The Stalin Epigram, by Robert Littell

Reviewed by Rima Walker

In 1930’s Stalinist Russia, where a circus strongman is put into prison and tortured for having a sticker of the Eiffel Tower on his suitcase, the rule of the land is one based on cruelty and madness. Interspersing historic characters with fictional ones, Littell, a master of the espionage novel, relates the story of the real Osip Mandelstam, a great Russian poet and friend of other intellectuals and artists such as Boris Pasternak.  Poetry and all the arts must now conform to realism according to the dictates of Stalin, and Mandelstam is now poor and unpublishable.  Believing that poetry must tell the truth, he writes in his head a 16-line epigram attacking the murderous dictator and the brutalities he rains down on his own people.Picture3

Each chapter is told from the point of view of the people involved in Mandelstam’s life:  Mandelstam, his wife Nadezhda, his close friend Anna Andreyevna, Boris Pasternak, Fikrit Shotman and others.  Mandelstam and  Fikrit Shotman, the strongman, eventually meet in the cells of the dreaded Lubyanka prison and play out their destinies in very different ways.

A friend of Stalin’s asks him which was the highest art, prose, playwriting or poetry. Stalin answers, “Clearly poetry is head and shoulders above the other arts.”   Yet Stalin  “redirects the party line from modernism to Socialist realism….there is no such thing as art or culture in the abstract… in all its forms must be realistic in form and Socialist in content.”   But Mandelstam believes his poem that will lead to his downfall must tell the truth, must “spell out the evil of Stalin”.  He feels that the power of poetry is to “displace mountains, along with the Kremlin Mountaineer”.  He refuses and rejects Pasternak’s heartfelt advice to rewrite the poem so it is “veiled” and “ambiguous”.

When Mandelstam is arrested and tortured and sees a cellmate killed before his eyes,.  his jailer asks if he is a believer.  Mandelstam replies, “In what.? in poetry?” The jailor says, “Poetry won’t save you now,.”  points a gun at his neck and pulls the trigger. But this is Russian roulette; there is only one bullet and the torturer fires an empty chamber.   Later Mandelstam has an interview with Stalin (but this may be a figment of Mandelstam’s imagination since he is slowly going mad).  Stalin tells Mandelstam he must have a poem of praise or Mandelstam will be “crushed under the weight of the state”. Mandelstam cannot obey, for the poet must “compose something so true it cuts to the bone, which is what a poem must do if it is to have life after the poet’s death.”  Stalin exiles him: “That’ll give him time to work through his madness.  When he comes to his senses, we’ll kill him for his sanity.”

Remember Fikrit Shotman, the strongman, who is also arrested.  He gladly confesses to his crimes once they are, revealed to him by torture.   He adores Stalin and goes along with everything Stalin wants.  He is a foil to Mandelstam who stands up for his beliefs even though he writes an ode to Stalin, ostensibly praising him, but with underlying truth that Stalin sees through, which brings about his death after a second imprisonment.  The novel is filled with examples of loyalty, betrayal, love, and life under the direst conditions. Under Stalin, no one was safe, not the peasant, not the strongman, not the artist. ~