Osip Mandelstam wrote in 1934 a scathing short poem mocking Stalin for his thick greasy fingers, hair growing out of his nose, and the like. Although the Russian poet recited the poem only among a narrow circle of close friends, someone (or probably more than one) informed the secret police, and Mandelstam was arrested. Arguably the ultimate mythic anecdote from the Stalinist era concerns this poem: the three-minute phone call between Boris Pasternak and Stalin himself that took place that year, when all of Moscow knew that Mandelstam was in prison. Nobody knows what exactly was said; more than a dozen versions have circulated, some from Pasternak himself.

The gist was this: The phone rang in Pasternak’s apartment, and the voice of Stalin’s secretary Alexander Poskrebyshev informed the poet and novelist that comrade Stalin wished to speak with him. Pasternak thought this was a joke, but then Stalin himself gave him a Kremlin number to call—proof that it really was the Soviet supreme leader who wanted a chat.

“Stalin shot back that Pasternak must be a terrible friend.”

Stalin asked Pasternak if Mandelstam was really a genius, a great poet, or not. Terrified and suspecting that this was a trap aimed at implicating him, Pasternak mumbled back that he and Mandelstam were of different orientations, that he couldn’t give a proper judgment. Stalin shot back that Pasternak must be a terrible friend—a true Bolshevik would risk everything to save his comrade—and abruptly ended the call. Pasternak tried to dial the number back but was told that the phone number no longer existed—it was created solely for that single call. The whole affair left him devastated: Had he failed to save Mandelstam?

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