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Whispers from the Abyss

The Mandelstam and “Der Nister” Files: An Introduction to Stalin-era Prison and Labor Camp Records

by Peter B. Maggs
M.E. Sharpe, 171 pp., $52.95

Arrested Voices: Resurrecting the Disappeared Writers of the Soviet Regime

by Vitaly Shentalinsky, translated by John Crowfoot, Introduction by Robert Conquest
Martin Kessler Books/Free Press, 322 pp., $25.00

Intimacy and Terror: Soviet Diaries of the 1930s

edited by Véronique Garros, by Natalia Korenevskaya, by Thomas Lahusen, translated by Carol A. Flath
New Press, 394 pp., $27.50

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 was explicitly sanctioned in Stalin’s 1937 Constitution.

The killers also knew, or believed, that the files constituted the only memory that counted, the only future that would matter. The doctors of Magadan, who tagged Mandelstam’s feet and then fingerprinted his emaciated hands, worked in the belief that no trace of what they had done would ever survive, except in their own dossiers. In this sense, the totalitarian state functioned as God’s memory for the killers. The files—their secrecy, their arcane linguistic forms—were the future which would absolve them in perpetuity for their crimes.

It was the central metaphysical conceit of the totalitarian state that its functionaries would never answer to any other future than the one which history, the party, or the leader had preordained. Hitler’s promise of a Thousand Year Reich made it difficult, for killers and victims alike, to imagine a moral future outside that predicted by the regime. The guards of Auschwitz and Treblinka, no less than the guards and doctors at Magadan, often told their victims that when they had finished their work all trace of it would vanish forever, just as surely as the forests would one day cover over the crematoria and the camp barracks.

The idea of erasing the future in order to control the present has a long history. When the Romans finally conquered Carthage, they rubbed salt in the earth so that nothing would grow after them, and thus the city would have no future. It was left to the twentieth-century state to attempt to pour salt on the ground not of a single city, but of whole peoples.

The state fatally underestimated the tenacity of its victims. It is emblematic of this condescension that the Germans who searched the Franks’ hideaway in Amsterdam should have so carelessly neglected the apparently innocuous pages of a young girl’s diary. It is emblematic, in another way, that having exterminated Mandelstam, the Soviet state should not have thought it worth bothering to exterminate his widow. What, they must have thought, could a frightened young woman do to them, except remember a few seditious poems? How could they have imagined the awesome tenacity of her revenge? How could they have predicted that her memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, would count among the handful of books which helped to bring the whole regime down? For bring it down the victims surely did: samizdat publication of the works of Solzhenitsyn, Nadezhda Mandelstam, Eugenia Ginzburg, Andrei Sinyavsky, and Joseph Brodsky undermined the entire moral legitimacy of the regime. David Remnick is clearly right to have argued in Lenin’s Tomb that it was the return of the suppressed Stalinist past just as much as the military debacle in Af-ghanistan and economic disintegration that convinced Gorbachev, in his own words, that “we can’t go on like this.” Some return to truth became un-avoidable, and when it came, the truth undermined the elite’s faith in deceit.

This process of awakening to truth can be seen at work in the career of Vitaly Shentalinsky, a minor writer of stories and criticism during the Brezhnev period. He was old enough to remember his father’s tears on the day Stalin died and cautious enough to know, when he lived in the town of Magadan himself during the 1960s, never to mention the camps that had once filled the region around the city. During the Seventies, when he lived in Moscow, he read samizdat texts, passed them on, and kept his head down. But Solzhenitsyn and Mandelstam’s work had slowly undermined his innermost loyalties. In 1988, when that nest of vipers, the Writers Union, belatedly embraced glasnost and perestroika, Shentalinsky proposed that the Union set up a commission to recover the files and manuscripts of all the writers imprisoned, repressed, or executed during the years of Stalin’s terror. With droll understatement, Shentalinsky recounts his campaign to persuade his toadying colleagues to support him and his struggle to get the KGB to open up its archives. Critical support for the project came from Alexander Yakovlev, a key Gorbachev confidante in 1989 and 1990. Colonel Krayushkin of the KGB Archives department begrudgingly released a trickle of files whose inconstant flow depended on the power struggle within the Kremlin between the Gorbachev forces and the opponents of perestroika.

