Nadezhda Mandelstam

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Nadezhda Yakovlevna Mandelstam (Russian: Надежда Яковлевна Мандельштам, IPA: [nɐˈdʲeʐdə ˈjakəvlʲɪvnə mənʲdʲɪlʲˈʂtam]; née Khazina [Хазина]; 30 October [O.S. 18 October] 1899 – 29 December 1980) was a Russian Jewish writer and educator, and the wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam who died in 1938 in a transit camp to the gulag of Siberia.



Hope Abandoned (1974)


Translated from the Russian by Max Hayward

  • I am even now constantly tormented by the thought of those years of life we were not allowed to live. I am always wondering what they would have been like if we had not been cheated of them. (28: Stages in My Life)
  • when her husband is taken away, a woman turns to stone, into an automaton, into I don't know what, the frozen expression I must have had during those last minutes I have seen only on the faces of other women whose husbands had been arrested. (28: Stages in My Life)
  • How can I forget when our life together was cut short literally in midsentence? The words never said are like a lump in my throat, and the thought of them torments me. (28: Stages in My Life)
  • Why were they all so eager for fame? Surely nothing was ever less worth thinking about. (p 427)
  • Now again we are not supposed to remember the past and think-let alone speak about it. (42: Last Letter)
  • Nationalism, like the ideas of Leo Tolstoi, is an attempt to stop the course of history. Everything leading to separation is the result of license: it smashes what is whole, breaks and pulverizes it into tiny fragments that can never be joined together again. The truth of this has become completely apparent in our century. We have been witness to the process of disintegration. What has it brought us, apart from material and spiritual impoverishment?
  • The man governed by license is prepared to destroy everything and everybody that stands in his way-himself first and foremost. Destruction and self-destruction are the inevitable consequences of license. The suicide of Hitler and his holocaust is the supreme example of self-destruction as the final stage of license. Hitler believed that the whole of Germany would gather around the fire he had lighted. I have read that he spent his last days issuing a constant stream of orders to armies that no longer existed or had disintegrated. He was indignant at these vanished armies for failing to carry out his instructions. His behavior is an excellent illustration of Sergei Bulgakov's observation that license always leads to loss of touch with reality. Bulgakov understood this at a time when license had still not taken on the extreme forms we have seen in our days.

1: The "Self"

