Of the eighty-one years of her life, Nadezhda Mandelstam spent nineteen as the wife of Russia’s greatest poet in this century, Osip Mandelstam, and fortytwo as his widow. The rest was childhood and youth. In educated circles, especially among the literati, being the widow of a great man is enough to provide an identity. This is especially so in Russia, where in the Thirties and in the Forties the regime was producing writers’ widows with such efficiency that in the middle of the Sixties there were enough of them around to organize a trade union.
“Nadya is the luckiest widow,” Anna Akhmatova used to say, having in mind the universal recognition coming to Osip Mandelstam at about that time. The focus of this remark was, understandably, on her fellow poet, and right though she was this was the view from the outside. By the time this recognition began to arrive, Mrs. Mandelstam was already in her sixties, her health extremely precarious and her means meager. Besides, for all the universality of that recognition, it did not include the fabled “one-sixth of the entire planet,” i.e., Russia itself. Behind her were already two decades of widowhood, utter deprivation, the Great (obliterating any personal loss) War, and the daily fear of being grabbed by the agents of state security as a wife of an enemy of the people. Short of death, anything that followed could only mean respite.
I met her for the first time precisely then, in the winter of 1962, in the city of Pskov, where together with a couple of friends I went to take a look at the local churches (the finest, in my view, in the empire). Having learned about our intentions to travel to that city, Anna Akhmatova suggested we visit Nadezhda Mandelstam, who was teaching English at the local pedagogical institute, and gave us several books for her. That was the first time I heard her name: I didn’t know that she existed.
She was living in a small communal apartment consisting of two rooms. The first room was occupied by a woman whose name, ironically enough, was Nietsvetaeva (literally: Non-Tsvetaeva), the second was Mrs. Mandelstam’s. It was eight square meters large, the size of an average American bathroom. Most of the space was taken up by a cast-iron twin-sized bed; there were also two wicker chairs, a wardrobe chest with a small mirror, and an all-purpose bedside table, on which sat plates with the left-overs of her supper and, next to the plates, an open paperback copy of The Hedgehog and the Fox, by Isaiah Berlin. The presence of this red-covered book in this tiny cell, and the fact that she didn’t hide it under the pillow at the sound of the doorbell, meant precisely this: the beginning of respite.
The book, as it turned out, was sent to her by Akhmatova, who for nearly half the century remained the closest friend of the Mandelstams: first of both of …