Эмма Григориевна Герштейн
(1903 – 2002)
Moscow Memoirs, by Emma Gerstein
Keepers of the
Emma Gerstein deploys meticulous scholarship in her warts-and-all account of the Mandelstams, Moscow Memoirs. A literary spat is always entertaining, says Virginia Rounding
Saturday May 15, 2004
by Emma Gerstein, translated by John Crowfoot
512pp, Harvill Press, £25
Emma Gerstein was born in 1903, the second of four children, in what is now Latvia. Her father was a surgeon who, some years after Emma's birth, became head physician at a Moscow hospital. After the revolution he also became medical consultant to the élite of Soviet Russia, which brought benefits to his family in terms of living space and access to education. It took Emma some time, however, to find a career that suited her. After graduating from Moscow University, she had a string of unsatisfactory office jobs - so unsatisfactory, in fact, that towards the end of the 1920s she attempted suicide. It was at this point that her life changed. She was sent to recuperate at a sanatorium where she met the poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife Nadezhda. Her relationship with the Mandelstams and their circle formed the background to the rest of Emma's life. She also found her own vocation, as a literary researcher and scholar, becoming particularly renowned for her work on the 19th-century writer Mikhail Lermontov.
For lovers of Russian literature, Nadezhda Mandelstam has enjoyed for decades an almost iconic status. Her volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, both first published in English in the 70s and detailing the years of persecution undergone by her husband (who died on his way to the Gulag in 1938), by Anna Akhmatova and others, have been revered texts. Particularly while writers were still being oppressed in the Soviet Union, it would have felt politically incorrect to challenge the account given by this great survivor.
So to readers familiar with Nadezhda Mandelstam's books, Gerstein's Moscow Memoirs may come as something of a shock. They certainly did to their Russian audience, when they appeared in this version in 1998 (the work is actually a collection of different memoirs, first published between 1986 and 1998). For here the Mandelstams appear warts and all. We learn of Nadezhda's bisexuality and penchant for erotic games and threesomes, as well as of Osip's unusual methods of composing poetry (which included verbal abuse of his amanuensis, whoever that happened to be). We hear details of the poet's less than saintly behaviour under interrogation and we are made very aware of the demanding nature of friendship with the Mandelstams: "How skilfully he, indeed both the Mandelstams, involved vast numbers of people in promoting their interests! It was impossible not to be swept up by this crazy commotion and, like one hypnotised, join in the latest feud."
Gerstein also has interesting first-hand information to impart about the relationship between Akhmatova and her son, Lev Gumilyov, with whom Gerstein had an on/off affair for many years. She is damning about the reaction of readers to Nadezhda: "They cry with one voice: How magnificently she has reflected the epoch in her books! Defamation, slander and demagogy indeed shaped that epoch. Nadezhda not only depicted the time in which she lived but also embodied its defects." But Mme Mandelstam was always able to give as good as she got; in Hope Abandoned she had this to say about her "friend": "Emma Gerstein looked on our apartment as a place where she met 'interesting people' and unsuccessfully pursued her amorous designs on Lev Gumilyov, Narbut, and whoever else happened to be there, but she paid little attention to M[andelstam] and never understood his poetry." And then she specifically warns us off: "If any of this is written up by Emma Gerstein, it will be distorted out of all recognition. She has a genius for getting everything wrong."
Faced with these two formidable women trading insults, which one should we believe? (They clearly fell out; Gerstein says it was in 1968 over remarks made by Nadezhda about Nikolai Khardjiev, an art and literary specialist.) Gerstein's training in literary research has made her a meticulous scholar, and she carries this scholarship into the handling of her memoirs; she has also had access to documents which were not available either to previous writers or readers. She must then be given the benefit of the doubt. Nadezhda's memoirs will always remain as a personal account of a dreadful period in Russian history, and the story of a remarkable poet told by the woman who was his most constant companion, and for that they will be justly loved. But the greater distance and objectivity provided by Gerstein, who died in 2002, is invaluable. She recounts how horrified Akhmatova was at the idea of ever letting the public know that Mandelstam could be wrong: "This was a guiding principle. There was prior agreement that the literary portrait of Osip Mandelstam should ignore entire layers of his tangled and stormy life. I could not accept this set of rigidly enforced omissions." Moscow Memoirs is not an easy read, and for anyone previously unfamiliar with the dramatis personae it may at times be a bit of a struggle. For all students and readers of Akhmatova and Mandelstam, however, it is a must.
