Osip Mandel'shtam's epigram

Date: 1891-1938

Region: Europe

Subject: Political/Economic/Social Opinion

Medium: Literature

Artist: Osip Mandel'shtam

Confronting Bodies: Joseph Stalin

Dates of Action: 1934

Location: Soviet Union

Description of Artwork: Mandel'shtam wrote a short, 16-line epigram criticizing Stalin. He wrote:

"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."

The Incident: Mandel'shtam shared the poem with a group of friends, one of which leaked it to the secret police. The epigram reached Stalin, declared it counter-revolutionary.

Results of Incident: Instead of destroying Mandel'shtam immediately, Stalin decided to torture him by forcing him into exile and sending him to work at Nazi camps over the next few years. During these years Mandel'shtam became depressed and tried to commit suicide several times. Eventually he started writing pro-Stalin poetry in attempts to save the lives of himself and his wife. He died in 1938, apparently due to an illness.

Source: Censorship: A World Encyclopedia. Ed. Derek Jones. Chicago; London: Fitzroy Dearborn, 2001.