Osip Mandelstam

Osip Mandelstam

2074_image1_sOsip Mandelstam was a poet and essay writer who spent much of his life in Moscow. Although there is no street named after him in Moscow, there is one in Warsaw, where the poet was born. At the time, Poland was a part of the Russian empire. Indeed, a number of cities are connected with Osip Mandelstam: Voronezha city in the European part Russia, situated about 520 km south of Moscow, where he spent three years in exile for his Stalin Epigram, Vladivostok, near which he died in a transit camp, Saint Petersburg, etc. There are also places associated with the poet in a dozen other countries as well. Moscow was special to Mandelstam however; it was the city of his first love, it was where he saw the peak of his writing career, and also where he was dispatched from en route to Stalin’s prison camps from which he never returned.

Osip Mandelstam belonged to different cities, different poetic schools (first symbolism, then acmeisma literary movement among Russian poets in the early 20th century) and two countries—the Russian Empire and the Soviet Union—and even different religions: he was born Jewish, then converted to Methodism to avoid discrimination against Jewish people when applying to university, and later showed genuine interest in Catholicism. He wrote prose, poetry and critical essays and also engaged in translation work. Moscow and his life there is only a part of Mandelstam’s rich biography. Nonetheless, this portion of his life was significant—his Moscow PoemsRussian: Moskovskie stikhi or Московские стихи collection demonstrates the love he felt for the city.


Osip Mandelstam first came to Moscow in 1916, and was welcomed by his first love, Marina Tsvetaevaa Russian and Soviet poet. A native of Moscow, she was happy to show him around, and she loved him in return. As Tsvetaeva wrote, in those ‘wonderful days from February to June 1916 <…> I gave him Moscow as a present.’ To Osip, who came from the European-like Petersburg, Moscow first of all evoked the impression of something ancient, merchant and boyara member of the highest rank of the feudal society in Russia, descended from the Middle Ages. That is actually what Moscow was like at the beginning of the 20th century—full of ancient churches, winding streets, disarrayed buildings of different size, chaotically structured, and centered around the majestic Kremlin. As soon as he arrived in Moscow, accompanied by a girl named Marina, Mandelstam wrote a poem where he associated himself with the False Dmitrypretender to the Russian throne during the Time of Troubles:

Upon a horse-sleigh laid to brim with straw

And covered barely with hides and birch,

We rode around the lumbering Moscow

From Sparrow Hills to a familiar church. (translation by Ilya Shambat)

2079_image2_sThe ‘familiar church’ is the Iberian ChapelRussian: Iverskaya chasovnya or Иверская часовня by the entrance to Great Moscow Red Square. Tsvetaeva also mentioned the famous icon kept in the chapel in her poems. It follows that Mandelstam began his trip at Sparrow HillsRussian: Vorobyovy gory or Воробьёвы горы, spotted the Novodevichy ConventRussian: Novodevichiy monastyr or Новодевичий монастырь on the way, passed by the Cathedral of Christ the SaviourRussian: khram Khrista Spasitelya or храм Христа Спасителя, and approached the Kremlin in his poem. He also wrote that ‘Moscow is the third Rome, and there will be no fourth.’ That’s exactly how he perceived the capital— huge, diverse, with a long, often brutal history.

In the same year, Mandelstam wrote another poem called In Multitude of Choir Polyhymnal, sometimes referred to as Moscow. In it, he captured the essence of the architecture of the Kremlin’s Dormition CathedralRussian: Uspenskiy sobor or Успенский собор. ‘The rampart fortified by the archangels’ is a reference to the Cathedral of the AnnunciationRussian: Blagoveschenskiy sobor or Благовещенский собор and the Cathedral of the ArchangelRussian: Arkhangelskiy sobor or Архангельский собор that guard the entrance to the Cathedral SquareRussian: Sobornaya ploschad or Соборная площадь of the Kremlin. There is no doubt that Mandelstam knew the Moscow Kremlin had been built by Italian architect Aristotle Fioravanti, who combined the fair-faced brickwork, high basement and other order elements of Italian Renaissance with typical features of Russian architecture: crossed-dome plan, five domes, blind arcade, and narrow windows.

Соборная площадь КремляMandelstam associated the cathedral itself with a woman, the beautiful Aurora with high eyebrows, dressed, however, in a Russian fur coat, while the sound of bells that often filled the city reminded him of a maidens’ choir.

