Skip to main content Accessibility help

Article contents

Synthetic Nationality: Mandel'shtam and Chaadaev

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 January 2017


“A world that is your own must be created for you since the one you inhabit has become foreign to you.”

Petr Chaadaev, “Second Philosophical Letter”

In "The Whisper of History and the Noise of Time in the Writings of Osip Mandel'shtam" Gregory Freidin writes that "only a cultural orphan growing up in the revolutionary years could possess such an insatiable need for a continuous construction of a gigantic vision of culture meant to compensate for the impossibility of belonging to a single place." Freidin's richly suggestive remark hints at both the nature of and the reasons for Mandel'shtam's "orphandom," and the means by which he sought to surmount or circumvent his pervasive homelessness and achieve a "homeland, a house, a hearth" in culture.

Copyright © Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies. 1990

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below.


I am grateful to Karen Rosenberg, who first pointed me towards the topic of this essay, and to Jurij Striedter, Donald Fanger and Jane Gary Harris for their comments on earlier versions of the essay. My work was also assisted by grants from the Mrs. Giles Whiting Foundation and from the Joint Committee on Soviet Studies of the Social Science Research Council and the American Council of Learned Societies with funds provided by the United States Department of State. I would also like to thank the University of Michigan Center for Russian and East European Studies for their assistance with research facilities.

1. Freidin, Gregory, “The Whisper of History and the Noise of Time in the Writings of Osip Mandel'shtam, ” Russian Review 37, no. 4, 436Google Scholar. Mandel'shtam's own Jewish background was, he tells us in his autobiography, Shum vremeni, “not a homeland, not a house, not a hearth, but precisely a chaos” ( Brown, Clarence, trans., The Prose of Osip Mandelstam [Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, 1968]), 79 Google Scholar. The phrase world culture is Mandel'shtam's, and comes from his definition of acmeism as “a yearning for world culture.” This “yearning” animates all of Mandel'shtam's own work as well. See Anna, Akhmatova, Sochineniia, ed. G. P. Strove and B. A. Filippov, 2nd ed. (Munich : Interlanguage Literary Associates, 1968) 2 : 185 Google Scholar; and Mandel'shtam, Nadezhda, Vospominaniia : Knigapervaia, 3rd ed. (Paris : YMCA Press, 1970), 264.Google Scholar

2. Mandel'shtam, Osip, Sobranie sochinenii v trekh tomakh, ed. G. P. Struve and B. A. Filippov, 2nd ed., 4 vols. (Washington, D.C. : Inter-Language Literary Associates, 1967-1981) 1 : 248–249 (no. 362)Google Scholar. Further references to this edition, abbreviated as SS, will appear in the text. All translations of the poetry are my own. Translations of the prose, with some modifications, are from Clarence Brown, The Prose of Osip Mandelstam and Harris, Jane Gary and Link, Constance, Mandelstam : The Complete Critical Prose and Letters (Ann Arbor, Mich. : Ardis, 1979)Google Scholar. References to these editions, abbreviated as POM and CPL, will appear in the text, followed by the reference to the original Russian.

3. I am quoting from N. Berkovskii, “O proze Mandel'shtama, ” in N., Berkovskii, Tekushchaia literatura (Moscow : Federatsiia, 1930), 170 Google Scholar; and Freidin, “Whisper of History, ” 427.

