“Poetry is power,” Osip Mandelstam once said to Anna Akhmatova, thinking of the extraordinary destiny of the Acmeist movement to which the two had belonged. In the West this observation may hold true for the happy few, but it does not for society, or even for the cultivated public. In Russia, however, it holds true not only for an elite but for society in general. For in Russia, literature, and especially poetry, has long been a major moral force, has, indeed, possessed political “power.” Mandelstam himself is one of the most powerful Russian poets of all time, in every connotation of the word power.
At first glance his manner and career would seem to preclude any such stature. Born into a well-to-do, cultivated Jewish family of St. Petersburg, he received the most elite and cosmopolitan of educations, first at the famous Tenishev school and then at the universities of Paris, Heidelberg, and Petersburg. Highly sensitive and self-consciously learned, he first became known to the public, on the eve of 1914, as the most abstruse representative of the Poets’ Guild, as the Acmeist or neoclassical school of the great poetic revival of prewar Russia was called.
A celebrity among the avant-garde until the Twenties, he soon fell into official disfavor, and in the Thirties he was the first poet to become a victim of the purges. In his lifetime he published only three short collections of verse and several prose pieces. A good half of his work has never appeared in Russia at all. For although he was legally “rehabilitated” after Stalin’s death, his work has not been reprinted since 1928 (except for token selections); and a volume of his verse, for ten years now allegedly ready for the press, must be considered an official myth designed to convince the naïve that his work is no longer suppressed. For all practical purposes Mandelstam remains a non-person who exists only in samizdat.1
Just how this blighted career should be the source of a power that called down the wrath of Stalin himself is the subject of the reminiscences of Mandelstam’s widow, which remain unpublished in Russia. From a background similar to that of her husband, Mme. Mandelstam lived with the poet for twenty years in a closeness and devotion that made of the couple almost a single person. During the thirty years since his death she has had scarcely any other purpose in life than to preserve his memory. She speaks, therefore, almost with his voice. (For this reason one would have hoped for a translation more rigorous than the present one, and especially for a title other than the awkward pun, Hope against Hope, on her first name; for in spite of Mme. Mandelstam’s extraordinary vitality, there is far more horror than hope in her account.)
Still, this memoir is not just another exposé of Stalin’s system of terror. It is also a vindication of Mandelstam’s values and a commentary on his work. It is, in fact, a work of art in its own right, in a specifically Russian tradition of humane letters which, to a degree unparalleled in any other nation, has consistently held that beauty and truth are one.
Neither Mandelstam nor his wife can be considered apart from this tradition, which goes back to the birth of modern Russian culture, in the 1820s, and to what all Russians regard as the “miracle” of Pushkin. To attempt to explain in English the aesthetic quality of this miracle is next to impossible; perhaps the best one can do is to resort to analogy by saying that Pushkin wrote poetry with the purity and effortless grace with which Mozart wrote music. The essential point here, however, is that this miracle was more than aesthetic; for such formal perfection also signified the absolute triumph of human creativity and hence, by implication, affirmed the value and dignity of man—qualities Russian critics later called Pushkin’s “humanism.”
There was yet another dimension to this miracle, for Pushkin was the first to achieve this fusion of form and human values by means of the resources and rhythms of the national idiom, thereby assimilating European humanism in Russia as a natural, creative, and not just an imitative force, and thus defining for his compatriots their higher national identity. So Belinsky hailed Pushkin in 1834 as the first “genius who gave us a Russian world, a Russian humanity.”
Yet with Pushkin Russia entered humanistic culture only in the domain of art. Otherwise, the nation remained the “gendarme of Europe,” a barbarous despotism founded on serfdom. As a result, to the nascent intelligentsia for whom Belinsky spoke, art came to be all, the sole refuge of individual freedom, of human dignity, and of national honor. This is the origin of the special power of literature in Russian life and of the vast moral and social responsibility borne by virtually all its practitioners.