Another poem devoted to the Kremlin was written the same year, mentioning the other churches of Cathedral Square:

Behold, this air, made drunk with haze

Upon Kremlin’s black square—

Maniacs shake the world in craze,

And poplars smell of fear. (translation by Ilya Shambat)

The Kremlin has no Resurrection CathedralRussian: sobor Voskreseniya or собор Воскресения, a building which is confusingly attributed to the Kremlin in this poem, but the poet was probably referred to the Verkhospassky CathedralRussian: Verkhospasskiy sobor or Верхоспасский собор. Topped with 11 domes, it harbours several small churches, including the Anastasis (Voskresenie Slovushchee) CathedralRussian: tserkov' Voskreseniya Slovuschego or церковь Воскресения Словущего. ‘A robber without tongue’ is a reference to the Ivan the Great Bell TowerRussian: kolokolnya Ivana Velikogo or колокольня Ивана Великого (its bell was probably silent on the occasion of the Great Fast), and the ‘mourning’ Cathedral of the Annunciation was inspired by the tradition of releasing doves on the Feast of the Annunciationthe Christian celebration of the announcement by the angel Gabriel to the Virgin Mary that she would become the mother of Jesus.


2081_image4_sMandelstam’s next visit to Moscow was two years later, in May 1918. It was already a new era – this time, an era of revolution. The poet worked at the higher education reform department of the People’s Commissariat for Education the Soviet agency charged with the administration of public education and most other issues related to culture (NarkomprosRussian: Наркомпрос), headquartered at 53/2 OstozhenkaRussian: Остоженка St since 1918.

The Narkompros building, which used to house the Katkov LyceumRussian: Katkovskiy litsey or Катковский лицей in imperial Russia, was built by the Austrian architect August Weber in the second half of the 19th century. The lyceum was designed to educate children from privileged noble families. Today, it is again home to a prestigious educational institution, the Diplomatic Academy of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Panel Princess Gresa Vrubel on the facade of the Metropol HotelMandelstam lived in the Hotel MetropolRussian: gostinitsa «Metropol» or гостиница «Метрополь» near Teatralnaya SquareRussian: Teatralnaya ploschad or Театральная площадь (2 Teatralny PassageRussian: Teatralnyi proezd or Театральный проезд), one of the best hotels Moscow had to offer at the time – in fact, it is still often regarded as one of the best places to stay in the capital. The hotel is over a century old. The famous Moscow philanthropist, Savva Mamontov, ordered it to be built in 1898, a job carried out by William Walcot and Lev Kekusheva Russian architect, notable for his Art Nouveau buildings in Moscow, built in the 1890s and early 1900s. The hotel is a modernist building decorated with bas-relief and mosaic friezes. It features majolica tiles from Mamontov’s pottery in Abramtsevoan estate located north of Moscow, including the immense picture The Princess of the DreamRussian: Printsessa Greza or Принцесса Греза, made to Mikhail Vrubela Russian painter who is regarded as the greatest Russian Symbolist painter’s design. Soviet authorities had two headquarters in 1918; one called the House of SovietsRussian: Dom Sovetov or Дом Советов in Hotel NationalRussian: gostinitsa «Natsional» or гостиница «Националь» and another located in Hotel Metropol. The poem Mandelstam dedicated to the Metropol is part of the Tristia volume. The poet’s mission in this piece is to convey the heavy, yet majestic spirit of the city at night. He mentions the Bolshoi and Maly TheatresRussian: Bolshoy teatr i Malyi teatr or Большой театр и Малый театр, which are also located in Teatralnaya Square, near the hotel where he stayed.

2083_image6_sThe magnificent classicist building of the Bolshoi Theatre (1 Teatralnaya Sq) is definitely the most conspicuous structure in the square. At the end of the poem, Mandelstam mentions the Doric portico with a quadriga sculpted by Peter Clodt von Jürgensburg above it. The Maly Theatre (1 Teatralny Passage) also has Doric columns, not located in the portico but on the pilasters of the two avant-corpses. A former merchant mansion, the building was transformed into a theatre by Joseph Bovéan Italian-Russian neoclassical architect who supervised reconstruction of Moscow after the Fire of 1812 and was then modified somewhat by Konstantin Thonan official architect of Imperial Russia during the reign of Nicholas I. Both theatres retain their status as the most renowned in Russia.