Rounding's Grandes Horizontales is published by Bloomsbury.
13 May 2004
336pp. | Harvill. | £25. 1 86046 883 7
The only kind of genius that Osip Mandelstam’s widow conceded to the literary
scholar Emma Gerstein was “a genius for getting everything wrong”. “If any of
this is written up by \[her\], it will be distorted out of all recognition”,
Nadezhda Mandelstam wrote in her second book of memoirs. “She has sometimes told
me stories from my own life at which I could only gape in astonishment”, she
continues, adding that her friend the poet Anna Akhmatova was so “terrified of
what Emma might write in her memoirs” that she did “everything possible to
propitiate her beforehand”. According to Gerstein, Osip Mandelstam shared this
anxiety. “You’ll write memoirs after I’m dead”, he told her in 1936 after she
had shown reluctance to petition the authorities on his behalf while he was in
exile in Voronezh, “but you don’t care about the living poet.” As Gerstein grew
“pale with rage” in response, she noticed that “something like fear was
reflected in Osip’s eyes”.
Seven years earlier, before he was first subjected to state terror, Mandelstam had created an example of aggressive self-assertion in dealing with his reputation and legacy, and some of the lesser terrors of a writer’s life. At odds with literary Moscow after a divisive row in 1928 with the translator Arkady Gornfeld who had, on the basis of a publisher’s error, accused him of plagiarism, Mandelstam declared that, “things have come to the point where I value the proud flesh around the wound in the word trade”.
In The Fourth Prose, the work with which he staunched the injury to his own pride, he suggested that the “tone of absolute courtesy that we have for some reason yielded to the memoirists” is the “greatest impertinence” in speaking “about the present”. Courtesy yields to self-vindication and raging abuse: “Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita . . . I was stopped in the dense Soviet forest by bandits who called themselves my judges”. The Moscow writers, editors and publishers in the midst of whom Mandelstam was then living were a “bitch pack” from whom he stood angrily apart. “I have no manuscripts, no notebooks, no archives”, Mandelstam declared, “I have no handwriting because I never write. I alone in Russia write from the voice . . .”.
Fear, propitiation and courtesy played no part in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s self-presentation when she came to write her memoirs three decades after Osip Mandelstam’s desolate end in a Gulag transit camp on the way to Kolyma. “I . . . was such a wild and angry one”, says the unsent letter of farewell to her lost husband with which she ends her second book of memoirs. Even if its only reader turned out to be some “expert whose task it is to destroy books, to eradicate words, to stamp out thought”, her work would at least demonstrate to one of those “functionaries to whom nothing matters”, that “this crazy old woman fears nothing”.
In Vtoraya kniga, the “Second Book” (published in English as Hope Abandoned), Nadezhda Mandelstam forcefully disarms Gerstein with imprecation, intellectual disparagement and bitchy ridicule. Gerstein had for a time been a friend with whom Mandelstam liked to “gossip”, she grants, but once he had heard “everything she had to say on the subject of Marxism” (which “took her about a month”), he lost interest in the “old hen”. She was a “dimwit” who hung around the Mandelstams in order to meet “interesting people”, and “unsuccessfully pursue her amorous designs on \[Akhmatova’s son\] Lev Gumilyov”. Gerstein, she recalls cattily, “was the kind who begins every sentence with a little sermon: ‘I told you so . . . ’”, the kind who takes “an interest in poets without knowing a damn thing about poetry”.
In great old age, between Nadezhda Mandelstam’s death in 1980 and her own in 2002, Emma Gerstein defied all propitiatory courtesies and pre-emptive assaults from the women she described as a pair of “witches and grandes dames”, and published a series of reminiscences and literary-historical investigations that many Russian readers saw as a desecration of the memory of the poet-martyr, Mandelstam, which his widow and Akhmatova had so carefully enshrined. John Crowfoot has now admirably translated and presented this controversial literary mosaic for English readers under the title Moscow Memoirs. Needless to say, Gerstein’s accounts of her friendships with the Mandelstams, with Boris Pasternak, and with Anna Akhmatova and her son Lev Gumilyov (with whom, contrary to her enemy’s insinuations, she did have a reciprocated love affair) differ markedly from those of Mandelstam’s “wild and angry” widow, whose curses had failed to silence her.
