Nadezhda Mandelstam

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(Great Authors of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina Mandelstam (muhn-dyihl-SHTAHM), the wife of the poet Osip Mandelstam, preserved the poetry of her husband until it could be published abroad. In two powerful memoirs, she castigates the Soviet regime which persecuted him and sent him to his death. In her two volumes of memoir and one essay-memoir, she served as eloquent witness to his moral and poetic values, which posed a humane challenge to the terror of Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union. Her work gives abundant testimony of Mandelstam’s courage and creativity in the Soviet cultural milieu of the 1920’s and 1930’s. Though she herself wrote some fiction and might under other circumstances have produced a different body of work, her intense devotion to her husband and his work became motive and content of her major literary output. A story of her life is necessarily the story of his; early suspected of dissidence as he had been, their life together was precarious and finally tragic. As the widow of a condemned man, she spent the long years after his death in remote parts of the Soviet Union working as a teacher, barely making enough money to survive.

Nadezhda Khazina, the daughter of educated parents, met Osip Mandelstam in 1919 in Kiev when she was a student of art and foreign languages and he was an emerging poet in the innovative Acmeist group. They were separated for a year and a half amid the dislocations of civil war, but after they were reunited in Kiev in 1921 they remained together until separated by a regime hostile to all they represented. They married in 1922 and moved often throughout their lives. In the 1920’s Mandelstam was able to publish most of the poems and prose that he wrote, though not in state-controlled publishing houses. They both participated actively in the stimulating artistic life of the time. In 1925 they moved to Tsarkoye Selo, outside the city, where their friendship with the poet Anna Akhmatova developed. Nadezhda Mandelstam spent one winter in the Crimea to combat tuberculosis.

Living precariously throughout these years and able to publish only with difficulty, Mandelstam in 1928 published a short autobiographical work, a collected edition of his verse, new poems, and a volume of essays on poetry. This moment of acceptance was possible because of the political support of his friend Nikolai Bukharin, a member of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. In that year, however, Stalin defeated Bukharin’s wing of the party, and changes began that inevitably brought with them Mandelstam’s rejection of and subsequent persecution by the regime. This determined the course of his wife’s life as well as his own.

In 1930 Bukharin arranged a trip to Armenia for the Mandelstams, which elicited Mandelstam’s prose piece Puteshestviye v Armeniyu, 1933 (Journey to Armenia, 1973). This work contained veiled references to Stalin unacceptable to the censors, and when it was published in 1933 in Zvezda, the editor lost his job for the decision. Mandelstam refused to disavow the work and instead wrote a poem that expressed hostility to Stalin. He did no more than read the poem aloud only to a circle of friends, but it nevertheless reached officials, and in May, 1934, the poet was arrested. He was saved from death by the intervention of Bukharin, Boris Pasternak, and others and was sentenced instead to a three-year term of exile in Voronezh, in which his wife was allowed to accompany him. Despite hardships the time in Voronezh was a period of poetic productivity for Osip.

In 1937, at the end of this first period of exile, the couple returned to Moscow, but they were required to live outside the city and spent some time in Kalinin. Nadezhda Mandelstam was free to make trips into Moscow to look for work and to seek help from other writers and from the Union of Soviet Writers. The head of the writers’ union, Aleksandr Fadeyev, allowed them to go to a rest home for writers in Samatikha, but there the poet was again arrested, in May,...

(The entire section is 1,722 words.)