Mandelstam uses the words ‘miserable market’ to refer to the Okhotny RyadRussian: Охотный ряд marketplace. Dozens of small shops had not yet been demolished in 1918. Whilst in 1916, the poet compared Moscow to Rome, the poem written in 1918 draws a parallel with Herculaneum, which was destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius. Perhaps he wanted to say that Moscow is resurrected every time the night falls; or, he may have been referring to the historic fire of 1812during the war between the Russian Empire and Napoleonic France on the territory of Russia in 1812, which resulted in an extensive renovation of the city, in particular the rebuilding of Teatralnaya Square.

Along with the heritage of world-famous people and great museums, there are many attractions in Moscow, which are not so popular, but still very remarkable. Beautiful temples in the Orthodox style, the unusual architecture of the Russian Middle Ages or the recent Soviet era, ballet and drama theaters – on our website you can learn more about Moscow sights.

1920s–1930s. SOVIET MOSCOW

2086_image9_sSoon, Mandelstam left Moscow and went to Kiev, where he married Nadezhda Khazina. This was a special, yet complicated marriage. It suffice to mention that Nadezhda was about to leave her husband for the painter Vladimir Tatlin when she learned that Mandelstam had started seeing another woman. However, the Mandelstams loved each other very much and barely parted after their wedding, even though their life together was difficult and left much to be desired.

The Mandelstam family settled again in Moscow, where they stayed for a long time. They lived in the former Yakovlev mansionRussian: usadba Yakovlevykh or усадьба Яковлевых at 25 Tverskoy BlvdRussian: Tverskoy bulvar or Тверской бульвар, an area which had become a sort of hotbed of Soviet writers. Thus, the poet lived once again in an extraordinary building; it was ancient, classicist, and notable from a historical perspective when considering the events of the 19th–20th centuries. This building was where Alexander Herzen, often referred to as ‘the first Russian revolutionary’, was born. Since the 1930’s, the building has been home to the Maxim Gorky Literature InstituteRussian: Literaturnyi institut imeni A.M. Gorkogo or Литературный институт имени А.М. Горького.

It seems that the history of this house and its duality (an ancient building which is related through Herzen to the overthrow of the old power) symbolise Mandelstam’s frustration. When he lived in this house, first in 1922–1923 and then in 1932–1933, he often performed at recitals and evenings of poetry; his poems and prose appeared in literary journals and were published in various collections. However, the poet was wary of demonstrating any loyalty to the new power. He had too much in common with the bygone era and no idea as to how to incorporate new trends into his life. Due to growing censorship, literary people had to write what they were told to write. The house was inhabited only by writers. Mandelstam would remember this house and its inhabitants in his Fourth ProseRussian: Chetvyortaya proza or Четвертая проза: ‘Writers are a race with stinking skin and filthy cooking methods. This is a nomadic race that sleeps in their vomit, driven out of their cities, persecuted in villages, yet ubiquitously close to the government, which houses them in yellow quarters, as if they were prostitutes. For literature ubiquitously has the only mission of helping bosses hold soldiers on a leash and judges punish the doomed. <…> I’m tearing off my literary fur coat and treading it down. I will run all along the boulevard rings of Moscow thrice, dressed only in a jacket at minus 30 degrees. I will escape from the yellow hospital of the Komsomolsky Passage—to meet pleuritis, a deadly flu, only not to see the twelve lit Judah’s windows of the obscene house in Tsvetnoy Boulevard, only not to hear the ring of coins and the count of printed sheets.’

Naturally, the Mandelstam family’s living conditions were far from perfect. Mandelstam wrote to his brother Zhenya about his room in the wing of Herzen house (letter of 11 September 1922): ‘I’m not doing that bad. I haven’t earned any lump sum so far, but small ones make up a satisfactory amount. We have slept on a horrible narrow kitchen table up until now. As soon as we arrived, we bought a good spring mattress on a frame, similar to a Turkish sofa. A winter cap, overboots, gloves and shoes ate up a lot of money. The room is warm and cosy, but we always have to fight for quietness (being right next to the kitchen). I let almost no one in, and everyone has to ask themselves whether they will disturb me before making a visit.’

