In 1922, the same year the USSR entered the world, the poet Osip Mandelstam moved to Moscow, hoping to establish himself as a leading voice of the Socialist utopia he’d supported since his teens. Instead, he found himself an outcast. In early Soviet Moscow, writers as daringly erudite as Mandelstam were dismissed as the vestiges of a corrupt, decadent era. The Stalin regime would later invent a phrase for these types: “rootless cosmopolitans.”
The phrase was a dog whistle for “Jewish intellectuals,” a great many of whom—Mandelstam included—had supported the Bolshevik uprising in the hope of ending centuries of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, only to find themselves the national scapegoats once again. By 1933, Mandelstam’s disillusionment with the Soviet state was complete. He composed a piquant satirical poem, suggesting that Stalin (Mandelstam called him “the Kremlin mountaineer,” but everyone knew what that meant) had rendered all of Russia rootless:
We live without feeling the country beneath us,
our speech at ten paces inaudible,
and where there are enough for half a conversation
the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped.
His thick fingers are fatty like worms,
but his words are as true as pound weights.
his cockroach whiskers laugh,
and the tops of his boots shine.
Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
he plays with the attentions of half-men.
Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
but he just bangs and pokes […]
Inevitably, word got out, and by 1934, Mandelstam had been banned from every one of the USSR’s largest cities. Even after he’d relocated to the provincial town of Voronezh, the newspapers continued to call him a dangerous traitor. The secret police arrested him in 1938, one year into the Great Purge that would claim a million lives; that August, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. By December, he was dead.
In 1930, exactly halfway between the end and the beginning of the end, Mandelstam traveled to Armenia, at the time a semi-autonomous arm of the Soviet Union. The Stalin regime was then in the process of sending writers to freshly annexed parts of the country; it was Mandelstam’s job to “discover” the triumphs of Socialism out west, proving that the territory’s belonged under Moscow’s thumb.
The report he would complete in 1933—available in a beautiful new edition from Notting Hill, translation by Sidney Monas—ranks among the weirdest and most enchanting works of 20th-century Russian literature. In an era of crudely complaisant books that trumpeted their patriotism on every page, Journey to Armenia dared to be uncategorizable: a travel journal that barely mentions traveling, written in a form that isn’t quite prose or poetry, by an author who hasn’t quite made up his mind about Socialism’s promises. By emphasizing these ambiguities instead of drowning them in propaganda, Mandelstam captured the USSR at a crossroads in its grim history, when Stalin’s crimes were already clear enough to many but the utopianism of the 1910s hadn’t worn off completely—to put it another way, at the last time when something like Journey to Armenia could be written and published, albeit in a censored form.
There are times in the book where Mandelstam still sounds like the card-carrying Bolshevik he’d been 15 years earlier. Replace “Armenian” with “proletariat” in the following sentence and you could be reading the transcript of one of Lenin’s early speeches:
The Armenians’ fullness of life, their rough tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to any kind of metaphysics, and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things—all this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.
Journey to Armenia contains too many beautifully composed passages like this one for the sentiment to be altogether phony. Mandelstam didn’t only travel to Armenia because the Soviet Union forced him; he genuinely admired the land and he saw in its proud, strong people a glimmer of hope for international Socialism.
Yet he also fretted over his own hopefulness. Unlike many of the great travel writers he alludes to in his work—Goethe, Delacroix, Gauguin—Mandelstam had the presence of mind to wonder if he wasn’t simply seeing what he wanted to see from the USSR’s outer territories. “Am I really like the dreadful child,” he wrote in an early draft, “who turns in his hand a pocket mirror and directs into all the places he shouldn’t the dazzle from the sun?” When the book was published, his question was, naturally, cut.
At the end of 1930, on the long journey back to Moscow, Mandelstam composed a short cycle of poems about the country he’d just left. “Not ruins,” he wrote of Armenia, “no, but a cutting-down of a mighty circular wood / Anchor-like stubs of cut oak-trees of a wild and legendary Christianity.” The image of the tree’s rings is quintessential Mandelstam—in his poetry, he’s forever finding ways of translating time into matter and matter back into abstraction—but it also suggests why Armenia interested him. The country had been a province of the Roman Empire; later it became the first to adopt Christianity as the official religion. It was also, traditionally, the land where Jason and the Argonauts sailed to find the Golden Fleece, and where Noah’s Ark came its final resting place. Traveling through Armenia was for Mandelstam a way of slicing cleanly through history, revealing the layers of Greek, Roman, Hebraic, and Christian that together made up Western civilization.
As a young man, Mandelstam had learned to think of all civilization as a kind of cross-pollination process in which ideas were constantly mixing, shooting off in unforeseeable directions, adapting to new environments. His formative years mirrored this process. He was born in 1891 to Polish-Jewish parents; his father, a wealthy merchant, was able to purchase the right to move his family to Saint Petersburg, where only a handful of Jews were allowed to live. In 1911, Mandelstam renounced Judaism and converted to Methodism in order to enroll at the University of Saint Petersburg. In his rich, allusive poetry, the Old and New Testaments sit shoulder-to-shoulder with Homer and Ovid—like other Modernists, he seems to have decided early on that art was his true religion.
