The Stalin Epigram

Written by Robert Littell
Review by James Hawking

The author of The Stalin Epigram is an American who has lived abroad for many years and written spy thrillers set in the old Soviet Union (his son Jonathan is the author of the controversial novel The Kindly Ones). In this novel multiple narrators tell the story of how a poem about Stalin by Osip Mandelstam results in the poet’s downfall. The idea was that his wife and fellow poet Nadezhda would memorize the poem, obviating the need to commit it to paper. The poem calls Stalin a peasant-murderer with fat fingers and, even worse, an Ossete rather than a Georgian. Before long the poem comes to the dictator’s attention, and poets like Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova are pleading with Mandelstam to relent and with Stalin to spare the poet. Many sections are narrated by Mandelstam’s wife and the actress they are both involved with, separately and together. A weightlifter eventually confesses to being a follower of Trotsky and cheerfully involves others out of loyalty to the Party. My personal favorite among the narrators is Nikolai Vlasik, Stalin’s loyal bodyguard who worries that his boss is too soft, especially with coffeehouse intellectuals. At a luncheon for Stalin at Gorky’s house, Vlasik makes the host exclude certain invited writers as a matter of security. As the novel moves from 1934 to 1938 we see a small part of the terror that gripped the Soviet Union.

The story follows the outlines of the history as it is known and speculates on the dark events at the gulag. The novel portrays the heroism, the foolishness, and the consequences of standing up to Stalin.