4. The phrase “involuntary godfather” comes from Mandel'shtam's prose sketch “Theodosia” (POM, 146; SS 2 : 123). Gleb Strove observes that Chaadaev's “spirit hovers” over two poems in Kameri', “Posokh” (SS, 1 : 42, no. 69) and “K entsiklike papy BenedictaXV” (SS 1 : 43, no. 71). Gleb Strove, “ItaTianskie obrazy i motivy v poezii Osipa Mandel'shtama, ” in Studi in onore di Ettore Lo Gatto e Giovanni Mover, ed., G. Sansoni (Rome, 1962), 601-614. In her introduction to The Complete Critical Prose and Letters, Harris notes that Mandel'shtam's essay on Chaadaev “implicitly associates [his] incipient image of the poet as raznochinets-pisatel’ to Russia itself” (7). Freidin devotes several pages of his article “Osip Mandelstam : The Poetry of Time (1908-1916)” (California Slavic Studies, 11 : 176-179) to a succinct, suggestive discussion of Mandel'shtam's interest in Chaadaev, and I have drawn on his comments in developing my own argument. Carol Avins presents a stimulating discussion of Mandel'shtam's Chaadaev essay, “On the Nature of the Word, ” and “Journey to Armenia” in the context of concepts of Russia and the west in Soviet Literature in her book Border Crossings : The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature 1917-1934 (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1983), 17-28, 148-157.1 am also indebted to Omry Ronen's remarks on Chaadaev's importance for Mandel'shtam's views of architecture and ethics (see Ronen, Omry, An Approach to Mandel'shtam (Jerusalem : Magnes, 1983), 116118, 205207 Google Scholar. For Chaadaev's biography, see Mary-Barbara Zeldin's introduction to her translation of Chaadaev ( Chaadaev, Petr lakovlevich, Philosophical Letters and Apology of a Madman [Knoxville : University of Tennessee Press, 1969], 328 Google Scholar) and McNally, Raymond T., Chaadayev and His Friends (Tallahassee, Fla. : Diplomatic Press, 1971), 755 Google Scholar. Hereafter, Zeldin's book will be referred to in the text and footnotes as Z.

5. William Mills Todd III discusses the phenomenon of samorodki in his book Fiction and Society in the Age of Pushkin (Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1986), 62.1 am indebted here and throughout my argument to Michael Holquist's penetrating discussion of Russian national identity in “The Problem : Orphans of Time, ” the first chapter of his book Dostoevsky and the Novel (Evanston, 111. : Northwestern University Press, 1986), 3-34.

6. The epithets quoted are Mandel'shtam's, but they echo the reports of nineteenth century Russians on their “whimsical and eccentric” contemporary. The admiring Aleksandr Herzen, who saw in Chaadaev “an incarnate veto, a living protest, ” also noted his endless posing, his fastidious dress, his air of aloof superiority, his “whimsicality and eccentricity” (quoted in McNally, Chaadayev and His Friends, 46). Another contemporary remarked that the young officer was “distinguished” by his “rather English, even almost Byronesque manners, ” and his attention to dress was rumored to have cost him the emperor's favor. Gossip had it that his delay in relaying a crucial message to the tsar was due to his frequent stops en route to attend to his toilet, and this delay forced his untimely retirement from the service. (See Iurii Tynianov, “Siuzhet ‘Goria ot uma, '” in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, no. 47-48 [1946], 161-172). A later scholar calls the philosopher “a social and intellectual snob, a neurotic, a hypochondriac, incapable of managing his financial affairs” (Z, 3).

7. Quoted from Z, 163. All quotations from The Philosophical Letters and the “Apology of a Madman” are from this translation, with occasional modifications. See Zeldin's preface and introduction for a discussion of the reception of the “First Philosophical Letter” and the publication history of The Philosophical Letters. In my discussion, I will confine myself primarily, but not exclusively, to materials found in the Gershenzon edition, the edition of Chaadaev with which Mandel'shtam was familiar. Quotations from Chaadaev's personal correspondence appear in my own translation and are taken from P. la. Chaadaev, Sochineniia i pis'ma, ed. M. Gershenzon, 2 vols. (Moscow, 1913-1914). Further references to this edition will appear in the text, abbreviated as SP. Dimitrii Shakhovskoi's Russian translations of the remaining philosophical letters appear in Literaturnoe nasledstvo, no. 22-24 (1935), 1-78. References to these letters will appear as LN in the text.

8. In the original phrase to which Mandel'shtam's remark perhaps refers, Chaadaev speaks only of being surrounded by a “disagreeable reality, ” “la facheuse rfialite qui m'environne” (SP 1 : 93). In his personal correspondence, Chaadaev does complain of the “vast, incoherent being” that is Russian life (SP 1 : 209).

9. Nadezhda Mandel'shtam, Vospominaniia : Kniga pervaia, 158. The translation is from Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Against Hope, trans. Max Hayward York : Atheneum, 1970), 151.

10. Paul de Man, “Literary History and Literary Modernity, ” in Paul de Man, Blindness and Insight : Essays in the Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism (Minneapolis : University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 147-148.