The KGB’s reluctance was more than understandable. Over fifteen hundred writers had been killed; thousands more had been imprisoned and their creative lives either mutilated or destroyed. In Anna Akhmatova’s words, two Russias at last confronted each other and the killers recoiled from the confrontation. The KGB’s files contained the entire suppressed history of twentieth-century Soviet literature. In the Lubyanka were to be found the answers to questions which had been asked in whispers for forty years. It was known that the great theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold had been arrested in 1939 and had disappeared, but no one knew his exact fate until his file was opened in 1991. There Shentalinsky found Meyerhold’s letter to Molotov, in which the realities of “active methods” of investigation were unforgettably revealed:

Lying face down on the floor, I discovered that I could wriggle, twist and squeal like a dog when its master whips it. One time my body was shaking so uncontrollably that the guard escorting me back from such an interrogation asked: “Have you got malaria?”

Meyerhold is to be pitied both for what he endured and for having held onto the illusion that Molotov would lift a finger on his behalf. Shortly after sending this letter, he was executed and his cremated remains cast into an unmarked grave.

Meyerhold’s letter reminds one painfully that Russian society has never been de-Stalinized as West Germany was once de-Nazified. In fact the torturers have been decorated, promoted, and retired with honor. This means that the awakening to truth of the perestroika years remains confined to a minority. Many continued, for example, to give their electoral support to the Communist Party in the recent presidential elections. For millions of Russians, there is nothing to repent, nothing to apologize for. It is now too late to try the veterans of the Lubyanka torture chambers, or to make restitution to the victims. In the absence of justice, in the absence of restitution, the Stalinist past remains an unmastered obstacle standing in the way of any democratic liberal future. Shentalinsky’s book, in other words, reflects not the consensus of a new society but the still-embattled voice of a liberal minority struggling against the weight of that fatal inheritance.

Shentalinsky’s book also makes it possible to weigh the conduct of the victims, to ask whether their reputation of heroic resistance is deserved. For the first time we can follow them into the interrogation rooms and see whether they did or did not implicate their fellow writers. In assessing the evidence on these questions, it is important to remember that the victims’ confessions were not only extorted under physical pressure most of us can scarcely imagine; they were also uttered with the same assumptions as those of the interrogators, that there would never be any future that would hear them. Once one understands this, it becomes easier to explain both why Isaac Babel should have implicated his own wife—who continued sending him clothes scented with her perfume—and why he should have signed confessions disavowing his own writing. His interrogators beat him until he was willing to say that he believed the Soviet state was “temporary, relative and unstable in nature,” and that its fall was inevitable. This was, of course, the cardinal sin: to doubt that the Soviet state would last a thousand years.

But no sooner had the confession been extorted than he tried to recant, horrified by having implicated his friend Sergei Eisenstein and his lover, the wife of the fallen head of the NKVD, Yezhov. He went to his death tortured by the thought that the ripples of his betrayals would remain. He was shot on January 27, 1940, and his ashes were thrown in Common Grave No. 1, on the grounds of Moscow’s former Donskoi monastery.

Mandelstam also seems to have named those who heard him recite his first ode to Stalin. The poem’s first lines evoke the world of fear in which everyone lived in 1933:

We live without sensing the country beneath us,
At ten paces, our speech has no sound
And when there’s the will to half-open our mouths
The Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.

In the light of this terrible sense that one’s words drain away silently and uselessly into the intimidated air, it is remarkable that Mandelstam should have proven himself capable of any resistance to his interrogators at all. He immediately admitted that he wrote the fatal ode, but went on to make it clear under interrogation that it was more than a political lampoon, that in fact it was a defense of

the perceptions and attitudes of a part of the old intelligentsia which considers itself the custodian and transmitter to the present time of the values of previous cultures.