For all her fearlessness, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s sense of the danger that Gerstein represented to her own work of testimony seems to have intensified between the writing of her first and second books of memoir. The nature and fate of the “manuscripts, notebooks and archives” which she had laboured to produce from the work of Mandelstam’s living voice are at the heart of the enmity between the two old women. The few references to Gerstein in Kniga pervaya, the “First Book” (published in English as Hope against Hope), come without personal vilification. Gerstein, who was a friend of the Mandelstams in the 1920s and 30s, plays a minor role in the drama of the poet’s first arrest in 1934. The morning after the arrest, before the second search of his apartment, Nadezhda Mandelstam says that she entrusted Gerstein with the safekeeping of some of his papers. A later reference in a chapter entitled “Archive and Voice” is more ominous. Nadezhda Mandelstam notes parenthetically that Gerstein had tried to persuade her to hand over all her husband’s papers to the aspiring poet and literary specialist Sergei Rudakov, a “very strange type . . .” who “had become friendly” with Gerstein.
Nadezhda claims that she gave Rudakov original copies of Mandelstam’s most important writings and that Akhmatova delivered into his keeping, “on a sledge”, the entire archive of her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, who had been shot by the Cheka in 1921. Rudakov’s letters reveal, says Nadezhda Mandelstam, that “the poor boy was a psychopath”, and that the “theft of our archives” was part of a deliberate scheme, either mercenary or simply maniacal, to sell the manuscripts or to pass them off as his work in an insane act of plagiarism. Rudakov, “one of the most important figures in the story of M’s archives”, was killed at the Front in 1944, and whatever papers were left with his widow were lost to literary history in a wretched tangle of contradictory stories. The publication by Gerstein of Rudakov’s letters from Voronezh does not, despite her worthy intentions, entirely dispel the impression that, though devoted to Mandelstam and far from vicious, Rudakov may indeed have been susceptible to delusions.
“Not everyone . . . can write memoirs”, Emma Gerstein warns in the essay “Of Memoirs and More Besides” that concludes this volume. Both the writing and the correct reading of memoirs have, she complains, become “forgotten skills” since she was taught source-study in the philological faculty in the 1920s. “It was essential to indicate ‘I heard this from so and so . . .’. Then . . . a note became a document. Its reader might check the accuracy of the information received . . . .” Gerstein’s appeal to good academic practice is, however, of uncertain application when it comes to many of the precise matters over which she differs from Nadezhda Mandelstam and Akhmatova, in which it is often a case of one written assertion against another about what may or may not have happened, or been said, in a totalitarian police state fifty years earlier between rivalrous, creative individuals in closed rooms in communal apartments charged, as all these accounts suggest, with high levels of “bohemian” sexual energy, and barely tolerable domestic and political pressure. There is no way of checking the accuracy of many of her claims. Furthermore, Gerstein herself falls far short of the contemplation “without rapture, tearfulness or derision” of material evidence which, she says, “scholarship demands”. In the essays in Moscow Memoirs, she is no longer writing about Mikhail Lermontov and the early nineteenth century, as she had with distinction in her professional academic life, but about her own “life’s journey” and “the proud flesh around the wounds in the word trade”, in times when these wounds were many, fleshly and terrible. She repays Nadezhda Mandelstam in her own currency, with a depiction of the poet’s wife as arrogant, manipulative, “frivolously insouciant” about others’ welfare, dishonest, suicide-prone and kinky, with a disturbing penchant for ménages à trois, and very bow legs. The Mandelstam marriage itself, which achieves such surpassing fulfilment in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s acts of remembrance, evokes distaste in Gerstein. She presents the union as a selfish folie à deux, in which outsiders were habitually compromised and sometimes destroyed. She finds Mandelstam’s love letters cloying: “my wife, my friend, my daughter”, he wrote to Nadezhda, “you are my radiant, my fearless one”, “without whom I can’t breathe”.
Gerstein denies, but cannot conclusively refute, Nadezhda Mandelstam’s claims about her part in the panicked dispersal of Mandelstam’s papers after the sleepless May night of his arrest. Nadezhda Mandelstam’s most substantial, though unsubstantiated, allegation against “our \[sermonizing\] Lermontov scholar” Gerstein, is that she had burned the only existing autograph of a poem, part of a cycle in memory of the poet Andrei Bely, given into her care after the secret police searches in 1934. “For some reason,” Nadezhda Mandelstam says, “I am repelled by the fact that instead of throwing it into the stove, she held it in the flame of a candle.” “I remember this differently,” Gerstein writes, “she was mistaken.” The satchel of documents she took from the Mandelstams was not part of a poet’s archive, but only “papers compiled to collect money from a New York insurance company on the death of Nadya’s father”, which Gerstein fed into the stove in wads to conceal her friend’s bourgeois origins. The only “material evidence”, as Gerstein puts it, for her version of the story was the satchel, which she looked at every time she spring cleaned for the next twenty-seven years, until she “threw it away on moving . . .”. Posterity has, in other words, no more than her word for it, a description of a discarded bag. The draft (which was not of the poem “From where have they brought him?”, as Nadezhda Mandelstam claimed, but another, more wrought and “difficult to decipher” poem in the cycle) had, Gerstein explains, long since been put down the toilet by her “oldest friend” Lena.