It is a power that survived throughout the vicissitudes of Russian literary history. Indeed, these vicissitudes only reinforced this power, for Russian culture after Pushkin was dominated in unique fashion by a continuous struggle over the meaning of art which was also a struggle for the soul of the nation. Above all, after the mid-century the ideologists of “civic” or utilitarian art not only largely equated literature with the “realistic” novel but also demanded that literature serve humanity directly by becoming, in effect, propaganda. For decades they succeeded in imposing their tyranny on Russian culture, denouncing Pushkin, poetry, and all forms of “art for art’s sake” as virtual treason to the cause of the people.
As a result, when “pure art” made its comeback the mood was one of Orphic intoxication with exploring all the re-conquered rights of formal beauty. Thus, after 1900, came a glorious poetic revival, from the rhapsodical mysticism and the Baudelairean correspondances of the Symbolists, to the celebration of the terrestrial city and the syncopated language of the Futurists, to the arcane “modernism” of Pasternak and Tsvetaeva, and to the earthy lyricism of Esenin and the peasant poets.
The revival led, finally, to the Acmeists, who went back beyond the Symbolists to the Parnassians of the previous century, and even more to the classicism of godlike Pushkin. Akhmatova, her husband Gumilev, and Mandelstam, building on the remarkable work of the Hellenist Annensky, made their themes the celebration of everyday experience, the tangible, the intimate, expressed in the measured mode of the Greco-Roman and Renaissance traditions and in architectural and sculptural imagery, as opposed to what they considered the facile “musicality” and nebulous supernaturalism of the Symbolists.
Yet in spite of the differences among these schools, they all shared an almost sacramental view of the power of language, founded on the endless play of rhythm, suggestion, and association to which the complex structure and the lexical richness of Russian so readily lend themselves. Through this medium, moreover, they proclaimed the principle that individual expression, like art itself, exists “for its own sake,” and not for “civic” uplift. This new fusion of form and value, grafted as it was onto the heritage of Pushkin, conferred on the poet in Russia a supreme authority he never subsequently lost.
In 1917, then, the ideological implications of the “Russian Word” made it a matter of national importance which side the poets would choose. A few, including Tsvetaeva, emigrated. The Futurists, however, went along with the new order enthusiastically, and Mayakovsky cast himself as the “drummer of the Revolution.” Most of the Symbolists rallied to the Revolution and the greatest of them, Blok, hailed it as the moral apocalypse of history. Esenin shared this messianic misunderstanding, while Pasternak accepted the new order with faith, though without fanfare.
Only the Acmeists proved unable to adapt. Gumilev was executed in 1921 for alleged participation in a monarchist conspiracy, an event that obviously cast a pall over the remaining members of the group. Even apart from this event, however, Akhmatova and Mandelstam were both too deeply committed to artistic freedom and individuality to accommodate themselves to the new situation. The pair thus became the first “internal émigrés” (a term coined to describe them); and Gorky, the patron of Soviet letters, sensing that there was no point in attempting to convert such incorrigible aesthetes, refused to issue Mandelstam a new pair of trousers to get through the Petersburg winter of 1921! (It is of the accumulation of such details that Mme. Mandelstam’s manner is made up.) So the two surviving Acmeists, together with such prose writers as Olesha and Zamiatin, formed the nucleus of a new, dissident tradition of Russian letters, which, by Stalin’s death, came to include most of the great twentieth-century Russian writers.
Nor is this result any accident, for by the very nature of the Soviet situation literary greatness has sooner or later come to coincide with the defense of human integrity against overweening state power. Hence it has usually entailed political disaffection, resistance, and personal catastrophe; and the list of great Soviet poets reads like a martyrology. Among the officially recognized but genuinely revered poets, Blok died early in despair and Mayakovsky committed suicide; Esenin, the most popular poet among the working classes (as Mme. Mandelstam testifies), also killed himself. But most revered of all are the four great figures who lived long enough to come into open and articulate conflict with the regime.
