The Nature of the Miracle

The Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested in May, 1934, for having composed a sixteen-line poem in which Stalin was portrayed as a tyrant and murderer,* but he was not summarily shot. Instead, he was flung into prison for a while, then exiled to Cherdyn and finally to Voronezh. This uncommon prolongation of a life that had been in that particular peril, and Stalin’s personal intervention, which brought it about, constitute the “miracle” in the title of this chapter from the memoirs of Mandelstam’s widow, Nadezhda Yakovlevna. By the end of the Thirties such miracles were no longer performed. The poet was rearrested and sent by freight car to a camp near Vladivostok, where he died under circumstances of zoological horror in December, 1938.

In that same year Nikolai Ivanovich Bukharin was put through one of the show trials of the Great Purge and shot. Bukharin, a Bolshevik theoretician much praised by Lenin, was editor of Pravda and the incumbent of several other powerful positions in the Party, all of which he lost through his opposition to Stalin. In the days when he still retained some power he was the Mandelstams’ friend at court, the one whom they “went to see,” as Nadezhda Yakovlevna puts it elsewhere, for the easing of their worst troubles. Bukharin befriended other poets as well, among them Boris Pasternak, whom he involved in Mandelstam’s case as described below.

Stalin’s telephone call to Pasternak on that summer evening in 1934 is probably, in certain circles, the most celebrated use of the instrument since Alexander Graham Bell asked his assistant what God had wrought. There could hardly be any other source than Pasternak for an account of what was said, and Nadezhda Yakovlevna is impressed by the consistency of his narration to a number of people. Nevertheless, as she observes with some heat, several subtly different versions have made their way to the West. I bear the responsibility for giving wider currency to one that I found in 1958 in The New Reasoner. That anonymous memoir of Pasternak, I later learned, was written by the late D. P. Costello, a man of almost unparalleled experience of Russian intellectual life before and during the war. The New York Review has published another version, and there are still others. It is gratifying to have at last, with a single notable exception, to which the author draws our attention, all the facts of that bizarre chat between one of the greatest of Russia’s poets and the most villainous of all her despots.

In his letter to Stalin, Bukharin added a postscript saying he had been visited by Pasternak, who was upset by the arrest of Mandelstam. The purpose of this postscript was clear: it was Bukharin’s way of indicating to Stalin what the effect of M.’s arrest had been on public opinion. It was always necessary to personify “public opinion” in this way. You were allowed to talk of one particular individual being upset, but it was unthinkable to…

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