The family moved from one place to another a lot in the 1920s‒1930s, barely staying anywhere for more than a year. This is what Mandelstam wrote in Fourth Prose about one such place, the dormitory of the Central Committee for Improving Scientists’ Living Conditions (TseKUBU)Russian: obschezhitie Tsentralnoy komissii po uluchsheniyu byta uchyonykh (TseKUBU) or общежитие Центральной комиссии по улучшению быта ученых (ЦеКУБУ) in 5 Kropotkinskaya EmbankmentRussian: Kropotkinskaya naberezhnaya or Кропоткинская набережная (the building no longer exists): ‘I got a job in Moskovsky Komsomoletsa Moscow-based daily newspaper right from the TseKUBU caravanserai. There were twelve pairs of headphones, almost all out of order, and a reading room with no books, converted from a former church, where people slept like snails on round sofas. TseKUBU servants hated me for my straw baskets and because I wasn’t a professor. During the day, I would go to watch the high tide and believed firmly that the obscene waters of the River Moskva would flood the academic Kropotkinskaya Embankment and the TseKUBU would ring up for a boat. Every morning, I would drink sterilised cream out of the bottle, right in the street. I would use someone’s soap from professors’ shelves to wash my face in the night, and they never caught me. People arrived there from Kharkov and Voronezh, and all of them wanted to go to Alma-Ata. They took me for one of them and asked me which of the republics I thought was better. The guards locked the TseKUBU building for the night, as if it were a fortress, and I would tap a stick on the window.’

2075_image10_sDuring the ten years that Mandelstam spent in Moscow, he worked for newspapers Moskovsky KomsomoletsRussian: Московский комсомолецVechernyaya MoskvaRussian: Вечерняя Москва and PyatidnevkaRussian: Пятидневка whose editorial offices were located at 15 TverskayaRussian: Тверская St (now 5/6 Tverskaya St). This ancient building has undergone a number of reconstructions. Originally a palace belonging to the Dolgorukovsa princely Russian family of Rurikid stock, it was converted into a lodging house. Its façade acquired its present look in the 1880s, when the building hosted the Postnikova PassageRussian: Postnikovskiy passazh or Постниковский пассаж. The structure was designed by Vladimir Shukhova Russian engineer-polymath, scientist and architect, and the house was among the first in Moscow to be connected to electricity.

Mandelstam collaborated with leading revolutionary newspapers, gradually reinterpreting the historical image of Moscow. More and more, he grew to view Moscow as home, a city which continued to preserve its primordial careless and outspoken spirit. In the summer of 1931, the Mandelstam family lived in the apartment of their acquaintance, the lawyer Caesar Ryss, at 10 Bolshaya PolyankaRussian: Bolshaya Polyanka or Большая Полянка St (the building no longer exists). During that period, Osip Emilyevich wrote the following:

Today you can make decals

Of the brigand Kremlin, by dipping

Your little finger in the Moscow River. How lovely

Those pistachio dovecotes are—

You might even sprinkle them with millet or with oats! (translation by Clare Cavanagh)

There are mentions of the Red Square and Sparrow Hills in this poem, yet it differs dramatically from the one written in 1916, when Mandelstam saw Moscow for the first time, as presented to him by Marina Tsvetaeva. The more recent poem refers to some attributes of the new era: decals, the city panorama with the Moscow Power Plant, etc. This poem is not joyful; rather, it is deliberately careless. Whilst he enjoyed the present, it is obvious that he dreaded the future. The social forces of ‘denouncing the old world’ were growing stronger and stronger in the 1930s. Churches and ancient houses were demolished to make room for buildings belonging to a new era, which Mandelstam did not like at all. When he wrote about the ‘glass palace on chicken legs’, into which the poet will never enter ‘even as a light shadow’, he was referring to the Tsentrosoyuz BuildingRussian: Dom Tsentrosoyuza or Дом Центросоюза at 36 MyasnitskayaRussian: Мясницкая St, which was constructed by the famous French architect, Le Corbusier. Nowadays, the building is home to two major governmental agencies: the Federal State Statistics Service (Rosstat)Russian: Federalnaya sluzhba gosudarstvennoy statistiki (Rosstat) or Федеральная служба государственной статистики (Росстат) and the Federal Financial Monitoring Service (Rosfinmonitoring)Russian: Federalnaya sluzhba po finansovomu monitoringu (Rosfinmonitoring) or Федеральная служба по финансовому мониторингу (Росфинмониторинг).

2076_image11_sThis is a truly innovative building in the constructivist style, in which all five points of architecture specific to Le Corbusier are applied: pilotis, ribbon windows, curtain-wall façade, a free floor plan, and a flat roof. Le Corbusier was assisted by Soviet architect Nikolai Kolli. Both the plan and the architecture of this building made of reinforced concrete were quite innovative at the time. Yet, the poet was clearly unhappy with the direction architecture was taking.

