In 1922, the same year the USSR entered the world, the poet Osip Mandelstam moved to Moscow, hoping to establish himself as a leading voice of the Socialist utopia he’d supported since his teens. Instead, he found himself an outcast. In early Soviet Moscow, writers as daringly erudite as Mandelstam were dismissed as the vestiges of a corrupt, decadent era. The Stalin regime would later invent a phrase for these types: “rootless cosmopolitans.”
The phrase was a dog whistle for “Jewish intellectuals,” a great many of whom—Mandelstam included—had supported the Bolshevik uprising in the hope of ending centuries of state-sponsored anti-Semitism, only to find themselves the national scapegoats once again. By 1933, Mandelstam’s disillusionment with the Soviet state was complete. He composed a piquant satirical poem, suggesting that Stalin (Mandelstam called him “the Kremlin mountaineer,” but everyone knew what that meant) had rendered all of Russia rootless:
We live without feeling the country beneath us,
our speech at ten paces inaudible,
and where there are enough for half a conversation
the name of the Kremlin mountaineer is dropped.
His thick fingers are fatty like worms,
but his words are as true as pound weights.
his cockroach whiskers laugh,
and the tops of his boots shine.
Around him a rabble of thick-skinned leaders,
he plays with the attentions of half-men.
Some whistle, some meow, some snivel,
but he just bangs and pokes […]
Inevitably, word got out, and by 1934, Mandelstam had been banned from every one of the USSR’s largest cities. Even after he’d relocated to the provincial town of Voronezh, the newspapers continued to call him a dangerous traitor. The secret police arrested him in 1938, one year into the Great Purge that would claim a million lives; that August, he was sentenced to five years of hard labor in Siberia. By December, he was dead.
. . . .
In 1930, exactly halfway between the end and the beginning of the end, Mandelstam traveled to Armenia, at the time a semi-autonomous arm of the Soviet Union. The Stalin regime was then in the process of sending writers to freshly annexed parts of the country; it was Mandelstam’s job to “discover” the triumphs of Socialism out west, proving that the territory’s belonged under Moscow’s thumb.
The report he would complete in 1933—available in a beautiful new edition from Notting Hill, translation by Sidney Monas—ranks among the weirdest and most enchanting works of 20th-century Russian literature. In an era of crudely complaisant books that trumpeted their patriotism on every page, Journey to Armenia dared to be uncategorizable: a travel journal that barely mentions traveling, written in a form that isn’t quite prose or poetry, by an author who hasn’t quite made up his mind about Socialism’s promises. By emphasizing these ambiguities instead of drowning them in propaganda, Mandelstam captured the USSR at a crossroads in its grim history, when Stalin’s crimes were already clear enough to many but the utopianism of the 1910s hadn’t worn off completely—to put it another way, at the last time when something like Journey to Armenia could be written and published, albeit in a censored form.
There are times in the book where Mandelstam still sounds like the card-carrying Bolshevik he’d been 15 years earlier. Replace “Armenian” with “proletariat” in the following sentence and you could be reading the transcript of one of Lenin’s early speeches:
The Armenians’ fullness of life, their rough tenderness, their noble inclination for hard work, their inexplicable aversion to any kind of metaphysics, and their splendid intimacy with the world of real things—all this said to me: you’re awake, don’t be afraid of your own time, don’t be sly.
Journey to Armenia contains too many beautifully composed passages like this one for the sentiment to be altogether phony. Mandelstam didn’t only travel to Armenia because the Soviet Union forced him; he genuinely admired the land and he saw in its proud, strong people a glimmer of hope for international Socialism.
Yet he also fretted over his own hopefulness. Unlike many of the great travel writers he alludes to in his work—Goethe, Delacroix, Gauguin—Mandelstam had the presence of mind to wonder if he wasn’t simply seeing what he wanted to see from the USSR’s outer territories. “Am I really like the dreadful child,” he wrote in an early draft, “who turns in his hand a pocket mirror and directs into all the places he shouldn’t the dazzle from the sun?” When the book was published, his question was, naturally, cut.