Nadezhda Mandelstam
Nadezhda Mandelstam; drawing by David Levine

Of the eighty-one years of her life, Nadezhda Mandelstam spent nineteen as the wife of Russia’s greatest poet in this century, Osip Mandelstam, and fortytwo as his widow. The rest was childhood and youth. In educated circles, especially among the literati, being the widow of a great man is enough to provide an identity. This is especially so in Russia, where in the Thirties and in the Forties the regime was producing writers’ widows with such efficiency that in the middle of the Sixties there were enough of them around to organize a trade union.

“Nadya is the luckiest widow,” Anna Akhmatova used to say, having in mind the universal recognition coming to Osip Mandelstam at about that time. The focus of this remark was, understandably, on her fellow poet, and right though she was this was the view from the outside. By the time this recognition began to arrive, Mrs. Mandelstam was already in her sixties, her health extremely precarious and her means meager. Besides, for all the universality of that recognition, it did not include the fabled “one-sixth of the entire planet,” i.e., Russia itself. Behind her were already two decades of widowhood, utter deprivation, the Great (obliterating any personal loss) War, and the daily fear of being grabbed by the agents of state security as a wife of an enemy of the people. Short of death, anything that followed could only mean respite.

I met her for the first time precisely then, in the winter of 1962, in the city of Pskov, where together with a couple of friends I went to take a look at the local churches (the finest, in my view, in the empire). Having learned about our intentions to travel to that city, Anna Akhmatova suggested we visit Nadezhda Mandelstam, who was teaching English at the local pedagogical institute, and gave us several books for her. That was the first time I heard her name: I didn’t know that she existed.

She was living in a small communal apartment consisting of two rooms. The first room was occupied by a woman whose name, ironically enough, was Nietsvetaeva (literally: Non-Tsvetaeva), the second was Mrs. Mandelstam’s. It was eight square meters large, the size of an average American bathroom. Most of the space was taken up by a cast-iron twin-sized bed; there were also two wicker chairs, a wardrobe chest with a small mirror, and an all-purpose bedside table, on which sat plates with the left-overs of her supper and, next to the plates, an open paperback copy of The Hedgehog and the Fox, by Isaiah Berlin. The presence of this red-covered book in this tiny cell, and the fact that she didn’t hide it under the pillow at the sound of the doorbell, meant precisely this: the beginning of respite.

The book, as it turned out, was sent to her by Akhmatova, who for nearly half the century remained the closest friend of the Mandelstams: first of both of them, later of Nadezhda alone. Twice a widow herself (her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilev, was shot in 1921 by the Cheka—the maiden name of the KGB; the second, the art historian Nikolai Punin, died in a concentration camp belonging to the same establishment), Akhmatova helped Nadezhda Mandelstam in every way possible, and during the war years literally saved her life by smuggling Nadezhda into Tashkent, where some of the writers had been evacuated, and by sharing with her the daily rations. Even with her two husbands killed by the regime, with her son languishing in the camps (for about sixteen years, if I am not mistaken), Akhmatova was somewhat better off than Nadezhda Mandelstam, if only because she was recognized, however reluctantly, as a writer, and was allowed to live in Leningrad and Moscow. For the wife of an enemy of the people big cities were simply off limits.

For decades this woman was on the run, darting through the back waters and provincial towns of the big empire, settling down in a new place only to take off at the first sign of danger. The status of nonperson gradually became her second nature. She was a small woman, of slim build, and with the passage of years she shriveled more and more, as though trying to turn herself into something weightless, something easily pocketed in the moment of flight. Similarly, she had virtually no possessions; no furniture, no art objects, no library. The books, even foreign books, never stayed in her hands for long: after being read or glanced through they would be passed on to someone else—the way it ought to be with books. In the years of her utmost affluence, at the end of the Sixties and the beginning of the Seventies, the most expensive item in her one-room apartment in the outskirts of Moscow was a cuckoo clock on the kitchen wall. A thief would be disillusioned here; so would be those with an order for search.


In those “affluent” years following the publication in the West of her two volumes of memoirs* that kitchen became the place of veritable pilgrimages. Nearly every other night the best of what survived or came to life in the post-Stalin era in Russia gathered around the long wooden table which was ten times bigger than the bedstead in Pskov. It almost seemed that she was about to make up for decades of being a pariah. I doubt, though, that she did, and somehow I remember her better in that small room in Pskov, or sitting on the edge of a couch in Akhmatova’s apartment in Leningrad, where she would come from time to time illegally from Pskov, or emerging from the depth of the corridor in Shklovsky’s apartment in Moscow, where she perched before she got the place of her own. Perhaps I remember that more clearly because there she was more in her element as an outcast, a fugitive, “the beggar-friend,” as Osip Mandelstam calls her in one of his poems, and that is what she remained for the rest of her life.

