Summary and book reviews of The Stalin Epigram by Robert Littell

The Stalin Epigram

A Novel

By Robert Littell

The Stalin Epigram
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  • Hardcover: May 2009,
    384 pages.
    Paperback: Jun 2010,
    384 pages.

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Book Reviewed by:
Derek Brown

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Book Summary

Based on a riveting historical episode, The Stalin Epigram is a fictional rendering of the life of Osip Mandelstam, perhaps the greatest Russian poet of the twentieth century - and one of the few artists in Soviet Russia who daringly refused to pay creative homage to Joseph Stalin. The poet's defiance of the Kremlin dictator and the Bolshevik regime - particularly his outspoken criticism of Stalin's collectivization rampage that drove millions of Russian peasants to starvation - reached its climax in 1934 when Mandelstam, putting his life on the line, composed a searing indictment of Stalin in a sixteen-line epigram and secretly recited it to a handful of friends and fellow artists.

Would Stalin and his merciless state security apparatus get wind of this brazenly insulting poem? Would the poet's body and spirit be crushed under the weight of the state if they did?

Narrated in turn by Mandelstam himself, his devoted wife, his great friends the poets Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, along with vivid fictional characters, The Stalin Epigram is the page-turning tale of courage and the human spirit told in deftly poetic prose by a perceptive, talented writer. With the benefit of extraordinary research and an almost mystical empathy, bestselling author Robert Littell has drawn a fictional portrait of the beleaguered poet struggling to survive the running riot of Stalinist Russia in the 1930s. This memorable novel culminates in a wholly unexpected encounter that illuminates the agonizing choices Russian intellectuals faced during the Stalinist terror and explains what drew Robert Littell to the poignant subject in the first place.

ONE

Nadezhda Yakovlevna
Saturday, the 13th of January 1934


Since that white night our lifelines first coiled themselves around each other, fifteen years ago come May Day, in Kiev, in a seedy bohemian cabaret called the Junk Shop, I must have heard Mandelstam give public readings scores of times, still the pure pleasure I take from the poetry of his poems is undiminished. There are moments when I am reduced to tears by the unspeakable beauty of the words, which take on another dimension when they enter one's consciousness through the ear, as opposed to the eye. How can I explain the miracle of it without sounding like the doting wife swooning in blind admiration? This high-strung, headstrong, life-glad homo poeticus (his description of himself, casually offered up when he mooched that first cigarette from me in the Junk Shop in what now seems like a previous incarnation), this nervous lover (of me and sundry others), is transfigured -- becomes someone, something, else. (It goes ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse

A profound novel whose message of suffering and redemption echo that of some of Russia’s great works commingle with a refreshing narrative style that make Robert Littell’s latest work an exceptional example of historical fiction.   (Reviewed by Derek Brown).

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Media Reviews
The Washington Post

This is a timeless story of courage and truth confronting the madness of absolute power. It's a brilliant work, always readable, sometimes funny and often heartbreaking.

The San Francisco Chronicle

A masterpiece of historical reconstruction, psychological estimation and literary architecture.

Booklist

Historically accurate and filled with period detail, this is both a tragic and life-affirming novel.

Library Journal

Starred Review. This novel will be treasured long after the derring-do of espionage tales is forgotten.

Kirkus Reviews

Firmly in the tradition of Orwell, Kafka and Koestler—and equally harrowing.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Littell is unflinching in his portrayal of Osip's tragic arc, bringing a troubled era of Russian history to rich, magnificent life.

Author Blurb Simon Montefiore, author of Young Stalin and Sashenka
The Stalin Epigram is a wonderful and compelling read about power, poetry, love, literature, terror and Russia but it is also a fascinating, psychologically sensitive telling of the real-life tragedy of the brilliant poet Mandelstam, his fatally insulting poem about Stalin -- and the dictator's vengeance.

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Beyond the Book

Russia’s Poetic Troika

Born in Odessa, Russia in 1889, Anna Akhmatova began writing poems at the age of 11, adopting her grandmother's surname because her father would not permit her to publish under his own. As a member of the Acmeist school of poetry, Akhmatova achieved celebrity along with her husband, Nikolay Gumilyov, who was executed in 1921 as a counter-revolutionary. Between 1925 and 1940, all of Akhmatova's work was banned from publication in the Soviet Union. In 1930 she composed "Requiem," one of her finest and most famous poems, in dedication to the victims of the Stalinist Terror. "Requiem" was not published in Russia until 1987. Despite heavy censorship of her work, Akhmatova remained in Russia, and died in Leningrad...

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