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October 23, 2017

The Mandelstams: Hope Against Hope

On this day in 1891 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was born. While by no means the only writer driven to death by Stalin's Reign of Terror, Mandelstam has become, for many, the symbol of all those so destroyed. This is partly due to his poetry -- most rank him among the best Russian poets, some among the best of all 20th century poets -- and partly due to his wife. Nadezhda Mandelstam salvaged many of Mandelstam's banned poems by either memorizing them or collecting them in manuscript form; she also chillingly and movingly documented her husband's death and times in her memoir, Hope Against Hope.

Osip Mandelstam was brought up in St. Petersburg in a cultured, outward-looking way -- music, the classics, some time at the Sorbonne and the University of Heidelberg. His early poetry appeared in the progressive magazines; he described "Acmeism," the school of poetry to which he belonged, as a "yearning for world culture." He did not react well to Stalin's narrow-mindedness and boot-kick politics. Though Mandelstam's poems can be allusive and complex, he made this one, written in 1933, easy to understand -- and therefore available only to a trusted circle of friends:
    We live without feeling beneath us firm ground,
    At ten feet away you can't hear the sound

    Of any words but "the wild man in the Kremlin,
    Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin."

    Each thick finger of his is as fat as a worm,
    To his ten-ton words we all have to listen....
Mandelstam was arrested about seven months later. It was shortly afterwards that he became the subject of Stalin's famous telephone call to Boris Pasternak, himself a possible target at this point and therefore susceptible to turn-the-screw tactics: Had Pasternak heard the poem? What did he think of Mandelstam? Pasternak avoided the poem and praised the poet, but this did nothing to save Mandelstam from the four-year nightmare -- interrogation, imprisonment, exile, release, re-imprisonment, final disappearance -- documented by his wife.

The name Nadezhda means "Hope." Her book was published when she was in her seventies, and there is no Dr. Zhivago sentimentality in it -- Christopher Lehmann-Haupt's review described "a tough, old woman's tongue, spare, matter-of-fact, unadorned by figures of speech." It has moments of black humor, such as the story of one party official so swamped by his tattle-telling system that he had to announce a ban on unsigned denunciations. But mostly it is compulsive, let-this-not-happen reading, full of iron love for a husband and, from first door-knock to last rubber-stamp, contempt for a system:
    The issue of a death certificate was not the rule but the exception. To all intents and purposes, as far as his civil status was concerned, a person could be considered dead from the moment he was sent to a camp, or, indeed, from the moment of his arrest, which was automatically followed by his conviction and sentence to imprisonment in a camp. This meant he vanished so completely that it was tantamount to physical death. Nobody bothered to tell a man's relatives when he died in camp or prison: you regarded yourself as a widow or orphan from the moment of his arrest. When a woman was told in the Prosecutor's office that her husband had been given ten years, the official sometimes added: "You can remarry." Nobody ever raised the awkward question as to how this gracious "permission" to remarry could be squared with the official sentence....

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