Features March 2018
Soviet fate, Russian hope
On Nadezhda Mandelstam’s literary achievements.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the centenary of the Russian Revolution was greeted in many quarters with what William Doino Jr. described in First Things as “a mix of romantic myth and Orwellian revisionism” (“Mourning the Russian Revolution,” February 27, 2017). Consider, for example, the calculated sentimentalism of The New York Times’s “Red Century” series, advertised as “exploring the history and legacy of communism.” One now-infamous article in the series, “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism,” used the poorly sourced claim that women in countries like East Germany and Bulgaria enjoyed more sexual pleasure before the fall of the Iron Curtain to promote the genuinely obscene notion that “women had more fulfilling lives during the Communist era.” The author interviewed two nostalgic older ladies, but was unable to speak to the millions of women and girls whose lives were destroyed by forced relocation and imprisonment during Stalin’s “dekulakization,” or those who died of starvation and disease during his Five-Year Plans, or who saw their husbands and sons, fathers and brothers executed or shipped off to the Gulag during the Great Terror, and often followed them to the same fate. That the paper of record could print such mendacious rubbish is a telling symptom of the ideological sickness of our times.
The widespread collapse of journalistic standards in the United States is part of a general and rapid deterioration of thought, language, and, above all, cultural and historical memory. Like the Bolsheviks, our iconoclastic age increasingly despises the past and scorns its accumulated insight and experience. Although we need look no further than the last century, we seem largely to have forgotten what a stunted and bitter harvest of ignorance and ill will must be reaped by a civilization that ceases to plough the rich loam bequeathed by its ancestors—to educate itself in the most basic sense. Today one must seriously ask whether some new and strange permutation of the Soviet fate, nourished by a volatile mixture of social and political fragmentation and increasingly converging technologies of surveillance and political manipulation, might be gestating in the dark womb of our age.
We must recall the damage inflicted by Communism on the souls of human beings.
Now more than ever, we must recall the damage inflicted by Communism on the souls of human beings, and on the institutions that cultivate virtue and provide meaning in human life. No one better understood the origins of totalitarianism, or was more able to reckon its human cost, than the great Russian writers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. They have something important to teach us about the multiple threats we now confront. In their writings, moreover, we may hope to find—even in the worst case—a precious measure of individual salvation.
Reading the Russians can feel like being slapped in the face. Dostoyevsky, for one, repeatedly smacks his readers with astonishing prophecies of ideological terror and social insanity (see especially Demons). Disoriented and sickened by an intellectual cocktail of Romanticism, Hegelian philosophy of history, and utopian socialism, Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov authors an article asserting that human beings are divided into two basic categories. The multitude is fit only to reproduce itself and obey; the creative and transgressive few “have the gift or talent of speaking a new word in their environment.” The former class merely preserves the world; the latter “moves the world and leads it towards a goal.” These movers and leaders of the spirit are all criminals and destroyers of the present, inasmuch as they violate the old law, sanctified by time and usage, for the sake of their “new law” and word. Raskolnikov’s argument that the elite few nevertheless have the right to “step over blood” in the pursuit of “the New Jerusalem” rationalizes his own violent crimes in a way that eerily anticipates the exponentially greater ones of the Soviet Union more than half a century later. “It’s good that you only killed a little old woman,” the detective Porfiry Petrovich tells him. “If you’d come up with a different theory, you might have done something a hundred million times more hideous!” In The Black Book of Communism, the historian Stéphane Courtois and his co-authors estimate that the ussr, China, and supernumerary Marxist regimes around the world collectively killed ninety-four million people within their own borders between 1917 and 1997. Not for nothing was Dostoyevsky banned under the Soviets.
Dostoyevsky’s dark prophecies are amply confirmed in Hope Against Hope (1970), Nadezhda Mandelstam’s dry-eyed memoir of the persecution and death of her husband, the poet Osip Mandelstam, in the time of Stalin. Originally an aspiring painter, Nadezhda brings an outsider’s perspective to the innermost circles of literary art. The Mandelstams seem to have known all of the major Russian writers of the 1920s and 1930s, including Isaac Babel and Mikhail Bulgakov; Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak, and Ilya Ehrenburg were lifelong friends. Through the 1920s, they also had an ally in the Politburo. When Soviet editors refused to publish Osip, he and Nadezhda were given crucial material aid by Nikolai Bukharin, who was shot after being condemned in the last Show Trial of 1938—the same year Osip died in the Gulag.