Mandelstam and the later Pasternak are obviously among these four. So, too, are Akhmatova, who lost two husbands to the regime and whose son by Gumilev spent fifteen years in Siberia, and Tsvetaeva, who returned to Russia in 1939 to find her family destroyed and who hanged herself during the war. Such sufferings and the genius to express their universal meaning have made these four figures the great moral powers of modern Russian poetry. For this reason liberal intellectuals in the Soviet Union cite their verses as if repeating a religious liturgy—for example, after Pasternak’s funeral, a crowd of young people stood for four hours in the churchyard of Peredelkino reciting his poems by heart.
Among the four, Mandelstam occupies perhaps the highest position. This is so because a work of formal perfection is combined with an especially tragic personal fate to epitomize, for Soviet readers, the age’s tragedy itself. In his wife’s words: “The work of a poet…has a social character…concerned with the doings of the poet’s fellow men…whose fate he shares. He does not speak ‘for them,’ but with them’…otherwise he would not be the source of truth.” Mandelstam’s “truth” may be summarized as a celebration of and lament for all humanism in an iron age.
Mandelstam, his wife tells us, once defined Acmeism as “nostalgia for world culture,” and he saw the Mediterranean—Greece and Italy, the pagan and the Christian heritages, Homer and Santa Sophia and Dante—as a “holy land,” “the land by which people learned.” This creed is the burden of his first volume, Stone (1913), the most classical of Acmeist productions in its style and allusions. A few years later, in 1916, he proclaimed that the mission of the true poet was to adapt the eternal Mediterranean tradition to raw Russia, to effect the miracle of “a tender Assumption—of Florence into Moscow.” The domes of the Kremlin cathedrals, built by Italian masters, evoked for him “the rising of Aurora, but with a Russian name and clothed in a peasant fur-coat.” Yet from the beginning this faith was fissured with doubt: “Within the walls of the Acropolis a sadness consumed me / For the Russian name and Russian beauty.” Mandelstam’s most basic theme, surely, is the glory of the humanist tradition and the fragility of its “assumption” into Russia.
With the Revolution Mandelstam’s doubt in the harmonious vision of Acmeism deepened into an apocalyptic foreboding. Accordingly, in his second book, Tristia, published in 1922, his manner, without losing any of its concision, became more irregular and more contemporary in its allusions. This change served to express a second basic theme: that Petersburg, Russia’s “window on the West” and on civilization, the city of flawless architectural harmony and the marvel of national creativity celebrated in Pushkin’s Bronze Horseman—this Petersburg had become a bearer of death. Thus, as early as 1918: “The transparent spring above the black Neva / Has been shattered, the wax of immortality is melting. / Oh, if you my star, are Petropolis, your city, / My brother, Petropolis, is dying.” Or again, in 1920, and even more pointedly political: “In Petersburg we shall meet again, / As though we had buried the sun there /…. In the black velvet of the Soviet night, / In the night of universal emptiness.”
Yet such jeremiads should not be taken as the expression of a fundamental pessimism. As Mme. Mandelstam stresses throughout her book, her husband was imbued with the sense that life was not concerned with happiness but simply with living, and that it should be savored to the full and to the end, whatever happens. Thus, although 1918 is “the twilight of freedom, the great crepuscular year,” “We will remember even in Lethe’s cold waters / That earth for us has been worth a thousand heavens.”
Mandelstam’s lucidity about the hell of present life, combined with affirmation of the transcendent worth of life even in hell, is perhaps the secret of his power for his compatriots (as it is also the secret of Solzhenitsyn’s power). This combination is especially apparent in one of Mandelstam’s most characteristic poems, “Vek moi, zver moi” (literally, “My age, my beast”), which thousands in Russia know by heart.
My times—my wild beast,
Who will dare to peer into your eyes
And to stick together with his blood
The severed vertebrae of two cen- turies?
Once again life’s head and crown
Has been sacrificed like a lamb
Crushed like a child’s tender car- tilage
Yet the buds will swell again
And the green shoots sprout;
But your spine has been smashed forever,
My beautiful, pitiful age,
And with an inane, bewildered grimace
You now look back, both cruel and weak,
Like a beast that once was supple,
At the tracks of your own paws.
