The Mandelstams

January 15: Onthis day in 1891 the Russian poet Osip Mandelstam was born. While by no meansthe only writer victimized by Stalin’s Reign of Terror, Mandelstam has become asymbol of all those so destroyed. This is partly due to his poetry—most rankhim among the best 20th-century poets—and partly due to his wife,who salvaged many of Mandelstam’s banned poems by either memorizing them orcollecting them in manuscript form. Nadezhda Mandelstam also chillingly andmovingly documented her husband’s death and times in her memoir, Hope Against Hope.

Brought up in St. Petersburg in a cultured, outward-lookingway, Mandelstam did not react well to Stalin’s narrow-mindedness and boot-kickpolitics. Though his poems can be allusive and complex, it was easy enough tounderstand this 1933 portrait of “the wild man in the Kremlin, / Slayer ofpeasants and soul-strangling gremlin”:

Each thick finger of his is as fat as a worm,

to his ten-ton words we all have to listen.

His cockroach whiskers flicker and squirm

and his shining thigh-boots shimmer and glisten.

Mandelstam was arrested about seven months later. His nextfour, nightmare years—interrogation, imprisonment, exile, release,re-imprisonment, final disappearance—are documented in his wife’s book. Hope Against Hope has moments of blackhumor, such as the story of one party official so swamped by his tattle-talingsystem that he had to announce a ban on unsigned denunciations, but mostly itis compulsive, let-this-not-happen reading, full of iron love for a husbandand, from first door-knock to last rubber-stamp, contempt for a system:

The issue of a death certificate was not the rule but theexception. To all intents and purposes, as far as his civil status wasconcerned, a person could be considered dead from the moment he was sent to acamp, or, indeed, from the moment of his arrest, which was automaticallyfollowed by his conviction and sentence to imprisonment in a camp. This meanthe vanished so completely that it was tantamount to physical death. Nobodybothered to tell a man’s relatives when he died in camp or prison: you regardedyourself as a widow or orphan from the moment of his arrest. When a woman wastold in the Prosecutor’s office that her husband had been given ten years, theofficial sometimes added: “You can remarry.” Nobody ever raised theawkward question as to how this gracious “permission” to remarrycould be squared with the official sentence….


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.