The other day I mentioned the poem about Stalin that led to Mandelstam’s exile and eventual death. Mandelstam recited it to a gathering of intellectuals at Boris Pasternak’s home one evening. Someone at that gathering informed on him. (Someone will always inform, and have their reasons. We each think it would not be us.) In any case he was first exiled to a remote village, and later, after a short reprieve, sent to a camp in Siberia, which led to his death. This is the poem. In Russian it has the rhythm and sweetness of a nursery rhyme, which contrast with its content:
We live, but cannot feel the earth,
And if we speak, we can’t be heard.
But wherever you hear a half-conversation,
They talk of that backwoods lout in the Kremlin.
Ten fat fingers like greasy worms,
Each of his words weighs fifty pounds.
His moustache bristles in cockroach laughter,
How his polished jackboots glitter.
His gang surrounds him, a spineless crew,
Half-men who do what he tells them to.
Some growl, some whimper, some yowl and hiss,
He alone rages and bangs his fists.
He forges decrees, like horseshoes they fly
At groin, forehead, eyebrow, eye.
Each execution—sweet as a berry,
To this broad-chested thug from Gori.
Osip Mandelstam, 1933
I was thinking about this poem today, as Larry mentioned that an American broke Steve Prefontaine’s record at the Olympic trials in Oregon. He beat a 40-year old record on the same track that Prefontaine created that record.
We lived in Eugene in 1976, and went to the trials on that field. Security was very lax. I think Larry had made up ersatz press badges, but in any case, we were right down on the field. There were five international teams there competing in the decathlon, and because I was fairly fluent in Russian then, I did some translation for the Russian team. Bruce Jenner was the American star, and we watched him run the race that broke the world record in the decathlon. The stadium was small but packed, and everyone was stamping on the wooden bleachers, chanting “Jenner, Jenner!” It was electrifying–the best crowd event I’ve ever been part of.
Years later, I saw Bruce Jenner at some corporate event. He was a product sponsor or lecturer or something, glad-handing the salesmen. It was very depressing. Not as depressing as Mandelstam’s death, of course, but another example of the way fame can twist a life. Among the blessings I count, anonymity is fairly high on the list.