Review: The Stalin Epigram

If the human spirit alone could have won the fight against Stalin, then Osip Mandelstam would have gone down in history as the man who defeated the maniac.

In The Stalin Epigram, author Robert Littell crafts a fictional account of the man who is credited to be the greatest Russian poet of the 20th century.  (Many of his friendships, his arrests, and his work were based on fact.)  This is a wonderful mixture of real and fictional characters, and it’s easy to see why Littell was drawn to the subject.  Simply put, a brilliant and well-known poet falls victim to Stalin’s wrath for speaking his mind in verses.  Mandelstam, rebuking State instruction, refuses to compose a poem that honors Stalin.  Instead, he writes 16 lines of what can only be described as the bitter truth.  His reason for this creative license was simple, in that Mandelstam believed that he had “an abiding responsibility to be a truth teller in this wasteland of lies.”  This boldly flew in the face of the State’s mandate, that “all art, all culture either serves the Revolution and the Party or it doesn’t.  Socialist realism proclaims that art in all its forms must be realistic in form and Socialist in content – it recognizes that writers are engineers of the human soul and as such have a moral obligation to inspire the Soviet proletariat to dream Socialist dreams.”

In the early 30’s, Stalin starved millions of his own citizens when he forced collectivization onto peasants across Russia.  Anyone who spoke aloud of the atrocities was as good as dead.  Truth tellers were denounced, arrested, imprisoned, placed in hard labor camps, or were murdered.  The people of Russia lived in a chronic state of fear, so speaking one’s mind was a luxury that no one could afford.  Mandelstam knew exactly what he was taking on when he created the epigram, and recited the finished product to just 11 people.  Needless to say, the State became aware of the poem, and Mandelstam was immediately arrested.  His adoring wife Nadezhda was miraculously spared.

Following Mandelstam’s first arrest, he was imprisoned, interrogated and tortured, but surprisingly, was spared execution.  Rather, he was sent into exile, but with the promise that he would create a more appropriate ode to Stalin.  For three years, Osip and Nadezhda lived in harsh conditions in the remote city of Voronezh.  Being exiled did not agree with the poet, and at the start, he attempted suicide.  His mind began to play tricks, and he “found refuge from terror in madness.”   Osip was blessed to have his wife by his side, who worked tirelessly to keep him among the living.  Reading about the mental deterioration of such a brilliant artist was miserable and infuriating.

I won’t include any spoilers about the “revised” ode to Stalin, and whether or not it was accepted as true Socialist content.  I’ll leave that up to you to find out.  😉  I’ll just say that the story is well written, and is a quick read, as you have to know what happens to each and every character.

If anyone wants to know the length of Stalin’s reach, including an attempt to control ideology and discourse, this is a wonderful book to choose.  There’s no question that it’s a heartbreaking story.  There will, however, always be a taste of triumph for the reader, because the poem still lives on.  4 stars!