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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 mention the existence of dissatisfaction among a whole section of the community—say, the intelligentsia or “literary circles.” No group has the right to its own opinion about some event or other. In matters of this kind there are fine points of etiquette which nobody can appreciate unless he has been in our shoes. Bukharin knew how to present things in the right way, and it was the postscript at the end of his letter that explained why Stalin chose to telephone Pasternak and not someone else.

Their conversation took place at the end of July, when M.’s sentence had already been commuted, and Pasternak told a lot of people about it—Ehrenburg, for instance, who was in Moscow at the time and whom he went to see the same day. But for some reason he said not a word about it to anyone directly involved—that is, to me, my brother Evgeni, or Akhmatova. True, on the same day he did ring Evgeni, who already knew about the revision of the sentence, but only to assure him that everything would be all right. He said no more than this, and Evgeni, thinking his words were simply an expression of his optimism, attached no particular importance to them. I myself only learned about Stalin’s call to Pasternak several months later when I came to Moscow from Voronezh a second time after being ill with typhus and dysentery. In casual conversation Shengeli asked me whether I had heard the story about Stalin’s telephone call to Pasternak, and whether there was anything in it. Shengeli was convinced that it was just a figment of somebody’s imagination if Pasternak himself had not told me anything about it. I decided, however, to go to the Volkhonka1 and see Pasternak, since there is never smoke (and what smoke!) without fire. Shengeli’s story was confirmed down to the last detail. As he told me about the conversation, Pasternak reproduced everything said by Stalin and himself in direct speech. It was just the same as what Shengeli had told me—evidently Pasternak had told it to everybody in identical terms and the version going around Moscow was entirely accurate. This is how Pasternak told me the story:

Pasternak was called to the phone, having been told beforehand who wished to speak with him. He began by complaining that he couldn’t hear at all well because he was speaking from a communal apartment and there were children making a noise in the corridor. The time had not yet come when such a complaint would have been taken as a request—to be granted by way of a miracle—for an immediate improvement in one’s living conditions. It was simply that Pasternak began any telephone conversation with this complaint. Whenever he was talking on the phone to one of us, Akhmatova and I would quietly ask the other—whichever of us happened to be on the phone with him: “Has he stopped carrying on about the apartment yet?” He talked with Stalin just as he would have talked with any of us.

Stalin began by telling Pasternak that Mandelstam’s case had been reviewed, and that everything would be all right. This was followed by a strange reproach: why hadn’t Pasternak approached the writers’ organizations, or him (Stalin), and why hadn’t he tried to do something for Mandelstam: “If I were a poet and a poet friend of mine were in trouble, I would do anything to help him.”

Pasternak’s reply to this was: “The writers’ organizations haven’t bothered with cases like this since 1927, and if I hadn’t tried to do something, you probably would never have heard about it.” Pasternak went on to say something about the word “friend,” trying to define more precisely the nature of his relations with M., which were not, of course, covered by the term “friendship.” This digression was very much in Pasternak’s style and had no relevance to the matter in hand. Stalin interrupted him: “But he’s a genius, he’s a genius, isn’t he?” To this Pasternak replied: “But that’s not the point.” “What is it, then?” Stalin asked. Pasternak then said that he would like to meet him and have a talk. “About what?” “About life and death,” Pasternak replied. Stalin hung up. Pasternak tried to get him back, but could only reach a secretary. Stalin did not come to the phone again. Pasternak asked the secretary whether he could talk about this conversation or whether he should keep quiet about it. To his surprise, he was told he could talk about it as much as he liked—there was no need at all to make a secret of it. Stalin clearly wanted it to have the widest possible repercussions. A miracle is only a miracle, after all, if people stand in wonder before it.

Just as I have not named the one person who copied down M.’s poem about Stalin, because I believe that he had nothing to do with the denunciation and arrest of M., so there is one remark made by Pasternak in this conversation which I do not wish to quote since it could be held against him by people who do not know him. The remark in question was entirely innocent, but it had a slight touch of Pasternak’s self-absorption and egocentrism. For those of us who knew him well, it just sounded faintly comic.

Everybody could now clearly see what miracles Stalin was capable of, and it was to Pasternak that the honor had fallen not only of spreading the good tidings all over Moscow, but also of hearing a sermon in connection with it. The aim of the miracle was thus achieved: attention was diverted from the victim to the miracle-worker. It was extraordinarily symptomatic of the period that, in discussing the miracle, nobody thought to ask why Stalin should have rebuked Pasternak for not trying to save a friend and fellow poet while at the same time he was calmly sending his own friends and comrades to their death. Even Pasternak had not thought about this aspect, and he winced slightly when I raised it with him. My contemporaries took Stalin’s sermon on friendship between poets completely at its face value and were ecstatic about a ruler who had shown such warmth of spirit. But M. and I couldn’t help thinking of Lominadze, who was recalled to Moscow for his execution while we were in Tiflis talking with him about the possibility of M. staying there to work in the archives. And apart from Lominadze, there were all the others whose heads had rolled by this time. There were already very many, but even now people still stubbornly continue to reckon only from 1937, when Stalin supposedly went to the bad all of a sudden and began to destroy everybody.