  • I am now faced with a new task, and am not quite sure how to go about it. Earlier it was all so simple: my job was to preserve M.'s verse and tell the story of what happened to us. The events concerned were outside our control. Like any other wife of a prisoner, like any other stopiatnitsa or exiled person, I thought only about the times I lived in, racking my brains over the question: How could this happen, how had we come to such a pass? Thinking about this, I forgot myself and what had happened to me personally, and even that I was writing about my own life, not somebody else's. The fact is that there was nothing exceptional about my case. There were untold numbers of women like myself roaming the country-mute, cowed creatures, some with children, some without, timidly trying to do their work as best they could and constantly "improving their qualifications," which meant joining study groups to sweat year in, year out, over the "Fourth Chapter," (Footnote: "The chapter on Dialectical Materialism written by Stalin in The History of the C.P.S.U.: Short Course (1938).") including the story of how the ape turned into Homo sapiens by learning to distinguish left from right. (This development was aided to some extent by food rich in vitamins and protein-more than we could say of ours.) But at least we had our work, and we clung to it frantically, knowing that without it all was lost...
  • People like myself were the lucky ones who had not gone to prison. Knowing what it was like to live in "freedom," I was always thinking of those who were behind barbed wire. This was why I could not think about myself, but only about all the others-those who had gone away and would never return, those who still nourished hopes of coming back but would never live to see the day. Every time I heard rumors of new arrests, it was like salt in my own fresh wounds. In the midst of such general misery and doom, the word "I" lost its meaning, becoming shameful or taboo. Who dared talk about his own fate or complain about it when it was the same for everybody?
  • It is true that "forced labor" is too mild a term for the camps of the twentieth century and that nobody in the world would actually want to go into a camp or gas chamber.
  • it is not just the frequency with which "I" occurs, but the general spirit of a person's work that shows to what extent he is afflicted by the besetting sin of "egotism." And anyway, wasn't it something of a feat to keep a grip on one's own personality and a true sense of identity in our era of wholesale slaughter and death camps on such a vast scale? Times such as these breed only individualism based on the principle "every man for himself," not a true sense of one's own worth. The loss of this sense is not something our age can be proud of, but a sign of its sickness. I know the symptoms from observing myself and those around me.
  • How did it happen? We saw it come about in front of our very eyes. All intermediate social links, such as the family, one's circle of friends, class, society itself-each abruptly disappeared, leaving every one of us to stand alone before the mysterious force embodied in the State, with its powers of life and death. In ordinary parlance, this was summed up in the word "Lubianka" (Footnote: "Headquarters of the secret police, and political prison in Moscow.") If what we have seen in this country is only a process taking place throughout Europe, then it must be said that we have demonstrated the sickness of the age in a form so acute and unadulterated as to merit special study in any search for the prevention and cure of it. In an age when the main cry is "Every man for himself," the personality is doomed. Personality is dependent on the world at large, on one's neighbors. It defines itself by reference to others and becomes aware of its own uniqueness only when it sees the uniqueness of everyone else.
  • poetry is an elusive thing that can neither be hidden nor locked away.
  • I never ceased to believe in M.'s and Akhmatova's poetry. In our depersonalized world where everything human was silenced, only the poet preserved his "self" and a voice which can still be heard even now.
  • pain acts like a leaven for both word and thought, quickening your sense of reality and the true logic of this world. Without pain you cannot distinguish the creative element that builds and sustains life from its opposite-the forces of death and destruction which are always for some reason very seductive, seeming at first sight to be logically plausible, and perhaps even irresistible.
  • Nowadays the average reader doesn't even look for new ideas-he is suspicious of them. For too long now he has been hoodwinked, palmed off with bogus ideas masquerading as genuine ones. Still unable to figure all this out, he is drawn to the other extreme, to anything beyond the bounds of his primitive reasoning process.
  • The great mass of people thus prefer to glide over the surface of reality, always shirking the effort of trying to understand it.
  • man must answer for everything, particularly for his own soul.
  • whatever his quality, the reader is the final arbiter, and it is for him that I kept M.'s poetry and it is to him that I have handed it over. And now, in this long period we are presently living through, a curious process is taking place: people casually leaf through a volume of poetry and, scarcely aware of what is happening, gradually soak it in, until it stirs their numbed and dormant spirits, waking them up and itself coming to life again as it revivifies those it touches. It is a process of diffusion, of interpenetration, by which at least some people are brought back to their senses and given the strength to shake off their accursed inertia. I do not know how it is elsewhere, but here, in this country, poetry is a healing, life-giving thing, and people have not lost the gift of being able to drink of its inner strength. People can be killed for poetry here-a sign of unparalleled respect-because they are still capable of living by it.
  • Looking back on it, you may feel the path you have traveled was predetermined, but all along the way there were thousands of turnings and crossroads at which you could have chosen a completely different route. What we do with our lives is to some extent socially conditioned, since we all live at a particular moment in history, but the realm of inevitability is confined to our historical coordinates-beyond them everything depends on us. Freedom is boundless, and even the personality, one's own "self," is not something "given" once and for all; rather it takes shape in the course of one's life, depending to a large extent on the path one has chosen.

Quotes about

  • Let me read you something: "Poetry does indeed have a very special place in this country. It arouses people and shapes their minds. No wonder the birth of our new intelligensia is accompanied by a craving for poetry never seen before. It's the golden treasury in which our values are preserved. It brings people back to life, awakens their conscience and stirs them to thought. Why this should happen I do not know, but it's a fact." That's from Hope Against Hope by Nadezhda Mandelstam and she is writing of the Soviet Union. One could say this about our country, when one tries to conjecture why young blacks are writing poetry now. And one has to think then what a really marvellously tough thing the urge to write is. People find a way.
    • 1972 interview in Conversations with Nadine Gordimer edited by Nancy Topping Bazin and Marilyn Dallman Seymour (1990)
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