Under the Sign of Contradiction

Mandelstam and the Politics of Memory

by Anna Razumnaya (Author)
©2021 Monographs XII, 272 Pages


The book revisits the final decade in the life of Osip Mandelstam (1891–1938), a central poet of Russian Modernism. Premised on the belief that no life can be understood without insight into its contradictions, the book attends to the two contentious cruxes of Mandelstam’s life and art: his testifying against his closest friends to the secret police and his composition, in exile, of an ode in praise of Stalin. Offering a close reading of the protocols of Mandelstam’s interrogations, a critical reflection on the nature of the «Ode» and an unflinching yet humane interpretation of the connecting events, the book pursues the dramatic arc of Mandelstam’s imaginative involvement with the politics of the Soviet state, revealing the perennial aspects of his case in dialogue with poets and critics in the English language, from Andrew Marvell to William Empson. In doing so, the book contemplates Mandelstam – a poet of «longing for world culture» – as a phenomenon of Western literature at large.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Note on the Text
  • Preface
  • Exhibits
  • I
  • II
  • III
  • IV
  • V
  • VI
  • Prologue Biography Between Contradictions
  • Chapter 1 ‘The Stalin Epigram’ and the Liberty of Protest
  • Chapter 2 A Moulten Falcon: Poetry as Consolation and Dialectic
  • Chapter 3 ‘Be Simple Answer’d, for We Know the Truth’: Of Protocol and Interrogations
  • Chapter 4 Double Bind, 1934
  • Interlude Under the Stars: Poetry as Courage and Resistance
  • Chapter 5 In the Cross-Vault: The Stalin ‘Ode’ as Metaphysical Poetry
  • Chapter 6 Quarrels on the Witness Stand: Posthumous Mandelstam
  • Epilogue Criticism and the Fate of Poets
  • References
  • Perspectives in English: An Annotated Bibliography
  • Index

←viii | ix→


This book’s foremost obligations are to critics and writers whose ideas I used, as recorded throughout the text.

Eight years have passed since the first incarnation of this work was defended as a doctoral dissertation at Boston University’s Editorial Institute. The persons and institutions who had in different ways assisted the dissertation were noted at the time. I remain thankful to them, and especially to the Editorial Institute, whose programme in Editorial Studies has been the ground of many explorations of text and context in their fertile embrace. I cannot envision the present work outside of the environment that fostered it – without the exuberant discussions, the humour, the generosity of the faculty and the respectful interest and encouragement of senior colleagues within the ALSCW – the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics and Writers, whose ties to the Editorial Institute so much enriched student experience.

In the intervening years, the dissertation’s principal advisor, Christopher Ricks, continued to be a source of encouragement, advice, illuminating and often chastening commentary, and nurturing support. Archie Burnett and David Bromwich have been reliably willing to bolster me with letters of recommendation during my search for a place within academia, indirectly sustaining my scholarship. Alessandra Anzani commissioned the work in 2016; her successor at Peter Lang, Laurel Plapp, shepherded the manuscript through peer review and other ‘ages and stages’, a reliable and supportive presence that defied the geographical distance between Oxford and Boston. During peer review itself, the stringent yet fair-minded and constructively detailed comments of my reader, whose name is not known to me, assured me that a book written in the New-Critical tradition could yet be favourably received by colleagues in the field of philology. As the head of the Mandelstam Society (headquartered in Moscow), Pavel Nerler was very kind to supply the two sets of images used in Exhibit V, together with a permission to reproduce them.

←ix | x→

My beloved life partner, the historian of philosophy Peter Hanly, created all the conditions at home to enable my revisions; ever-ready to comment on the manuscript (which he has always done with the utmost discernment and tact), he supplied a number of references to Heraclitus, Fichte, Kant and other touchstones philosophical and artistic. The solidarity of my friends – especially Brad Hogg, Devin Johnson and Nathan Nielson – has meant a lot to me during the inevitable darker moments of working on the book. My son Leo has done wonders for my spirits, strengthening me with his love and trusting kindness: of all those mentioned here, he may be the youngest, and the last on this list, but never the least in his power to effect good things.

←x | xi→

Note on the Text

In an effort to lighten the page, no superscript or any other signalling means have been used to announce the existence of a note: as notes are limited to citations, this would have been superfluous. The reader can instead expect to find the source of any quotation in the References towards the end of the book, where every quotation in the text is abridged to a choice of words that together amount to a running index of the voices and viewpoints sounded in the chapters that follow. Under the same rationale of resisting unnecessary clutter, two kinds of ellipsis have been used to distinguish between two kinds of elision within quoted text throughout. A spaced editorial ellipsis ( . . . ) signals text omitted from the quotation by the present author for the sake of brevity. Where the ellipsis belongs to the author of the text being quoted, a closed ellipsis with no spaces ( … ) figures instead.

