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A Victim Speaks: Hope Against Hope (Nadezhda Mandelstam)

October 6, 2011

We don’t want to believe that history can turn so viciously against decent people.

I got something of the same feeling from this book as I did from Primo Levi’s If This is a Man. In my book My Reading Life I commended Levi’s as the greatest book of the last century because of the power of the testimony against twentieth century totalitarianism. As with this book. Mandelstam’s is an account of how a couple experienced the Marxist tyranny in Russia in the 20s and 30s. The wife survived, to write this book published in 1970; her husband died in a camp.

The life of Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s most eminent poets, was snuffed out because of a poem. He anticipated this when he famously said, “Poetry is respected only in this country – people are killed for it. There’s no place where more people are killed for it.”

His offending poem was one he composed in his head and recited to a group of friends. He never wrote it down. It was a poem about Stalin:

All we hear is the Kremlin mountaineer
The murderer and peasant slayer

His fingers are thick as slugs,
The words fall from his lips, final as dead weights…
His cockroach whiskers leer,
His boot tops gleam…

Russian society in the 20s and 30s was permeated with informers. They were among friends and colleagues. One might be the religious pilgrim who knocked on the door and asked to say a night in your tiny apartment, or your electrician, or students who pretended to be devoted to your writing. As Nadezhda writes in this memoir:

We lived among people who vanished into exile, labor camps or the other world, and also among those who sent them there.… [T]here was no point in trying to pick out informers, because we knew that everybody “wrote.”

That is, wrote for the secret police.

Osip Mandelstam

The book starts with their little flat being raided by secret police. They searched all the papers – looking for the poem about Stalin. It had not been committed to paper. Still, Osip was arrested and sent into exile with his wife. A lot of the book is devoted to describing what exile means. Very largely it meant scraping together a life in a remote and impoverished town, begging for accommodation in a back room or a flea-infested boarding house, seeing starving peasants sleeping in the streets because collectivisation had uprooted vast hordes of people and these peasants were roaming the country, desperately searching for somewhere to live and still sighing for their boarded-up huts.

The sheer wickedness of Maxism-Leninism crackles on the page.

There are pen portraits of other writers, pre-eminently their devoted friend Anna Akhmatova – whose flat in Petersburg I visited last month ( see below ). She was sitting with them in their Moscow flat when Osip was arrested. Nadezhda describes how some of their friends decided to accept the tyranny. They rationalized that the revolution was not going to go away, it was doing terrible things, but the rest of the world was going to follow Russia. This was, after all, the new order. Besides, it might get better. No, said Osip, this crew are only getting “warmed-up.” He was right: the Great Terror was soon to be unleashed.

Their circle of friends included Bukharin, one of the Bolshevik leaders now on a downward path because of the hostility of Stalin. He had been demoted to being editor of Izvestia:

Bukharin’s path was quite different. He clearly saw that the new world he was so actively helping to build was horrifyingly unlike the original concept. Life was deviating from the blueprints, but the blueprints had been declared sacrosanct and it was forbidden to compare them with what was actually coming into being. Determinist theory had naturally given birth to unheard-of practitioners who boldly outlawed any study of real life: Why undermine the system and sow unnecessary doubt if history was in any case speeding us to the appointed destination? When the high priests are bound together by such a bond, renegades can expect no mercy. Bukharin was not a renegade, but he already felt how inevitable it was that he would be cast into the pit because of his doubts and the bitter need which one day would drive him to speak out and call things by their real name. [My emphasis]

There are incidental reminders of what Stalin’s tyranny involved. The small encounters, as in the Primo Levi book. Here is one example. In exile and confined to a hospital, Nadezhda spoke to nurse called Niura. Her husband had worked at a flour mill. Once he had brought home a handful of grain for his hungry family. He’d been sentenced to five years. Meanwhile the nurses in this hospital greedily ate anything the typhus and dysentery patients left on their plates. They were always talking about their misfortunes and poverty. A nugget of information like that about life under Stalin reminds us of two things about this Marxist state: one, it impoverished, it did not lift people up economically despite the myths. And second, it was, as Martin Amis noted in his book Koba the Dread, built on systemic failure. The system didn’t work. Not even at the most basic tasks of producing and distributing food.