Poetry is power,” Mandelstam once said, but its power, he told his interrogators, resided not in the individual poet but in his tradition, in his fidelity to something larger than himself and more deeply rooted in the Russian past than Soviet power. This view of the Russian past in turn changed Mandelstam’s conception of the future. For in the poem “Maybe a Century Will Pass” he wrote,

Yes, I lie in the earth, moving my lips
But what I shall say, every schoolchild will learn.

When Bulgakov made his famous remark, in The Master and Margarita, that “manuscripts don’t burn,” he meant that ultimately the written word would always survive attempts to destroy their author. In Bulgakov’s case, this proved eerily true. As Shentalinsky recounts, Bulgakov himself kept a diary which was confiscated by the NKVD during a search. When it was returned to him, he burned it in disgust. But forty-five years later, it turned up in the archives. Apparently, the thugs had copied it before returning the original.

The Bolsheviks themselves understood that the power of the writer lay in the word’s hold on the future. Even Bukharin, in his letter to Stalin pleading for clemency for Mandelstam, is supposed to have written: “Poets are always right. History is on their side.” The battle between the writers and the regime was explicitly understood, on both sides, as a battle for custody of the future of their country.

This heroic conception of literature sustained Mandelstam in his inferno, but it did not save him, and it did not stop him from incriminating others. Indeed, the heroic demands of his calling made it harder for him to bear his own failings. After his release from his first interrogation, he was haunted by accusatory voices, perhaps the voices of those he had named in his interrogation.

In a recent review of Shentalinsky’s book for London’s Sunday Times, the English poet Craig Raine is scathing about the heroic myth of Russian literary resistance:

Mandelstam clearly bent—as Anna Akhmatova bent when she wrote a poem to Stalin in an effort to save her son. As Pasternak bent when he wrote a letter of retraction to Pravda after Doctor Zhivago attracted the Nobel prize and incredible opprobrium. As you and I would bend.

Shentalinsky, Raine writes, is “unreliable because nostalgic for heroism.” But Babel, Mandelstam, and Meyerhold were heroic, and their heroism consisted in having to act and speak without the slightest hope that their words and deeds would even be heard, let alone remembered. They bent; but they did not break, and their tradition of heroism will serve their country well, because now, thanks to Shentalinsky, it is known.

The files of the Stalinist era have not only disgorged this secret history of heroism and despair, they have also laid bare the inner lives of the literary informers who brought Mandelstam and others to their ruin. In Intimacy and Terror, a remarkable collection of Soviet diaries from the 1930s found in Soviet archives by a team of international scholars, there is the diary of Vladimir Petrovitch Stavsky, the general secretary of the Union of Soviet Writers, whose denunciation of Mandelstam led to his arrest and death. The diary never mentions Mandelstam: a totalitarian regime did not leave a crevice of privacy even for its trusted servants. Even a love letter, drafted in the diary, contains ritual obeisance: “And I want to live, together with the epoch, together with Stalin, together with you, my beloved, my darling!” While spending his days frantically deflecting the ax-blows of power from his head, Stavsky fantasizes about a best-seller which would bring him favor with the regime:

Today the Session [of the Supreme Soviet] finished its work on the fourth question—Soviet citizenship. They’ve already passed a law. What an exciting, fascinating subject for a story! Just start with the words, “I, a citizen of the Soviet Union…” But no, that’s too much like Kataev’s “I am a son of the working people.”

It is as difficult to assess the sincerity of such diaries as it is to assess the truthfulness of Babel’s or Mandelstam’s confessions under interrogation. For in these intimate diaries, no less than under interrogation, the subjects were under duress. As the editors point out, the homage to Stalin was motivated by a highly complex mixture of terror and genuine exaltation. The editors rightly ask, “Does Izvestiya ‘lie’ on 6 August 1937, when it describes the carnival at the Moscow Park of Culture and Recreation, the fireworks, the dances, the colorful crowds, the jazz bands, the sense of brotherhood, the feeling that we are all friends in the time-honoured tradition of the masquerade?” It should not surprise us that for millions of ordinary people the Stalinist slogan “Life has become better, comrades, life has become happier” felt profoundly true.