Pasternak himself was very unhappy about his talk with Stalin, and to many people, including me, he lamented his failure to follow it up with a meeting. He was no longer worried about M., since he had complete faith in Stalin’s word that he would be all right. This made him feel his own failure all the more keenly. Like many other people in our country, Pasternak was morbidly curious about the recluse in the Kremlin. Personally, I think it was lucky for him that he did not meet Stalin, but at the time all this happened there was a good deal we did not yet understand—we still had much to learn. This was another extraordinary feature of the times: why were people so dazzled by absolute rulers who promised to organize heaven on earth, whatever it might cost? Nowadays it would never occur to anyone to doubt that in their confrontation with Stalin it was M. and Pasternak who came out on the side of right, displaying both moral authority and a proper sense of history. But at the time Pasternak was very upset by his “failure” and himself told me that for a long time afterward he could not even write poetry. It would have been quite understandable if Pasternak had wanted, as it were, to touch the sores of the era with his own hands, and, as we know, he subsequently did so. But for this he had no need of any meetings with our rulers. At that time, however, I believe that Pasternak still regarded Stalin as the embodiment of the age, of history and of the future, and that he simply longed to see this living wonder at close quarters.

Rumors are now being spread that Pasternak lost his nerve during the talk with Stalin and disowned M. Not long before his final illness I ran into him on the street and he told me about this story. I suggested we both make a written record of his conversation, but he didn’t want to. Perhaps things had now taken such a turn for him that he no longer had any time for the past.

How can Pasternak possibly be accused of such a thing—particularly since Stalin started off by telling him he had already exercised mercy? According to the present rumors, Stalin asked Pasternak to vouch for M., but Pasternak supposedly refused to do so. Nothing of this kind ever happened, and the question of it never even arose.

When I gave M. an account of the whole business, he was entirely happy with the way Pasternak had handled things, particularly with his remark about the writers’ organizations not having bothered with cases like this since 1927. “He never said a truer word,” M. said with a laugh. The only thing that upset him was that the conversation had taken place at all. “Why has Pasternak been dragged into this? I have to get out of it myself—he has nothing to do with it.” Another comment of M.’s was: “He [Pasternak] was quite right to say that whether I’m a genius or not is beside the point…. Why is Stalin so afraid of genius? It’s like a superstition with him. He thinks we might put a spell on him, like shamans.”2 And yet another remark: “That poem of mine really must have made an impression, if he makes such a song and dance about commuting my sentence.”

Incidentally, it’s by no means certain how things might have ended if Pasternak had started praising M. to the skies as a genius—Stalin might have had M. killed off on the quiet, like Mikhoels, or at least have taken more drastic measures to see that his manuscripts were destroyed. I believe that they have survived only because of the constant attacks on M. as a “former poet” by his contemporaries in LEF [Left Front, a futurist literary movement], and among the Symbolists. As a result, the authorities felt that M. had been so discredited and was such a has-been that they did not bother to track down his manuscripts and stamp them out completely. All they did was to burn whatever came into their hands—this, they thought, was quite enough. If they had been led to think more highly of M.’s poetry, neither his work nor I would have survived. It would have been a case, as they say, of scattering our ashes to the winds.

The version of the telephone call from Stalin that has been told abroad is completely absurd. According to accounts published there, M. supposedly read his poem at a party in Pasternak’s apartment, after which the poor host was “summoned to the Kremlin and given hell.” Every word of this shows a total ignorance of our life—though one might well ask how any outsider could be expected to have enough imagination to picture the extent of our bondage! Nobody would have dared to breathe a word against Stalin, let alone read a poem like that “at a party.” This is the sort of thing that only a provocateur would do, but even a provocateur would scarcely have dared to recite a poem against Stalin at a party. And then, nobody was ever summoned to the Kremlin for questioning. One was invited to the Kremlin for gala receptions and the ceremonial award of decorations. The place for interrogations was the Lubianka, but Pasternak was not asked to go there in connection with M. Indeed, Pasternak came to no harm at all as a consequence of his talk with Stalin, and it is not necessary to feel sorry for him because of this particular episode. One final point: it so happens that we never visited Pasternak at his home, and we saw him only when he came to see us from time to time. This arrangement suited us very well.

Letters

It Was Morse December 3, 1970

  1. *

    Published in NYR, December 23, 1965, in a version by Robert Lowell.

  2. 1

    A street in Moscow.

  3. 2

    Shaman: Siberian witch doctor.

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