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Murder of a poet - 80 years

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Behind us still our fate was grimly holding,
A razor-handed madman, seeking fee.
(Arseny Aleksandrovich Tarkovsky)

The picture above is, most probably, the last picture of Osip Mandelshtam, one of the brightest stars in Russian poetry of XX century. It was taken by a prison photographer not long before his death. His murder, in fact. The poet signed his death sentence by his famous epigram of the tyrant:

We live, not feeling the earth beneath us
At ten paces our words evaporate.
But when there’s the will to crack open our mouths
our words orbit the Kremlin mountain man.
Murderer, peasant killer.

His fingers plump as grubs.
His words drop like lead weights.
His laughing cockroach whiskers.
The gleam of his boot rims.

Around him a circle of chicken-skinned bosses
sycophantic half-beings for him to toy with.
One whines, another purrs, a third snivels
as he babbles and points.

He forges decrees to be flung
like horseshoes
at the groin, the face, the eyes.

He rolls the liquidations on his tongue like berries
delicacies for the barrel-chested Georgian.

It is not my place to write about the life and poetry of the genius, but here are some memories of his last days. His last letter to the family:

Dear Shura! 

I am – Vladivostok, СВИТЛ*, the 11th barrack. Got 5 years for the к.р.д.** by decision of the ОСО***. From Moscow, the Butyrki, our group left on September 9, arrived on October 12. Health is very weak, exhausted to the extreme, emaciated, almost unrecognizable, but I don’t know whether to send things, food and money makes sense. Try all the same. Very cold without things.

My dear Nadinka, I do not know whether you are alive, my dove. You, Shura, write about Nadya to me now. Here I am at a transit point. I was not taken to the Kolyma. Wintering is possible.
My dear, I kiss you.

Osya and Shurochka, I am writing more. The last days I went to work, and it raised my spirits. From our camp, as a transit point, they send [people] to the permanent [camps]. I have obviously got “screened out”, and I have to get ready for the winter.

And please send me a telegram and money by telegraph.

(*) СВИТЛ – Northeast Forced Labor and Correction Camps – a branch of GULAG.
(**) к.р.д. – Counter-revolutionary activities.
(***) ОСО, Special Committee) – an administrative body under the NKVD of the USSR, which existed from 1934 to 1953.

And a description of the poet’s death:

…in November we have started being eaten alive by thoroughbred white lice. Typhus, of course, got to us. The sick people were taken away, and not seen anymore. On a morning at the end of December, a few days before the New Year, we were led to the baths, to “sanitary processing”. There was no water. We were ordered to undress in the cold and take the clothing to the heating room*. And then we were transferred to the other half of the premises, the dressing room, where it was even colder. The room stank of sulphur and smoke. At this time two naked men fell unconscious.
Several flankeys came up. They took out pieces of plywood, twine and put tags on the dead. His tag said “Mandelshtam Osip, Article 58 (10), 10 years.”

(*) Heating room – a preferred way then to kill the lice in clothing.

This is the end of one of the very few through whom the deity of poetry speaks.

Take from my palms some sun to bring you joy
and take a little honey – so the bees
of cold Persephone commanded us.

No loosing of the boat that is not moored,
no hearing of the shadow shod in fur,
no overcoming fear in life’s dense wood.

And kisses are all that’s left us now,
kisses as hairy as the little bees
who perish if they fly out of the hive.

They rustle in transparent depths of night,
their home dense forests on Taigetos’ slopes,
their food is honeysuckle, mint and time.

So for your joy receive my savage gift,
a dry and homely necklace of dead bees
who have transmuted honey into sun*.

(*) Well, better a poor translation than nothing. Not that there is any possibility to translate him.


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