Hope Against Hope

A memoir of her poet husband who died in exile in 1938 under Stalin by Nadezhda Mandelstam, giving an incredible portrayal of what life in the Soviet Union was like, both before and after her husband’s death. First arrested in 1934 for writing a poem about Stalin, M was inexplicably released and the pair lived together in exile for a few years before his subsequent re-arrest which quickly led to death in a labor camp due to malnutrition, heart condition, and lack of will to live.

The depiction of harsh living conditions is eye-opening. People sharing rooms in apartments, the requirement of a permit to live wherever you are (and a Moscow permit denied to the Mandelstams after his first arrest), the preciousness of a pair of trousers, the precariousness of being able to get enough food. As soon as M was tainted with a whiff of illegality, many of the intellectuals turned their backs on him. But even before that, life was filled with police informants and spies.

Whatever meager resources are available are shared among friends. The pair constantly “borrow” money from friends with no hope of paying it back since they have been blacklisted from work. After M’s arrest, Nadezhda finds a room along the train line to Siberia in hopes of seeing M on the train. She runs out of money and gets work as a spinner before the authorities get suspicious about an educated women taking on such a job.

There were once many kind people, and even unkind ones pretended to be good because that was the thing to do. Such pretense was the source of hypocrisy and dishonesty so much exposed in the realist literature at the end of the last century. The unexpected result of this kind of critical writing was that kind people disappeared. Kindness is not, after all, an inborn quality—it has to be cultivated, and this only happens when it is in demand. For our generation, kindness was an old-fashioned, vanished quality, and its exponents were as extinct as the mammoth. Everything we have seen in our times—the dispossession of the kulaks, class warfare, the constant ‘unmasking’ of the people, the search for an ulterior motive behind every action—all this has taught us to be anything you like except kind.

Nadezhda’s purpose seems to stem from preserving the memory of her husband and his poems. “There are many women like me who for years have spent sleepless nights repeating the words of their dead husbands over and over again.”

“When I used to read about the French Revolution as a child, I often wondered whether it was possible to survive during a reign of terror. I now know beyond doubt that it is impossible. Anybody who breathes the air of terror is doomed, even if nominally he manages to save his life.”

The English translation by Max Hayward came out in 1970 a few years after the original was released in Russian.