The following essay is adapted from Clive James’ Cultural Amnesia, a re-examination of intellectuals, artists, and thinkers who helped shape the 20th century. Slate is publishing an exclusive selection of these essays, going roughly from A to Z.
We all belonged to the same category marked down for absolute destruction. The astonishing thing is not that so many of us went to concentration camps or died there, but that some of us survived. Caution did not help. Only chance could save you.
—Nadezhda Mandelstam, Hope Abandoned
Nadezhda Yakovlevna Khazina, known to us as Nadezhda Mandelstam (1899–1980), would have been sufficiently famous as the heroic wife and widow of Osip Mandelstam, one of the finest poets of 20th-century Russia and therefore one of the most illustrious of Stalin’s victims among the old intelligentsia who had stayed on in Russia in the mistaken belief that the Soviet regime would be an opportunity for culture. As the naïvely nonpolitical poet soon found, it would instead have been an opportunity for him to starve if Nadezhda’s ability to translate the principal European languages had not helped to pay for the groceries. After the poet was arrested in 1934 (his “crime” had been to write a few satirical lines about Stalin), Nadezhda’s translations from English were her only means of sustenance over the course of her long banishment to the provincial towns, during which time, in 1938, her husband finally perished in the Gulag.
Only after Nadezhda was permitted to return to Moscow, in 1964, did she begin to write Hope Against Hope, the magnificent book that puts her at the center of the liberal resistance under the Soviet Union and indeed at the center of the whole of 20th-century literary and political history. Some would place her book even ahead of Primo Levi’s If This Is a Man (unforgivably known, in the United States, under the feel-good title of Survival in Auschwitz) and Jung Chang’s Wild Swans as required preliminary reading for any prospective student enrolled at a university. A masterpiece of prose as well as a model of biographical narrative and social analysis, Hope Against Hope is mainly the story of the terrible last years of persecution and torment before her husband was murdered. Nadezhda and Osip are the most prominent characters, although there is a vivid portrait of Anna Akhmatova. The book’s sequel, Hope Abandoned, is about the author’s personal fate and is in some ways even more terrible, because, as the title implies, it is more about horror as a way of life than as an interruption to normal expectancy. Both volumes are superbly translated into English by Max Hayward. Until the collapse of the regime, they were available in the original language only in samizdat or else from printing houses situated outside the Soviet borders. As with Akhmatova’s banned poem “Requiem,” their full publication in Russia marked the day when the Soviet Union came to an end, and freedom—which Nadezhda, against mountainous evidence, had always said would one day return of its own accord—returned.
Hayward chose the English titles well for his magnificent translations: Hope Against Hope is about a gradual, reluctant but inexorable realization that despair is the only thing left to feel: It is the book of a process. Hope Abandoned is about what despair is like when even the memory of an alternative has been dispelled: the book of a result. The second book’s subject is spiritual desolation as a way of life. Several times, Nadezhda proclaims her fear that the very idea of normality has gone from the world: “I shall not live to see the future, but I am haunted by the fear that it may be only a slightly modified version of the past.” The memory of what happened can’t even be passed on without ruining the lives of those called upon to understand. “If any brave young fellow with no experience of these things feels inclined to laugh at me,” she writes, “I invite him back into the era we lived through, and I guarantee that he will need to taste only a hundredth part what we endured to wake up in the night in a cold sweat, ready to do anything to save his skin the next morning.” Well, none of us brave young fellows back there in the comfortable West of the late 1960s and early 1970s felt inclined to laugh at her. Schopenhauer had said that a man is in a condition of despair when he thinks a thing will happen because he wants it not to and that what he wishes can never be. Nadezhda had provided two books to show how that felt.
As such, they were key chapters in the new bible that the 20th century had written for us. In a bible, it is not astonishing that some of the gospels should sound like each other and seem to tell the same story. In Primo Levi’s books, the theme is often struck that the only real story about the Nazi extermination camps was the common fate of those who were obliterated: The story of the survivors was too atypical to be edifying, and to dwell on it could only lead to the heresy that Levi called Survivalism and damned as a perversion. Survival had nothing to do with anything except chance: There was no philosophy to be extracted from it and certainly no guide to behavior. In Russian instead of Italian, Nadezhda said exactly the same thing about life under Stalin: “Only chance could save you.” It is the best thing ever said about life under state terror, and it took her to say it so directly, bravely, and unforgettably.
It was the dubious distinction of the Soviet Union to create, for the remnants of the Russian intelligentsia, conditions by which they could experience, in what passed for ordinary civilian life, the same uncertainties and terrors as the victims who would later be propelled into Nazi Germany’s concentrated universe. The main difference was that in Nazi Europe the victims knew from the start who they were and eventually came to know that they were doomed. In the Soviet Union, the bourgeois elements could not even be certain that they were marked down for death. Like Kafka’s victims in the Strafkolonie, they were in a perpetual state of trying to imagine what their crime might be. Was it to have read books? Was it to have red hair? Was it (the cruelest form of fear) to have submitted too eagerly? Other versions of the same story came out of China, North Korea, Romania, Albania, Cambodia. The same story came out of the Rome of Tiberius, but the 20th century gave something new to history when societies nominally dedicated to human betterment created a climate of universal fear.