Gerstein’s foremost achievement in responding to Nadezhda Mandelstam’s allegedly “tendentious” and “inaccurate” memoirs, is not to vindicate or avenge herself, or even to establish documentary truth based on material evidence, so much as to deepen our understanding of the terrible strain to which friendships and family relationships were subjected at a time when people found themselves in mortal fear, flushing away or burning barely decipherable manuscripts of philosophical poems memorializing dead symbolist poets, or worse, naming one another in depositions taken in the Lubyanka by “blood-crazed officials” afraid of poetry. “Today’s readers . . . cannot imagine the malevolent atmosphere in which those days were shrouded”, Gerstein writes.
In her essay on “Anna Akhmatova and Lev Gumilyov”, she intervenes with painstaking and magnanimous scholarly attention in a mother–son relationship tortured to destruction by the painstaking and malevolent attentions of the secret police. She attempts to correct the “tormented Gumilyov’s doctored version of the causes of his misfortune”, which had become current in the Russian literary press after the popular Orientalist historian’s death in 1992. The story of Gumilyov’s persecution is linked, in her account, with Mandelstam’s great act of poetic “terrorism”, the Stalin epigram. Like Gerstein, Gumilyov had been named by Mandelstam in the Lubyanka as one of those to whom he had recited the poem. Gumilyov was arrested in 1938 and again in 1949, repeatedly punished for unspecified offences. Gerstein is convinced that the basis of the case against him was Mandelstam’s poem, which the young man had not only heard, but which he had also read aloud in 1935, and written out in his own hand. She also suggests that some of her own professional misfortunes may have originated with Mandelstam’s interrogation which, she concedes, had left the poet psychotic and suicidal.
Gumilyov made bitter accusations of neglect against his mother after his release. In Akhmatova’s defence, Gerstein describes how the poet had burned much of her archive, how she exalted Stalin in rhyme on his seventieth birthday, hoping for clemency for her son. “She abandoned the moral purity of her poetry to save her son and received insults from all sides and from her own child . . . she was unable to bear it: ‘Not one mother has done for her son what I did!’ The response was a rolling on the floor, screams and camp obscenities. I was there.”
The power and the vulnerability of Emma Gerstein’s witness rest precisely in unverifiable statements like “I was there”, “she was mistaken” and “I remember this differently”. Nadezhda Mandelstam had noted, when describing an encounter with a state functionary, that a Soviet official of “exalted rank never commits anything to paper, thus leaving no material evidence . . . but only a momentary disturbance of the air which leaves no trace”. Like her, Emma Gerstein has transcribed and thus preserved the “slight air turbulences” made by human voices that Stalin and the servants of his anti-culture, “whose task it is . . . to eradicate words, to stamp out thought”, had endeavoured to keep unheard.
“We live without sensing the country beneath us”, Mandelstam wrote in the “Stalin epigram”, the poem that led him and his friends to so much hurt and loss:
At ten paces, our words have no sound
And when there’s the will to half open our mouths
The Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.
Emma Gerstein and Nadezhda Mandelstam make their words heard in defiance, not so
much of one another, as of the “Kremlin crag-dweller”. The catfight between the
two wounded and aggressive old women thus achieves transcendence. In spite of
their mutual antipathy, they are united in defiance of an enemy committed to the
systematic destruction of the foundations on which Mandelstam’s poetics rest:
the freedom and play of the individual personality, of community, of memory
itself, and of the great synchronous conversation of the European cultural
tradition. In Gerstein’s memoirs of what Mandelstam called the “bitch-loud
nights of Moscow”, no less than in Nadezhda Mandelstam’s more soaring, spry and
endearing volumes, literature and politics are always personal, indeed domestic:
a matter of tinned fish, boiled eggs, Dutch stoves, saucepans, borrowed gas
rings, kitchen tables, tramcars, bad plumbing, communal apartments, residence
permits, health problems, and endless changes of address, as well as nicknames,
gossip, erotic mayhem, tantrums, poetic creation, lost manuscripts, sacrifice,
betrayal, forgiveness, plank beds in Siberian barrack huts, and common burial
For Mandelstam, art, personality and history flow in and out of one another, and literature thrives precisely “in spite”. In his own memoir, The Noise of Time, written a decade before his troubles with the Stalinist State began, Mandelstam remembers the scholar V. V. Gippius, who taught literature at the Tenishev School in St Petersburg, or rather, “not literature, but the far more interesting science of literary spite”. It was Gippius’s quarrelsome, spite-filled relationship with his subject that taught the schoolboy Mandelstam that “it is only with the masks of other men’s voices that the bare walls of my house are decorated”. “Even then,” the poet remembers, “I knew that there gather around literature its witnesses, the members, so to speak of its household.”
