How major Russian poets tried to COMMUNICATE with Stalin

Kira Lisitskaya (PhotoUniversal History Archive, bellanatella/Getty Images; TASS; Moisei Nappelbaum/Sputnik)
Some sang odes to his “greatness and courage” for self-promotion. Others – out of fear for the lives of their loved ones. And there were those who thought they could be literally on the same page with the Soviet leader, if they devoted their verses to him.

Stalin’s personality cult was one of the key political mechanisms of the Soviet regime. To ensure decades of trouble-free operation of this vital instrument of influence, a large-scale totalitarian infrastructure aimed at boosting the cult 24/7 had to be developed. 

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Stalin, who led the Soviet state for almost three decades, had god-like status in the USSR. 

Joseph Stalin, Nikita Khrushchev and a group of pioneers.

Exuding strength, magnetism and charisma, the indefatigable Soviet leader was a role model for just about everyone in the USSR, from schoolboys and government officials to luminary writers, poets and stage directors, all of whom (both consciously and unconsciously) engaged in a matter of state importance - the proliferation of Stalin’s personality cult. 

Dialogue with Stalin 

Joseph Stalin’s inexorable rise to power affected all spheres of the society, arts and culture being no exception. The notion of “social realism”, which was imposed by Stalin following Vladimir Lenin’s death, forced artists to paint Soviet life with only one color of ink – rose. Interestingly enough, writers and poets were of particular importance to Stalin, in terms of their far-reaching influence on the public. There were probably some personal reasons, too, as Stalin himself wrote poetry in his youth, was a well-read man and loved literary allusions. According to Nobel laureate Mikhail Sholokhov, “there was a cult, but there was also a personality.”

Joseph Stalin in April, 1939

Such giants as Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Boris Pasternak, meanwhile, had their own powerful way of reaching the masses. Vigilant and alert, Joseph Stalin gave particular attention to Russian literature and monitored that social “sector” for any suspicious, counter-revolutionary activity. 

It was the Georgian poets, such as Paolo Yashvili and Nikoloz Mitsishvili, who began writing poems glorifying Stalin (Boris Pasternak worked on the Russian translation of their hymns). 

Kazakh poet Dzhambula Dzhabaev didn’t waste any time, singing praises to Stalin, while comparing him to “a prophet, pole star, ocean, mountains and sun”.

“Stalin! You have crushed the fortress of enemies! You are an inhabitant of my soul! Stalin is like an eternal flame that burns,” Dzhabaev wrote.

Mandelstam vs Stalin

Just like Alexander Pushkin was looking for a common language through a conversation with Tsar Nicholas I, leading Soviet poets and writers hoped for a constructive dialogue with Joseph Stalin. The problem was, it later turned out, they were fighting a losing battle, since the communication was unfailingly one-way. But, while Pushkin (in a letter to poet and critic Alexander Bestuzhev) pointed out that Russian literature “does not bear the stamp of slavish humiliation”, Stalin’s years in power, in contrast, were marked by a total control over literature and arts, with censorship of about everything verbal, visual or physical. The relationships between the literary glitterati and Joseph Stalin were often as complicated and disappointing as life itself.

Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandeshtam’s daredevil poem about Stalin dropped like a bombshell on Russian intellectual society. Written in November 1933, it was a blatant slap in the face of the totalitarian leader, who was responsible for murdering millions during his long reign.

We live. We are not sure our land is under us.

Ten feet away, no one hears us.

But wherever there’s even a half-conversation,

we remember the Kremlin’s mountaineer.

His thick fingers are fat as worms,

his words reliable as ten-pound weights.

His boot tops shine,

his cockroach mustache is laughing.

About him, the great, his thin-necked, drained advisors.

He plays with them. He is happy with half-men around him.

They make touching and funny animal sounds.

He alone talks Russian.

One after another, his sentences hit like horseshoes! 

He pounds them out. He always hits the nail, the balls.

After each death, he is like a Georgian tribesman,

putting a raspberry in his mouth

(Translated by Robert Lowell)

In May 1934, secret police received a tip-off about the anti-Stalin poem and arrested its author. Accompanied by his wife Nadezhda, Osip was sent into exile to the Ural town of Cherdyn where he attempted suicide. 

