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 within Moscow, for example, hundreds of writers live in the same complexes of cooperative apartment buildings for writers only. I cannot decide whether this extreme propinquity is going to complicate the future histories of Russian literature or greatly simplify it, but it is a fact to keep in mind. And finally, virtually all important publishing houses, literary periodicals, institutes for the study of literature and training of writers, and the Union of Soviet Writers are located in Moscow and Leningrad.

Mme Mandelstam’s decision to speak her mind, to report her stern view of the past and its cast of characters, to say things which no one before has dared to say about the public and private lives of dozens of people, has made her many enemies in these centers of power. Some have angrily broken off all relations, some who used to visit her now stay away to avoid getting into a fight, and many abuse her from afar. She is called a gossip, a liar, a slanderer, a malicious old hag. “It’s all lies!” one elderly critic lectured me indignantly, referring to Hope Abandoned and a positive review of it which I had written. “All lies?” I asked. “You mean there is nothing true in it?” “It’s all lies!” the critic repeated even more angrily. Since Mme Mandelstam describes this particular person as a bungler and coward, I could understand the bitterness (which poured out for twenty minutes), but Kaverin’s letter has a similar tone.

Everywhere I went I was given examples of what various people considered slander of other people—usually friends or relatives. “X is not mentally unbalanced,” “Y was never an informer,” “Z did not destroy Mandelstam’s poem.” I cannot judge each case, but as I kept asking everyone about the individuals in question, all of the serious charges made by Mme Mandelstam were confirmed by at least some other people. That is, in one house I would be told, “Y was never an informer—that’s slander” and in the next house that “everyone knows that Y was an informer.” Of course, this is not proof. And such contradictions put the outsider in an untenable position, especially with his Russian friends. Part of the problem is that Russians are very forgiving, and a few charitable acts may wipe out the memory of many cowardly ones. In any case, outsiders cannot ultimately be judges in most of these cases of specific charges.


But there are two points which I would like to make: (1) For the non-Russian reader the specific individuals and names are not especially important—the Western reader cannot pronounce them and does not know who they are anyway. The larger picture and moral viewpoint of Mme Mandelstam are much more important to us. (2) In most cases the objections to her book, if one examines them closely, turn out to be objections to opinions, not to facts. Moreover, they are objections to negative opinions which are frankly expressed in forceful language.

Russian literary people (such as Kaverin) are not used to this—they usually prefer the hagiographic approach to the past and writers’ biographies. Anyone who has tried to write a biography of a Soviet writer runs into this when he reaches primary sources such as friends, colleagues, and widows. There is little of the rough and tumble of Western memoirs and diaries, and a Russian Anaïs Nin would cause a national stomach cramp; Harry Truman’s bluntness and language would be totally unacceptable. Everything is recorded on a very elevated intellectual plane, Art is mentally capitalized, sex does not exist. And unpleasant historical events are glossed over or unmentioned. Ilya Ehrenburg’s voluminous memoirs are a good example—they were important for what they did rediscover for the Soviet reader, but the world he described bore as much relation to the real world as Disneyland does to New York. It is precisely this kind of compromising memoirs that many of the liberals who attack Mme Mandelstam prefer—or, at least, are accustomed to. The optimism, positivism, and smiling good health of mediocre socialist realism has had its unconscious effect. And so quite apart from the moral questions, such critics are locked in by a literary convention.

Thus, for example, Mme Mandelstam’s picture of Anna Akhmatova has shocked many of the great poetess’s admirers. To such enthusiasts it is impossible to allow a talented artist such normal human traits as querulousness, egotism, or pettiness—let alone the veiled suggestion that in love she was occasionally attracted to beautiful women. Why discuss such things, they say—in the tone of those optimists who disapprove of bad news in the daily papers. Fortunately others at least agree that these things should not be secrets, that everyone has his own opinion, and that even a person who was in some sense a rival has a right to be heard publicly. This does not in fact lessen (or attempt to lessen) Akhmatova’s art. But the dominant Russian view is that a good book cannot be written by a bad person, and this has led to the suppression even of reports of bad characteristics in basically admirable people.

Then Nadezhda Mandelstam comes along like a Patton at inspection, kicking rumps and frazzling nerves. Naturally the reaction is angry among victims, friends of victims, and those whose careers her view of Soviet literature would turn into nullity. Some, like Kaverin, vent their spleen in letters. And at least two books are now being written in response to Mme Mandelstam’s memoirs—one by a prominent liberal writer and friend of Akhmatova, another by a critic and acquaintance of Akhmatova. I hope we will be able to read these antimemoirs, and where the authors catch Mme Mandelstam in errors of fact we should be grateful; where their opinions of people and views of events differ—as they must—we should consider them and test them. That there will be some corrections in the first category is inevitable, given the span of years which her books cover, but I suspect that the majority of objections will be in the realm of opinion, viewpoint, and interpretation—as in Kaverin’s charges, printed below.

