The Story: In 1934, Osip Mandelstam, one of the 20th century’s greatest poets, encounters obstacles getting published in totalitarian Russia. Believing that honesty will expose Stalin’s terror, Osip writes a poem—"The Stalin Epigram"—that compares the dictator to a brutal killer. When Osip’s poem reaches the authorities, he is arrested and interrogated, and he and his wife are exiled in Siberia. When they are later freed, the couple returns to Moscow, but Osip’s troubles continue. Narrated by Nadezhda, Osip’s wife; Osip’s lover, actress Zinaida Zaitseva-Antonova; Stalin’s personal bodyguard; a fellow prisoner; and writers Boris Pasternak and Anna Akhmatova, among others, The Stalin Epigram exposes the horrors of Stalinist Russia as it reveals people’s fundamental humanity under tyranny.
Simon & Schuster. 384 pages. $26. ISBN: 1416598642
"[T]here is a surreal quality to the story that makes it by turns gruesome, darkly absurd and hysterical. … The strength of this narrative lies in the straightforward description of the awful absurdities, the brutality, the bureaucratic pretzel logic and the mental and physical responses to it, that were required to survive Stalin’s regime." Michael Helfand
"Not since Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich has an author captured the crushing sense of foreboding that hung over Uncle Joe’s Soviet state with the clear-eyed acuity that imbues every page of Robert Littell’s The Stalin Epigram. … [It’s also] a quintessentially Russian love story, which virtually guarantees that the rose’s thorn will outlive its petals." Thane Tierney
"Littell met with Nadezhda in 1979, a year before her death, and recorded the whole, sad tale through her eyes. Makes for a harrowing novel."
Critics agree that The Stalin Epigram is a powerful novel. Littell, who met with Osip’s wife in 1979 and recorded the story of his imprisonment and death, tells a harrowing, almost absurdist tale of imprisonment, exile, and death in the Soviet state. Turning from his Soviet spy thrillers, Littell provides an impeccably researched historical backdrop, and his multiple perspectives offer a full picture of the era’s emotional and physical horrors. The strength of the book lies in Littell’s command of the brutalities of Stalin’s regime.