Hope Against Hope/Hope Abandoned

by Nadezhda Mandelstam
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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 634

Nadezhda Mandelstam had firsthand experience with the Soviet system. As a result, her conclusions about that system are damning without reservation. She saw what happened in the Soviet Union not as an error of a few mistaken and misguided individuals, such as Stalin, but as the logical outcome of a system flawed from its most basic premises. Although she sees some of the Soviet leaders (Nikolai Bukharin, for example) in a less damning fashion, she believes that everyone in power is to 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 leaders, to which an untold number of lives were sacrificed.

The role of the Russian people as a whole is a different matter. While Nadezhda Mandelstam is certain about the true nature of the communist system, she is less certain about the guilt of the Russians. In general, she has a very low opinion of her people’s moral fiber. She paints an unflattering picture of those who “lost their soul” trying to save their lives and committed inhumane acts against their fellow humans and even against close relatives. She accuses these people of greed, envy, callousness, and gullibility, of being indifferent to the fate of others and collaborating with the authorities. To be sure, there were exceptions. She believes that the circumstances under which Russians were forced to live resulted in a state of collective mental sickness. She allows for extenuating circumstances, such as the instinct for self-preservation. Still, most people succumbed to the illness of the times (“a torpid state in which one could converse only with death”). Thus, the memoirs can be used for a psychological study of people living in a constant state of fear. Although far from being the best testimony to the terrors of the period, they have a convincing ring of truth because of their personal nature of the experience.

At the other end of the spectrum, the portrait of Osip Mandelstam that emerges from the books is highly inspirational. Nadezhda reveres her husband for both their relationship and love for each other and for his refusal to “respond to the demands of time.” The granite character strength and rich inner resources enabled Osip to live a full life and approach the end whole and uncrushed. According to Nadezhda, he was devoid of affectation, displaying a naturalness about the things that were important to him. He had a rare ability to see the world at it was and, consumed by curiosity, absorbed every detail fully. He had faith in people’s goodwill. He lived to work. His calm, seemingly haughty demeanor did not stem from his religious faith but from his humanism, acquired from his lifelong interaction with the high achievements of Western culture, which he held in the highest esteem. The picture of Osip Mandelstam in these memoirs is one of the best, and certainly the most genuine, of human beings and poets.

In that connection, Nadezhda Mandelstam corrected many falsehoods, perpetrated both in the Soviet Union and abroad, about her husband’s character traits and idiosyncrasies. All these rumors the author rejects with indignation, in belief that they originated from Osip Mandelstam’s outsider status and through the disinformation efforts on the part of the authorities. In the setting of records straight lies perhaps the greatest merit of the memoirs. The 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.

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