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During the late 1920’s, the poet Osip Emilievich Mandelstam had encountered difficulties with serious creative endeavors; for a period of about five years, he had written no verse, and it appeared possible for him to compose works only in other genres. His other accomplishments did not entirely allay concerns that his lyrical gifts had departed from him. He also had been unjustifiably accused of plagiarism by a popular journalist, who almost certainly had been motivated by political concerns. Just as Mandelstam’s literary career apparently had reached an impasse, fresh inspiration was provided by a prolonged visit, with his wife, Nadezhda, to the Caucasus Mountains between April and November, 1930. After touring Armenia and Georgia, he began anew to write poetry; subsequently while in Moscow, he composed other major poems. He also brought out a brief, if rather engaging, account of his travels, which was published in 1933; it was the last of his works to appear in print in Soviet Russia during his lifetime.

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While Mandelstam had undertaken his journey with the permission and encouragement of Nikolai Bukharin, a leading Soviet official who took a lively interest in the poet’s work—and who was executed the same year that his protege died in confinement—ideological concerns did not seem important in his travel writing. During that period, it was fairly common for writers to visit far-flung parts of the Soviet Union and to produce civic-minded works based on their observations; by contrast, Mandelstam’s remarks are whimsical and often personal. Sometimes, however, he would write of political matters with a reckless disregard for official sensibilities. Moreover, some oblique and yet pointed references to Persian and Armenian rulers of the fourth century could be interpreted as referring to the sweeping and absolute powers exercised by Soviet premier Joseph Stalin. After those passages had been censored, Mandelstam’s editor reinserted them in the issue of the journal where the work originally appeared. Soon thereafter the editor was forced to leave his position; when Mandelstam maintained that no cuts should be made in the piece, he was denounced in Pravda for his “pernicious” views. Although later and much more forthright writings were at issue when Mandelstam was arrested, exiled, and finally sent to his death as a political prisoner, the controversy over the seemingly innocuous travel notes may be considered a skirmish in Mandelstam’s unending struggle with an implacable dictatorship.

Mandelstam’s brief account of his travel impressions seemingly has little to do with political considerations. The work itself, which makes up only about forty pages of text, more than anything else resembles a writer’s sketchbook, with notations clustered under various headings to suggest the associations that were called forth by particular persons and places. For that matter, topicality is not essential to his schema: in the middle, there are reflections gathered together in a section dealing with “Zamoskvorechye,” an old traditional quarter of the Soviet capital; other portions refer to the French as a cultural group and to well-known naturalists from the past. Some images and expressions evidently were related as much to the author’s own experiences and intellectual background as to specific sites he visited. In other instances, evocative connotations were suggested by the ancient and exotic realm he traversed. The author’s prose is brisk, uncluttered, and rich in inventive metaphors recalling his attainments as a poet. Meetings with various individuals, excursions, and problems of history and philology are discussed in turn. Some of Mandelstam’s comments are directed to himself, others are addressed to the reader, while in certain passages he would seem to be carrying on a brief monologue with Boris Kuzin, a friend who was a biologist. The result may appear cryptic, imaginative, and yet intriguing; in addition to the subjective issues presented, the levels of meaning that may be found could also appear significant in the light of concerns Mandelstam raised elsewhere in his writings.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 102

Birkerts, Sven. “On Mandelstam’s Journey to Armenia,” in Pequod. XIX-XXI (1985), pp. 79-92.

Brown, Clarence. Mandelstam, 1973.

Freidin, Gregory. A Coat of Many Colors: Osip Mandelstam and His Mythologies of Self-Presentation, 1987.

Harris, Jane Gary. “The ‘Latin Gerundive’ as Autobiographical Imperative: A Reading of Mandel’shtam’s Journey to Armenia,” in Slavic Review. XLV, no. 1 (1986), pp. 1-19.

Harris, Jane Gary. Osip Mandelstam, 1988.

Isenberg, Charles. Substantial Proofs of Being: Osip Mandelstam’s Literary Prose, 1987.

Pollak, Nancy. “Mandel’shtam’s Mandel’shtein, Initial Observations on the Cracking of a Slit-Eyed Nut: Or, A Couple of Chinks in the Shchell,” in Slavic Review. XLVI, nos. 3/4 (1987), pp. 450-470.

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