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The Attack on Mme Mandelstam

Russia has a distinguished tradition of autobiographical prose which goes back to the middle of the last century. Annenkov’s An Extraordinary Decade, Herzen’s My Past and Thoughts, Leo Tolstoi’s trilogy, Korolenko’s A History of My Contemporary, Nabokov’s Other Shores (the Russian version of Speak, Memory), and Osip Mandelstam’s The Noise of Time are among the main works of this tradition, and the most recent additions to it are Nadezhda Mandelstam’s literary memoirs Hope Against Hope (English version published in 1970), Mozart and Salieri (English translation in 1973), and Hope Abandoned (reviewed in NYR, February 7—the Russian title actually being Second Book, the same title used for an early collection of Mandelstam’s poetry). Her books prove that she was not only a “witness of poetry” (her words) and witness of history, but a great prose writer whose permanent place in Russian literature is more secure than that of any other living writer.

But in Moscow this view is being challenged. My purpose here is to describe the battle (on the basis of recent visits to the Soviet Union, especially a two-week stay during the recent Christmas holidays) and, at the specific request of Nadezhda, Mandelstam, to publicize a hostile letter to her from Veniamin Kaverin, a well-known liberal writer. While this conflict is an isolated literary argument, it is characteristic of the growing disarray and disunity in what Western observers of the USSR call the liberal camp. Clashing personalities play some part here, but other basically internal strains are more disruptive. Angry quarrels have arisen over different reactions to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books—and also over détente, the moral problems posed by decisions to emigrate, and the Yakir-Krasin affair, among other questions.

There has been little official reaction to Mme Mandelstam’s books analogous to the attacks on Solzhenitsyn, and no sanctions have been taken against her—but the outcry among the literary intelligentsia of the two capitals, Moscow and Leningrad, has been loud and vehement. Not since the revelations of Dostoevsky’s debaucheries and weaknesses by his long-time friend Strakhov has there been such a furor. Almost everyone seems to have a friend, favorite, or relative whom they think she slanders—and for that matter, many of the victims themselves are still alive and kicking. The chorus of complaint began with the circulation of her memoirs in manuscript, intensified each time one was published in Russian abroad, and has reached its peak with the publication of the translation of Hope Abandoned.

The battle has many characteristics of a domestic squabble. I should explain that the Russian world of writers and critics is rather small, centralized, often hereditary, and occasionally incestuous. For Russians there is nothing strange about three Chukovskys being writers, about sisters being married to writers, wives moving from one writer to another (including wives who are also writers), the children of one writer marrying those of others (and being critics or translators themselves). So literature is often a family affair. Furthermore, it is centralized in two cities (and Moscow’s suburban getaway, Peredelkino), and within Moscow, for example, hundreds of writers live in the same complexes of cooperative apartment buildings for writers only. I cannot decide whether this extreme propinquity is going to complicate the future histories of Russian literature or greatly simplify it, but it is a fact to keep in mind. And finally, virtually all important publishing houses, literary periodicals, institutes for the study of literature and training of writers, and the Union of Soviet Writers are located in Moscow and Leningrad.

Mme Mandelstam’s decision to speak her mind, to report her stern view of the past and its cast of characters, to say things which no one before has dared to say about the public and private lives of dozens of people, has made her many enemies in these centers of power. Some have angrily broken off all relations, some who used to visit her now stay away to avoid getting into a fight, and many abuse her from afar. She is called a gossip, a liar, a slanderer, a malicious old hag. “It’s all lies!” one elderly critic lectured me indignantly, referring to Hope Abandoned and a positive review of it which I had written. “All lies?” I asked. “You mean there is nothing true in it?” “It’s all lies!” the critic repeated even more angrily. Since Mme Mandelstam describes this particular person as a bungler and coward, I could understand the bitterness (which poured out for twenty minutes), but Kaverin’s letter has a similar tone.

Everywhere I went I was given examples of what various people considered slander of other people—usually friends or relatives. “X is not mentally unbalanced,” “Y was never an informer,” “Z did not destroy Mandelstam’s poem.” I cannot judge each case, but as I kept asking everyone about the individuals in question, all of the serious charges made by Mme Mandelstam were confirmed by at least some other people. That is, in one house I would be told, “Y was never an informer—that’s slander” and in the next house that “everyone knows that Y was an informer.” Of course, this is not proof. And such contradictions put the outsider in an untenable position, especially with his Russian friends. Part of the problem is that Russians are very forgiving, and a few charitable acts may wipe out the memory of many cowardly ones. In any case, outsiders cannot ultimately be judges in most of these cases of specific charges.