In that respect, the Communist despotisms left even Hitler’s Germany looking like a throwback. Hitler was hell on earth, but at least he never promised heaven: not to his victims, at any rate. It’s the disappointment of what happened in the new Russia that Nadezhda captures and distills into an elixir. There were some mighty thinkers about the true nature of the Soviet incubus: Yevgeny Zamyatin, Boris Souvarine, Victor Kravchenko, Evgenia Ginzburg, Varlan Shalamov, Solzhenitsyn, Sakharov, Roy Medvedev and Aleksandr Zinoviev are only a few. Generally, however, the artists, if they lived long enough to speak, spoke better than the philosophers. But it was Nadezhda’s distinction to speak better than the artists. With no lyrical world in which to find refuge, she commanded a prose more potent even than her husband’s poetry, and perhaps that made her the greatest artist of all. She found the means to express how an unprecedented historic experiment had changed the texture even of emotion.
Even the incandescently gifted Akhmatova, with whom Nadezhda had always been involved in intimate bonds of passion, jealousy, and respect, never quite grew out of the romantic nature that helped to make her one of the most justly loved of the modern Russian poets. In “Requiem,” Akhmatova encapsulated the anguish of millions of devastated women when she wrote “husband dead, son in jail: pray for me.” But a romantic she remained, still believing in the imaginative validity of a love affair beyond time. In Hope Abandoned, Nadezhda was able to say firmly that her friend was mistaken. Love affairs beyond time were impossible to take seriously when violent separations in the present had become the stuff of reality. With real life so disturbed, the nature of romanticism had been changed. In the new reality, all love affairs were beyond time.
It is important not to reach conclusions too quickly about whom she means by we and us. An unreconstructed Stalinist, if we can suppose there were such a thing left, might say that she was identifying the class enemy. Quite early in the regime’s career of permanent house cleaning—certainly no later than Lunacharsky’s crackdown on the avant-garde in 1929—anyone stemming from the pre-revolutionary intelligentsia was automatically enrolled along with remnants of the bourgeoisie in the classification of “class enemy.” Civilized articulacy was as deadly a giveaway as soft hands. (The Komsomols identified a victim’s ability to defend himself verbally as certain evidence of guilt.) Eventually any kind of knowledge that had been acquired under the old order was enough to mark down its possessor. The Soviet “organs” discovered that even a knowledge of engineering was a threat to state security. (Solzhenitsyn, it will be recalled, was especially poignant about the fate of the engineers.) Any field of study with its own objective criteria was thought to be inherently subversive.
To this day, scholars puzzle over the reasons for Stalin’s purging the Red Army of its best generals in the crucial years leading up to June 1941, but the answer might lie close to hand. The fact that military knowledge—strategy, tactics, and logistics—was a field of data and principles verifiable independently of ideology might have been more than enough to invite his hatred. In attacking his own army, of course, Stalin came close to demolishing the whole Soviet enterprise. But at the center of the totalitarian mentality is the fear that the internal enemy might go unapprehended.
A totalitarian regime’s progressively expanding concept of the enemy is the thing to bear in mind when Nadezhda seems to be identifying herself as part of a class. She is really identifying herself as part of a category, and the category includes anyone who might offer a threat to the regime’s monolithic authority—which means anyone capable of independent moral judgment. She does not go so far as to propose the possibility of independent moral behavior: Not even a hero can actively dissent if the penalty for recalcitrance is the suffering of loved ones. But she does believe that there is such a thing as independent moral judgment, a quality in perfect polarity with the regime, which has come into being to eliminate all such values.
Throughout her two books, Nadezhda looks for comfort to those whose memories go back to the pre-revolutionary past. But her originality lies in her slowly dawning realization that decency is a human quality that can exist independently of social origins. Without that realization, she would never have been able to formulate the great, ringing message of her books, an unprecedented mixture of the poetic and the prophetic—the message that the truth will be born again of its own accord. She didn’t live to see it happen: So the whole idea was an act of faith. Her inspiring contention is unverifiable; when, after the nightmare was at last over, the truth indeed reborn, it was hard to imagine that such a renaissance could have occurred without books like hers in the background.
But there weren’t many like hers, and although it will always be useful to examine how the agents of change received their education in elementary benevolence, it might be just as valuable to consider her two main principles in the full range of their combined implications. One principle was that the forces of unreasoning inhumanity had won an overwhelming victory with effects more devastating than we could possibly imagine. The other was that reason and humanity would return. The first was an observation, the second was a guess, and it was the inconsolable bravery of the observation that made the guess into a song of love.