His sect is harder to define. For most of his adult life, Mandelstam identified with the Acmeist school of poetry, the tenets of which are almost comically obscure; the Mandelstam scholar Clarence Brown once wrote, “I doubt that the program of Acmeism, as originally formulated, could ever be arrived at purely … on the evidence of the poems alone.”
A typical way of defining Acmeism (Brown himself gives it a shot) is to contrast it with Symbolism, the dominant aesthetic mode in Russia at the dawn of the 20th century. Notable Symbolists, among them the writer Andrei Bely and the composer Alexander Scriabin, strove to unify all artistic disciplines: poetry, prose, music, and art were, by their reckoning, different dialects of a single human language. At one point, Bely and his peers theorized that all speech was descended from a set of phonemes with universal meanings—the phoneme “bl,” for example, signified tension, frustration, repression. (Bely later tipped his hat to this theory in his novel Petersburg, starring the tightly wound Nikolai Apollonovich Ableukhov.) Symbolist manifestos—and there are plenty—tend to strike a delightfully loopy note, blending mysticism with hard science.
Acmeists thought they were beyond all that nonsense. Their poetry was blunter, their imagery more concrete; as Brown put it, “Their strength … was to come from contact with the earth.” With the benefit of hindsight, however, the two schools, whose members thought they were diametrically opposed on every issue, look pretty near identical. Like the Symbolists, Mandelstam believed in the existence of many tiers of language: not just the semantic meaning of words but also a deeper, hidden set of meanings. The difference, of course, was that his beliefs were real and scientific and the Symbolists’ were fairytales.
At the core of Mandelstam’s interpretation of Acmeism was the idea that people of antiquity were highly aware of the world’s materiality, its sheer thingness—and were made so aware by the languages they spoke. Studying and imitating elaborate Homeric similes, then, wasn’t just an act of homage for Mandelstam but a way of reclaiming man’s connection with the world, which had been broken by the chaos of modern life. In a stanza from his first collection of poems, published in 1913, time itself is revealed to be a Classical literary device; to understand this literary device is to understand time in its full complexity:
This day yawns like a caesura: a lull
Beginning in the morning, difficult, going on and on:
The grazing one, the golden langor powerless
To call out of the reed the riches of one whole note.
When he wrote these lines, Mandelstam saw no disagreement between Acmeism and Socialism; there are even passages in his work when he suggests that one can’t survive without the other. To Mandelstam, the Socialist revolution was a way of lifting up the veil and seeing the world as it truly was, without the Marxian alienation brought on by class and mechanization. For this, one needed poetry—clear, concrete, and grounded in the traditions of antiquity. The tragedy was that the Soviet Union saw no need for Mandelstam.
It’s impossible to read Journey to Armenia without being struck by the scope—and the sometimes charming, sometimes frustrating eccentricity—of the author’s thinking. Dodgy-sounding scientific proofs are offered for strange aesthetic prejudices; semi-mystical interpretations of history are discussed as matter-of-factly as the multiplication table. Mandelstam is especially fond of Paul Signac’s impressionist color theories, with their proto-Symbolist union of aesthetics, biology, and psychology. Harder to follow is his rehearsal of Alexander Gurwitsch’s largely discredited theory of mitogenetic radiation—in essence, that cells grow in different ways because they’re exposed to different kinds of light. It’s easy to dismiss these passages as pseudoscientific, maybe too easy. At a glance, is mitogenesis any less plausible than special relativity, DNA replication, the X-ray?
In Armenia, Mandelstam thought he’d found the embodiment of his Hellenic theories. The common people, with their rough integrity, were utterly “of” the land as few moderns could be, and Mandelstam emphasizes the connection by likening their bodies to rust, brick, and clay. Allusions to the Armenian genocide of the previous decade (which the Soviet Union, to its credit, was one of the first nations to denounce) are rare in Journey to Armenia, but when they show up, Mandelstam always underscores the people’s indestructibility. He can’t visit an island covered in “yellowed bones” and “nameless graves” without mentioning that most of the inhabitants are healthy, energetic children with long lives ahead of them.
His belief in the superiority of the Armenians’ bodies was inseparable from his belief in the superiority of their language, which he never mastered but continued to study with an almost supernatural awe. “Speech is work,” he writes (not a bad way of summing up his poetry), and the Armenians’ speech was the noblest kind of work, the heartiest, the most resilient:
The Armenian language cannot be worn out; its boots are stone. Well, certainly, the thick-walled word, the layers of air in the semivowels. But is that all there is to its charm? No! Where does its traction come from? How to explain it? Make sense of it?
