The Mandelstams

January 15: On this day in 1891 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was born. While by no means the only writer victimized by Stalin's Reign of Terror, Mandelstam has become a symbol of all those so destroyed. This is partly due to his poetry—most rank him among the best 20th-century poets—and partly due to his wife, who salvaged many of Mandelstam's banned poems by either memorizing them or collecting them in manuscript form. Nadezhda Mandelstam also chillingly and movingly documented her husband's death and times in her memoir, Hope Against Hope.

 

Brought up in St. Petersburg in a cultured, outward-looking way, Mandelstam did not react well to Stalin's narrow-mindedness and boot-kick politics. Though his poems can be allusive and complex, it was easy enough to understand this 1933 portrait of "the wild man in the Kremlin, / Slayer of peasants and soul-strangling gremlin":

Each thick finger of his is as fat as a worm,

to his ten-ton words we all have to listen.

His cockroach whiskers flicker and squirm

and his shining thigh-boots shimmer and glisten.

Mandelstam was arrested about seven months later. His next four, nightmare years—interrogation, imprisonment, exile, release, re-imprisonment, final disappearance—are documented in his wife's book. Hope Against Hope has moments of black humor, such as the story of one party official so swamped by his tattle-taling system that he had to announce a ban on unsigned denunciations, but mostly it is compulsive, let-this-not-happen reading, full of iron love for a husband and, from first door-knock to last rubber-stamp, contempt for a system:

The issue of a death certificate was not the rule but the exception. To all intents and purposes, as far as his civil status was concerned, a person could be considered dead from the moment he was sent to a camp, or, indeed, from the moment of his arrest, which was automatically followed by his conviction and sentence to imprisonment in a camp. This meant he vanished so completely that it was tantamount to physical death. Nobody bothered to tell a man's relatives when he died in camp or prison: you regarded yourself as a widow or orphan from the moment of his arrest. When a woman was told in the Prosecutor's office that her husband had been given ten years, the official sometimes added: "You can remarry." Nobody ever raised the awkward question as to how this gracious "permission" to remarry could be squared with the official sentence....


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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