and its hurricanes.
  • In splendid poverty, luxurious beggardom 
  • I live alone — both peaceful and resigned — 
  • blessed are those days and nights 
  • and blameless is the sweetly sounding work.
  • Unhappy the man who like his shadow 
  • quivers at a bark, is scythed down by the wind, 
  • and poor the man who, half alive himself, 
  • from a shadow begs for charity.
  • The Decembrist
  • “To this the pagan senate bears witness: 
  • — THESE DEEDS SHALL NEVER DIE! —” 
  • He lit his pipe and wrapped his cloak around 
  • While some play chess nearby.
  • He traded his ambitious dream 
  • For a godforsaken Siberian plot 
  • And an elegant pipe at his venomous lips, 
  • Which uttered truth in a mournful world.
  • When the German oaks first rustled, 
  • Europe wept in her snare. 
  • Black horses in quadrigae reared 
  • on each triumphant turn.
  • Once, the blue punch glowed in our glasses. 
  • With the broad noises of the samovar, 
  • A friend from across the Rhine spoke 
  • In muted tones — a freedom-loving guitar.
  • The lively voices are still excited 
  • Over the sweet liberty of citizenship; 
  • But the victims don’t want blind skies, 
  • Toil and consistency are truer.
  • Everything’s confused and there is no one to say, 
  • As things grow colder, 
  • Everything’s confused, it is sweet to repeat: 
  • Russia, Lethe, Lorelei...
Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a Russian poet who with fellow poet Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921) helped found the Acemist movement in Russian literature – which strove for compactness of form and clarity of expression in all its literary productions. Part of the first generation of poets to write under Soviet rule, he was arrested twice by Joseph Stalin. After authorities discovered his “Stalin Epigram,” he was arrested in 1933 and sent into internal exile, prohibited from entering any major city in Soviet Russia. After his second arrest in 1938, he was sentenced to a “re-education” work camp and died in a transition camp that same year from cold and starvation. Sometime before his death he had noted, “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” His wife Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980), whose memoirs brought to light much of the oppression and savagery of the Soviet government, memorized his poems, despite great risk to her own life. Her efforts at keeping Osip’s writings alive in her mind – she did not trust putting the works to paper – enabled her, later in life, to see her husband’s work published in Russia.

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  • The Stalin Epigram
  • Our lives no longer feel ground under them. 
  • At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
  • But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
  • it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer, 
  • the ten thick worms his fingers, 
  • his words like measures of weight, 
  • the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip, 
  • the glitter of his boot-rims. 
  • Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses 
  • he toys with the tributes of half-men.
  • One whistles, another meows, a third snivels. 
  • He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.
  • He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes, 
  • One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
  • He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries. 
  • He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home.
  • Still I Have Not Died, and Still Am Not Alone
  • Still I have not died, and still am not alone, 
  • while with my beggarwoman friend 
  • I take my pleasure from the grandeur of the plain 
  • and from its gloom, its hunger and its hurricanes.
  • In splendid poverty, luxurious beggardom 
  • I live alone — both peaceful and resigned — 
  • blessed are those days and nights 
  • and blameless is the sweetly sounding work.
  • Unhappy the man who like his shadow 
  • quivers at a bark, is scythed down by the wind, 
  • and poor the man who, half alive himself, 
  • from a shadow begs for charity.
  • The Decembrist
  • “To this the pagan senate bears witness: 
  • — THESE DEEDS SHALL NEVER DIE! —” 
  • He lit his pipe and wrapped his cloak around 
  • While some play chess nearby.
  • He traded his ambitious dream 
  • For a godforsaken Siberian plot 
  • And an elegant pipe at his venomous lips, 
  • Which uttered truth in a mournful world.
  • When the German oaks first rustled, 
  • Europe wept in her snare. 
  • Black horses in quadrigae reared 
  • on each triumphant turn.
  • Once, the blue punch glowed in our glasses. 
  • With the broad noises of the samovar, 
  • A friend from across the Rhine spoke 
  • In muted tones — a freedom-loving guitar.
  • The lively voices are still excited 
  • Over the sweet liberty of citizenship; 
  • But the victims don’t want blind skies, 
  • Toil and consistency are truer.
  • Everything’s confused and there is no one to say, 
  • As things grow colder, 
  • Everything’s confused, it is sweet to repeat: 
  • Russia, Lethe, Lorelei...
Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam (1891-1938) was a Russian poet who with fellow poet Nikolai Gumilyov (1886-1921) helped found the Acemist movement in Russian literature – which strove for compactness of form and clarity of expression in all its literary productions. Part of the first generation of poets to write under Soviet rule, he was arrested twice by Joseph Stalin. After authorities discovered his “Stalin Epigram,” he was arrested in 1933 and sent into internal exile, prohibited from entering any major city in Soviet Russia. After his second arrest in 1938, he was sentenced to a “re-education” work camp and died in a transition camp that same year from cold and starvation. Sometime before his death he had noted, “Only in Russia is poetry respected, it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?” His wife Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899-1980), whose memoirs brought to light much of the oppression and savagery of the Soviet government, memorized his poems, despite great risk to her own life. Her efforts at keeping Osip’s writings alive in her mind – she did not trust putting the works to paper – enabled her, later in life, to see her husband’s work published in Russia.

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