Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1339
During her long ordeal, Nadezhda Mandelstam had ample opportunity to observe the Soviet system at work. Her impressions of the system are damning without reservation. She perceived what happened in the Soviet Union not as an error of a few mistaken and misguided individuals, such as Joseph Stalin, but as the logical outcome of a system flawed from its most basic principles. Even though the author has kind words for some of the Soviet leaders (Nikolai Bukharin, for example), she is convinced that everybody in power must share the blame. At the same time, she is reluctant to bring indictment against individuals “because everything was done not by human beings as such, but by a machine. People simply reacted to the instructions, signals, and rhythms of an autonomous mechanism into which a monstrous program had been fed at some time out of mind.” She regards with bitter irony all the “noble” goals set by the leaders, to which an untold number of lives were sacrificed.
While Mandelstam is certain about the true nature of the system that has governed her country since 1917, she is less certain about the guilt of the Russian people as a whole. In general, she has a very low opinion of her countrymen’s moral fiber. She paints an unflattering picture of the people who, trying to save their life, “lost their soul” in the process and committed all kinds of dastardly acts against their fellowman, even against close relatives. She accuses these people of having been greedy, envious, callous, and gullible—indifferent to the fate of others and ready to collaborate with the authorities.
There are exceptions, to be sure. Mandelstam believes that the circumstances under which Russians were forced to live brought about a state of collective mental sickness. She is willing to consider extenuating circumstances, one of which she sees as the instinct for self-preservation: “Everybody tried to save himself, avoiding trouble, and seeing a potential informer in every neighbor and colleague.” She admits that one cannot demand heroism from the ordinary people, especially since selfishness is a common human trait, and she tends to blame not people but their tormentors. Most people were intelligent enough to know the consequences of refusing to cooperate. Thus, in her country they all succumbed to the illness of the times (“a torpid state in which one could only converse with death”).
Hope Abandoned would serve as excellent material for a psychological study of people living in a state of fear. Mandelstam’s observations of the psychosis of fear under trying circumstances are especially poignant. She also offers a penetrating description of the scientific methods of operations during Stalin’s reign of terror. The repetition of one prosecutor’s slogan, “Give us a man and we’ll make a case,” serves as a chilling reminder of these methods. The treatment, both physical and psychological, of prisoners is described with perspicacity. (The interrogation usually began with a seemingly innocuous question—“You presumably know why you are here?”—followed by the names of some vanished friends.) The effects of such methods invariably reached over the prison walls, so that when someone was arrested, people frequently reacted with wishful self-assurance that the prisoner must have done something to deserve it. Mandelstam’s book is far from being the best testimony to the terrors of the period but because some of the stories it recounts were personally experienced it has a convincing ring of truth.
Is there a redeeming feature in this seemingly hopeless nightmare? At times the author is cynical about real change and skeptical about the future of humankind. For if a country where people have been engaged in mutual destruction for half a century does not recall the past, what can people expect in the future? What is a man worth if he has lost his memory? At times Mandelstam vacillates about the future. Even when she admits that a new day has dawned, she wonders how long it will last. There is no guarantee that “we won’t all one day have good cause to shake like aspen leaves again.” This mostly pessimistic outlook is tempered only by hope in a miracle. If only a few people can set aside their instinct for self-preservation and follow a higher voice, the mere existence of such people would offer hope. Mandelstam sees this hope in her husband’s life.
The portrait of Osip Mandelstam that emerges from the book is highly inspirational. Nadezhda Mandelstam idolizes her husband, not so much because of their relationship and love for each other but because he refused to “respond to the demands of time.” He stood up to terror and injustice. Mandelstam recognizes that she lived only for her husband: “From me he wanted only one thing: that I should give up my life to him, renounce my own self, and become a part of him.” While admitting to having been formed both mentally and emotionally by her husband (even though she was of an independent nature), she believes that she had objective reasons for submitting to him.
Enormous strength and a richness of inner resources, as well as a love of play, enabled Osip Mandelstam to live a full life and approach the end whole and uncrushed. He was devoid of affectation, displaying a naturalness about the things that were important to him. He was incapable of boasting, because he was quite convinced that everyone else was better. He had a rare ability to see the world as it was, and, consumed by curiosity, he absorbed every detail fully.
Mandelstam had faith in people’s goodwill, maintaining that “good was inborn . . . as a gift from on high and that evil is self-destroying.” He lived to work. A “blithe soul,” he was basically an outsider and no one’s contemporary. Above all, he was always striving for, and he finally achieved, the “inner freedom” that enabled him to endure peacefully and without malice. This calm, almost haughty demeanor did not stem from his religious faith but from his humanism, acquired from his lifelong interaction with the highest achievements of Western culture. It was this humanism which impressed Nadezhda Mandelstam.
These impressions, subjective though they may be, go a long way toward correcting many falsehoods, perpetrated both in the Soviet Union and abroad, about Mandelstam’s character traits and idiosyncrasies. Among them are the notions that he was a simpleton who had no conception of reality, that he was weak physically, that his mother took him to an editor to inquire about the publication of his poetry, that he read Petrarch’s sonnets by the campfire in the concentration camp, and that he ate from a garbage dump for fear of being poisoned in the camp. All these rumors the author rejects with indignation, noting that they originated from Mandelstam’s outsider status and through the disinformation efforts on the part of the authorities.
Hope Abandoned is replete with information about, and comments on, Mandelstam’s poetry. The author traces the influences of earlier and contemporary poets on Mandelstam, as well as his influence on other writers. She goes to great pains to show that he was a unique poet who was difficult to emulate. His relationships with fellow Acmeist poets, especially with Anna Akhmatova but also with Boris Pasternak, are discussed at length. Mandelstam’s efforts in other genres are also considered, with emphasis on the poet’s distinction between poetry and literature as two separate but related areas. Some of the more difficult poems from the “wolf” cycle and the Voronezh notebooks are elucidated, not only from a biographical point of view but also as aesthetic achievements. The author frequently mentions Mandelstam’s working habit of dictating his poems to her (a method which made preservation of the poems possible, because she could thus learn them by heart and recall them later). The end result is a portrait of a poet who literally gave up his life for “poetic rightness,” which he believed to be the guiding light of his life.