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Hope Against Hope

Hope Against Hope

on Feb 14, 2016

In 1934 the poet Osip Mandelstam was arrested for his explosive poem in which he described Stalin’s fingers as “fat grubs” and his moustache as “cockroach whiskers”. The poem was clearly too dangerous to write down but Mandelstam had recited it to a number of trusted individuals whose job was to commit it to memory until such time as it might be safe to publish. Somehow the poem was leaked, and Osip Mandelstam was arrested.

Hope Against Hope is written by Osip’s wife, Nadezhda, and it tells the story of their life together from the time of that initial arrest until Osip’s second arrest in 1937 and his subsequent death in transit to the Gulag. You might be wondering why I’ve chosen to read a book that is now out of print (although readily and cheaply available second-hand), and it is thanks to a small footnote by Orlando Figes (author of two books I really enjoyed: Natasha’s Dance and Just Send Me Word) in which he said that “there is no better description of living through the Terror than the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam”, and that intrigued me so much that I just had to read it for myself.

The book begins with Nadezhda’s account of her husbands arrest, the search of their apartment and his interrogation in the Lubyanka prison. For anyone interested in Russian history it is full of fascinating detail. I laughed with her as she told of how the agents searched for manuscripts:

…they looked in all the places cunning people are traditionally supposed to hide their secret documents: they shook out every book, squinting down the spine and cutting open the binding, inspected desks and tables for hidden drawers, and peered into pockets and under beds. A manuscript stuck into a saucepan would never have been found. Best of all would have been to put it on the dining table.

There was a good deal less to laugh about when reading of Osip’s interrogation in the Lubyanka. While Osip’s time there occurred before the use of, as Nadezhda put it, “cruder methods” he was still subjected to sleep deprivation – interrogated by night and then kept awake during the day by a “cellmate” whom he later realised was not another prisoner but someone simply employed to prevent him from sleeping. He was also deeply disturbed by the sound of what he thought was Nadezhda’s voice echoing down the corridor. Having been told by his interrogator that she had been arrested, it is not hard to imagine how much this must have frightened him. In later years Nadezhda found other Lubyanka inmates whose tongues had been loosened by similarly hearing the apparent sound of a distressed loved one.

For reasons that will never be fully known, Stalin decided to personally intervene in the case and (initially at least) to show leniency. Stalin chose to convey his decision by telephoning Boris Pasternak (one of the most famous phone calls in Russian history) and then proceeded to quiz the author about his friendship with Mandelstam and his views on the extent of Osip’s genius.

After Osip’s release and exile from Moscow, the couple moved to Voronezh. The bureaucratic frustrations of applying monthly for a temporary permit of residence would be hilarious were they not true. Every month they needed to obtain three pieces of paper (from the housing committee, the police, and their employer) with each piece of paper requiring at least two visits to the relevant office. They then had to wait in line to hand in the papers, returning several days later to collect the new temporary identity papers before returning again the following day so the papers could be stamped with a residence permit. This whole sequence was further complicated by the fact that neither of the Mandelstams were officially employed – so instead of obtaining a reference from a place of work, they had to ask the local Union of Writers:

The officials of the Union…were frightened, and some of them trembled at the thought of exercising their right to put the Union’s stamp on a scrap of paper… [and so] every time the heads of the local branch [had to apply] to some higher authority for permission.

It is details like that which make the book such a valuable account of 1930s Russia. This isn’t just a story about one couple because much of what Nadezhda describes was commonplace. Importantly the book gives a glimpse into just how much the Terror seeped into ordinary life – such as every apartment block having two people employed to attend arrests of their neighbours so no-one could complain that people had “just disappeared”. Or the landlords who wanted rid of their tenants and did so by denouncing them to the secret police. And there are details about the hostility and poverty of daily life, such as when the Mandelstam’s lived in “relative prosperity” and yet still ate mainly cabbage and eggs.

If I have a criticism of this book, it is that Nadezhda’s idea about who her readers would be is extremely narrow – she assumes you are not only deeply familiar with her husband’s work but also thoroughly immersed in the world of 1930s Russian literature and politics. The first assumption is not a problem if you are a lover of Russian poetry – in fact the book is a veritable goldmine of information about Osip’s approach to his poetry, his imagery and themes. But the second assumption results in lengthy discussions about various editors and publishers that I struggled to get through and which I can’t really see being of much interest to any modern reader.

That aside, the book remains a fascinating insight into a dark period of history and is a great testament not only to Osip, but to his wife whose dedication ensured his poems were not forgotten. His poems were preserved in her memory, those of friends, and in some cases papers were successfully hidden in the homes of trusted individuals (she reveals that she learnt from her first encounter with the secret police and did indeed hide them in saucepans!). Nadezhda Mandelstam died in Moscow in 1980.

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