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…

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