Nadezhda Mandelstam

It’s a story that points to the bigger revelations of Alexander Solzhenitsyn that appeared in The Gulag Archipelago written between 1958 and 1968 and published in 1973. In the 30s evidence of collectivisation was seeping into the cities. Don’t forget Stalin, in Osip’s poem, was cast as “the peasant slayer.” It was a society where the beneficiaries of the regime – those who had the big flats and the special rations – could believe it would last a thousand years. But as Mandelstam reminds us, the rest “just sighed and whispered among ourselves, voices going unheard.” As Mandelstam said in his fatal poem, “Ten steps away no one hears our speeches.”

The true believers had inflicted the horrors:

The true believers were not only sure of their own triumph, they also thought they were bringing happiness to the rest of mankind as well, and their view of the world had such a sweeping, unitary quality that it was very seductive. In the pre-revolutionary era there had already been this craving for an all-embracing idea which would explain everything in the world and bring about universal harmony at one go. That is why people so willingly closed their eyes and followed their leader, not allowing themselves to compare words with deeds, or to weigh the consequences of their actions. This explained the progressive loss of a sense of reality – which had to be regained before there could be any question of discovering what had been wrong with the theory in the first place. It will still be a long time before we are able to add up what this mistaken theory cost us, and hence to determine whether there was any thought in the line “the earth was worth ten heavens to us.” But, having paid the price of ten heavens, did we really inherit the earth? [My emphasis]

I highly recommend this book largely because it gives us the grimy day-in-day-out reality of life under Stalin.

After the exile Osip Mandelstam was arrested in the Great Purges and died in a labour camp in 1937, just as he had expected.

Why did a poet have to be murdered? Mandelstam puts it well. Simply because of an idea. So much for the Marxist notion that the prime mover of history is economics. In fact, ideas shape the minds of generations, win adherents and impose themselves on the consciousness, and these ideas form new forms of government and society, rising triumphantly and then slowly dying away and disappearing.

I would be grateful if every believing Marxist would ponder her argument:

The idea in question was that there is an irrefutable scientific truth by means of which, once they are possessed of it, people can foresee the future, change the course of history at will and make it rational.

For this idée fixe millions had to die. A few survived to tell their stories and we are in their debt.

3 Comments
  1. Tom Round permalink
    October 7, 2011 11:55 am

    And yet the people who admired Stalin and thought he represented progress for the human race are, it seems, the heroes of Australia’s 1951 referendum struggle. Go figure…

    • Bob Carr permalink
      October 9, 2011 8:29 pm

      No, the local comms did not defeat the 1951 referendum. They were a despised and tiny minority who could barely keep their deposit at an election. It was defeated because sufficient swinging voters were wary of the dictatorial powers implied in the proposal. Even Liberal voters like John Howard’s mother ( his father voted for it ). Communist Party campaigning against the proposal would have been seen by the broader electorate as self-interested. Their propaganda was heavy-handed, class warfare rhetoric that wouldn’t have swung a vote.

      • Tom Round permalink
        October 12, 2011 1:44 pm

        I didn’t word that very clearly. My impression is that, in general, today’s students regard Menzies’ proposed ban on Communism not as a heavy-handed and easily-abusable over-reaction to a real threat, but as something completely beaten-up out of nothing. Two decades years after the Berlin Wall came down, the prevailing impression seems to be that Stalin was a sort of Putin and that Cold War was nothing more than US/ Russian imperial power politics. Stories like Mandelstam’s remind us that there was no moral equivalence between the two sides and that whatever credit the local Communists deserve for opposing racial discrimination at home is outweighed by their adulation of the Soviet regime. Between Bull Connor or Lord Vestey and Josef Stalin, there is no comparison.

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