Osip Emil’evich Mandelstam was born in Warsaw when it was still part of the Russian empire in 1891. Efforts to escape rampant anti-Semitism eventually moved Mandelstam to St. Petersburg and living in the heart of the Russian empire eventually him into the contact with the Russian Symbolist movement. It may not have exactly been hate at first sight, but Mandelstam’s reaction was strong enough to eventually lead to his becoming one of the leading lights of the Acmeist movement in Russian poetry.
The conflict between the two schools essentially boils down to the preference of using obscure symbols over relatively straightforward imagery and vice versa. Thus, Mandelstam’s standing in the world of poetry is marked by the fact that he is one of those poets who writes verse for those who hate poetry. Accessibility is the byword here and if the poems of Osip Mandelstam seem far too obscure and abstruse for you, you are highly advised against reading the works of the Russian Symbolists.
Stone, published in 1913, is a revelation of the Acmeist aesthetic: an expression of emotion and an observation of their effect upon perception. Fortunately for Mandelstam, the poems were welcomed under the Russian in which St. .Petersburg existed in the name of St. Petersburg. Unfortunately for Mandelstam, he would eventually find himself placed into a far less organized but significantly more precarious school: those poets deemed to have taken a decidedly jaundiced view toward Josef Stalin.
The Egyptian Stamp, Poems and On Poetry all managed to find a welcome audience, but Mandelstam’s fortunes began to spiral downward after being accused of plagiarism, despite the defense that included one of Stalin’s favorites—Bukharin. In 1933 with the publication of a satirical jibe directed in sixteen lines against the happily demented mass killer with a “cockroach” mustache, Mandelstam came to discover that something far worse than anti-Semitism grew in Russia. He gave voice to this pestilence that claimed victims suddenly and without remorse in one of his most oft-quoted observations about living in Russia:
“Only in Russia poetry is respected – it gets people killed. Is there anywhere else where poetry is so common a motive for murder?”
Osip Mandelstam died of a heart attack while in transit to a five year sentence of hard labor in Siberia in 1938.