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Mandelstam’s Stalin Epigram

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roses-stalin

?? ?????, ??? ????? ?? ??? ??????,
???? ???? ?? ?????? ????? ?? ??????,
? ??? ?????? ?? ?????????????,
??? ????????? ???????????? ?????.
??? ??????? ??????, ??? ?????, ?????,
? ?????, ??? ??????? ????, ?????,
????????? ??????? ?????,
? ????? ??? ????????.

? ?????? ???? ????? ????????? ??????,
?? ?????? ???????? ?????????.
??? ???????, ??? ??????, ??? ??????,
?? ???? ???? ??????? ? ?????,
??? ???????, ???? ?? ?????? ????:

???? ? ???, ???? ? ???, ???? ? ?????, ???? ? ????.
??? ?? ????? ? ???? – ?? ??????
? ??????? ????? ???????.


We live, not sensing our own country beneath us,
Ten steps away they dissolve, our speeches,
But where enough meet for half-conversation,
The Kremlin hillbilly is our preoccupation.
They’re like slimy worms, his fat fingers,
His words, as solid as weights of measure.

In his cockroach moustaches there’s a hint
Of laughter, while below his top boots gleam.
Round him a mob of thin-necked henchmen,
He pursues the enslavement of the half-men.

One whimpers, another warbles,
A third miaows, but he alone prods and probes.
He forges decree after decree, like horseshoes –
In groins, foreheads, in eyes, and eyebrows.

Wherever an execution’s happening though –
there’s raspberry, and the Ossetian’s giant torso.

Osip Emil’evich Mandelstam, ?? ????? ??? ????? ?? ??? ??????. . . (Nov. 1933) (op. post.)(S.H. transl.)


Read M.S. Merwin’s translation here.

Notes: The word “raspberry” (??????) is code language from the criminal underworld, of which Stalin was a denizen under the code name “Koba.” Stalin hailed from the city of Gori in Georgia, near the South Ossetian region, which is why Mandelstam refers to him here as an Ossetian. This poem led to Mandelstam’s arrest in 1934, imprisonment and death in December 1938.

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