Osip Mandelstam

His poem was perceived as a terrorist act by Soviet authorities and eventually cost Mandelstam his life (he would die in 1938 in a hospital barrack in the Siberian gulag). 

During questioning, the fearless 42-year-old poet explained the nature of the conflict between him and Stalin (whose name is not even mentioned in the poem) just in two words: “Country vs. Lord.” 

While historians are still divided on whether Stalin had actually read the biting epigram or not (his subordinates were scared to death to show the overtly offensive poem to Stalin), one thing was certain – sooner or later, Mandelstam was doomed. 

READ MORE: Vsevolod Meyerhold: The revolutionary communist director executed by Stalin

But Stalin didn’t earn a reputation as a control freak for nothing. He was angry at the OGPU officials (Soviet Union’s secret police) for allegedly failing to inform him about Mandelstam’s arrest. He treated literature as his private domain and had to personally approve all the arrest warrants, especially those concerning blue-chip Russian writers. 

“Who gave them the right to arrest Mandelstam? It’s outrageous,” Stalin wrote on the margins of Nikolai Bukharin’s letter, in which the editor-in-chief of Izvestia newspaper told Koba (Stalin’s nickname in the inner circle) that Boris Pasternak was “freaked out” by Mandelstam’s arrest.

Joseph Stalin

“The poetic invective addressed to Stalin, ‘We live. We are not sure our land is under us’, around which the Mandelstam case of 1934 was built, is traditionally considered one of the central examples of correspondence between the poet and the ruler. However, in the history of Russian literature - from Pushkin to Brodsky - communication between the poet and the tsar has always been characterized by an annoying one-sidedness,” Russian literary historian Gleb Morev wrapped up in his book ‘The Poet and the Tsar’.

Pasternak vs Stalin

Stalin played his own game which had its own rules. He took the phone and called Pasternak to find out whether Osip Mandelstam was really a “first-rate poet, a master” or not. The question knocked the wind out of Pasternak, who believed that great poetry had more to do with genius rather than “mastery”. 

Boris Pasternak

“That’s not the point,” Pasternak said, unable to give the person on the other end a clear-cut answer to whether Mandelstam met Stalin’s definition of a “master”. To change the subject, Pasternak suggested that he and Stalin stop discussing Mandelstam and “meet and talk seriously” instead.

“What about,” Stalin asked.

“Life and death,” Pasternak replied.

Stalin hung up the phone, for it was he who decided how, where and when to end a conversation with the poet, not vice versa. There was no way for a mere mortal, be it a poet/writer/actor or anyone else, to converse on equal terms with Stalin. The Soviet leader didn’t seek existential partners on an equal footing, full stop.

And yet, following Stalin’s three-minute conversation with Pasternak, Mandelstam’s case was revised, and the poet spent three years in exile in the city of Voronezh.

In early 1937, Mandelstam wrote an ‘Ode to Stalin’, which still causes controversy as to whether it was a panegyric to a tyrant dictated by fear or a veiled continuation of the first frontal attack. Of course, we can only guess what his true motives were. It had the following lines:

“… And in the friendship of the wise eyes I shall discover for the twin 

Which one, I shall not say, that expression, drawing near 

To which, to him, — you suddenly recognize the father 

And you lose your breath, feeling the nearness of the world. 

And I want to thank the hills 

That developed this bone and this wrist: 

He was born in the mountains and knew the bitterness of prison. 

I want to call him — not Stalin — Dzhugashvili!”

Pasternak, meanwhile, didn’t give up the idea of building a dialogue with Stalin. Carried away by the currents of Stalin’s personality cult, he wrote several letters to the Soviet leader, including a private letter to offer condolences after the death of Stalin’s second wife Nadezhda Alliluyeva. 

In the fall of 1935, Pasternak would address another letter to Stalin, asking him to free Anna Akhmatova’s husband (Nikolai Punin) and son, Lev Gumilyov, accused of terrorist activities. 

Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak

“In addition to the value that Akhmatova’s life has for all of us and our culture, she is as dear to me as my own, in all that I know about her. From the beginning of my literary path, I have witnessed her honest, difficult and resigned existence. I’m asking you, Iosif Vissarionovich, to help Akhmatova and free her husband and son, the attitude towards which Akhmatova is a categorical guarantee of their honesty.