All translations from the Russian, where not otherwise attributed, are my own, and where the cited source of quoted text happens to be in Russian (as opposed to a published translation), the English translation should automatically be attributed to the author. In translating verse, the sense of the original wording was the first priority; the line as a unit of sense was preserved wherever possible, and only on those occasions when this would have compromised either the syntax and the rhythm was the correspondence of sense and line sequence altered. (‘Rhythm’, in turn, should not be equated with ‘metre’ but understood only as loosely indicative of the poem’s habit and intonations, conveyed to the best of the translator’s skill.)

The book does not presume a reading knowledge of Russian: with very few exceptions where Cyrillic script was felt to be integral to a quotation, Russian words are either translated or reproduced in italics, following the author’s best native sense of correct phonetics.

←0 | 1→


It has long been broadly understood that Osip Mandelstam’s posthumous reputation is replete with contradictions. As a poet, he wrote both against and in praise of Stalin (under duress in both instances, not solely the latter – to foreshadow one of the recognitions this work will seek to corroborate). As a man, he was a faithful ‘friend of his friends’, and yet testified against a number of them to the secret police. This undeniable complexity continues to stimulate those who wish to resolve its inconsistencies, among which Mandelstam’s composition of an ‘Ode’ to Stalin has occasioned the most critical dismay. Most judged it an aberrant, preposterous, even illegitimate phenomenon – a product of coercion according to some, or madness according to others. To survey the past half-century of Mandelstam scholarship is to be faced with a disparity between the contradictory manifold of Mandelstam’s life and letters and the compulsive wish (shared by writers with otherwise divergent opinions) to eliminate the antinomies, reversals and paradoxes pervading the evidence, all in pursuit of a politically acceptable and, above all, ‘tidy’ narrative. Some such efforts take the form of whitewashing what is felt to be a tainted image; inevitably, they are compensated by attempts to expose the ‘dark side’ of a figure perceived to have been sanctified – or sanitized – at the expense of the truth.

Both tendencies represent but two phases of a single dynamic, within which the quest after a balanced view follows a pendulum’s trajectory. The first phase was heralded by Anna Akhmatova, a close friend of Mandelstam’s, whose ‘Poem Without a Hero’ is indicative of what she felt to be the best posthumous policy: ‘he is guilty of nothing – not this, not that, nor the other’. Similar rhetoric was adopted by champions of Mandelstam in England, and all the more so in the United States, where a sentimentalized narrative of martyrdom at the hands of Stalin’s regime turned Mandelstam into a ‘political nonconformist’ and thereby America’s most unexpected ally in the Cold War. In Russian Mandelstam studies, whose development ←1 | 2→became possible with the fall of the Soviet system, nuanced conversation about Mandelstam’s politics is made difficult by the prevailing sense that, if not carefully minimized, ambiguities within the poet’s opposition to Stalin’s regime would damage Mandelstam’s reputation, felt to be dependent upon a strict interpretive hygiene.

The compensatory phase tends to manifest surreptitiously as glancing and insinuating misgivings about Mandelstam’s ‘less than saintly behaviour under interrogation’ (as if nothing ‘less’ than saintliness could or should have been expected of a person under duress) and about the factitiousness detectable in dubious (and heartless) honorifics like ‘literary martyr par excellence’. Though the impulse behind such calls for re-evaluation aims at achieving justice, the nuanced and balanced language necessary for a just and truthful valuation of a poet is by no means easy to bring into existence. Consequently, skilled and responsible criticism capable of meeting the puzzling evidence with both penetration and temperance is unlikely ever to become overabundant, even in a field as intensively worked as Mandelstam studies.

With this in mind, this book attempts to negotiate the contradictions of Mandelstam’s biography without discounting any credible evidence whilst maintaining a grip on the critical language, its rhetorical ramifications, and the congruence of sensibility and manner of expression. This last requirement has long informed the English critical tradition, within which particularly the poet-critics – centrally, T. S. Eliot, William Empson and Geoffrey Hill – have tested the continuities and reciprocities of poetry and critical judgement. Their affinities with Mandelstam, who was himself not only a poet but also a critic, are rooted in philosophical dispositions that are not specific to any national literature. At the same time, the context of perennial literary ideas seems proper to Mandelstam in being consonant with his own professed longing for ‘world culture’. That no further theory is brought to bear on matters of criticism is not an omission but a deliberate decision to be cautious in adopting theoretical concepts, whose applicability to literature is tested by their viability as literary language (as stringent particularity must precede induction). At the same time, no argument about contradiction could be possible without some analytical apparatus. This is borrowed largely from William Empson, whose concepts ←2 | 3→of ambiguity, aspect, balance and deadlock assist the analysis of contradiction as an organizing crux in both art and biography. Gregory Bateson’s concept of the double bind proved to be another valuable tool in the analysis of Mandelstam’s biography.

