Osip Mandelstam was one of the most original and powerful Russian poets of the pre-revolutionary and revolutionary period, who might have left an even deeper mark on modern Soviet literature if in the last years of his life he had not been cruelly hounded by Stalin and driven to death, at the age of 47, in the frozen wastes of the Siberian Far North. footnote＊ Nadezhda Mandelstam, his devoted companion from 1919 till his death in 1938, survived him, the worst Stalinist times and the War by sheer chance, a whim of fate helped by that instinct of self-preservation which was so visibly sapped and drained away in her husband. She was younger and tougher too. From 1938 till 1964, the year when she was finally allowed to return to Moscow, she taught English in a number of schools. She had to move from one provincial town to another, because though some of these places might have been god-forsaken, they were not forsaken by the political police who made life too dangerous for her.
At the age of 57 as Head of Department of the Chuvash Teachers’ Training College
she did her doctorate in English philology. About the same time, in 1956, she was summoned to the Prosecutor’s office to be told that her husband has been cleared of the charges of ‘c.r.a.’ (counter-revolutionary activity) under which he had been deported to his death. But this was only a half-hearted half-‘rehabilitation’; as a writer Mandelstam remained an ‘unperson’ and the volume of his poems promised in the first flash of de-Stalinization has not appeared so far. This, however, is perhaps less important than we might think. Mandelstam’s life-long friend, the late Anna Akhmatova remarked that Osip ‘does not need Gutenberg’s invention’. ‘In a sense’, confirms the author of the Memoir, ‘we really do live in a pre-Gutenberg era: more and more people read poetry in the manuscript copies that circulate all over the country.’ Moreover, six years ago students of the Mechanical Mathematics Department of Moscow University organ
Nadezhda Mandelstam says little about her own early life. From Clarence Brown’s Introduction we learn that she was born in 1899 and spent her entire youth in Kiev in the home of Jewish professional parents whom she describes as ‘nice, highly educated people’. She and her family ‘travelled widely, nonchalantly, naturally’, says Brown, as the handful of those who could afford it at the time did. Her education was that of a jeune fille comme il faut: she studied art, became acquainted with European centres of art and culture; the knowledge of foreign languages which she acquired in childhood from resident governesses (‘parson’s daughters’ she calls them) stood her in good stead later on, when translations provided the only means of livelihood for the declassé intelligentsia. As a young girl she moved on the fringes of artistic and literary circles and she met Mandelstam, eight years her senior, at the age of 20. There is a tinge of bitter symbolism in the fact that their first meeting like their final separation, 19 years later, took place on May 1st.
Osip Mandelstam was ‘picked up’ by the security police for the first time in May 1934. Nearly four years later he was lured into a rest home not far from Moscow, where he was ostensibly well looked after, as if the order given by Stalin previously to isolate, but to preserve him were still valid. True, some ‘rustling of grass’ and ‘shadows of the clouds’ stirred his fear. The forebodings were justified: the peaceful country villa was used as a trap. On May Day, 1938, Mandelstam was taken to Butyrki prison and then dispatched to the Far North. His wife saw him for the last time as he was brutally ‘pushed from behind by two soldiers’ towards the Black Maria waiting outside the ‘home’. Some months later all she could do for him was to send him a parcel. But the parcel was returned to her with a note ‘Addressee dead’. A formal certificate issued much later stated that Mandelstam died on December 27th, 1938 of ‘heart failure’. His death occurred, as far as one can ascertain, in some transit camp, probably in Vladivostok, and so he was mercifully spared all the torments of Kolyma.
The immediate reason for Mandelstam’s first arrest was his poem about Stalin—never written down, but recited widely by all and sundry and known quite well to the interrogators of the political police. In the poem he speaks about the ‘broad-chested Ossete’ for whom ‘every killing is a treat’, about the ‘Kremlin mountaineer—the murderer and peasant slayer’:
His fingers are fat as grubs
And the words, final as lead weights, fall from his lips,
His cockroach whiskers leer
And his boot tops gleam.
However, in that particular case Stalin’s words could not have been as heavy ‘as lead’ because a miracle happened, the first of several: ‘as a supreme act of clemency from the very highest level’, the ‘supreme authority’ ordered his underlings not to proceed with the case but only to ‘isolate and preserve’ the accused. In the end, Mandelstam, together with his wife, was sent to Cherdyn (on the Pechora river, some 200 miles north of Perm). Very soon afterwards they were allowed to settle in any except the 12 major cities which were out of bounds for them for the next three years. They chose Voronezh and the neighbouring countryside. To Moscow they were not to return until 1937.