The Stalin Epigram, or the Kremlin Highlander (Кремлёвский горец), Osip Mandelstam

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Mandelstam composed this in 1933. He read it to a small circle of trusted friends, but someone betrayed him. It led to his exile in Voronezh, and ultimately to his deportation to and death in the Gulag in 1938.

It is a very complex poem. Among its challenges are to work out what some of the colloquialisms and neologisms might mean, and then to find a way to express them in English. In the second line of the second stanza of the original, for example, “Он играет услугами полулюдей” means “He plays with the services of half-people”, so “On the dim-witted pawns he unleashes his hounds” may be stretching things a little. That said, if a poem is to work in translation the translator must take some creative liberties.

This website proved helpful in unravelling some of the images, and it also presents a number of alternative translations. The writer of the piece, however, appears not to have noticed that Mandelstam departs from his metre in the sixth line of the second stanza – but I decided not to attempt to emulate this in my own translation.

We’re unable to live, for this country’s absurd,
At ten paces’ remove are our voices unheard,
But opinion, when muttered, half-spoken,
Kremlin highlander’s spectre’s awoken.
Podgy fingers he has that are meaty like worms,
But his speech is deliberate, its measure confirms,
Whiskers’ cockroaches sputter with laughter,
Polished jackboots are shiny, looked after.

And a slender-necked rabble of stooges surrounds,
On the dim-witted pawns he unleashes his hounds.
With a whistle, a mew and a whimper
They respond to malevolent simper,
Like a horseshoe he forges decree on decree.
Into groin and on forehead he presses his knee.
Retribution for him is a doddle,
Ample-chested his Caucasus waddle.

::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::::

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 бабачит и тычет,
Как подкову, 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.

Translation by Rupert Moreton

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