Symmachus

Publishing, classics, mood swings

Osip Mandelstam, The Kremlin Mountain Man

The so-called ”Stalin epigram” (1933), read with some help from a native Russian speaker.

Мы живем, под собою не чуя страны,
Наши речи за десять шагов не слышны,
А где хватит на полразговорца,
Там припомнят кремлёвского горца.
Его толстые пальцы, как черви, жирны,
А слова, как пудовые гири, верны,
Тараканьи смеются усища,
И сияют его голенища.

А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей,
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачет и тычет.
Как подковы, кует за указом указ —
Кому в пах, кому в лоб, кому в бровь, кому в глаз
Что ни казнь у него — то малина
И широкая грудь осетина.

*

We live, but feel not the land beneath us
In ten steps’ distance, you will not hear our words
But if they may utter a half-choked sound
They’ll remember the Kremlin Mountain man

His fingers are thick, glistening worms
But his words true like twelve pound weights
His moustaches laughing cockroaches
And his bootstraps are beaming

The thin-necked rabble of chiefs around him,
Half-man servants he toys with.
One squeaks, one mews, one whimpers, he only
Babbles and points.

Like horse shoes he forges ukas on ukas
For each one’s groins, foreheads, eyes

His every death sentence a raspberry
But the Ossete’s chest is broad.

glistening worms: Demyan Bedny had mentioned to Mandelstam that Stalin left stains of fat on the books he borrowed (Montefiore, Stalin, p. 135 in the paperback ed.).

The thin-necked rabble of chiefs: according to Montefiore loc.cit. an allusion to Molotov’s small head and thin neck. Cf. also Gottfried Benn, ”Englisches Café”, which begins:

Das ganze schmalschuhige Raubpack,
Russinnen, Jüdinnen, tote Völker, ferne Küsten,
schleicht durch die Frühjahrsnacht.

Raspberry malina (малина): Perhaps an allusion to Malenkov, who like Mandelstam knew Latin and read poetry. He was one of the chief authorites in the executive branches of the 1930’s purges (see Montefiore, op.cit. s. 258-60). Because of feminine traits, he was nicknamed Malanya. Stalin’s broad chest could then be a complementary contrast to Malanya’s legendary broad hips.

the Ossete: see on Stalin’s father here.

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