11. Mandel'shtam may also be tacitly calling attention to the Russianness of the letters when he stresses their “fragmentary form.” Russian history and the Russian mind are by nature, according to Chaadaev, inconclusive, haphazard, eternally incomplete. “The ‘history’ of Russia” was for Chaadaev “nothing but a series of illogical breaks with the past, ” Raymond McNally notes (The Major Works of Peter Chaadaev, ed. and trans. Raymond T. McNally [Notre Dame, Ind. : University of Notre Dame Press, 1969], 15). “We walk through time so strangely that as we advance the past escapes us forever… . There is among us no … natural progress …. We advance, but obliquely, ” Chaadaev laments in the “First Philosophical Letter” (Z, 37). In a letter to A. I. Turgenev he complains that in the Russian intellect “ideas arise in isolation, suddenly, and leave virtually no trace behind them…. We live not by prolonged consideration, but by the fleeting thought” (SP 1 : 211). The final sentence of “The Apology, ” as quoted by Mandel'shtam, reads as follows : “There is one fact that reigns imperiously over our historical progress, which runs through all of history like a red thread, which encompasses, in a way, all its philosophy, which manifests itself in all epochs of our social life and defines its character … . That is—the geographical fact …” (Mandel'shtam's ellipses) (CPL, 86; SS 2 : 288). The essay was apparently never completed, but the final ellipses, which underscore its open-endedness, are Mandel'shtam's own addition.

12. Riasanovsky, Nicholas V., A Parting of Ways : Government and the Educated Public in Russia 1801-1855 (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1976), 171.Google Scholar

13. Chaadaev was himself reluctant to write in his native Russian, a language that, he complains, he “command[s] so feebly” (SP 1 : 284). See volume 1, 202, of the Sochineniia i pis'ma for the letter in which Chaadaev discusses the artifice of his “letters to a lady. “

14. Mandel'shtam would have sympathized with Chaadaev's desire to “distance [his] T. “ His own memory is, he claims in Shum vremeni, “vrazhdebna vsemu lichnomu” (POM, p. 122; SS 2 : 99).

15. Mandel'shtam's remarks echo Chaadaev's own wish, expressed in an 1831 letter to Pushkin, “to complete [my] thought in the depths of my soul and make of it my legacy” (SP 2 : 176).

16. The full text of the poem reads as follows : “Posokh moi, moia svoboda, / Serdtsevina bytiia— / Skoro 1’ istinoi naroda / Stanet istina moia? // la zemle ne poklonilsia / Prezhde chem sebia nashel; / Posokh vzial, razveselilsia /1 v dalekii Rim poshel. // Pust’ snega na chernykh pashniakh / Ne rastaiut nikogda, / No pechal’ moikh domashnikh / Mne poprezhnemu chuzhda. // Sneg rastaet na utesakh, / Solntsem istiny palim. / Prav narod, vruchivshii posokh / Mne, uvidevshemu Rim! “

17. See Iurii Levin, “0 sootnoshenii mezhdu semantikoi poeticheskogo teksta i vnetekstovoi real'nost'iu, ” for a discussion of Mandel'shtam's use in other poems of this kind of “lyric I, ” in which the poet's “I” overlaps or fuses with other personae, other “I “s (Russian Literature, no. 10/11 [1975]), 150.

18. I am paraphrasing from Mandel'shtam's remarks on Chaadaev's notion of historical unity. “Unity, ” Mandel'shtam's Chaadaev declares, “cannot be created, invented, or learned” (CPL, 84; SS 2 : 286).

19. “Our freedom, ” Chaadaev claims in the “Fourth Philosophical Letter, ” consists only in that we do not feel our dependence” (Z, 88). Iurii Striedter points out the inconsistencies in Chaadaev's views on individual freedom in his article “Zur russischen Geschichtesphilosophie und Deutung russischer Geschichte.” (Philosophische Rundschau, 4, no. 1-2), 70.