Emma Gerstein tells how she was entrusted with an Osip Mandelstam poem that was so dangerous it couldn't be written down
Saturday April 17, 2004
One morning [in 1933], unexpectedly, Nadezhda came to see me; in fact, she rushed in. Her words were brief and urgent: "Osya [Osip Mandelstam] has composed a very outspoken poem. It can't be written down. No one, apart from me, knows about it. We need someone else to memorise it. You're the one. After we die, you'll make it public. Osya will recite it to you; then you'll learn it by heart with me. For the time being no one must know of this. Especially Lyova [Gumilyov]."
Nadya was very wound up. Without more ado, we went to Nashchokin Street. Nadya left me alone with Mandelstam in the large room. He read aloud:
without sensing the country beneath us,
At ten paces, our words have no sound
And when there's the will to half open our mouths
The Kremlin crag-dweller bars the way.
Fat fingers as oily as maggots,
Words sure as forty-pound weights,
With his leather-clad gleaming calves
And his large laughing cockroach eyes.
And around him
a rabble of thin-necked bosses,
He toys with the service of such semi-humans.
They whistle, they meow and they whine:
He alone merely jabs with his finger and barks,
Hurling one decree and another like horseshoes
In the eye, in the face, the brow or the groin.
Not one shooting but swells his gang's pleasure,
And the broad breast of the Ossetian.
Today the Stalin epigram is well known. But having read the closing couplet, Mandelstam exclaimed: "No, no! That's a bad ending. There's something of Tsvetayeva about it. I'll leave it out. It will do well enough without it..."
Then he read the whole poem again, closing with enormous fervour: " 'Hurling one decree and another like horseshoes - / In the eye, in the face, the brow or the groin!' The Komsomol will sing that on the streets," (he was swept up by his own exultant mood) "in the Bolshoi Theatre... at congresses... from every tier and balcony...!" And he marched around the room.
Searing me with a direct fiery gaze, he halted: "Watch out. Not a word. If they find out, I could be SHOT!"
Tossing back his head with especial pride, he again marched back and forth across the room, rising on tiptoe each time he changed direction. Then Nadya and I withdrew, and she began to recite the poem to me, line by line. Straightaway she told me an alternative version of the fifth line: "Even the dogs in his courtyard are plump."
It was all deeply buried and concealed, I thought. Before Mandelstam was sentenced in 1934 I told no one else about the poem and naturally did not recite it to a soul. When the Mandelstams once began talking about the epigram in my presence, however, Nadya placidly commented that Nina Grin preferred the other version. "Stunned" is not the word. So I was not the only one in on this secret? .
This is an extract from Emma Gerstein's Moscow Memoirs, published by Harvill Press on April 22nd at £25
Witness to the
Poets Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova became icons in the post-Soviet era, but the memoirs of their friend Emma Gerstein cast their sufferings in a dramatic new light. John Crowfoot explores a tangled literary heritage
Saturday April 17, 2004
Visiting Emma Gerstein at the end of her very long life - she died three months short of her 99th birthday, in June 2002 - was a curious experience. There sat the spinster academic, large and immobile, a magnificent braid of white hair draped over her left shoulder. She was a welcoming and alert presence propped behind a desk piled with books and papers. A highly regarded specialist on 19th-century Russian literature, she had spent years investigating and rewriting the biography of the poet Lermontov. Yet at the age of 95, Gerstein achieved an uncertain celebrity of a far wider kind.
In 1998, breaking the silence of decades, she published an uncomfortably frank description of her earlier life and friendship with Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, two of Russia's greatest 20th-century poets. The tone and contents of Gerstein's collected memoirs were so unlike other accounts that there was a public furore.
