Osip Mandelstam’s poetry won immediate praise from fellow members of Russian literary circles, and he now holds an indisputable position as one of Russia’s greatest poets. Like many of his contemporaries, however, Mandelstam experienced anything but a “successful” literary career. His work appeared often in pre-Revolutionary journals, but Mandelstam was not among the writers whom the Bolsheviks promoted after 1917. By 1923, the official ostracism of independent poets such as Mandelstam was apparent, though many continued writing and publishing whenever possible. Mandelstam did not write poetry between 1925 and 1930, turning instead to prose forms that were as inventive and as idiosyncratic as his verse. Attempts to discredit him intensified after 1928. He was arrested twice in the 1930’s and is believed to have died while in transit to a Siberian labor camp.
Even during the “thaw” under Premier Nikita Khrushchev, Mandelstam’s works were kept out of print, and it was not until 1973 that his “rehabilitation” was made credible by the publication of his poetry in the prestigious Biblioteka poeta (poet’s library) series. That slim volume was reissued. During the Soviet era in Russia, scholarly writing about Mandelstam, although limited, appeared; his name was mentioned in many but by no means all studies of literature. Official publications, such as textbooks or encyclopedias, relegated him to minor status and often commented disparagingly on his “isolation” from his age. The deep respect commanded by his poetry in the Soviet Union was nevertheless measured by the evolution of scholarly interest in his work.
Mandelstam’s reputation outside Russia was initially slow in developing because of the extreme difficulty in obtaining reliable texts of his works and because of the scarcity of information about the poet. As texts and translations became available, Mandelstam’s reputation grew steadily. The single most important factor in making his work known in the West was the publication of two volumes of memoirs by his wife, Nadezhda Mandelstam. Vospominania (1970; Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, 1970) and Vtoraya kniga (1972; Hope Abandoned, 1974), issued in Russian by émigré publishers and translated into many Western languages, are the prime source of information concerning Mandelstam’s life. Works of art in their own right, they also provide invaluable insights into his poetry.