Stalin biographer Steven Kotkin relates this ominous anecdote in the second volume of his monumental three-volume study of the Soviet dictator’s life and times. It shows–perhaps more clearly than any other anecdote–just how a man’s fate can hinge on a few critical moments in his life.
In the early 1930s, many parts of the Soviet Union were experiencing famines as a direct result of Stalin’s collectivization policies. A poet named Osip Mandelstam recklessly penned some verses that laid the blame for the famine on Stalin personally. When Mandelstam was once walking on the street, he ran into an old friend and fellow writer named Boris Pasternak, and jokingly repeated the verses to him. Pasternak was understandably terrified, knowing that any hint of criticism of the General Secretary could land a person in severe trouble with the authorities. He told Mandelstam, “I didn’t hear this. You didn’t recite this to me.” Then he hurried off.
But it was already too late for Mandelstam; he had recited the poem to others, and one or more of them must have ratted him out to the security services. He was arrested on the evening of May 16, 1934, and his personal effects in his apartment were confiscated. In those days, one could expect either exile or death in such a situation. When Pasternak found out what had happened, he went to see Mandelstam’s wife Nadezhda; they tried to find someone with access to party officials who might be able to intervene and save the reckless poet. Nadezhda apparently called on the Kremlin, but was met with cold silence.
Pasternak, in a rare display of courage, then went to the offices of Izvestiya and asked the politician Nikolai Bukharin himself to go to bat for Mandelstam. At the same time, however, Pasternak made a point of telling anyone who would listen that he had nothing to do with the poet’s exposure and betrayal. (Unbeknownst to Pasternak, Mandelstam, while under interrogation by the NKVD at the Lubyanka prison, had not mentioned his name as a person to whom he had recited his poem).
Somehow, the goddess of Fortune was smiling on Mandelstam. He was not sent to the gulag, only to a mild form of exile in the city of Cherdyn in the northern Urals; he was even permitted to take his wife. Nevertheless the experience had shattered his fragile nerves, and he made an unsuccessful suicide attempt in June 1934. Bukharin related the details of the drama to Stalin himself, who was known to take an interest in the work of artists and literary types. The stage was thus set for a moment of surreal drama that could only have happened in the old Soviet Union.
On June 13, 1934, Pasternak–still distraught over the fate of his friend–was told he had a phone call at the office of his apartment building on Volkhonka Street in Moscow. (Not every apartment had its own phone in those days). He answered the phone and heard a government clerk tell him that General Secretary Stalin would be speaking to him shortly. Pasternak, however, thought the caller was a friend playing a prank on him; he could not conceive that Stalin himself would want to talk to a nobody like him. So he hung up.
But the phone rang again. Pasternak picked up the receiver, becoming more and more alarmed by the second. The functionary on the other end of the line told him in crisp tones that Comrade Stalin would be with him soon. He was then given a special code to dial. So he hung up again and dialed the code as instructed. A voice on the other end of the line then said:
At this point Pasternak must have felt his blood run cold. He would also have realized that how he conducted himself in the next few minutes would determine the course of the rest of his life. Stalin informed Pasternak, in measured tones, that Mandelstam’s case had been “reexamined” and that he had decided to commute it to only a mild form of exile. He would not be allowed in a major city, but would have to content himself with a second or third-tier city. Stalin then asked Pasternak if he was Mandelstam’s “friend.”
Stalin was known to enjoy playing these sorts of mind-games with people. The question puts the other person on the horns of a dilemma. If Pasternak said “Yes, I am his friend,” then he might be opening himself up for a round of interrogations and accusations. But if he said, “No, he is not my friend,” then he might appear to be betraying a fellow writer in his hour of need. (Paradoxically, Stalin did not like betrayers or accusers of any kind, even if they were working for him. He believed they had character defects and could not be trusted). So Pasternak had to pause before answering the question. He replied in this way, trying to maintain a safe, non-committal neutrality:
Poets rarely make friends. They usually envy each other.
But Stalin would not be put off so easily. He gently taunted Pasternak by saying that if “something terrible” had happened to one of his friends, he–Stalin–would do whatever he could to help him. Stalin then asked his terrified prey if Mandelstam was a true poetic “master.” Apparently this question was designed to find out if Pasternak harbored any jealous rivalry with the other poet. It was also a very clever ruse to trap Pasternak: for if he praised Mandelstam’s work as the work of a “master,” then this praise could be interpreted as an oblique agreement with the poet’s verses criticizing Stalin.
According to Kotkin, the record is not quite clear on how Pasternak responded to this question. He apparently told the General Secretary that he would be able to explain himself better if he could see Stalin himself in person. Stalin abruptly hung up, finally done toying with the hapless Pasternak. Terrified, and thinking he had said something that offended Stalin, Pasternak frantically tried to call back. But the functionary who answered the line told him that the General Secretary was now busy. Pasternak asked if he could talk about the call with others, and the clerk told him that it was up to him.
So Pasternak had to sit on pins and needles for weeks, uncertain if the NKVD would come knocking at his door. He had no idea how he had come across to the Soviet leader. But this is how Stalin sometimes liked to handle people: he would leave them on edge, constantly uncertain as to where they stood. But nothing happened to Pasternak. For the rest of his life, he would remember this phone call, and how he felt the wings of Fate spreading over head as he held the receiver to his ear.
By such slender strings, and over such boiling cauldrons, are the Fates of men suspended!