The Stalin Epigram

By Robert Littell

Simon & Schuster. 366 pp. $26

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Reviewed by Frank Wilson


Over the last few years, a good many poets in America made plain in public their contempt for former President George W. Bush. This doubtless made them feel good and certainly caused them no harm.

Such would not have been the case in Stalin's Russia. Indifference to criticism was not among Uncle Joe's virtues. So when, in 1934, Osip Mandelstam composed an epigram in which he suggested that the U.S.S.R.'s top comrade was a common murderer descended from Ossetian brigands and whose mustache resembled a pair of cockroaches, the man in the Kremlin took it personally.

Mandelstam was hauled off to Lubyanka Prison and interrogated in a manner that would have appalled Nancy Pelosi (though, by Soviet standards, it was actually pretty mild, aimed at helping him "experience fear in full measure," which is how Christophorovich, his interrogator, puts it).

When Christophorovich coolly tells Mandelstam that "it is useful for a poet to experience fear," Robert Littell's The Stalin Epigram comes chillingly to life. Littell, best known for such espionage novels as The Company, seems more comfortable writing about secret police goons than he does writing about poets. So the chapter in which Nikolai Vlasik, Stalin's bodyguard, tells of his boss' appearance as a dinner guest at Maxim Gorky's villa perfectly captures Stalin's sly menace.

During the dinner, a young writer named Sergo Saakadze asks Stalin about the famine that forced collectivization has caused. Stalin asks him where he gets his information from. Sergo tells him "from my mother and father." Stalin then tells him to "write down your name and that of your mother and father, as well as the name of their village. Stalin will have his people look into the matter. If it is determined a wrong was done your parents, we will set it right." (And, yes, Stalin did indeed speak of himself in the third person.)

Afterward, however, Stalin tells Vlasik to alert the security apparatus: "Have the Organs check him out."

Less effective is the chapter in which Anna Akhmatova recalls the events of April 12, 1934, when she and Boris Pasternak joined Mandelstam and his wife for a stroll, during which Mandelstam came up with the idea to, in Akhmatova's words, "destroy Stalin with a poem." For all the talk of poetry and Shakespeare, the scene lacks verisimilitude. One wonders why, when Mandelstam refers to Stalin as Josef Vissarionovich Dzhugashvili, he feels the need to add "to use his Georgian name." Surely, Akhmatova and Pasternak knew what Stalin's real name was. One also does not get the impression, from the way they talk and act, that three of these people were in their mid-40s.

Nor does one ever really get a sense of what a great poet the author of "The Slate Ode" was ("Now I study the scratched diary / of the slate's summer, / the language of flint and air, / a layer of darkness, a layer of light").

The most interesting character in the book is Fikrit Shotman, a champion weightlifter turned circus strongman. Shotman is as good-hearted as he is simpleminded, but it is precisely his dimwittedness that saves him from execution. Once they make it clear to him what he is supposed to have done - among other things, his steamer trunk has an Eiffel Tower sticker on it, and this is said to be a secret sign of membership in the anti-Stalin Trotskyist conspiracy - Shotman enthusiastically embraces his guilt and can't wait to tell all to the court (which is won over by his sincerity).

Shotman will end up caring for the dying Mandelstam when the latter is shipped off to the gulag, but they meet first in the Lubyanka, where they share a cell with a moaning heap in the corner that is all that remains of young Sergo Saakadze.

Mandelstam's original arrest warrant wasn't signed by just anybody. It bore the signature of Genrikh Yagoda, head of the secret police. Not long after, Yagoda would fall victim to the same purge that claimed Nikolai Bukharin, who had intervened on Mandelstam's behalf.

So Mandelstam outlives Yagoda, but not by much. And, after his second arrest, he shares a cell with his own original interrogator, Christophorovich.

It is details such as these that enable Littell's book to overcome its shortcomings and grip the reader with a sense of how incomprehensible Stalin's terror must have been. The scariest thing of all may be that, under Stalin, the only way to be judged least guilty was to be, like Shotman, innocent to the point of imbecility.

Frank Wilson is the retired books editor of The Inquirer and the proprietor of the blog Books Inq. - The Epilogue. E-mail him at presterfrank@gmail.com.