October 23, 2017
The Mandelstams: Hope Against HopeOn 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:
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....
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:
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