But there are two points which I would like to make: (1) For the non-Russian reader the specific individuals and names are not especially important—the Western reader cannot pronounce them and does not know who they are anyway. The larger picture and moral viewpoint of Mme Mandelstam are much more important to us. (2) In most cases the objections to her book, if one examines them closely, turn out to be objections to opinions, not to facts. Moreover, they are objections to negative opinions which are frankly expressed in forceful language.

Russian literary people (such as Kaverin) are not used to this—they usually prefer the hagiographic approach to the past and writers’ biographies. Anyone who has tried to write a biography of a Soviet writer runs into this when he reaches primary sources such as friends, colleagues, and widows. There is little of the rough and tumble of Western memoirs and diaries, and a Russian Anaïs Nin would cause a national stomach cramp; Harry Truman’s bluntness and language would be totally unacceptable. Everything is recorded on a very elevated intellectual plane, Art is mentally capitalized, sex does not exist. And unpleasant historical events are glossed over or unmentioned. Ilya Ehrenburg’s voluminous memoirs are a good example—they were important for what they did rediscover for the Soviet reader, but the world he described bore as much relation to the real world as Disneyland does to New York. It is precisely this kind of compromising memoirs that many of the liberals who attack Mme Mandelstam prefer—or, at least, are accustomed to. The optimism, positivism, and smiling good health of mediocre socialist realism has had its unconscious effect. And so quite apart from the moral questions, such critics are locked in by a literary convention.

Thus, for example, Mme Mandelstam’s picture of Anna Akhmatova has shocked many of the great poetess’s admirers. To such enthusiasts it is impossible to allow a talented artist such normal human traits as querulousness, egotism, or pettiness—let alone the veiled suggestion that in love she was occasionally attracted to beautiful women. Why discuss such things, they say—in the tone of those optimists who disapprove of bad news in the daily papers. Fortunately others at least agree that these things should not be secrets, that everyone has his own opinion, and that even a person who was in some sense a rival has a right to be heard publicly. This does not in fact lessen (or attempt to lessen) Akhmatova’s art. But the dominant Russian view is that a good book cannot be written by a bad person, and this has led to the suppression even of reports of bad characteristics in basically admirable people.

Then Nadezhda Mandelstam comes along like a Patton at inspection, kicking rumps and frazzling nerves. Naturally the reaction is angry among victims, friends of victims, and those whose careers her view of Soviet literature would turn into nullity. Some, like Kaverin, vent their spleen in letters. And at least two books are now being written in response to Mme Mandelstam’s memoirs—one by a prominent liberal writer and friend of Akhmatova, another by a critic and acquaintance of Akhmatova. I hope we will be able to read these antimemoirs, and where the authors catch Mme Mandelstam in errors of fact we should be grateful; where their opinions of people and views of events differ—as they must—we should consider them and test them. That there will be some corrections in the first category is inevitable, given the span of years which her books cover, but I suspect that the majority of objections will be in the realm of opinion, viewpoint, and interpretation—as in Kaverin’s charges, printed below.

Veniamin Kaverin (born 1902) began his career as one of the Serapion Brothers—a group of young experimental writers in the Twenties who declared their independence from tendentious literature. Trick plots, detectives, and adventure stories are typical of his early work; his fairly numerous later tales and novels are rather less experimental and are all considered acceptable socialist realism. In 1956 he helped bring out a liberal “thaw” anthology entitled Literary Moscow. He has generally been what Westerners would call a liberal—and, for example, is among Solzhenitsyn’s defenders. In the first volume of her memoirs Mme Mandelstam calls him a perfectly decent man, but in two places she does tell stories which may be interpreted as showing him in a rather negative light. Here is his response to Hope Abandoned, a letter to her dated March 20, 1973:

Dear Nadezhda Yakovlevna,

I have read your Second Book [Hope Abandoned, trans.] and I regret that out of respect for Mandelstam neither I nor your other acquaintances (except for I. G. Ehrenburg) pointed out frankly to you that even in the first book, using transparent initials, you had slandered honorable people. True, only a few then—obviously because those you start attacking in the Second Book were still alive at the time of the first, and abusing the living is more complicated than abusing the dead.

And what have you done? The book is large, seven hundred pages. It’s written with illusory significance. Much was caught on the run, heard from afar, mixed up. However, for the aim you have set yourself such trivialities as mishearing don’t count. You decided—no more and no less—to prove that for the last fifty years our literature has not existed. There was only Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and you, who hadn’t written a line. I would note that in the first book you write about Akhmatova as about an older sister, but in the second as about a younger one whom one can rein in from time to time.

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