20. Quoted in McNally, Chaadayev and His Friends, 40.

21. I have not discovered any exact or approximate correspondences to this language in the writings available to Mandel'shtam. Although Chaadaev does use less vivid and specific “path” imagery in a number of places (see, for example, SP 1 : 212) the “brambles” and “forests” that stand for uncivilized Russia appear only in the “Second Philosophical Letter. “

22. Lotman, Iurii M., “The Poetics of Everyday Behavior in Eighteenth Century Russian Culture, ” in The Semiotics of Russian Cultural History, ed. Alexander D. Nakhimovsky and Alice Stone Nakhimovsky (Ithaca, N.Y. : Cornell University Press, 1985), 70 Google Scholar. See also Mikhail Bakhtin's remarks on foreignness and culture : “In the realm of culture, outsideness is a most powerful factor in understanding. It is only in the eyes of another culture that foreign culture reveals itself fully and profoundly” ( “Response to a Question from JVovy Mir, ” in Bakhtin, M. M., Speech Genres and Other Late Essays, trans. Vern W. McGee, ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist [Austin : University of Texas Press, 1986]), 7.Google Scholar

23. “Wine ages—therein lies its future; culture ferments—therein lies its youth, ” Mandel'shtam writes in “A Word or Two about Georgian Art” (CPL, p. 163; SS 3 : 39).

24. Mandel'shtam's 1914 poem likewise celebrates not so much the pilgrimage as the pilgrim's return. “The people were right to entrust their staff / To me, who has seen Rome!” says the returned wanderer who has enlightened his homeland and made peace with it in a way we never find in Chaadaev's own life or writings. Perhaps Mandel'shtam has in mind Chaadaev's second homecoming, his return to Russia by way of Gershenzon's edition of the letters and Mandel'shtam's own poem.

25. For a discussion of the metamorphoses and symbolism of Mandel'shtam's “staff” see Harris, Jane Gary, “The ‘Latin Gerundive’ as Autobiographical Imperative : A Reading of Mandel'shtam's Journey to Armenia , ” Slavic Review 45 (Spring 1986), 2–3CrossRefGoogle Scholar. In their recent studies of the poet both Gregory Freidin and Charles Isenberg discuss Mandel'shtam's efforts to shape a place in Russian literature and culture for himself, as a Jew. See Gregory, Freidin, A Coat of Many Colors (Berkeley : University of California Press, 1987 Google Scholar and Charles, Isenberg, Substantial Proofs of Being (Columbus, Ohio : Slavica, 1987).Google Scholar

26. Mandel'shtam uses this phrase to describe his family's assimilated Jewish past, shaped by “inoculations of foreign blood, ” in Shum vremeni (POM, 81; SS 11 : 57).

Full text views

Full text views reflects PDF downloads, PDFs sent to Google Drive, Dropbox and Kindle and HTML full text views.

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 5 *
View data table for this chart

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between 27th January 2017 - 28th January 2021. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Hostname: page-component-898fc554b-2qp9q Total loading time: 0.33 Render date: 2021-01-28T03:13:32.896Z Query parameters: { "hasAccess": "0", "openAccess": "0", "isLogged": "0", "lang": "en" } Feature Flags: { "shouldUseShareProductTool": true, "shouldUseHypothesis": true, "isUnsiloEnabled": true, "metricsAbstractViews": false, "figures": false, "newCiteModal": false }

Send article to Kindle

To send this article to your Kindle, first ensure is added to your Approved Personal Document E-mail List under your Personal Document Settings on the Manage Your Content and Devices page of your Amazon account. Then enter the ‘name’ part of your Kindle email address below. Find out more about sending to your Kindle. Find out more about sending to your Kindle.

Note you can select to send to either the or variations. ‘’ emails are free but can only be sent to your device when it is connected to wi-fi. ‘’ emails can be delivered even when you are not connected to wi-fi, but note that service fees apply.

Find out more about the Kindle Personal Document Service.

Synthetic Nationality: Mandel'shtam and Chaadaev
Available formats

Send article to Dropbox

To send this article to your Dropbox account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Dropbox.

Synthetic Nationality: Mandel'shtam and Chaadaev
Available formats

Send article to Google Drive

To send this article to your Google Drive account, please select one or more formats and confirm that you agree to abide by our usage policies. If this is the first time you use this feature, you will be asked to authorise Cambridge Core to connect with your <service> account. Find out more about sending content to Google Drive.

Synthetic Nationality: Mandel'shtam and Chaadaev
Available formats

Reply to: Submit a response

Your details

Conflicting interests

Do you have any conflicting interests? *