We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part VI: Russia’s Religious Minorities in the “time intolerable” of Osip Mandelstam

By Win BassettFebruary 15, 2014

We Can Be Heroes: The Winter Poetry Olympics Part VI: Russia’s Religious Minorities in the “time intolerable” of Osip Mandelstam

IN SIDNEY MONAS’s introduction to Burton Raffel and Alla Burago’s translations of Osip Mandelstam’s poems, he describes the early 20th-century Russian poet as

a “Holy Fool,” an iurodivyi of seventeenth-century Russian, a “bird of God” (he loved swallows and identified himself with the goldfish); he was one of those imitators of Christ, God’s fools, who were during Russia’s times of troubles alone privileged to criticize the State. Like Ovid, he was an exile dreaming of Rome; like Dante, he wrote poems to “the measure and rhythm of walking.” All poets were exiles, “for to speak means to be forever on the road.”

Christian Wiman, in an essay he wrote after publishing his book of new Mandelstam translations, wrote that the road led Mandelstam to Siberia in the late 1930s after Stalin could no longer tolerate the poet’s criticisms of the State and his “spiritual vitality and the threat that it represented.” Mandelstam’s poetic dissent of the Russian State is perhaps more political than religious, yet it embodies as much spiritual transcendence as the “Blossoms rupture and rapture the air, / All hover and hammer, / Time intensified and time intolerable, sweetness raveling rot. / It is now. It is not.”

Post-Soviet Russia is not Stalin’s Russia, and the 1997 Law On Freedom of Conscience and Religious Associations affirms, according to Stetson University’s translation, “the right of each person to freedom of conscience and freedom of religious profession, as well as to equality before the law irrespective of religious affiliation and convictions.” There’s a postscript, however. The State conditions this broad statement of freedom of belief by

assuming that the Russian federation is a secular state; recognizing the special role of Orthodoxy in the history of Russia and in the establishment and development of its spirituality and culture; respecting Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Judaism, and other religions, constituting an integral part of the historical heritage of the peoples of Russia; considering it important to cooperate in the achievement of mutual understanding, toleration, and respect in matters of freedom of conscience and freedom of religious profession.

In practice, then, the Russian government essentially leaves the Russian Orthodox believers alone, or as much alone as the rather controlling State can bear. The same goes for practitioners of the other named major world religions above. Believers who subscribe to minority religions, or even minority dominations within the majority religions, however, experience a different spiritual atmosphere.

Geraldine Fagan, who has worked in Russia for Forum 18, a religious-freedom monitoring organization based in Norway, details the other side of Russia’s religious tolerance in her book, Believing in Russia — Religious Policy after Communism. Echoing the language of Russia’s law, she “describes the state’s clear favoritism of the Russian Orthodox Church, plus its increasing harassment of minority believers,” The Economist reports. Specifically,

[t]hough the constitution guarantees religious freedom, laws on “extremism” and a raft of vague, draconian rules governing book-keeping, publications and premises pull in the other direction. In 2010 the octogenarian Alexei Fedorin became the first Jehovah’s Witness since Soviet times to be convicted for his faith: he had distributed “extremist” material. Eight similar cases were pending as Ms Fagan’s book went to press. Protestant churches find it hard or impossible to get visas for visiting pastors. Unofficial religious education can attract criminal prosecution.

The US State Department finds similar hardships among Russia’s minority religions, and the faith persecutions remain difficult to divorce from other types of discrimination:

Restrictions on religious freedom generally fell into four categories: registration of religious organizations; access to places of worship (including access to land and building permits); visas for foreign religious personnel; and government raids on religious organizations and detentions of individuals.

Religious matters were not a source of social tension or problems for the large majority of citizens, but there were some problems between majority and minority groups. Because xenophobia, racism, and religious bigotry are often intertwined, it was often difficult to discern the particular motivation for discrimination against members of religious groups.

Mandelstam’s “time intolerable” still remains in his home state almost 80 years later for the religious, racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities — “It is now.” For the sake of the Russian State’s dwellers, its Olympian visitors, and the millions of those praying for safety, tolerance, and excellence in life and athletics, may we turn again to Mandelstam, translated by Wiman:

Come love let us play the game

Of what to take and when to run,

Of come with me and come what may

And holding hands to hold off the sun.

Photo: Mandelstam, 1914, via Wikimedia Commons


Win Bassett's essays have appeared in The Atlantic, The Paris Review, and Guernica.

LARB Contributor

Win Bassett’s essays and interviews have appeared in The Atlantic, the Paris Review Daily, Oxford American, The Poetry Foundation, and elsewhere. He serves as social media editor for Virginia Quarterly Review. Win lives in Nashville, where he teaches English at a boys’ school.


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