Some in Russia were scandalised. The better informed knew that Gerstein might have something to say, and had earned the right to say it. Even so, they too were frequently startled by her forthright attitude. Others were enthralled by an unforeseen and fresh account of apparently familiar events and personalities. Less than a decade after censorship had disappeared, such plain speaking was still not the norm, especially when discussing victims of the Soviet regime who had become revered literary-political icons of the post-Communist era.
Emma Gerstein was born on October 25 1903 in Dinaburg (Daugavpils in modern Latvia), the second of four children. After some years the family moved to Moscow, where Emma's father Grigory Gerstein, a surgeon, had found work at one of the hospitals. In 1921, the family moved into a service apartment where Emma would live for the next 40 years.
Her father belonged to one of the few professions then accorded unequivocal respect by the Bolshevik regime; though he never joined the Communist party, he sympathised with the new order. His sons and daughters seemed assured of a good education and satisfying careers. But Emma could not settle.
At first, on the advice of her relatives, she studied natural sciences at Moscow University: perhaps she would train as a doctor. Transferring to the language and literature department, she graduated in early 1925. Thereafter a succession of increasingly modest jobs drove her to despair. Gerstein attempted to poison herself, but she was caught in time. After consulting the family, an alarmed Grigory Gerstein sent his daughter to a sanatorium to recover.
There, at Uzkoye, in October 1928, she met Osip and Nadezhda Mandelstam who were on vacation. The encounter changed the whole course of her existence. She felt instantly drawn to the unusual couple. Soon they were friends, and for the next 10 years Emma would be one of their immediate circle.
Osip Mandelstam, who was sent into exile by Stalin in May 1934, is regarded today as the 20th century's literary martyr par excellence, and his widow's two volumes of memoirs Hope against Hope (1965) and Hope Abandoned (1970) became key underground texts for the whole Soviet bloc. Descriptions of the poet's life are, inevitably, distorted by the knowledge of his tragic end, and this has only added to the legend. In Nadezhda's account, for example, Mandelstam's outcast status in Soviet literature was "defined as early as 1923". Yet the poet then had 15 years to live.
Shortly before meeting Gerstein, Mandelstam and Nadezhda had moved to Moscow. A public row with translator Arkady Gornfeld meant that Mandelstam's income from translation soon dried up, and Nadezhda's impassioned first memoir conveys a sense of impending doom. Still, in 1928, volumes of Mandelstam's verse and prose had just appeared and in 1930 he again began to write and publish poetry.
Mandelstam's 1933 act of defiance in composing a satirical epigram about Stalin cast a long shadow over the poet's last years and the life of his closest acquaintances. Gerstein's irreverent, affectionate portrait of the poet prepares the reader for a significantly different interpretation of that subversive work and its consequences. For what she describes above all in her recollection of the Stalin epigram is not a resolute and solemn opponent of tyranny, but first and foremost a poet exhilarated by a successful composition - with the fateful consequence (for himself and others) that, despite his own warnings, he could not resist sharing his new work with more and more listeners.
On a visit to the banished Mandelstams in Voronezh in 1936, Gerstein was confronted by the couple. She was reluctant to petition the Party's Central Committee or the Writers' Union on their behalf. "You'll write memoirs after I'm dead", Mandelstam taunted, "but you don't care about the living poet?" Gerstein was furious. At the time, as she tells her readers, "I had no idea of doing such a thing. Close personal ties then bound me to the Mandelstams, not my historical and literary interests."
Gerstein's first attempt to write her memoirs was halted in the late 1950s by Anna Akhmatova, who was aghast at the candid portrait of Mandelstam. None the less, Akhmatova is the one person to emerge from Gerstein's memoirs undiminished both as an artist and as a human being. Gerstein had a long-lasting, on-off affair with her son Lyova, and through close contact with both mother and son, Gerstein came to appreciate the tragedy of their entangled lives.
"With childish enjoyment the poets were reading aloud in Italian from Dante's Divine Comedy ," notes Gerstein of her first glimpse of Akhmatova, who was visiting Mandelstam when they met in 1933. "To be precise, they were not reading but acting out the parts... It was strange to see Akhmatova wearing glasses..."
As one who knew and understood Mandelstam and Akhmatova, Gerstein's memoirs restore a wider balance and perspective. At times, the Mandelstams suggested that Akhmatova's position was the easier: as a woman she was shielded by her husband; as a poet her work was more readily understood. Yet ambiguous as Mandelstam's status might be, until Stalin's famous 1934 order to "isolate but preserve" him, he intermittently enjoyed opportunities to publish and recite his works that were wholly denied Akhmatova, an outstanding poet whose former husband Nikolai Gumilyov, the father of her only child, had been shot as an anti-Bolshevik conspirator in 1921.
