Book Review: 'The Stalin Epigram' by Robert Littell

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By Patrick Anderson
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, June 1, 2009


By Robert Littell

Simon & Schuster. 366 pp. $26

Robert Littell has been publishing fascinating, often surreal spy novels, including "The Defection of A.J. Lewinter," "The Sisters," "The Company" and "Legends," since 1973. Now, in his 70s, the former Newsweek correspondent has written what may be his finest novel, "The Stalin Epigram," which dramatizes the horrific events that followed after the great Russian poet Osip Mandelstam wrote a 16-line epigram that attacked the all-powerful Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.

By 1934, when the novel begins, Stalin's farm collectivization policies were causing mass starvation, and a reign of terror had begun in Moscow, where the slightest criticism of the dictator could bring arrest, torture and death. As a young poet, Mandelstam had believed in the communist revolution, but, by the age of 43, he is disillusioned with Stalin and has lost favor with the authorities. His poems can no longer be published, and he and his wife, the poet Nadezhda Yakovlevna, are reduced to bumming cigarettes, doing odd jobs and borrowing money from friends.

Mandelstam is no saint. He savors the bohemian lifestyle, and when we meet him and his wife, they are sharing their bed with a pretty, silly young actress. With regard to politics, he is a naive idealist. After he sees starvation in the Crimea firsthand, he tells his friend and fellow poet Boris Pasternak: "I am through beating about the bush, Boris. A poem needs to be written that spells out the evil of Stalin so that any dense-brained idiot can understand it." The right poem, he believes, can bring down the dictator. His epigram calls Stalin "the murderer and peasant-slayer" for whom "every killing is a treat." Mandelstam's wife, along with Pasternak and another friend, the poet Anna Akhmatova, plead with Mandelstam to destroy and forget the poem. Instead, a copy reaches the secret police and the poet is carried off to the notorious Lubyanka prison, where political offenders are routinely interrogated, tortured and shot.

Once arrested, Mandelstam is terrified. One of his cellmates, a young writer, is being methodically beaten to death for having brought up the famine to Stalin's face. Mandelstam's interrogation is chilling; there are no right answers except to confess guilt. However, to our surprise, he leaves the prison alive, because Pasternak convinces Stalin that history sides with poets, not with politicians who murder them.

Mandelstam is exiled to a remote part of Russia, and the loyal Yakovlevna goes with him. If you do not know his ultimate fate, you should not learn it in this review but in the book's moving final pages. There is lovely writing in this novel, as befits the story of four poets, and powerful scenes. We see torture, absurd "confessions," show trials and life in the gulag. We meet another of Stalin's victims, an illiterate circus strongman whose crime is having been given a suitcase with an Eiffel Tower sticker on it. This is twisted into the man's having been a member of a "backup Trotskyist Paris-based anti-Bolshevik conspiracy," whose members identify one another by Eiffel Tower stickers. This decent fellow, a loyal communist, is happy to confess to his crime once his captors explain it to him and goes off cheerfully to work in a frozen Siberian gold mine, convinced he is building a better world. He plays the symbolic role -- the true believer -- that Boxer, the noble horse, plays in George Orwell's classic "Animal Farm."

Littell not only brings the four poets to agonizing life, he does not shrink from making Stalin himself a character. Mandelstam, delusional in prison, imagines himself having a long conversation with the dictator, and other characters have real-life exchanges with him. Stalin is physically repulsive, vulgar, ruthless, paranoid and shrewd. He is, however, capable of a joke: "I intend to give up cigarettes the day America goes Communist." He is also given an opportunity to explain why many thousands must die in his purges: because he knows war with Nazi Germany lies ahead and "I must eliminate the collaborators before they can rise up and support Hitler." Or rise up and oppose him.

Stalin, though fascinating, is still a monster. Mandelstam's wife says, "If, as Mandelstam insisted, Stalin knew what his Chekists [secret police] were doing, he was surely condemned for eternity to the circle of hell where, as Dante tells us, the fires are so searing one could use molten glass to cool one's body." If Dante's inferno exists, Stalin surely endures in that circle today, while millions still honor the life and work of Mandelstam. This is a timeless story of courage and truth confronting the madness of absolute power. It's a brilliant work, always readable, sometimes funny and often heartbreaking. There are many books about Stalin's terror, but there cannot be many that bring its truths more vividly, painfully to life. "The Stalin Epigram" should not be missed.

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