The Mandelstam and “Der Nister” Files: An Introduction to Stalin-era Prison and Labor Camp Records
Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime
Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s
At the end of the Russian Orthodox service for the dead, the choir and the mourners join together in singing the “Viechnaya Pamyat.” The words mean “Eternal Memory,” and the memory in question is God’s. Human memory may betray, but God never forgets. In the twentieth century, the closest secular equivalent to God’s memory has been the administrative memory of the totalitarian state.
The secrets of the Stalinist state’s administrative memory are now slowly coming to light. Peter Maggs has found and published the prison files on the poet Osip Mandelstam and on the Yiddish writer Pinchas Kahanovitch, also known as “Der Nister,” the Hidden One, who wrote the masterwork of twentieth-century Yiddish literature in Russia, The Family Mashber. Mandelstam was arrested for the second and final time in May 1938 and died of hunger and exhaustion on December 27, 1938, in Magadan in eastern Siberia. Der Nister was arrested a decade later, in February 1949, as part of Stalin’s campaign against Jews, and died in prison in June 1950.
Like God, the secret police numbered the hairs on their victims’ heads. The interrogators wrote down Mandelstam’s eye color—“hazel”—and noted that his “chest and abdomen [were] covered with hair,” that he was the “son of a merchant,” and that he was a “writer,” whose “narrow speciality” was being a “poet.” When he reached eastern Siberia in October 1938, where he wrote his brother a last letter, he was, in his own words, “emaciated in the extreme,…thin, almost unrecognizable.” By December, “the Poet,” as fellow prisoners called him, was half-mad and unable to raise his head from his board bed. When he died, in late December, the orderlies in the camp hospital “fastened a wooden board with his number to one leg, tossed the corpse in a cart together with others, took them out of the compound and threw them into a common grave.” The Magadan doctors let him die but upon his death conducted a punctilious post-mortem, not forgetting to fingerprint him.
One might think that an exterminatory system would take steps to obliterate traces of its victims and its crimes. On the contrary, the more genocidal the regime, it seems, the more fastidious its record-keeping. The doctors who refused to treat the dying but fingerprinted their corpses were certainly dead to all moral reflection, and the language of the files added its own moral anesthetic. Only in a rare moment of candor was Mandelstam’s arrest file marked “Terror.” Most of the time the chosen phrase for torture was “special methods” or “active investigation.”
The files were judicial documents and the whole vast gulag system punctiliously observed judicial form. Indeed, Soviet terror showed how effective judicial forms can be in routinizing the unthinkable. To my knowledge, the Nazi exterminations did not make the same use of judicial narcotics. The “final solution” took place in a completely extrajudicial zone. In the Soviet case every downward step the victim took to his doom …
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