(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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...

(The entire section is 1339 words.)