There is something quite breathtaking in the realization that she wrote those two volumes of hers at the age of sixty-five. In the Mandelstam family Osip was the writer, she wasn’t. If she wrote anything before those volumes, it was letters to her friends or appeals to the Supreme Court. Nor is hers the case of someone reviewing a long and eventful life in the tranquillity of retirement. Because her sixty-five years were not exactly normal. It’s not for nothing that in the Soviet penal system there is a paragraph specifying that in certain camps a year of serving counts for three. By this token, the lives of many Russians in this century came to approximate in length those of Biblical patriarchs. With whom she had one more thing in common: devotion to justice.

Yet it wasn’t this devotion to justice alone that made her sit down at the age of sixty-five and use her time of respite for writing these books. What brought them into existence was a recapitulation, on the scale of one, of the same process that once before had taken place in the history of Russian literature. I have in mind the emergence of great Russian prose in the second half of the nineteenth century. That prose, which appears as though out of nowhere, as an effect without traceable cause, was in fact simply a spin-off of the nineteenth century’s Russian poetry. It set the tone for all subsequent writing in Russian, and the best work of Russian fiction can be regarded as a distant echo and meticulous elaboration of the psychological and lexical subtlety displayed by the Russian poetry of the first quarter of that century. “Most of Dostoevsky’s characters,” Anna Akhmatova used to say, “are aged Pushkin heroes, Onegins and so forth.”

Poetry always precedes prose, and so it did in the life of Nadezhda Mandelstam, and in more ways than one. As a writer, as well as a person, she is a creation of two poets with whom her life was linked inexorably: Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova. And not only because the first was her husband and the second her lifelong friend. After all, forty years of widowhood could dim the happiest memories (and in the case of this marriage they were few and far between, if only because this marriage coincided with the economic devastation of the country, caused by revolution, civil war, and the first five-year plans). Similarly, there were years when she wouldn’t see Akhmatova at all, and a letter would be the last thing to confide to. Paper, in general, was dangerous. What strengthened the bond of that marriage as well as of that friendship was a technicality: the necessity to commit to memory what could not be committed to paper, i.e., the poems of both authors.

In doing so in that “pre-Gutenberg epoch,” in Akhmatova’s words, Nadezhda Mandelstam certainly wasn’t alone. However, repeating day and night the words of her dead husband was undoubtedly connected not only with comprehending them more and more but also with resurrecting his very voice, the intonations peculiar only to him, with a however fleeting sensation of his presence, with the realization that he kept his part of that “for better or for worse” deal, especially its second half. The same went for the poems of the physically often absent Akhmatova, for once set in motion this mechanism of memorization won’t come to a halt. The same went for other authors, for certain ideas, for ethical principles—for everything that couldn’t survive otherwise.


And gradually those things grew on her. If there is any substitute for love, it’s memory. To memorize, then, is to restore intimacy. Gradually the lines of those poets became her mentality, became her identity. They supplied her not only with the plane of regard or angle of vision; more important, they became her linguistic norm. So when she set out to write her books, she was bound to gauge—by that time already unwittingly, instinctively—her sentences against theirs. The clarity and remorselessness of her pages, while reflecting the character of her mind, are also inevitable stylistic consequences of the poetry that had shaped that mind. Both in their content and style, her books are but a postscript to the supreme version of language which poetry essentially is and which became her flesh through learning her husband’s lines by heart.

To borrow W.H. Auden’s phrase, great poetry “hurt” her into prose. It really did, because those two poets’ heritage could be developed or elaborated upon only by prose. In poetry they could be followed only by epigones. Which has happened. In other words, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s prose was the only available medium for the language itself to avoid stagnation. Similarly, it was the only medium available for the psyche formed by that poets’ use of language. Her books, thus, were not so much memoirs and guides to the lives of two great poets, however superbly they performed these functions; these books elucidated the consciousness of the nation. Of the part of it, at least, that could get a copy.

Small wonder, then, that this elucidation results in an indictment of the system. These two volumes by Mrs. Mandelstam indeed amount to a Day of Judgment on earth for her age and for its literature—a judgment administered all the more rightfully since it was this age that had undertaken the construction of earthly paradise. A lesser wonder, too, that these memoirs, the second volume especially, were not liked on either side of the Kremlin Wall. The authorities, I must say, were more honest in their reaction than the intelligentsia: they simply made possession of these books an offense punishable by law. As for the intelligentsia, especially in Moscow, it went into actual turmoil over Nadezhda Mandelstam’s charges against many of its illustrious and not so illustrious members of virtual complicity with the regime, and the human flood in her kitchen significantly ebbed.

There were open and semi-open letters, indignant resolutions not to shake hands, friendships and marriages collapsing over whether she was right or wrong to consider this or that person an informer. A prominent dissident declared, shaking his beard: “She shat over our entire generation”; others would rush to their dachas and lock themselves up there, to tap out antimemoirs. This was already the beginning of the Seventies, and some six years later these same people would become equally split over Solzhenitsyn’s attitudes toward the Jews.

