Tyrant as Poet

Stalin’s early verses explain his obsessional, destructive interest in literature as dictator as well as his reverence for — and jealousy of — brilliant poets such as Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak. The words and influence of this ‘Kremlin crag-dweller’ and ‘peasant-slayer’ on literature were, as Mandelstam wrote in his famously scabrous poem denouncing Stalin, ‘leaden’, his ‘fat fingers…greasy as maggots’. But, ironically, the swaggering brute rightly notorious for his oafish philistinism concealed a classically educated man of letters with surprising knowledge. Stalin never ceased caring about poetry. Mandelstam was right when he said, ‘In Russia, poetry is really valued, here they kill for it.’

The ex-romantic poet despised and destroyed modernism but promoted his distorted version of Romanticism, Socialist Realism. He knew Nekrasov and Pushkin by heart, read Goethe and Shakespeare in translation, and could recite Walt Whitman. He talked endlessly about the Georgian poets of his childhood, and he himself helped edit a Russian translation of Rustaveli’s Knight in the Panther Skin, delicately translating some of the couplets himself and asking modestly: ‘Will they do?’

Stalin respected artistic talent, generally preferring to kill Party hacks instead of brilliant poets. Hence on Mandelstam’s arrest Stalin ordered, ‘Isolate but preserve.’ He would preserve most of his geniuses, such as Shostakovich, Bulgakov and Eisenstein, sometimes telephoning and encouraging them, at other times denouncing and impoverishing them. When he called Pasternak in one of his telephonic lightning-strikes from Olympus, he asked about Mandelstam: ‘He’s a genius, isn’t he?’ Mandelstam’s tragedy was sealed not only by his suicidal decision to mock Stalin in verse — the medium of the dictator’s own childhood dreams — but also by Pasternak’s failure to assert that his colleague was indeed a genius. Mandelstam was not sentenced to death, but nor was he preserved, perishing on the dystopian road to Gulag hell. But Stalin did preserve Pasternak: ‘Leave that cloud-dweller in peace.’

–From Young Stalin by Simon Sebag Montefiore


One Response to “Tyrant as Poet”

  1. Thank you for this interesting quote from Sebag Montefiore’s book. (I have read it and ‘In the Court of the Red Tsar’).

    Some time ago I wrote a short story called ‘The Bodyguard’, which is supposed to be a tale of the young Stalin as told to a couple of Khrushchevist aparatchiks by an old woman. She tells of a young revolutionary she knew only as ‘Soso’, for whom she was bodyguard during a visit to London. He may or may not have been the man the world came to know as the tyrant ‘Stalin’. In the story she remembers a poem that Soso once recited to her. It’s in the form of a ‘loose sapphic’, and is my own composition, but based on an original by the young Stalin. I reproduce it below.

    When the lantern of the full moon swings and drifts
    across the heavenly ceiling above me
    and its light shining out traces pale fingers
    on blue horizons

    when the clear trilling of the nightingale’s song
    starts the leaves softly fluttering in the air
    and the pan-pipe’s notes away in the mountains
    sing of sad yearning

    when snows melt and rains break the cluttering dam
    and the spring breaks free to wash away the tracks
    and there is a rustling as the breeze wakes
    tossing the trees’ heads

    when the patriot who was driven away
    by the enemy becomes worthy again
    and when the sick man who lives in the darkness
    sees the sun and moon

    Then I who have been oppressed begin to feel
    the mist of sadness break and lift and recede
    and up rises hope for a good life to come
    in my grieving heart

    As I am borne up and away by this hope
    my soul rejoices and my heart beats softly
    but is there a small doubt dragging at hope’s heels
    is this not the time?

    Marie Marshall

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