Written in lean prose that makes no excuses for anyone—least of all its author—Hope Against Hope is an invaluable account of the collapse of intellectual life and the terror and bleakness of everyday existence at the height of ideological tyranny. It is in these respects comparable only to Vasily Grossman’s novel Life and Fate, which centers on the Battle of Stalingrad and the experiences of a nuclear physicist and his family and friends. More, it is a morally incandescent epic: the story of a poet doomed by his absolute refusal to let his tongue be cut out, and of his wife’s heroic dedication to the preservation, in the face of isolation, poverty, and official anti-Semitism, of verse that she carried for decades only in her memory.
Hope Against Hope’s opening words could only have been written by a Russian: “After slapping Alexei Tolstoi in the face, M. immediately returned to Moscow.” Although the man had it coming, Osip did not strike just anyone. Known as the Red Count, Tolstoi was both a reliable servant of the new law and word and a decayed epigone of the old: a potent emblem of a broken age. In 1932, two years before Mandelstam’s incautious retribution, he had presided over a writer’s court that, following “orders,” failed to punish a novelist named Borogin who had violently assaulted Nadezhda. (Borogin had been assigned to spy and produce reports on the Mandelstams, a practice so widespread among the intelligentsia that it came to be known simply as “to write.”) The Red Count was also a blood relation of Leo Tolstoi and Ivan Turgenev. A literary and political hack, Alexei epitomizes in Hope Against Hope the moral and intellectual collapse of a great culture, and the actual indistinguishability, in the ussr, of Raskolnikov’s two classes. His is the hot red face of stunted, selfish, indignant Soviet Man (and Woman): the innumerable poseurs and squinting tools who comprised the great elite mass of the totalitarian State, and who were themselves fed wholesale to the Gulag. The essential question raised by Hope Against Hope and its sequel, Hope Abandoned (1974), is whether the Mandelstams’ story of moral struggle against the tremendous weight of an ideologically volatilized social totality is not a prophecy for this century, as Dostoyevsky’s novels were for the last.
Honesty was nowhere to be found.
Grossman’s Life and Fate vividly conveys the fear and paranoia of life under Stalin. When a character dares to speak freely in the presence of a presumed friend, momentary exhilaration is inevitably followed by abject fear of denunciation. In one scene, a commissar visits a Soviet outpost in Stalingrad that is surrounded by Germans, and is scandalized to find the soldiers who hold the building showing open contempt for him. He resolves to write up their commander, but the entire outpost is wiped out before the report can be filed. These soldiers, the freest people in the City of Stalin, had dropped their political masquerade only because they were facing imminent death.
How did things come to such a pass? Nadezhda Mandelstam sheds light on the matter in Hope Against Hope, and especially in the more expansive and desultory reflections of Hope Abandoned. “The basic error of our times,” she writes, was the replacement of “the idea of popular education . . . by the political concept of indoctrination.” (“What do the people need to be indoctrinated for? What satanic arrogance you need to impose your own views like this!”) The “accumulated riches” of culture and tradition were deliberately spurned and forgotten, and the “religion” of “progressive” ideology—“the idea . . . that people can foresee the future, change the course of history and make it rational”—was speciously elevated to the rank of science. Conversely, actual sciences like biology and linguistics—to say nothing of softer disciplines like history and sociology—were infected with ideology; dedicated scholars who refused to embrace crackpot theories lost their careers and sometimes their lives. A “language of state” came into being; words shifted in meaning, and fundamental distinctions were effaced. This new, debased, and coarsened speech was diligently policed for doctrinal correctness. “Coldly calculated versification,” promoting officially approved lessons and attitudes, replaced “true poetry.” The “older generation . . . provoked the scorn of the young,” students regularly denounced their professors, and unguarded humor could send one to the camps. Political technicians treated people only as members of the “classes” and “sub-groups” into which they divided the population. Those arrested and executed or sent to the camps were wiped from memory; any close relatives who managed to escape the same fate were evicted from their apartments, denied employment, and closely monitored by State functionaries. Honesty was nowhere to be found, cryptic communication was assiduously cultivated, and lying and self-deception were ubiquitous. “Like the builders of the Tower of Babel,” people began “to speak in different tongues.” Inevitably, the society as a whole was afflicted by “a progressive loss of a sense of reality.”