That Mandelstam, as early as 1923, well before the moment he was to confront Stalin, should have perceived so clearly the tragedy of his age conferred on him a prophetic stature unique among his fellow poets.
Mme. Mandelstam’s memoir is principally devoted to a detailed account of Mandelstam’s encounter with Stalin, from the poet’s first arrest in 1934, through the squalor and penury of their exile together in Cherdyn and Voronezh, to his final deportation and death in 1938. Yet this narrative is constantly interrupted by flashbacks to the Twenties and by glimpses forward to her own solitary and itinerant life in widowhood.
The book also gives sharp vignettes of political luminaries, such as Bukharin and Yezhov, and of literary figures, the cultural bureaucrat Surkov, the talented careerist Katayev, the outcast genius Babel. It offers sketches of Soviet social types, of the various species of “tails” and jailors, of true believers, timeservers, and simple dupes. It records the wrangling sounds of Soviet collective apartments and the crimes committed to secure an added cubic meter of living space. It recounts the “ritual” of arrest, the “friend” who would drop by for the evening to keep the victim at home, the police agents who offered candy to the family, the “professional witnesses” from the next apartment roused at dawn to affirm the purity of the “procedure.”
Thus, interwoven with Mandelstam’s story is the story of Soviet society from the Civil War to the post-Stalinist thaw, the slow build-up to the mass psychosis of the Thirties and the slower return to a sense of (relative) reality after Stalin’s death. All this is told with an immediacy that makes the reader almost a participant; and Mme. Mandelstam’s manner is perfectly adapted to creating such an effect.
Mme. Mandelstam’s style is taut and understated, and the only rhetorical device she allows herself is irony. Otherwise, she piles one anecdote on another, absurdity upon perversity upon crime, like the sharp dabs of a pointilliste canvas, which ultimately fuse into a clearly delineated vision. Similarly, the irregular movement of the narrative, the constant doubling forward and back, the seemingly patternless transitions convey the mounting incoherence of the life she describes. Yet in this moral chaos one constant remains: her own grasp on reality, on common-sense humanity. Mme. Mandelstam is discreet about herself, yet the very way she sees the world reveals an awesome toughness of character—a quality in which she clearly surpasses her husband, for in a sense it was easier to perish under Stalin than to survive morally intact.
Still, in her flinty lucidity we may see her husband’s classical values amplified: Her memoir is, in a sense, a prose continuation of the poet’s interrupted commentary on the “beast that was his age.” Indeed, her artistry is consciously directed toward this end, for the manner in which she interweaves her husband’s story with that of Soviet society makes his fate the figure for the fate of Everyman under Stalin: “But a poet…is just a human being like any other, and he is bound to end up…in the way most typical for his age and time, meeting the fate that lies in wait for everyone else.” Hope against Hope is a parable of the game of cat-and-mouse that total power plays with ordinary people, but a parable raised to a higher level of tragedy by virtue of the poet’s gift of the “Word.”
To fulfill this role Mandelstam had first, however, to share in the Soviet experience much more deeply than is usually supposed. Thus in his youth, his wife reveals, Mandelstam had been drawn to the libertarian socialism of Herzen, and in this humane spirit he had greeted the Revolution with hope. What saved him from the compromises of others was the fact that, unlike Blok, Mayakovsky, and even Pasternak, who often viewed humanism in a millenarian and metaphysical perspective, Mandelstam always saw humanism in a concrete and literal way: it meant more civilized conduct here and now, in everyday life; and in politics it meant that a truly renovated society would foster life, and thus abjure the death penalty, of which he had a hypersensitive abhorrence. His doubts about the “new reality” were first awakened in 1919, when he heard the terrorist Bliumkin bragging of his intention to hound some “spineless intellectual” to death. Then, in 1922, the temporary detention of his brother led him to visit the offices of the Cheka, and what he saw there convinced him that the new state was heading toward institutionalized brutality.