Veniamin Kaverin (born 1902) began his career as one of the Serapion Brothers—a group of young experimental writers in the Twenties who declared their independence from tendentious literature. Trick plots, detectives, and adventure stories are typical of his early work; his fairly numerous later tales and novels are rather less experimental and are all considered acceptable socialist realism. In 1956 he helped bring out a liberal “thaw” anthology entitled Literary Moscow. He has generally been what Westerners would call a liberal—and, for example, is among Solzhenitsyn’s defenders. In the first volume of her memoirs Mme Mandelstam calls him a perfectly decent man, but in two places she does tell stories which may be interpreted as showing him in a rather negative light. Here is his response to Hope Abandoned, a letter to her dated March 20, 1973:


Dear Nadezhda Yakovlevna,

I have read your Second Book [Hope Abandoned, trans.] and I regret that out of respect for Mandelstam neither I nor your other acquaintances (except for I. G. Ehrenburg) pointed out frankly to you that even in the first book, using transparent initials, you had slandered honorable people. True, only a few then—obviously because those you start attacking in the Second Book were still alive at the time of the first, and abusing the living is more complicated than abusing the dead.

And what have you done? The book is large, seven hundred pages. It’s written with illusory significance. Much was caught on the run, heard from afar, mixed up. However, for the aim you have set yourself such trivialities as mishearing don’t count. You decided—no more and no less—to prove that for the last fifty years our literature has not existed. There was only Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and you, who hadn’t written a line. I would note that in the first book you write about Akhmatova as about an older sister, but in the second as about a younger one whom one can rein in from time to time.

It’s not hard to name those whom you try to demean and shame—and this is precisely the method you chose to prove the “illusoriness” of their existence. All one has to do is look up the name of a talented writer and honorable man in the index—and on the corresponding page one will find either outright abuse directed at him—or mocking pity. This applies in full measure to Gorky, Chukovsky, Voloshin, Zabolotsky, Bulgakov, Ehrenburg, Pasternak, Olesha, Tynyanov, Mayakovsky, and Meyerhold. One could cite some two dozen other respected people whom you have abused—some in passing, others (like Zenkevich) thoroughly, with pleasure.

Spite has never led to good; by its nature it is fruitless. Spite drips from every line of your book, and your whole poisonous work is saturated with it—from the first page to the last.

But who gave you the right to judge artists who gifted their country and the whole world with their brilliant works?

Bulgakov, who hid The Master and Margarita even from his friends, it turns out, is simply a “simpleton” (page 136) [Page numbers are all from the Russian edition which Kaverin quotes. Trans. note]. The executed Meyerhold stands somewhere between “Papanin and football games” (p. 176) [Papanin was an Arctic explorer. Trans. note]; Mayakovsky, who shot himself, was a “performer, but not an inventor.” Even about Khlebnikov, who according to you was obliged to you for a happy period in his life, you write with a kind of secret but poorly hidden aversion. Have no doubt—each of those whom you insult will find his defender. I will speak only about Tynyanov, who was my teacher and close friend. You have a separate account with him which has to be talked about separately.

It turns out that he didn’t know that “the concept of development is connected to the idea of progress” (p. 367). He “stammers and is evasive when talking about poetry” (p. 211). “There was nothing to talk about” with him (p. 259). He is the founder of a theory which poisoned our literature, a theory that consists of “the poet going from one school to another, conducting himself like an actor who undertakes a new role” (p. 369). He is guilty because writers put on masks. “Believing in the theory of ‘the literary persona,’ and in masks, he carefully selected one for himself” (p. 368). What mask is this? It’s his novels, which “found favor at court” (p. 368). Of course, under the mask of a court novelist “he decided not to become a Küchelbecker—too dangerous” (p. 369).

He was a coward—“out of fear” he didn’t answer a letter from Mandelstam. In the Twenties and Thirties Tynyanov and I saw each other almost daily, and it is impossible for me to conceive that he wouldn’t have told me about this letter. How could you dare suppose that he could destroy a letter of Mandelstam? How dare you pretend that you didn’t know about the moral courage of the author of The Wax Personage and The Death of Vazir-Mukhtar? About a writer whose life was striking in its integrity you write that he “changed the direction of his biography out of a sense of the most primitive self-preservation” (p. 370).