Although we do not live in anything like the ussr, all of this has begun to feel weirdly and depressingly familiar. In the United States, public schools and the media, as well as the wider spheres of culture and commerce, have become theaters for the contentious enactment of identity politics, which crudely subsumes individuals into broad and largely arbitrary categories. Writers and artists who allow their imaginations to roam too widely are publicly shamed by people who have forgotten that “cultural appropriation,” understood as the internalization of the best that has been thought, composed, and created, is the heart and soul of education. The threat of denunciation by politically correct “flash mobs” hatched in cyberspace has produced an atmosphere of genuine paranoia: how else to explain the removal of all books with the word “Negro” in the title from the library at the public school where my wife teaches? Entire academic disciplines in the humanities and social sciences have become little more than centers of progressivist propaganda, peddling neo-Marxist theories of race, sex, class, and culture. Undergraduates picket courses in Western civilization on the grounds that the great books inculcate “institutional racism” and “colonialism.” Many professors and students now behave more like policemen than teachers and learners, monitoring their classes for “micro-aggressions” and unchecked “privilege.” The rest, mindful of the anonymous online bias reporting systems that are now an inescapable feature of the landscape of higher education, have learned to bite their tongues for the sake of self-preservation. If Nadezhda is right that “any era should be judged by the degree to which it is possible to exercise the basic human right of professing one’s faith and speaking one’s mind,” we are doing poorly indeed.
Nor is this social decay confined to the domains of education and culture. As Angela Nagle has recently documented in Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, social media, to which the young in particular are cripplingly addicted, is an incubator of radicalism. Politics today, Nagle observes, is downstream of culture, and culture is downstream of the internet; spillover from the virtual reality of chatrooms is inevitable. Violent extremists have taken to settling ideological disputes through street fighting, rioting, and the criminal destruction of monuments and other public property. At its worst, as at Charlottesville, the situation is reminiscent of the battles between communists and fascists in Weimar Germany, as well as the civil war that raged for four years after the Russian Revolution. In both cases, widespread social chaos produced what Nadezhda describes as a general “craving for an iron hand” that was soon satisfied in spades.
Our situation is reminiscent of the battles between communists and fascists in Weimar Germany.
Nadezhda regarded the Soviet Union as an acute case of what she saw as the chronic sickness of the West: the loss of collective memory, “the one feature that distinguishes us as human beings.” A passage in Hope Abandoned sounds a particularly timely warning:
Nothing can be predicted with certainty: people could even forget how to read altogether and books molder away to dust. We might even stop talking with each other and communicate only by emitting call signs or bloodcurdling war cries. Sometimes I think this is what we are coming to. We did, after all, learn to speak in a lying code language designed to conceal our real thoughts. One’s descendants pay for such things by losing the power of articulate speech altogether, caterwauling instead like fans at a football game.
These words anticipate developments that seem to be currently unfolding before our eyes. How are we to weather a future in which reasonable speech and inarticulate violence are hopelessly confused?
History ebbs and regathers, much as the sea assaults the shore. When it surges most forcefully, one can only try to remain upright in the flood. Very few stood their ground as the twentieth century’s great waves of ideological aggression broke over their heads. Fewer still did so year after year, decade after decade, until the bitter, triumphant end. Among these were Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam and the poet Anna Akhmatova (the mentor of the Nobel Laureate Joseph Brodsky), who together constituted an iron triangle of artistic principle, moral conviction, and literary brilliance.
