Nadezhda Mandelstam may well ultimately prove to be the greatest “witness-as-writer” among twentieth century women. Miguel de Unamuno y Jugo wrote (before the ecumenical surge) that if the Roman church in its wisdom were to appoint women as confessors to men, as it had men for women, the men would bare their souls in a way they would not to another man. Nadezhda was, as well as colleague and collaborator, the confessor for her husband, the poet whose murder was long drawn out. In the course of serving the poet by memorizing his verses—tirelessly repeating them aloud above the roar of machinery in factories where she worked, for example, or more quietly as she taught school or in hounded exile—Nadezhda became, as well as witness, interpreter. “If there is any substitute for love, it is memory,” wrote Brodsky in his obituary on Nadezhda. The phrases of her two poets—her husband and Akhmatova—“became her mentality, became her identity.”
She is not so much concerned over the freedoms people claim they need, which they scarcely use if given them, as she is with inner freedom, the entire magical world of the spirit when systematically invaded by organized minions of the state. Even her account of Osip’s method of constructing his work gives insight into the inner world of art and love and spirituality. Osip did not often write down the first drafts of his verse (he was finally sent to his death because he did write down and read aloud to a small circle of friends a poem about the ogre who ruled Russia and sent entire categories of people and provinces to their destruction). The poems were...
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