The Magazine

Russian Requiem

The tragic intersection of the lives of Soviet poets.

Oct 24, 2005, Vol. 11, No. 06 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Moscow Memoirs

by Emma Gerstein

Overlook, 285 pp., $35

The Death of a Poet

The Last Days of Marina Tsvetaeva

by Irma Kudrova

Overlook, 232 pp., $29.95

TWO MAJOR, RECENT WORKS, done into English and issued by the same American publisher, deal with the lives of Russia's four greatest poets of the 20th century: Osip Mandelstam, Anna Akhmatova, Marina Tsvetaeva, and Boris Pasternak.

The fall of Soviet communism allowed the opening of minds as well as archives, and the publication of important memoirs of the general torment inflicted by that regime on Russian intellectual life, as well as the printing of significant records of specific secret police atrocities and other official documents. Both of these books examine the devastating consequences of unique events in Soviet history on the lives of the poets.

The horror inflicted on a writer of genius like Mandelstam, who died in the Gulag, speaks for itself. As to the works of Emma Gerstein and Irma Kudrova, it is probable they will only be read in their American editions by specialists. Their idiom is quaintly overwrought, with a studied theatricality that seems false compared with the real anguish of the Russian nation, and that places them far from the traditional standards of literary research. Nevertheless, they have much to tell Western scholars and others interested in the destiny of the Soviet intelligentsia during and after the Stalinist purges. These books are also somewhat scandalous from the viewpoint of those who have come to see the outstanding 20th century Russian poets as martyrs of a cruel dictatorship. The memoirist Gerstein and the scholar Kudrova both see themselves more as literary detectives than as serious critics, and their common aim seems to be to mitigate the inhuman nature of Stalinism. Each practices a sort of Soviet-nostalgic revisionism, which would not be out of place on an Anglo-American campus, where sneering at (when not ignoring) Stalin's victims is the established form. But from the pens of Russian scholars, this seems dissonant and disturbing.

The key event in the Moscow Memoirs of Gerstein, who died at 99 in 2002, is Mandelstam's composition of a verse attack on Stalin. The poem dates from 1934, and the direct aftermath of the forced collectivization of the Soviet peasantry. The text is typically known as "the Stalin epigram," with opening lines translated here:

We live without sensing the country beneath us

At ten paces, our words have no sound

And when there's a will to half-open our mouths

The Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.

The poem goes on to describe Stalin without naming him, but mentioning his "fat fingers" and "cockroach eyes," and evoking his retinue of sycophants as "rabble." Finally, the dictator is said to savor each execution committed on his orders. (An alternate version refers to Stalin as "the hunter and slayer of peasants.")

The circumstances in which Mandelstam wrote these lines have been described at length in Hope Against Hope, the classic memoir by his widow, Nadezhda Mandelstam. Published in the West in 1970, when she was 71, Hope Against Hope seemed to forever record the truth about the poet's calvary. Immediately after the poem's composition, when it became known in Mandelstam's circle, he was arrested by the secret police and banished from Moscow. In 1937, he was arrested again--and dispatched to the Gulag, where he died.

Gerstein adds very little of substance to these facts, but she is inhabited by a spirit of resentment over details she says were misrecorded by Mandelstam's widow, and petty slights she claims to have suffered from the poet himself. Contrary to the canonical account, in which the poet seems a somewhat otherworldly figure, she describes a Mandelstam so driven with hatred of the regime that he not only made no attempt to conceal the poem but recited it to numerous individuals and asked others (Gerstein included) to memorize it. She expresses dismay to have learned that she was not, as Mandelstam seemed to imply, the only person recruited for the risky task of recording the verses without writing them down.