The Stalin Epigram
Osip Mandelstam, 1891 – 1938
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 great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was persecuted, sent to Siberia and ultimately died because he wrote the above poem that mocked Stalin’s mustache. In this darkly funny and moving investigation of Mandelstam’s terrifying yet almost grotesque martyrdom, we live through the nightmare with him, a quiet, thoughtful man who tried to stay out of trouble but found himself by nature unable to write pap, propaganda, or lies, even in Stalin’s repressive nightmare world in which one wrong word could get you killed.
Late one night, Mandelstam’s friend Boris Pasternak gets a phone call from Stalin who wants advice on what to do about Mandelstam, and so begins one of the oddest and most utterly bizarre chapters in the history of the long and bloody struggle between art and authority.
Interestingly, the story of Osip Mandelstam has not been portrayed very much in the Russian Theatre, despite it being a witness of some of the hardest time for truth, loyalty and morality this country has endured in the 20th century. This latest production by Roman Viktyuk is a requiem to all the poets who chose suffering in the name of art instead of giving in to conformism.