There is something in the consciousness of literati that cannot stand the notion of someone’s moral authority. They resign themselves to the existence of a First Party Secretary, or of a Führer, as to a necessary evil, but they would eagerly question a prophet. This is so, presumably, because being told that you are a slave is less disheartening news than being told that morally you are a zero. After all, a fallen dog shouldn’t be kicked. However, a prophet kicks the fallen dog not to finish it off but to get it back on its feet. The resistance to those kicks, the questioning of a writer’s assertions and charges, comes not from the desire for truth but from the intellectual smugness of slavery. All the worse, then, for the literati when the authority is not only moral but also cultural—as it was in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s case.

I’d like to venture here one step further. By itself reality per se isn’t worth a damn. It’s perception that promotes reality to meaning. And there is a hierarchy among perceptions (and, correspondingly, among meanings), with the ones acquired through the most refined and sensitive prisms sitting at the top. Refinement and sensitivity are imparted to such a prism by the only source of their supply: by culture, by civilization, whose main tool is language. The evaluation of reality made through such a prism—the acquisition of which is one goal of the species—is therefore the most accurate, perhaps even the most just. (Cries of “Unfair!” and “Elitist!” that may follow the aforesaid from, of all places, the local campuses must be left unheeded, for culture is “elitist” by definition, and the application of democratic principles in the sphere of knowledge leads to equating wisdom with idiocy.)

It’s the possession of this prism supplied to her by the best Russian poetry of the twentieth century, and not the uniqueness of the size of her grief, that makes Nadezhda Mandelstam’s statement about her piece of reality unchallengeable. It’s an abominable fallacy that suffering makes for greater art. Suffering blinds, deafens, ruins, and often kills. Osip Mandelstam was a great poet before the revolution. So was Anna Akhmatova, so was Marina Tsvetaeva. They would have become what they became even if none of the historical events that befell Russia in this century had taken place: because they were gifted. Basically, talent doesn’t need history.

Would Nadezhda Mandelstam have become what she became had it not been for the revolution and all the rest that followed? Probably not, for she met her future husband in 1919. But the question itself is immaterial; it leads us into the murky domains of the law of probability and of historical determinism. After all, she became what she became not because of what took place in Russia in this century but rather in spite of it. A casuist’s finger will surely point out that from the point of view of historical determinism “in spite of” is synonymous with “because.” So much then for historical determinism, if it gets so mindful about the semantics of some human “in spite of.”

For a good reason, though. For a frail woman of sixty-five turns out to be capable of slowing down, if not averting in the long run, the cultural disintegration of a whole nation. Her memoirs are something more than a testimony of her times; it’s the view of history in the light of conscience and culture. In that light history winces, and an individual realizes his choice: between seeking that light’s source and committing an anthropological crime against himself.

She didn’t mean to be so grand, nor did she simply try to get even with the system. For her it was a private matter, a matter of her temperament, of her identity and what had shaped that identity. As it were, her identity had been shaped by culture, by its best products: her husband’s poems. It’s them, not his memory, that she was trying to keep alive. It’s to them, and not to him, in the course of forty-two years that she became a widow. Of course she loved him, but love itself is the most elitist of passions. It acquires its stereoscopic substance and perspective only in the context of culture, for it takes up more place in the mind than it does in the bed. Outside of that setting it falls flat into one-dimensional friction. She was a widow to culture, and I think she loved her husband more at the end than on the day they got married. That is probably why readers of her books find them so haunting. Because of that, and because the status of the modern world vis-à-vis civilization also can be defined as widowhood.

If she lacked anything, it was humility. In that respect she was quite unlike her two poets. But then they had their art, and the quality of their achievements provided them with enough contentment to be, or to pretend to be, humble. She was terribly opinionated, categorical, cranky, disagreeable, idiosyncratic; many of her ideas were half-baked or developed on the basis of hearsay. In short, there was a great deal of one-upwomanship in her, which is not surprising given the size of the figures she was reckoning with in reality and later in imagination. In the end, her intolerance drove a lot of people away, but that was quite all right with her, because she was getting tired of adulation, of being liked by Robert McNamara and Willy Fisher (the real name of Colonel Rudolph Abel). All she wanted was to die in her bed, and, in a way, she looked forward to dying, because “up there I’ll be again with Osip.” “No,” replied Akhmatova, upon hearing this. “You’ve got it all wrong. Up there it’s now me who is going to be with Osip.”

Her wish came true, and she has died in her bed. Not a small thing for a Russian of her generation. There undoubtedly will surface those who will cry that she misunderstood her epoch, that she lagged behind the train of history running into the future. Well, like nearly every other Russian of her generation, she learned only too well that that train running into the future stops at the concentration camp or at the gas chamber. She was lucky that she missed it, and we are lucky that she told us about its route. I saw her last on May 30, 1972, in that kitchen of hers, in Moscow. It was late afternoon, and she sat, smoking, in the corner, in the deep shadow cast by the tall cupboard onto the wall. The shadow was so deep that the only things one could make out were the faint flicker of her cigarette and the two piercing eyes. The rest—her smallish shrunken body under the shawl, her hands, the oval of her ashen face, her gray, ashlike hair—all were consumed by the dark. She looked like a remnant of a huge fire, like a small ember that burns if you touch it.

This Issue

March 5, 1981