No artist of significance should be made a mascot of any, even the most benign, ideology du jour. In its pursuit of truths of thought and feeling, literature relies on a disinterestedness inevitably superseding political ends. The mistaken idea that its aims could be circumscribed by political interests is incompatible with an appreciation of Mandelstam’s high achievement: the reconciliation of great dignity with great detachment. The truth of Mandelstam’s biography is not, then, felt here to be a matter of deprecating the poet or dislodging him from his elevated place in cultural memory. It calls, rather, for the recognition that ‘life involves maintaining oneself between contradictions that can’t be solved by analysis’. One corollary to this principle is that if we are to understand a life, such understanding must involve locating and examining its salient contradictions – humanely, in keeping with the humanity we prize in literature itself. In Mandelstam’s case, that crucial biographical paradox concerns the interplay of freedom and coercion. Much of what has been written about this crux in Mandelstam’s life and art is in need of revisiting specifically because the relation between liberty and coercion is insufficiently seen as a paradox and as an interplay.

This first thing required by the kind of investigation the author has in mind is a sufficiently rich array of witnesses – textual witness, behind which stand real persons, with their individual voices. In order to preserve the distinctness of each testimony, from others and from the author’s interpretations, they are presented, where possible, in direct quotation (as against paraphrase, which tends to absorb all voices into a single authorial voice). The coherence sought is that of a polyphony, a form whose political dimension is pluralistic, in contrast with the ideological univocalism of totalitarian and fascist states. This study does not claim to survey every piece of applicable evidence. What is attempted, however, is to marshal evidence sufficient for framing several significant loci of Mandelstam’s life and letters under the aspect of contradiction. The array of rhetorical examples assembled here is intended to supply the grounds for comparative analysis ←3 | 4→of further materials. Apart from the pragmatics of book production, established authorities on a given question may not be invoked, for the very reason that they are already generally known and constitute the ‘normal lighting’ upon the subject of this book. Nevertheless, an effort has been made to maintain a balance among existing witnesses and commentators so as not to distort the critical implications of what is known, following a principle suggested by Empson:

As a matter of literary criticism, to recover one lost historical fact no doubt does sometimes throw light all round, but only from one point; I tried to avoid too much disproportion from such lighting by simply adding what other lights occurred to me upon the poem. But anyway the reader is assumed to know the normal lighting already, and to judge the difference.

Beyond its positive critical aims, the work has the negative purpose of prophylaxis – the freeing of criticism, to what degree might be possible on the scale of a single study, from the misconceptions engendered by totalitarian tendencies of thought which, in criticism, compound the injustice done to Mandelstam through the very terms of its praise and through careless, though well-intentioned, attributions. There is no remedy for this problem but to be vigilant, alert to words and to their capacity to invoke more than what is intended. Finally, it is a critic’s negative task, in the act explaining, to stop short of explaining away – at the boundary of what Fichte, and, after him, Emil Lask, Mandelstam’s philosophical mentor, termed the hiatus irrationalis, meaning the unplumbable depths of individuality. Having led the reader to that threshold, the critic has done her job.

A narrative concerned with oppression must take care that the methods by which it is assembled do not violate the political principles it seeks to uphold. This entails, for the present book, a suspension of the impulse to settle the differences between witness accounts without sufficient grounds for doing so, and the corollary recognition of the limitations of our knowledge, limitations not always attributable to a shortage of evidence or surmountable through more ‘research’, as they are sometimes purely epistemic. We should not be surprised by this where the personality we seek to understand is a poet of genius, for whom the six chapters that follow are assembled as a loose memorial bouquet.


XII, 272
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2021 (April)
Osip Mandelstam biography witness literature
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Wien, 2021. XII, 272 pp., 2 fig. col.

Biographical notes

Anna Razumnaya (Author)

Anna Razumnaya is a literary historian, textual scholar and journalist. She earned her doctorate at the Editorial Institute of Boston University. Her critical essays, translations and other writings have appeared in literary journals Essays in Criticism, Literary Imagination, Berlin.BEREGA, Pusteblume and elsewhere. She lives in Boston with her family.


Title: Under the Sign of Contradiction
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286 pages