Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1486
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, 1938, and his wife never saw him again. She took dangerous trips to Kalinin to retrieve his manuscripts and worked nights in a textile factory to allow her to make day trips to Moscow in search of information about the prisoner. It was the period of the Great Terror, the time of the “show trials” in which Bukharin and other Party leaders were sentenced to death. Mandelstam, as his wife learned only later from persons who were in transit camp with him, died in December, 1938, on his way to a labor camp.
An account of the four years from his first arrest to his death constitutes the narrative line of Nadezhda Mandelstam’s first book of memoirs, written only after a difficult almost thirty-year period for her as a politically suspect wife. She was able to obtain work as a teacher in Kalinin, the last place she had lived with her husband. She stayed there until the German invasion in 1941, when she and her mother were given permission to live in Tashkent. Part of the time, Akhmatova lived there as well. Mandelstam taught English at the University of Central Asia from 1943 to 1946, and from 1946 to 1953 she lived in Ulyanovsk and taught in the Teachers’ Training College there.
After Stalin’s death she began to work for her husband’s rehabilitation but was appointed to a teaching job in Chita, in eastern Siberia, where she lived until 1955. She was able to obtain a widow’s pension in 1956 but was also sent to a new teaching job in Cheboksary, where she heard that her husband had been cleared posthumously of the 1938 charges, though the charges in 1934 remained on the record. She managed to get work in Pskov, nearer Moscow, and in 1961 published two short stories of her own under a pseudonym, her only work to be printed in the Soviet Union during her lifetime. She was finally allowed to return to live in Moscow in 1964, buying, with help from the writer Konstantin Simonov, a small cooperative apartment in a Moscow suburb. Her first stable home became a center for foreign visitors and young Russians who had become acquainted with her husband’s work through samizdat, or illegally circulated copies.
Through all her trials Mandelstam saw it as her assigned task in life to preserve her husband’s poetry and other writings and eventually to see them published. A few poems appeared in Moscow in 1964; a two-volume collection (later expanded to three) was published in the United States, the first attempt to collect the work, which was widely scattered among people and places. In 1973 a large collection finally appeared in the Soviet Union. Mandelstam, with what one critic called a Homeric memory, made available much of her husband’s otherwise unpublished work. She also gave copies to friends for safekeeping; her absolute conviction of the importance of his work and her deep devotion alone saved the work for posterity.
She completed both volumes of her memoirs in 1970. Hope Against Hope was published in Russian and English in the United States that same year, but in the Soviet Union it circulated only hand to hand in illegal copies. The second book, Hope Abandoned, appeared in Russian in Paris two years later. “In my old age,” she said, “there awoke in me a woman convinced of her own infallibility,” and she spoke more fully in her own voice of the life and love she shared with the man whom the émigré poet Joseph Brodsky called the best Russian poet of the twentieth century. This second book expresses her anger and contempt for the weak and vicious people who allowed a revolution to take place without reckoning its costs, the results of which included the destruction of human decency. In Hope Abandoned the whole literary life of the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 1930’s is held up for display; the result is an invaluable source of information on a period during which there was not much contact with the outside world. These two volumes gained recognition for their deeply humane defense of enduring moral and aesthetic values and for their attack on the inhumanity that had brought Nadezhda Mandelstam a life of fear and pain. The brief essay-memoir Mozart and Salieri reports conversations between Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova on the subject of the dual nature of the creative act, the two sides represented by the genius of Mozart and the craftsmanship of Salieri in the contrast portrayed in Alexander Pushkin’s play of the same name. Nadezhda Mandelstam died at the end of 1980, with the satisfaction of knowing that her mission had been accomplished. Akhmatova called her “the most fortunate widow” for her participation in the great poet’s life and work; Brodsky added that Osip Mandelstam was the “most fortunate poet,” thanks to the books written by his widow to keep him alive, mete out justice, indict inhumanity, and assert the sacredness of poetry.