For some years their son, Lyova, was kept out of harm's way, but in the 1930s both he and Akhmatova's fourth husband, the art historian Nikolai Punin, were arrested. Little more movingly illustrates Emma Gerstein's "tender attachment" to Akhmatova than her vigil beside the sleeping poet in October 1935 when, following those arrests, Akhmatova aged overnight.
In 1938 Lyova was detained again, for a time threatened with execution, and then sent to the camps. His mother was put under constant surveillance. In December of that year Mandelstam died on his way to the Gulag. Akhmatova's ordeals would continue into a yet bleaker period.
In 1949 Lyova was imprisoned a second time. With a great many other such "repeaters" he was sent back to the camps: they had already proven they could survive there.
One aim, doubtless, was to break the will of his now sick mother. This second period of imprisonment ultimately drove mother and son apart. But the affection that bound Akhmatova and Gerstein did not cool, and in 1974 Gerstein publicly defended Akhmatova's memory against Lyova's claim that she had abandoned him to the Gulag.
How does a poet address a tyrant? Gerstein touches the most sensitive of issues for her two heroes, and their admirers, when she confronts the poems they addressed to the Leader. The cynicism of the post-war years, more chilling than the horrors of the 30s, would lead Akhmatova to produce a different kind of verse. Her 1950 cycle "In Praise of Peace" (and Stalin) was a calculated though agonising gesture: "Legend speaks of a wise man who saved each of us from a terrible death."
These poems did not improve matters either for Lyova or for herself. They did prevent them, perhaps, from getting any worse. Gerstein evokes the enduring humiliation to which Akhmatova subjected herself. In the late 1950s, giving copies of the new volume of her poetry to friends, Akhmatova would paste over the compromising texts with other poems.
Certain poems by Mandelstam (and Pasternak) in the 1930s were a more complex matter. They reveal a genuine fascination with the Stalin phenomenon and an attempt, through verse, to grasp the realities he represented. Not content to leave matters at the level of discomfort with the very existence of these "aberrant" compositions, Gerstein probed further. After the Stalin epigram, Mandelstam felt a periodic urge to restore contact with the revolution and, even, with the Leader. In 1937 he penned an "Ode" to Stalin. "Everywhere", on his return from exile, Gerstein records, "Osip gave inspired readings of his 'Ode'."
It would take decades for Mandelstam and Akhmatova to be fully rehabilitated. For a brief but memorable period in the late 1950s, various kinds of poetry became immensely popular and officially tolerated in the Soviet Union: football stadiums were filled for poetry readings; the young gathered around the statue of Mayakovsky, recently erected in Moscow, to recite their own works. In its way, Nadezhda Mandelstam's first, monumental book of memoirs was unofficially the high-water mark of that period, the short-lived political thaw following Stalin's death. But this only made the foot-dragging over Mandelstam's rehabilitation as an artist the more frustrating for his admirers: no longer banned, he and Akhmatova remained officially undesirable, while Nadezhda was not permitted to live permanently in Moscow until 1964.
Admitted at 62 to the Writers' Union, Emma Gerstein did not become an acquiescent member of the literary establishment. In 1967 she signed a collective letter in defence of Solzhenitsyn. But in Hope Abandoned Nadezhda would accuse Gerstein and the critic Sergei Rudakov of destroying part of Mandelstam's poetic legacy. A terrified Gerstein had supposedly burned a precious manuscript in a candle flame; Rudakov, who was killed during the war, had either stolen Mandelstam's never-published poems or, Nadezhda asserted, was planning to pass them off as his own.
Gerstein did not respond publicly for more than 20 years, but her final memoir "Nadezhda", published in Russia in 1998, paints an unforgiving portrait. Nadezhda's extraordinary accusations were groundless and she is further criticised for her part in a subsequent dispute, involving Nikolai Khardjiev, the editor of a long-promised Soviet collection of Mandelstam's poetry.
That there were likely to be serious problems in dealing with Mandelstam's unpublished poetic legacy was hardly surprising. For example, Emma recalled a version of the Stalin epigram that was dramatically confirmed when the KGB released Mandelstam's autograph of the poem over half a century later. When Nadezhda turned on Khardjiev, accusing him of jeopardising the Mandelstam archives, Gerstein took Khardjiev's side. That quarrel permanently alienated her from Nadezhda, who died in 1980.
