Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Kremlin mountaineer

Tim Whewell of the BBC has written a fascinating if depressing article on the way that Stalin's reputation is undergoing a revival in Russia, fifty years after Nikita Krushchev denounced him in the famous closed session of the 20th Congress of the Communist Party.

Here are the words that earned Osip Mandelstam, one of the greatest poets of the twentieth century, his place on the honour roll of Stalin's victims:

We live, deaf to the land beneath us,
Ten steps away no one hears our speeches,
All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer,

The murderer and peasant-slayer.
His fingers are fat as grubs

And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer

And his boot tops gleam.
Around him a rabble of thin-necked leaders - fawning half-men for him to play with

They whinny, purr or whine
As he prates and points a finger,
One by one forging his laws, to be flung

Like horseshoes at the head, to the eye or the groin.
And every killing is a treat

For the broad-chested Ossete.

Mandelstam whispered that one in Boris Pasternak's ear on one of their walks around Moscow; Pasternak turned to Mandelstam and hissed 'You didn't say that and I didn't hear that'. The phrase 'Kremlin mountaineer' is thought to refer to Stalin's origins in mountainous Georgia.

You can read thirteen of Mandelstam's poems in translation here.


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