I felt the joy of pronouncing sounds forbidden to Russian lips, secret sounds, outcast, and perhaps on some deep level, shameful.
This passage (the first half, at least) fit nicely with Russia’s propaganda aims in the 1930s. A popular linguistic theory of the era, discussed at length in Journey to Armenia, held that the languages of the Caucasus—the region the Soviet Union had largely swallowed up, that is—shared a common proletarian heritage. The evidence for this was shoddy, to say the least, but Stalin was quick to ready upon any cultural bond between the Communist state and its surrounding territories, and he used the theory to flatter Armenia and Georgia into unification. Then in the 1950s, when the so-called Japhetic hypothesis was no longer of any use, he denounced it.
The difference between Mandelstam’s claims and those of the Soviet propaganda machine, of course, was that Mandelstam genuinely believed in the majesty of Armenia, a country that, much like his poetry, was infused with Greek, Roman, Christian, and Hebraic influences. A bigger difference is that Mandelstam was humble enough to admit that he might also be wrong—that he might be drawn to the novelty of Armenia simply because he’d been sick of Russia for most of the last decade. The “sounds forbidden to Russian lips” he mentions aren’t just the literal noises of the Armenian language; they also suggest the free, open-minded conversations Mandelstam could pursue only while he was outside of Moscow, unburdened by the fear of surveillance. And so he relished his months abroad—also, perhaps, because he sensed they’d be the last happy months of his life.
One reads Mandelstam on race, politics, aesthetics, knowing what happened to him and to the Soviet Union, with a mixture of wonder and dread. The word “science” appears again and again in his writings, smoothing out the facts, patching over wide gaps in logic. Much of his long essay on Dante, also included in the Notting Hill edition, seems to rest on the claim that the author of the Divina Commedia was a learned crystallographer of “monstrous exactitude.” Mandelstam seems to know of no higher compliment than that his idol was a great scientist:
Dante’s poetry partakes of all the forms of energy known to modern science.
The future of Dante criticism belongs to the natural sciences …
[Dante’s] “reflexology” of speech is astonishing—a science still not completely established …
The tic-like use of the word “science” where it didn’t belong was also (as George Orwell notes perceptively in Animal Farm) a mainstay of early Soviet rhetoric. This comparison isn’t as arbitrary as it may seem. The Bolshevik Revolution had the overwhelming support of Mandelstam and the rest of the Russian intelligentsia, which had been taught that the rise of the proletariat was as much of a certainty as the revolution of the Earth around the sun. It was, in no small part, this scientific certainty in decidedly non-scientific matters that led Mandelstam and his peers to back a group of thugs and con artists—the same smug confidence that led an entire generation of Western intellectuals to ignore genocide and mass starvation, because the workers’ revolution was finally here, and facts were stubborn things, anyway. Both Mandelstam’s prose and the rise of the Soviet Union were—though in vastly different ways—triumphs of pseudoscientific reasoning.
It’s easy to assume the best of writers because they so rarely have any real political power. We have no way of knowing what kind of societies would have emerged under the governance of George Bernard Shaw, D.H. Lawrence, or W.B. Yeats, to name only three authors with political ambitions and questionable politics. It’s probably better that way. For all his political passion, however, Mandelstam seems to have had little interest in forcing his ideas upon others, aside from a few literary rivals (and this makes him very different from Shaw, Lawrence, or even Yeats). He had his beliefs—some of which look pretty foolish in hindsight—but he also understood that belief, like art, like civilization, existed in a constant state of evolution; “an event, a happening, an arrow.” Unlike the bulk of early Soviet intellectuals, he never let his utopianism to harden into dogma, and this is largely why he fell out of favor.
“Lamarck,” we’re told in Journey to Armenia, “fought sword in hand for the honor of living nature,” and it is significant that Mandelstam praises this half-forgotten French naturalist who believed that animals “chose” how to evolve over the millennia. While Stalinist officials offered crafty misreadings of Darwin’s theory of natural selection, with its emphasis on grand, overarching processes, Mandelstam celebrated the idea that individuals play a role in their own fate, that by consciously striving for improvement—a longer neck, a bigger brain, maybe even a better society—they can help themselves and pass the rewards on to their descendants. A pseudoscientific belief, to be sure, but also, at a time in Russian history when the individual was being rapidly obliterated, a heroic one.
He died at 47, but his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam, lived for another half-century. For much of that time, she had to travel across country to avoid arrest, never staying anywhere for more than a few weeks. Because she could never be sure that she’d be allowed to keep her own possessions, she devoted herself to memorizing thousands of lines of her late husband’s poetry; after the death of Stalin, she came out of hiding and set to work transcribing and publishing them. By the 1970s, Osip Mandelstam was beginning to be acknowledged as one of the 20th century’s great writers. He would have appreciated that, in order for his reputation to survive, his wife had to live after the fashion of that great, possessionless wanderer of the ancient world: Homer.