Faithfully yours, Pasternak."

Stalin satisfied the poet’s request and Akhmatova’s loved ones were immediately released. 

In 1935, Pasternak wrote another long letter to Stalin, in which he personally thanked him for the “flash-like release” of Akhmatova’s family and sent Stalin a collection of Georgian poets’ translations made by him. 

“Dearly loving you and devoted to you,” Pasternak signed off the letter, mentioning something deeply “mysterious that, in addition to everything understandable and shared by everyone, binds me to you”.

In 1936, the future author of ‘Doctor Zhivago’ devoted a poem to Stalin, which was published in the Izvestiya newspaper. Pasternak called Stalin “a genius of the deed”.

“But who is he? At which arena

Did he acquire his mature skill?

With whom did he struggle?

With himself, with himself.

Like a settlement on the Golfstrom,

He was created entirely by earthly warmth.

Time rolled into his bay

Everything that went beyond the breakwater.”

Later, Pasternak would call this poem a “sincere and one of the strongest attempts to live with the thoughts of the time, and according to its tone”.

Perhaps, it was just an attempt to give his relationships with Stalin a certain depth and meaning, extending far beyond the boundaries of a formal communication between the petitioner and the respondent.

READ MORE: Yuri Olesha: The king of metaphors smashed by Stalin’s social realism

Akhmatova vs Stalin

Stalin called Akhmatova a “nun”, referring to her aloofness and independence that went against Soviet communist values.

Anna Akhmatova

Her poems were not allowed to be published by State censors. Her famous poem ‘Requiem’ (1935-1940), which describes the terrifying years of Stalin purges, made Akhmatova the rare voice for the downtrodden.

Akhmatova never supported the communist regime, which bulldozed over her life like a 20-ton road roller.

Her first husband, poet Nikolay Gumilyov, was arrested and executed in 1921; her third husband, art historian Nikolai Punin, was arrested three times (and died in the Stalin gulag in 1953), and Akhmatova’s only son, Lev Gumilyov, spent around 15 years in gulags for his anti-Soviet views. 

Nikolai Gomilyov, Anna Akhmatova and their son, Lev Gumilyov.

In 1935, when Punin and Lev Gumilyov were arrested again, Akhmatova wrote a letter to Stalin. The author of ‘The Master and Margarita’ Mikhail Bulgakov helped her compose the text.

“Knowing your attentive attitude to the cultural forces of the country and, in particular, to the writers, I worked up the nerve to address you with this letter,” she wrote. “I do not know what they are accused of, but I give you my word of honor that they are neither fascists, nor spies, nor members of counter-revolutionary societies.

In Leningrad, I live a very secluded life and am often ill for a long time. The arrest of the only two people that I have is a hard blow I can no longer bear.

I’m asking you, Joseph Vissarionovich [Stalin], to return my husband and son to me, knowing that no one will ever regret it.” 

Stalin read the letter and released them. 

Akhmatova always knew how to say things very briefly, without sounding pathetic or confused. No wasted words and opportunities. 

Anna Akhmatova

And yet, the brutal reality of life under Stalin was too complicated and dangerous to have the luxury to completely ignore the Soviet leader in poetic terms.

Known as the ‘Iron lady’ of Russian poetry, Akhmatova devoted two poems to Stalin. They were published in ‘Ogonyok’ magazine in 1949 and 1950.

Akhmatova described Stalin as a “Leader with eagle eyes”.

“…He breathed his spirit into this city,

He turned away trouble from us, -

That's why so strong and young

Moscow’s irresistible spirit is.

And the voice of the grateful people

The leader hears:

"We came

To say - where Stalin is, there’s freedom,

Peace and greatness of the earth!”

Apparently, during Stalin’s rule, even a completely non-Soviet and apolitical person like Anna Akhmatova could not survive in society without paying tribute to its “eagle-eyed” leader. The good news is, those sugar-coated tributes have long passed their sell-by date.

READ MORE: How Soviet poets performed in football stadiums in front of thousands

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