On page 369 you recount Tynyanov’s last meeting with you and Mandelstam. “He sat in an armchair, dried up, markedly smaller, with his large and intelligent head, and he cheerfully talked about poetry…. When he got up to see us off I noticed that his legs had turned into thin little sticks. He could barely walk, leaning on a cane, and he collapsed in the long hall of his Petersburg apartment. At the sound of the fall his wife, who struck me as a real witch, rushed out and, cursing, picked him up. He tried to say good-bye, but the witch dragged off her husband, who was helpless and incapable of resisting.”

This meeting could not have occurred later than 1938—isn’t that so?—but in 1936 Tynyanov was in Paris, walking all over with Ehrenburg and Savich. He walked with a cane, but up to the end of 1939 he and I took walks daily—I wrote about this in my article on him. There was no long hall in his apartment—a door led directly into his study from a little entrance hall. You would have been able to tell whether his legs were thin or not if he had met you without his pants on—a practice in which Tynyanov did not engage—he met guests in a suit. If he “collapsed” as you write, why would he have tried to resist his wife who obviously wanted to help him, even if she was, as you write, “a witch”?

“I was always lying,” you write (p. 178), justifying yourself by the universal fear natural in the Thirties. But why lie now when the appearance of your first book in no way hindered the appearance of the second? In this scene everything is a lie.

Trying to prove that Tynyanov is the chief of all the hypocrites of literature, you leafed through his book Archaists and Innovators and you didn’t understand a word of it. You don’t have a literary education in order to understand it, otherwise you wouldn’t have written that the “archaists are something like populists” and that “today the poet is an innovator, tomorrow he is an archaist, and the day after something else” (p. 366). This is scandalous ignorance, and at the same time pitiful.

You read only one of his essays—“The Interval”—and didn’t understand that. Really, who is going to believe that Tynyanov “secretly loved poetry” when he published essays and books on Pushkin, Tyutchev, Küchelbecker, Heine, and of his contemporaries on Blok, Khlebnikov, Pasternak, Mandelstam, Khodasevich, Chukovsky, Tikhonov, and other first-rate poets? Those who have long ago evaluated Tynyanov’s works as a new stage in the history of world literary scholarship will also know how to evaluate the self-satisfied helplessness with which you have written about them. It was not offended pride which dictated Second Book to you, but a sick rapture over your own self, based on the fact that you were the wife of a poet of genius.

To this rapture over your own self—and this is not as strange—was added petty-bourgeois garrulousness, of which it seems you are even proud. You write, “I love swear-words [in Russian, mat—short for “mother” as in “mother-fucking”—the generic term for swearing in Russian. Trans. note], life is manifested in them, as it is in jokes” (p. 329). A characteristic admission. Now and then in your book you shift from jokes to swear-words. It is not in vain that you do not eschew such expressions as: idiots, blockheads, bitchy Venus, pig snout, crack-brain, lackey, crap, witch, joker, obscene feast, shove off, stupidly vile, pederast (!) coziness—this last about Akhmatova’s apartment. To garrulousness is added sanctimoniousness (“I am sinful, rotten”). And to sanctimoniousness the inexplicable calculation that there won’t be any people in the world who will evaluate your book the way it deserves to be. Among them—I have no doubt—would be Mandelstam, who as you write called on people “to take the best and forget the failures and false-teaching.”

And you hoped that your book would be heard in Russian literature? No. It will be heard and supported by anti-literature—those who would give dearly for there to be no Bulgakov or Meyerhold in our art.

You are not the widow—you are the shadow of Mandelstam. In Shvartz’s celebrated play [The Shadow, 1940. Trans. note] the shadow tries to take the place of its possessor—an honest, kind, magnanimous man. But there are words against which it is helpless: “Shadow, know your place.”

—V. Kaverin

Since many readers of this letter will not know Nadezhda Mandelstam’s books or be able to recheck them point by point, I think it is essential to comment on some of Kaverin’s main points. Kaverin makes minor alterations in wording (including omissions) and punctuation in several of the quotations, and more important, he takes others completely out of context—adding his own interpretative wording around the quotation. Kaverin’s claim that the goal of her book is to show that modern Russian literature has not existed except for Mandelstam, Akhmatova, and herself is ridiculous—and it would not occur to anyone outside the Moscow-Leningrad literary world to read the book this way. If it is demeaning to report their treatment of Mandelstam and herself—and other victims of Stalin’s terror—she does indeed demean and shame some writers. She is also justly critical of many of their works.

Who gave you the right to judge artists who gifted their country and the whole world with their brilliant works?” Kaverin asks. A bizarre but symptomatic question—to ask of someone whose husband was murdered, with the help of writers, and whose life, along with those of her closest friends, was turned into constant terror. But beyond this—hasn’t every individual the right to judge? This seems to have been forgotten. The attitudes which I described above are implicit here—if a writer “gifts” the world with brilliant works one has no right to lower Art to worldly levels by showing him in a bad light. Later on Kaverin faults Mme Mandelstam for not having a “literary education”—only in a society where so many writers and critics now go through literary institutes could a respected writer make such a demand for official certification.

