"Rusia en 1931" is a poem, in Hass’s words,
about Mandelstam, who was a great poet and an anti-Stalinist, and Vallejo, who was a great poet and a Stalinist. Mandelstam was killed by Stalinist forces. Vallejo was at least metaphorically killed by fascist forces, in the sense that he wore himself out raising funds for the Republicans in the Spanish Civil war and got sick and died. Poetry, when it takes sides, when it proposes solutions, isn’t any smarter than anybody else. (from Sarah Pollock, "Robert Hass," Mother Jones 22 (March/April 1997), 22.)
Hass makes his point about the limitations and role of political poetry by incorporating facts from the lives of Mandelstam and Vallejo and images from their writing into the poem. In this way, "Rusia en 1931" is a densely intertextual work. The following explanation of allusions in the poem follows the order of references in the text. It is as comprehensive as possible without venturing into speculation.
As Hass indicates in his own note on the poem,
’Rusia en 1931’ is the original title of a book about the Soviet Union published in Paris in 1931 by César Vallejo.
This book on Marxist theory and its practical implications in the early Stalinist Soviet Union was widely-read in Republican Spain throughout the 1930s.
Hass adds in his note:
The archbishop is the Reverend Oscar Romero. Since this poem was written, his assassination has been clearly linked to El Salvador’s right-wind death squads.
Hass adapts his phrase "Justice is the well water of the city of/ Novgorod, black and sweet" from a prominent image in the work of the aforementioned Russian poet Osip Mandelstam.
The following is an excerpt from Mandelstam’s poem #235, written in Khmelnitskaya in May, 1931, and dedicated to Anna Akhmatova:
Keep my words forever for their aftertaste of misfortune and smoke, their tar of mutual tolerance, honest tar of work. Sweet and black should be the water of Novgorod wells to reflect the seven fins of the Christmas star.
(Selected Poems, translated by Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin, New York: Atheneum, 1974).
Hass has twice elaborated on the significance of the Novgorod well water in interviews:
Mandlestam, who wasn’t a political thinker, loved the idea of the city-state. One of the emblems in his poetry of the politics he imagined, over and against the universalizing politics of Marx, was the medieval city of Novgorod, which had in its center a public well where the water was free to everyone. That became for him a figure of justice. (from Sarah Pollock, "Robert Hass," Mother Jones 22 (March/April 1997), 22.)
Mandelstam’s great poltical ideal was the Italian city-state, and the most Italian city-state in the Russia of the Middle Ages was Nizhni Novgorod, and it was famous for being a free place because they didn’t tax you for the well water. Anybody, citizen or not, had access to the well water at any time. It was his image of a just, small society. ("An Informal Occasion with Robert Hass," Iowa Review 21:3 (1991), 138.)
Hass’s description and explanation of Peruvian-born poet César Vallejo’s death is more poetic than true. Vallejo did not die on "a Thursday," as Hass writes, of malaria "that flared in his veins in Paris on a rainy day." Vallejo did die in Paris, but on Good Friday, April 15, 1938. Hass says "Thursday" and "rainy" in reference to Vallejo's poem "Piedra negra sobre una piedra blanca" ("Black Stone On a White Stone").
Black Stone on a White Stone
I will die in Paris as rain showers heavy, on a day which is already memory. I will die in Paris—and I'm not running— maybe on a Thursday, like today, in the fall.
Thursday it will be, because today, Thursday, when I write these verses, I have dressed my arms unwillingly, never like today, have I turned on my whole journey, to see myself so alone.
César Vallejo is dead, drubbed by everyone whom he had done no harm; they struck him hard with a cudgel and hard
with a rope as well; the witnesses are the Thursdays and the arm bones, the loneliness, the storm, the journey . . .
Hass's guess that malaria killed Vallejo seems like a poetic way of mentioning that the disease did, in fact, kill many in Vallejo's hometown of Santiago de Chuco, Peru when he was a child. Although the exact cause of Vallejo's death is uncertain, the poet's friends asserted that he fell ill from years of deprivation and strain, exhaustion from working ceaselessly for the Spanish Republican cause, and heartbreak over Spain's failure to establish communism. According to Vallejo translators Clayton Eshleman and José Rubia Barcia, just before the poet died he cried out "I am going to Spain! I want to go to Spain!," and at the same moment Franco's fascist troops claimed a crucial victory in the Ebro valley (César Vallejo: The Complete Posthumous Poetry, Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1978, xxvii.).
Mandelstam's death occurred in December, 1938, as Hass writes, roughly "nine months later" in "a transit camp near Vladivostok." The details are unknown because Mandelstam was officially an "unperson" in Stalin's Russia after his second arrest on May 1, 1938. The Russian poet had suffered several heart attacks and a nervous disorder throughout the 1930s as he was increasingly persecuted for his political outspokenness. It can be said with certainty, anyway, that Stalin was responsible for Mandelstam's death.
The chance meeting of Mandelstam and Vallejo in "Rusia en 1931" is imagined. As far as anyone knows, the two poets were never "in Leningrad in 1931" at the same time.Vallejo visited Russia in 1928 and 1929, and he returned in October, 1931 to attend the International Congress of Writers in Moscow. It is improbable that he might have met Mandelstam in Leningrad, because the Russian poet was forced to leave that city, his hometown, in early spring, 1931.
The books Trilce and Tristia whose reviews Hass imagines the two poets comparing were both published in 1922. Trilce is the title of Vallejo's second book of poems; Tristia is the name of Mandelstam's second.
Hass’s phrase "And what the one thought would save Spain killed the other" refers to Stalinism. Vallejo thought Stalinism would "save Spain," and Stalin’s relentless persecution and two arrests of Mandelstam led to the Russian poet’s death.
"I am no wolf by blood / Only an equal could break me" is a quote from Mandelstam’s March, 1931 poem #227, otherwise known as "The Wolf." Clarence Brown and W.S. Merwin translate these lines as "I’m no wolf by blood,/and only my own kind will kill me." (Selected Poems, 1974, 60). In his book Mandelstam, Brown calls "The Wolf" one of the Russian poet's "most dangerous poems" (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1973, pg. 126). It was written in Moscow a few months after an official of the Soviet writers’ organization, the poet Tikhonov, forced Mandelstam to leave Leningrad forever by denying him work and housing (ibid.).
The Vallejo quote that closes that poem comes from chapter XII of his book Rusia en 1931: Reflexiones al Pie del Kremlin, published in 1931. This chaper is entitled "Capitalismo de Estado y estructura Socialista, Régimen Bancario, Religión, Agnonia de las clases destronadas."
The following is a translation of the paragraph whose opening lines Hass quotes.
I think of the unemployed. I think of the forty million hungry people that capitalism has thrown from their factories and from their fields. Fifteen million unemployed laborers and their families. What is to become, in history, of this unprecedented army of the poor? Certainly, there have been in other times, underground strikes, but never with causes, characteristics and damge similar to this. Today is a simultaneous, universal and growing phenomena without exit. The remedies and palliatives that they try are superficial, futile and useless. The evil resides in the very structure of the capitalist system, in the dialectics of production. The evil resides in the inevitable progress of production techniques, in the confluence, and in addition the insatiable thirst for benefits of the employers. The increased value! Herein lies the origin of the unemployed. Abolish the increased value and the entire world will have work. But, who will abolish the bonus worth? To abolish the benefits of the employers would be equivalent to destroying the capitalist system, that is to say, to incite the proletariat revolution. (translation by Patrick McDaniels)