The Stalin Epigram

Our lives no longer feel ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.

But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
it turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,

the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,

the huge laughing cockroaches on top of his lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.

Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses
he toys with the tributes of half men.

One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes boom.

He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes,
One for the groin, one for the forehead, temple, eye .

He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friend back home.

— Osip Mandelstam, November 1933
(Trans. by Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin)

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

А вокруг него сброд тонкошеих вождей,
Он играет услугами полулюдей.
Кто свистит, кто мяучит, кто хнычет,
Он один лишь бабачит и тычет.
Как подкову, дари’т 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.

Police photo of Mandelstam, taken after his arrest in May 1938.

Police photograph of Osip Mandelstam taken after his arrest in May 1938.

Osip Mandelstam was arrested in 1934 after reading The Stalin Epigram for a group of friends. He was exiled first to Cherdyn in Siberia and then to Voronezh. In 1938, he was arrested again and charged with “counter-revolutionary activities.” He was sentenced to five years of hard labor. Mandelstam died at a transit camp near Vladivostok later that same year.


[Research note: Clarence Brown and W. S. Merwin, Osip Mandelstam Selected Poems (New York: New York Review of Books, 2004), p. 69.]