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Ismail Kadare: Kur sunduesit grinden (A Dictator Calls)

The eponymous dictator is Stalin and the phone call he makes is to Boris Pasternak about Osip Mandelstam. As you can see from the link, this actually happened. But…

Kadare spent some time in Moscow studying when relations between Albania and the Soviet Union were good. The famous phone conversation was discussed among the students, particularity as Kadare was there when Pasternak won the Nobel Prize for Literature, which he initially accepted but was later forced to reject by the Soviet authorities. Many Russian students demonstrated against Pasternak and Kadare saw this. He also briefly saw Pasternak at his dacha in Peredelkino.

Back in Albania, writers were being repressed for not fully understanding and writing about the lives of the workers. As regards Pasternak, one could take sides against the Soviet state, but not the side of Pasternak. A hundred times no. From the Albanian point of view, the Soviet state had proved yet again that it was cruel, not because it had behaved badly towards the poet, but because it had treated him too gently.

Kadare had apparently had a phone called from Albanian president Enver Hoxha, congratulating him on a poem and later has a dream that Hoxha phoned him to ask him his views about a poet. Though Kadare does not mention this, both were from the town of Gjirokastër, though there was a twenty-eight year age difference.

Kadare had been unable to return to Moscow as there had been a big falling-out between Albania and the Sovet Union, which Kadare superbly describes in his book Dimri i madh [The Great Winter], which sadly and surprisingly has never been translated into English. However, he planned to write a Moscow novel. The only remaining route to Moscow, which even the most terrifying tanks couldn’t reach, was the novel. He had had his publishing problems and now planned to write a book about the Pasternak situation. However he was worried what would happen to him if it became famous abroad. It is discussed with his publisher who has his own problems, as there have been arrests at the publishing house. He had also thought about what might happen to him if he won the Nobel Prize (which he has still not won), not least because his name had been mentioned as a possible winner.

All of these issues take place in the first part of the book. The second part of the book is concerned with the mere three minutes of conversation that Stalin and Pasternak had in the phone call. The basic view of the phone call is that Pasternak receives a call from a man called Alexander Poskrebyshev who told Pasternak that Stalin wished to speak to him. Pasternak is sceptical but Poskrebyshev passes the call over to Stalin. Stalin tells Pasternak that Osip Mandelstam has been arrested. Pasternak tries to pretend that he barely knows Mandelstam and cannot say anything. to which Stalin responds I can say you’re a very poor comrade, Comrade Pasternak, the assumption being that Pasternak should have defended Mandelstam and asked for his release.

However, it is all more complicated than that. Firstly, it seems that there are at least thirteen different versions of what actually transpired in this conversation and Kadare gives us a rundown on all thirteen versions – where they came from (surprisingly, mainly women, including such luminaries as Anna Akhmatova), what were the implications of each one and what exactly the three men (i.e. including Poskrebyshev) said.

The key issues are, firstly, was Pasternak a coward for not defending his friend, what happened to Mandelstam and why was he arrested. Pasternak was friends with Mandelstam but it was Stalin phoning, not something he was wont to do and clearly Pasternak panicked.

Mandelstam was in theory arrested for insulting Stalin. He had referred to him as the Kremlin mountaineer. What this actually meant is discussed. Worse still he had foolishly written some poems which were critical of Stalin. He had read them to various people and had even accosted Pasternak in the street and started to read them to him but Pasternak stopped him, saying That’s not art, it’s suicide and told him to forget he had even read them to him. Pasternak was later worried that Mandelstam might have told his interrogators that he had read them to Pastenrak, as it seems that he did, possibly under torture, reveal the names of some of the people he had read them to but not , apparently, Pasternak, though Pasternak did not know this and possibly Stalin may well not have known it either.

What we do know is thatMandelstam was arrested in 1934 but subsequently released and then re-arrested, finally dying in prison of typhoid.

Kadare considers why Stalin had Mandelstam arrested but released others, such as Akhmatova’s son, while Lenin insisted on not punishing Gorky despite his criticism.

While Kadare does go into considerable detail, perhaps too much for those of us in the West and not overly concerned with Pasternak, it is fascinating both to see how the story got distorted by various commentators and how various things are read into what the three men said (and did not say). Pasternak survived well over twenty years afterwards (well after the death of Stalin) and it was the Nobel Prize not Mandelstam that led to his downfall and death at age seventy. Clearly Kadare has ruminated on this for many years, not least because of his own situation and has been eager to tell his take on what happened.

Publishing history

First published in 2008 by Onufri
First English translation in 2023 by Counterpoint Press
Translated by John Hodgson