In the same way, the Austrian writer Peter Handke once observed that when he thought carefully about his mother’s life, re-read her letters, looked at her old photographs, it became clear that the best time in her life had been when Hitler was first in power. The exhilaration that totalitarianism offered for millions of people courses through the diaries collected in Intimacy and Terror. Reading them even now, one feels the queasy thrill of being swept up by history and being carried forward to a bright, if ever-receding, horizon. The diaries show that these regimes backlit the future and whisked away the unhappy past and that this genuinely enchanted their followers. Like God, the totalitarian regimes were magicians with time.

Even Mandelstam himself was swept away, just before his death, by the very ideology which had cast him out. This, at any rate, is how the South African writer J.M. Coetzee interprets Mandelstam’s deeply troubling second “Ode to Stalin,” written in Voronezh in 1937.1 Instead of reading it as a straight act of submission or abjection, Coetzee argues that Mandelstam’s poem is a genuine ode of praise, but in the conditional tense, as if exploring the alienated linguistic register of his own age. Thus the ode begins,

Were I to take up the charcoal for the sake of supreme praise—
For the sake of the eternal joy of drawing—
I would divide the air into clever angles.

In the friendship of [Stalin’s] wise eyes,” Mandelstam continues, the poet would “suddenly recognize the father/ And gasp.” Such an oedipal identification with the tyrant is not the abject surrender it seems, Coetzee argues. Mandelstam’s desperate strategy is

to fabricate the body of an Ode without actually inhabiting it. In the chess game of power that Stalin played not only with Mandelstam but with all those masters of the word to whom it would fall to pronounce the last word on him and his times—a game in which Stalin cannily sought to preempt their verdict by demanding their best last words there and then—we may think of Mandelstam, in his own ode, as playing for a draw.

Coetzee’s analysis seems both subtle and exact, and it illuminates Mandelstam’s desperate strategies of survival in ways that go beyond the simple tropes of heroic resistance and defiance. For Mandelstam and other “masters of the word”—Pasternak comes to mind as well—had to struggle against internalizing the exhilaration and adulation of the society around them. As we know from the joy with which both Akhmatova and Pasternak greeted the chance, when war with Hitler came, to join in their country’s struggle for survival, they longed not to be outcasts; they longed to feel part of their country’s life. In Babel’s confession to his interrogators, the parts that ring true are those in which he confesses that it gave him pain that his work could not be read, could not play its part in the building of a new country.

What held the writers back finally was what might seem a small scruple, more aesthetic than moral or political. As much as they wished to join in, they could not, in Coetzee’s marvelously exact word, “inhabit” the literary forms the regime asked them to produce. Some residual, semi-instinctual artistic integrity told them that they could visit but never “inhabit” the register of propaganda; and because they could not, the regime had no use for them and would crush them if they persisted in inhabiting a vocabulary which it could not control.

This scruple proved decisive. It made it impossible for them to participate in building a future constructed on lies. It was the tiny handful who refused this future whose work has lived to judge the Soviet past. Akhmatova once wrote of the numberless victims,

I’d like to name them all by name
But the list has been confiscated and is nowhere to be found.
I have woven a wide mantle for them
From their meagre, overheard words
I will remember them always and everywhere
I will never forget them no matter what comes.

She has been vindicated. The files are giving up their secrets; the words which Babel, Mandelstam, and all the others thought would never reach our ears have begun to be heard at last. And the future they all dreamed of, a future beyond the Soviet terror, has come to pass. The memory of the victims has proved more tenacious than the memory of the state. At the end of the century, at a time when it is so easy to despair of the power of the word, their example proves that words whispered into the abyss can still reach the future and endure to achieve their revenge.2

  1. 1

    J.M. Coetzee, “Osip Mandelstam and the Stalin Ode,” in Giving Offense: Essays on Censorship (University of Chicago Press, 1996), pp. 104-116. Two of the essays deal with Soviet censorship and four with South Africa. A novelist of genius himself and a South African, Coetzee the critic is especially perceptive about the ways censorship re-gimes deform the work of even the most heroic resisters.

  2. 2

    In preparing this review I wish to acknowledge the help I have had from the participants at the Nexus Conference on “The Politics of Amnesia in the Twentieth Century,” held at Tilburg, the Netherlands, in July 1996.

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