Two judgments bookend Mandelstam’s work:
Osip’s mother wanted her son to enter a more secure profession than poetry and dragged him at eighteen to the eminent editor, Makovsky. She demanded that he read the boy’s poems and decide on the spot if they showed any talent. If not, she would forbid her son to write. The editor glanced at a few verses and was about to dismiss them. But Makovsky said that he saw in the boy’s face “such an intense, agonized beseeching, that he won me to his side—for poetry and against the skin trade.” He turned to the mother and said gravely, “Yes, Madam, your son has talent.” He then had to publish the poems.
A second judgment came n 1934, under Stalin’s escalating reign of terror. Mandelstam recited to five people a short verse that mocked a man with a cockroach mustache. He never wrote the lines down.
When a copy arrived on Stalin’s desk, everyone in Moscow knew it. Stalin called Boris Pasternak and asked him, “Mandelstam is the best living Russian poet, isn’t he?’ “Yes,” Pasternak answered. Stalin bellowed, “So why haven’t you called me to defend him?”