Kaverin’s list of “talented writers and honorable men” runs from Gorky to Meyerhold and is presented as if the talent and honor of all these men were great and unquestionable. However, I have heard the honor of nearly every one seriously questioned at one time or another (beginning with Gorky), and of course their literary merits are subject to the widest disagreement. Most important is that Mme Mandelstam’s treatment of these writers—both personally and as artists—differs markedly from one to the next, and she is by no means always as negative as Kaverin attempts to suggest. For example, his quote about Bulgakov as “simpleton” is taken totally out of context—and there is no need to mention The Master and Margarita, which she does not refer to in her books. (As it happens I have discussed Bulgakov with Mme Mandelstam—and she spoke of him and his wife as people of irreproachable honor, and while not having a high opinion of Bulgakov’s works she did like White Guard. She does not care for The Master and Margarita, but even though I have co-translated two volumes of Bulgakov and consider that novel one of the finest in Russian literature, I see no reason to be offended by her vigorous dislike.)

Of greatest interest to Kaverin is the case of Yury Tynyanov. Tynyanov was his close friend, and, moreover, Kaverin married Tynyanov’s sister—so he is not a disinterested party. Tynyanov (1894-1943) is generally regarded by Western Slavists as one of the best critics of the Soviet period. But there are few outsiders who would claim that his prose fiction is of interest to anyone but Russians (especially his novels about early nineteenth-century writers).

I have reread everything Mme Mandelstam says about Tynyanov, including the whole chapter entitled “Literary Scholarship,” and in only one instance do her comments on him have to do with his personal character. Elsewhere she simply discusses his ideas on literary development. There is no basis for Kaverin’s charge that she is trying to make Tynyanov “the chief of all the hypocrites in our literature.” She calls Tynyanov a good man, “among the best and purest” of her contemporaries, and obviously feels sympathy for him—while believing his critical ideas were sadly misguided.

I think there are many scholars who would agree with most of her critique of Tynyanov’s theories, and with the observation that he was the “son of a rationalistic age” with its faith in systems. She does not pretend to cover all of his works, and the fact that she does not also find good things to say—emphasize the positive—no doubt offends Kaverin’s sense of convention and justice. In any case, there is at least room for doubt that Tynyanov marks a new stage in world literary criticism, and Kaverin’s enraged charge that “sick rapture over self” dictated Mme Mandelstam’s book stems from family feelings, not analysis of facts and possibilities.

If one looks carefully at the one extensive passage which Kaverin attempts to tear apart, one sees that the only objective fact under question is the length of the corridor. After all, a person does not have to remove his pants for one to judge whether his legs are withered (a raised cuff, a sharp outline on thin cloth)—and Kaverin does not dispute the cane. Tynyanov’s wife “strikes” Nadezhda Mandelstam as a witch (obviously this is an impression, an opinion—and elsewhere she says the wife would have burned an important Mandelstam letter); her abuse may be that of a harridan—or simply a wife angry that her enfeebled husband has hurt himself. And he reacts by vainly trying to show that it is nothing, that he can still see his friends out. These are possible human motivations and reactions. Furthermore, it seems that Mme Mandelstam is referring to the corridor outside the apartment, not inside. “Seeing off” (provozhat‘) in Russian can mean anything from the door to the trolley stop outside. But Kaverin is blinded by his anger—so much so that he berates Nadezhda Mandelstam for name calling by calling her insulting names.

She is not Mandelstam’s widow, Kaverin asserts, but his shadow—and a shadow should know its place. I think that she has some idea of her real place—and Kaverin’s. Her desire to have Kaverin’s letter published is evidence of this. In any case the letter is a literary document belonging to a widespread Russian genre (“A’s letter to B”), and it has circulated in Moscow. And because it makes no sense to misquote and distort an author to the author herself, one assumes a wider audience was intended. Had Nadezhda Mandelstam kept her peace, eulogized the liberals’ idols of the past, and smilingly offered platitudes about Mandelstam, her last years would have been rewarded by continuing crowds of visitors, including those who once pretended not to recognize her or burned. Mandelstam’s letters and poems. She could have played the grand role of poet’s widow in the accepted way. But she alone broke free—and I think that the feeling of relief and justice must more than make up for attacks such as Kaverin’s, which after all she has experienced all her life. And because she is free her books will remain in Russian literature, long after Kaverin’s are forgotten.

This Issue

February 21, 1974