Osip Mandelstam’s life and work are seamlessly united; his speeches and deeds form a singular impression of wholeness, of joyful integrity and inner freedom. “Everything has become heavier and more massive,” he wrote in his essay “On the Nature of the Word”; “thus man must become harder . . . the sacred character of poetry arises out of the conviction that man is harder than everything else in the world.” Osip demonstrated his own adamantine hardness—the “deep bedrock of principles,” in Nadezhda’s words, “which set him apart from anyone of his own or later generations”—when he meddled, on pain of death, in the case of an imprisoned art historian; when he intervened to save five old men facing execution, sending Bukharin a volume of his poetry with an inscription to the effect that “every word here is against what you are going to do”; and especially when, taking the measure of a Goliath like no other the world has ever seen, he weighed little stones of poetry—dense verses of formal power, earthy thematic richness, and striking imagery—against the immense totality of the ussr. He suffered his terrible, tragic destiny with relative equanimity because his capacity for joyful immersion in the fullness of the passing moment was unlimited, and because he viewed death as the final triumph of a life replete with meaning. Surveying Osip’s life, Nadezhda observes that “poetry, even more than philosophy, is a preparation for death”—an echo of Plato’s Phaedo that connects her husband with another man of gem-like hardness who opened himself to the fullness of eternity in the heart of time, and whose life and death courageously affirmed sacred human values.
If Osip Mandelstam is a poetic Socrates (or perhaps a poetic Jesus: Hope Against Hope’s depiction of his last days has a gospel-like glow), his soulmate, devoted student, and occasionally hagiographic chronicler is a Russian Plato. Nadezhda Mandelstam found salvation in the lifelong task for which she so admirably suffered and struggled: the preservation for posterity of her husband’s late, unpublished verse, which for several decades she dared not commit to paper. The slow and loving labor of memorizing and internalizing his words—a task in which she was faithfully assisted by Akhmatova—planted his music deep in her soul, by degrees attuning her ready and receptive nature to the integrated measures of his art and existence. More, it gave her a deeply informed and coherent perspective on her times. “Poetry always precedes prose, and so it did in the life of Nadezhda Mandelstam,” Joseph Brodsky observes. Her two books are a faithful translation of the meaning of the poet and his poetry in the clarifying register of prose, composed, as Seamus Heaney writes, with “a cask-burning passion to be as exact and exacting as possible.” Brodsky’s obituary of Nadezhda beautifully articulates her lonely achievement:
Her memoirs are something more than a testimony to her times; they are a 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.
Osip found salvation in his integrated vision of history, time, and human existence, and in the art through which he articulated that vision. His intuition of his particular historical destiny—fully and fearlessly to be a poet in the time of Stalin—is expressed with confident irony and cheerfulness in “The Wolf,” which Nadezhda identifies as the “theme poem” around which his First Moscow Notebook (1931–34) is organized:
I have forsaken my place at the feast of my fathers
and lost my happiness and even honor,
in order that future centuries may thunder with glory,
and that humanity may be noble.
This age of the wolfhound hurls itself on my shoulders,
but my blood’s not the blood of a wolf,
so stuff me as you would stuff a hat into the sleeve
of the hot fur coat of the Siberian wasteland:
so I won’t see the débris or the slushy mud
or the bloodied bones strapped to the wheel,
so all through the night the blue polar foxes
will shine at me in their primeval beauty.
Take me off into the night where the Yenisey flows
and the pine tree reaches the stars:
my blood is not the blood of a wolf—
only an equal will kill me.
The wolf had already bared its teeth by 1923, when Osip was blackballed by the Soviet literary magazines. The first stanza of his poem “The Age,” composed that same year, speaks to both the crisis of his times and the monumental effort of his poetry:
My age, my beast, where is the man
Who can look into your eyes
And join together with his blood
The vertebrae of two centuries?