Mandelstam might have not been a Muscovite, but he was definitely a true Russian citizen. He found the urban environment interesting and comfortable, easy to move around in and to engage with. As is the case with anyone who has lived in the city for a while, he observed small details of everyday life instead of the central avenues or major monuments: Chinese laundries, cinema theatres, street photographers shooting against artificial Oriental backgrounds, trams, telephone booths where you could cheat by inserting a piece of a celluloid cone, etc were the objects of his fascination. However, these minor details signalled the new era in which the poet found himself immersed. This is what he wrote in his poem I’m still nothing like a patriarch… in 1931:

When you stop to think what binds you to the world,

You can’t believe yourself: it’s nonsense!

The midnight key to someone else’s flat,

And the silver dime inside your pocket,

And a piece of gangster film celluloid. (translation by Clare Cavanagh)

Starosadskiy per, house 10The ‘midnight key’ opened ‘someone else’s’ communal apartment, which was located at No.3, 10 Starosadsky LaneRussian: Starosadskiy pereulok or Старосадский переулок. Originally a lodging house, this modernist building passed from one merchant to another, and is still inhabited today. It mostly hosted Jewish people after World War I, as the Moscow Choral SynagogueRussian: Moskovskaya Khoralnaya sinagoga or Московская Хоральная синагога was located nearby. Osip’s brother Alexander Mandelstam was a neighbour of the pianist Alexander Bekkerman, whom the poet described in a poem published in March 1931:

A certain Alexander Herzovich,

A minor Jewish musician,

Played Schubert sonatas day and night

With diamond-like precision. (translation by Peter Zeeman)

A monument to Osip Mandelstam was erected by this house near the synagogue in 2008. It was created by the sculptors Dmitry Shakhovsky, Yelena Munts, and architect Alexander Brodsky. Lines from a poem written in that very house are carved on the monument.

2078_image13_sIn the disastrous November of 1933, Mandelstam wrote his Stalin Epigram, which has already been mentioned above, in a flat of a now non-existent building in Nashchokinsky LaneRussian: Naschokinskiy pereulok or Нащокинский переулок. Not only was the poem daring, but Mandelstam also marketed it actively to anyone he could. One could say he got off easily, because he was only exiled to the Perm regionnow it is a federal subject of Russia (an oblast) in Privolzhsky Federal District with his wife instead of being executed by a firing squad, as may easily have occurred.

Following a suicide attempt, Osip Mandelstam was allowed to choose a place where he would settle. The family lived in exile in Voronezh until 1937 and returned to Moscow without official permission in 1938. They moved once more into the flat in Nashchokinsky Lane, living there illegally. Another arrest followed for these unauthorised visits to Moscow and Mandelstam’s continuing social activism.

Надгробие Н.Я. МандельштамThe poet was thrown into the notorious Lubyanka prisonRussian: tyurma NKVD or тюрьма НКВД (2 Bolshaya LubyankaRussian: Большая Лубянка St) (now the headquarters of the Federal Security Service of RussiaRussian: Federalnaya sluzhba bezopasnosti RF or Федеральная служба безопасности РФ). A week later, he was transferred to the Butyrka prisonRussian: Butyrskaya tyurma or Бутырская тюрьма (45 NovoslobodskayaRussian: Новослободская St), where he spent nearly four months – these were to be his last months in Moscow. Mandelstam was incarcerated in a shared cell. The prison was overcrowded (it was at four to five times the intended capacity) due to the massive wave of repressions and arrests of 1937‒1938 period. Just like in 1934, he was charged with ‘anti-Soviet agitation and propaganda’, but this time he was condemned to five years in GULAGthe government agency in charge of the Soviet forced labor camp system corrective labour camps.

Mandelstam was sent to the Chernaya RechkaRussian: Чёрная речка prison camp near Vladivostok, where he died only two months later, in December 1938. The place of his burial is unknown. A handful of earth from the mass grave in that camp was buried in the old part of Kuntsevo CemeteryRussian: Kuntsevskoe kladbische or Кунцевское кладбище in Moscow (section 3, graves 31–43, 20 RyabinovayaRussian: Рябиновая St). This is where his wife Nadezhda is also buried and a monument honouring the poet is also located.

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