Jane Russell, in an essay dedicated to Shirlene de Silva who introduced her to the Mandelstam’s writings …. an essay writen on 1 March 2022 with the title “Ukraine and its place in 20th century Russian literature: Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam”
Osip Emilievich Mandelstam, the genius Russian-Jewish poet murdered by Stalin, met his Jewish wife, Nadezhda Yakovlevna, in a nightclub in Kyiv when both were in their twenties. It was 1919, the second year of the Soviet revolution, which was finally getting going after the 1st World War.
Both came from highly educated, middle class professional families: Nadezhda’s mother was a doctor, her father a lawyer in Kyiv. Mandelstam’s family were wealthy enough to send him to the Tenishev school in St Petersburg where the elite educated their sons. His mother was a noted music teacher.
Mandelstam had ended up in Kyiv when he was just wandering around, having travelled through Europe to the Mediterranean. He had also adopted Lutheranism for political reasons while in Finland on his way back to Russia. Neither he nor Nadezhda came from families that practised any religion. They fell in love and, in the free spirit of the age, got engaged within a few weeks. Nadezhda was then a student at Kyiv University: she’d been having a fling with a wealthy young man with access to a biplane the week she met Osip. The couple lived together in Kyiv before finally marrying in 1921. Mandelstam was already a published poet, part of the Acmeist movement centred on Nikolay Gumilev, the first husband of celebrated poet Anna Akhmatova. Marina Tsvetaeva was also in the group
Wounds on his face are from a beating by the Cheka, the forerunner of the KGB.
Gumilev died by a Soviet firing squad in 1921. After that the Acmeists were under suspicion and likely to be arrested and exiled at any moment. Soon the newly married Mandelstam’s found themselves swept up in a political vortex, first in the civil war between’ whites’ and ‘reds’, and then in the years of privation following the total restructuring of society under Soviet leadership. They spent time in the Crimea on the Black Sea, and at Odessa in Ukraine. Nadezhda became a language and literature teacher: Mandelstam wrote children’s books and made translations from classic German and French texts for Soviet publishing houses. They lived a peripatetic life, first in St. Petersburg, renamed Petrograd, later Leningrad; then in Moscow, before returning to Ukraine, to Stary Krym, during the great famine of 1932/33.
Although finding it increasingly difficult to get his poetry published after Gumilev’s death, Mandelstam did manage to publish four slim books of poetry before his first arrest in 1934. Friends managed to dilute the charges against him and he was exiled for some years to Voronezh, a city in the Steppes, the great plain of central Russia. But in 1938, he was accused of the most serious charge of ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ as part of Stalin’s second great purge and sentenced to five years hard-labour in a Siberian gulag. By then, he’d already had several heart attacks and a severe nervous breakdown, brought on by the stress of trying to be a writer of ‘truth to power’ under Stalin’s regime. He wasn’t allowed any medicine, so he quickly succumbed to the severe conditions in Siberia and died. He was forty-seven years old. The main reason for his harsh sentence was the Stalin Epigram, a poem written in 1934, but not published in Russia until the 1970’s. Mandelstam read this poem only to a few friends, but an informer got wind of it and a copy was found by the authorities.
Our lives no longer feel the ground under them.
At ten paces you can’t hear our words.
But whenever there’s a snatch of talk
It turns to the Kremlin mountaineer,
the ten thick worms his fingers,
his words like measures of weight,
the huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip,
the glitter of his boot-rims.
Ringed with a scum of chicken-necked bosses,
he toys with the tributes of half-men.
One whistles, another meouws, a third snivels.
He pokes out his finger and he alone goes “Boom!”.
He forges decrees in a line like horseshoes.
One for the groin, one the forehead, temple, eye.
He rolls the executions on his tongue like berries.
He wishes he could hug them like big friends from home
Nadezhda stayed with Osip throughout their journeyings and lived with him in exile in the Steppes. After his death, she was sent by Soviet authorities, as a punishment, to teach at a school in the far east of the USSR. But she wrote a memoir of her life with Osip and her hopes after his final arrest that he might survive the gulag. It was called “Hope Against Hope” (published in English in 1970) and has become one of the great memoirs of the 20th century. The sequel “Hope Abandoned” (1974) about her own life after Osip’s death is an indictment of the horror of life under Stalin and his autocratic successors.
Nadezhda died in 1980, having survived all her persecutors. She lived long enough to see her memoirs published in Russia and abroad and her husband’s reputation established as one of Russia’s, and Europe’s, great poets.
Jane Russell, Camberwell, London, 01/03/2022
The fence at the old Gulag camp in Perm-36, founded in 1943