The age, once upright and vital, has been crippled by the unbearable weight of the State, loaded onto its shoulders in the name of an imagined future. The backbone of civilization, the upright human spine of tradition and culture, has broken, and the age (my age, my beast, Mandelstam says) now suffers like a dumb and dying animal. It is hard to overstate the magnitude of this injury, which universally harmed individuals and ultimately destroyed, in the critic Clive James’s reckoning, “almost the entire mental life of a whole great nation”—and what a life! Conscious of being a surviving heir of the nineteenth century’s greatest and most fertile literary tradition, Mandelstam—who burst into tears when as a child he first heard the word “progress”—is both the pitiable, speechless beast and the still whole man. He is the answer to his question: the one who, fortified by a lush green tradition, will try to heal his age, heal himself, by fusing past and present with his lifeblood of iron-rich, highly oxygenated words.
Osip’s verse was formed under tectonic pressures.
Although Mandelstam was not religiously inclined, he ultimately came to embrace his cultural inheritance as a Jew: an “honorable title . . . in which I take great pride,” he writes in Fourth Prose. From the first, however, he understood his poetry in Christian terms. Art, he declares in his early essay “Pushkin and Scriabin,” is “joyous communion with God, like some game played by the Father and his children, some blind-man’s bluff or hide-and-seek of the spirit!” He was, moreover, “the reader of one book,” a book he always carried with him in a portable edition so he would be sure to have it in prison wherever he might be arrested. That book was Dante’s Divine Comedy, the greatest and strongest of cultural bridges: a perfect model for his own vital, vibrant, and Atlas-like literary effort. One is reminded in this connection of his very short poem “Meteorite,” in which blazing, smoking verse whistles down out of the blue, fertilizing the poetic imagination and providing raw material to be molded into songs of otherworldly hardness and density:
As the meteorite from the heavens wakes the earth somewhere,
the exiled line fell to the ground, not knowing its father.
What is implacable is a godsend for the creator—
it couldn’t be anything else, no one judges it.
Nadezhda understood better than anyone that Osip’s verse, formed under tectonic pressures, shelters glowing embers of civilization from the wasting winds at the end of the world. In the middle of the central chapter of Hope Against Hope, precisely where one would locate the keystone of a great weight-bearing arch, she identifies “the dominant theme in the whole of M.’s life and work”: “his insistence on the poet’s dignity, his position in society, and his right to make himself heard.” He insisted on these things because he was animated “by that sense of being right without which it is impossible to be a poet.” The “categorical nature” of a poet’s judgments, which “derives from the ‘wholeness’ of his vision,” makes people angry; they “accuse him of arrogance and a desire to lay down the law.” The suspicion that gives rise to this accusation is by no means groundless, for poetry, Nadezhda observes, “is a law unto itself.” More to the point, “poets can never be indifferent to good and evil, and they can never say that all that exists is rational”—the only two things, one might say, that Stalin ever asked of them.
“Even supposing that the free human mind has come to the end of its time,” James opines, “Mandelstam is one of those supreme artists who convince you that there is such a thing as poetic immortality, and that it is at one with the simplest forces of creation, so that nothing can destroy it.” This powerful impression of indestructibility stems from his absolute unwillingness to compromise in matters ethical and aesthetic. “What a pity,” Nadezhda remarks, “this was not a quality that could be doled out to others—he had enough of it for a dozen writers.” But if his “destiny was hatched from character,” it is also true that the compressive weight of his times gave his character and poetry their extraordinary strength and brilliance. Brodsky believes that “the intensity of lyricism in Mandelstam’s poetry” made it inevitable that he would be swept up by Stalin’s iron broom, because “lyricism is the ethics of language.” Denunciation and arrest were in any case unavoidable after he composed (in late 1933) a poem that spoke of Stalin’s “thick fingers . . . like worms” and “cockroach mustache,” an attack whose sharply focused ad hominem deliberately reduced the vast ideological tyranny of the Soviet Union to the more manageable scale of an individual human monstrosity. One guesses that Osip Mandelstam slapped at Stalin not just because he’d had enough, but because he wanted and needed more. Conscience and culture stood in the balance against history, as it does today. And if poetry—the noblest speech of the freest individual—could not be shown to outweigh the crushing machinery of totalitarianism, then the free human mind really would have come to the end of its time.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 36 Number 7, on page 4
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