Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 778
Nadezhda Mandelstam, the widow of a leading Russian poet, Osip Mandelstam, spent most of her married life sharing the tragic fate of her husband. After years of ostracism, persecution, and enforced silence, Osip Mandelstam succumbed to inhumane treatment in a concentration camp in the Far Eastern Region of the Soviet Union, on December 27, 1938. Nadezhda Mandelstam herself feared for her safety, even her life, for many years after her husband’s death. After having been saved by sheer luck, as she was convinced, and after years of struggling for survival, she was finally able to write down her memories of her life with Mandelstam, of his constant and hopeless confrontation with the inscrutable authorities, and of her experiences of that uneven struggle.
The first volume of her memoirs, Vospominaniya (1970; Hope Against Hope: A Memoir, 1970), deals primarily with the four-year period between her husband’s first arrest, in 1934, and his final arrest, in 1938. The sequel, Hope Abandoned (the title is a pun on Nadezhda Mandelstam’s given name, which means “hope” in Russian), describes the Mandelstams’ years together from their first meeting, in 1919, to the period covered in the previous volume; the author also recounts her experiences and the fates of friends and acquaintances in the decades following Mandelstam’s death. Hope Abandoned, however, is not only a narrative of events. Like its predecessor, but even more so, it includes digressions on poetic, political, and religious themes; indeed, it might be said that in writing the second volume of her memoirs, Nadezhda Mandelstam realized that this was her opportunity to make a final reckoning with her time, to say everything that she had left unsaid in Hope Against Hope.
The main purpose of both volumes is to preserve the memory of Mandelstam, both as a poet and as a man; to tell the world exactly what happened to him, as far as could be ascertained; and, most important, to save Mandelstam’s poetry, which was in danger of total obliteration. Moreover, the author is intent upon unmasking the evil system that devoured her husband, along with an untold number of innocent victims, so that she can forewarn both her compatriots and the outside world against similar atrocities. She writes, “We must go on talking of these things, over and over again, until every injustice and every tear is accounted for, until the reasons for what happened (and still happens) are made plain for all to see.” Without any literary pretensions of her own, the author admits that this purpose became the main aim of her entire life after her husband’s death. Even when she strays into other subjects, Nadezhda Mandelstam constantly returns to her husband’s fate, implying that what happened to him was by no means an isolated case but the inevitable result of the workings of a system that totally ignores the individual in the pursuit of its goals. Several other tragic life stories are also related. One story tells of a man who deliberately ruined his health by refusing to leave his home for fear of being ordered to inform on his friends and neighbors (“Complete Retirement”). Another story is about a young woman who, like so many thousands, was sent to a prison camp; upon her release years later, she refused to dwell on her past and tried to make up for the lost time of her life instead (“Surviving with Honor”). Yet another concerns a good-hearted cobbler who helped the victims at the risk of being persecuted himself (“A Kind Person”). The book is, therefore, by no means one-dimensional, even though the author intended it to be primarily a record of her husband’s and her own suffering. The author also offers perceptive firsthand analyses of some of Mandelstam’s poems, as well as those of his closest friend, Anna Akhmatova. Moreover, she corrects many misconceptions perpetrated about her husband’s character and his poetry.
In form, Hope Abandoned resembles its predecessor, but there are differences as well as similarities. It is an even longer book than Hope Against Hope—more than 750 pages in the English translation. Like the first volume, Hope Abandoned is divided into titled chapters; in general, the chapters are self-contained units rather than segments in a continuous narrative. The pace is more leisurely in the second volume; although a longer book, Hope Abandoned has only forty-two chapters to Hope Against Hope’s eighty-three. The English translation of Hope Abandoned includes a chronology of the Mandelstams’ lives (paralleled by a time-line of significant literary and political events) and appendices with biographical notes on persons mentioned in the text and background information on the leading literary movements and organizations of the period.
Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 98
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Ludwig, Jack. “Hope Without Hope,” in Partisan Review. XLI (1974), pp. 455-462.
Pevear, Richard. “On the Memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam,” in The Hudson Review. XXIV (1971), pp. 427-440.
Struve, Gleb. “Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Abandoned,” in The Russian Review: An American Quarterly Devoted to Russia Past and Present. XXXII (1973), pp. 425-428.
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