Like her husband, Mme. Mandelstam is eloquently insistent that the roots of Stalinism lay in the Twenties, in the “hypnotic trance” of misplaced idealism which convinced people that they had “really entered a new era” and had “no choice but to submit to historical inevitability,” which was the same as “the dreams of all those who had ever fought for human happiness.”
It was in the Twenties that all the foundations were laid for our future: the casuistical dialectic, the dismissal of older values, the longing for unanimity and thus for self-abasement.
It was then that people “first began to make a neat distinction between sheep and goats, between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ ” and to justify the use of any means against whoever was “not one of us” by repeating “you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.”
Mme. Mandelstam illustrates this process with case after case of writers who succumbed to the “new morality” or of literature students who voluntarily became police spies, reporting back the opinions of her husband and Akhmatova. “The decisive part in the subjugation of the intelligentsia was played not by terror and bribery…but by the word ‘Revolution,’ which none of them could bear to give up. It is a word to which whole nations have succumbed.” She sees a logical transition from this mass self-delusion to a morbid fascination with, and hence submission to, the absolute rule of Stalin “as the embodiment of the age, of history and of the future,” a phenomenon she illustrates with the example of Pasternak in the early Thirties.
Indeed, Mandelstam himself was for a time marked by “this power of the ‘general will.’ ” In the mid-Twenties he suppressed his doubts, tried to accept the “new era,” criticized Akhmatova—and fell silent as a poet. Then the horrors of collectivization convinced him that society, not he, had been the victim of an illusion, and that “poets never can be indifferent to good and evil.” His creative vigor returned, and with mad imprudence he proceeded to express exactly what he felt, for he now understood that in such a world it was only a question of time before he, and millions like him, were doomed. He therefore “steered his life with a strong hand toward the doom that awaited him,” by writing in 1933 an epigram on Stalin, in which the “cockroach-mustached” Georgian is called, among other things, “murderer and peasant-slayer.”
Arrest came the following year, on Stalin’s personal order. Yet Mandelstam had a friend at Court, Bukharin, who wrote Stalin a letter of intercession, adding that “Pasternak would be upset.” Stalin, who half-shared the traditional Russian estimate of the importance of poets, telephoned Pasternak to ask whether Mandelstam were truly a “genius”—and also to prod his spellbound listener to spread the news of the Leader’s humane concern. As a result of this “miracle” the verdict in the case was unexpectedly mild: to “isolate but preserve” Mandelstam in provincial exile.2
To this three-year reprieve we owe the remarkable Voronezh Notebooks in which Mandelstam’s style moves ever further away from the classical harmonies of Acmeism toward the broken rhythms of Futurism, as if reflecting the torment of the times. Yet Mandelstam knew that these years were only a reprieve. He began to suffer from delusions, and became convinced he was being hunted down. The couple contemplated joint suicide as a quick way to meet the inevitable, but at the last moment always drew back, out of fidelity to Judeo-Christian principles and on the belief that: “The creature, so long as life endures / Must bear its broken backbone to the end.” And so, in 1938, in the great holocaust of the Yezhovshchina, when Stalin was no longer swayed by the susceptibilities of poets, Mandelstam was swept away to Siberia, with a copy of Pushkin in one pocket and of Dante in the other. He died somewhere between Vladivostok and the Kolyma, half-demented and apparently refusing to touch prison food for fear it had been poisoned.
His wife continued to “endure,” barred from Moscow and moving from one provincial town to another to escape notice, hiding her husband’s manuscripts and entrusting copies to friends, or reciting his verses to herself as she worked by night in a textile factory so that, if the manuscripts perished, she would be able to recreate them.
Twenty years went by between the time of Mandelstam’s death and the moment I was able to take from their hiding place all the poems I had managed to save and put them openly on the table (or rather the suitcase which served me as a table).
So Mandelstam’s work survived to come to the surface after Stalin’s death. So, too, his wife survived to become, herself, a “source of truth” in that tradition of Russian humanism for which the lonely “power” of the word has been, since Pushkin, the only unassailable refuge.
January 27, 1972