A scene from that later period provides a fitting conclusion. In early 1974, not long before Gerstein began to write her memoirs, a second printing of the long-awaited Leningrad edition of Mandelstam's poetry suddenly came on sale. Moscow writer Alexander Gladkov made the following entry in his diary:
"15 January. This morning they sold Mandelstam at the Bookstall. After the previous disappointments a list was drawn up of over 200 people. Lev put me down as # 65. At 9.30 am and even earlier there was a crowd waiting outside... The temperature was 19 below zero. We went off, once in a while, to warm up in some neighbouring financial institution. Sometimes, as always happens in queues, amazing rumours began (they wouldn't bring any, they'd only have 50 copies, only people who brought their Writers' Union card would get one). At about 11 the books arrived. The shop's director announced that 200 copies would be put on sale. People lined up."
The diarist, a member of the union queuing up outside the Writers' Bookstall in the centre of Moscow, was lucky. He'd left his card at home but was able to buy a copy for one rouble 45 kopecks ("They say it's already selling on the black market for 50-80 roubles"). Pleased with his good fortune, he forgot to mention an odd coincidence: January 15 1974 would have been Osip Mandelstam's 83rd birthday.
This is an edited extract from John Crowfoot's introduction to Moscow Memoirs by Emma Gerstein, published by Harvill Press on April 22 at £25
May, 14 - 20 2003
The Moscow Times
ARTS & IDEAS
Unsparing in her recollections of the Stalin-era intelligentsia, Emma Gerstein refrains from judging the friend she most admired, Osip Mandelstam.
By Oliver Ready
When published in Russia in 1998,
"Moscow Memoirs" drew prizes and praise from some quarters, and charges of
irreverence and malice from others. An account, in part, of life in the company
of Anna Akhmatova, Boris Pasternak and, principally, Osip Mandelstam, it
provided an unusually messy and human picture of great poets and their foibles.
For some readers, the image of a nonagenarian spinster reflecting on the erotic
exploits of Mr. and Mrs. Mandelstam (and on much else besides) was clearly
beyond the pale.
Emma Gerstein, a literary scholar, died in 2002 at the age of 98, and we can only feel thankful both for her longevity and her powers of recollection. Rich in vivid anecdotes and convincing analysis, her "Moscow Memoirs" broaden and deepen our understanding of Mandelstam and Akhmatova, their circle and their era. Gerstein's love and flair for poetry is palpable throughout, while on key issues of historical fact she has fresh evidence to propose and sharp interpretations to suggest.
After a first chance meeting at a sanatorium outside Moscow in 1928, Gerstein's fate became forever entwined, through friendship and acrimony, not only with that of the lyric poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda, but also with the fates of their relatives and acquaintances -- notably Akhmatova and her son, Lev Gumilyov, for whom Gerstein nurtured an unhappy but persistent affection ("Unwanted Love" is the title, if not quite the focus, of the longest section of the book). These lives were, without exception, brutally defined by the fears, punishments and traumas of the Stalin years, and "Moscow Memoirs" is studded with tales of lost or burned manuscripts and with the closely observed signs of physical and mental disintegration, most painfully in the case of Osip Mandelstam, the book's central figure.
The Mandelstam who emerges from these pages can be hysterical and ostentatious, demanding and irresponsible. But Gerstein, while never denying his faults, does not judge him. "It was our duty," she remembers telling an acquaintance, "to forgive the poet a great deal." In fact, the image of the poet in "Moscow Memoirs" is in significant respects archetypal: If no longer a martyr in Gerstein's account, Mandelstam remains very much a prophet, even genius. Gerstein was clearly alive to his love of the paradoxical and unconventional, to the qualities of a creative mind whose thoughts "leap implicit links." It was just these qualities that gave Mandelstam's poetry its sophistication and lightness, and that emblazoned his conversation on Gerstein's memory ("Yes, you are unfortunate," he once told her. "But do you know? Sometimes unfortunate people are very happy"). Many of her sketches capture a joyful, fragile vitality: "Mandelstam laughed not like a child but like a tiny infant. His toothless mouth opened and closed while tears streamed from his tightly closed eyes. He dried his beautiful curling eyelashes and shook his head."
Much of the controversy surrounding "Moscow Memoirs" derives from the fact that, while Gerstein may have been happy to forgive the poet his failings, she felt under no obligation to forgive those of his wife, Nadezhda, who died in 1980. Gerstein's memoirs crackle with ancient quarrels. After long years of close but taxing friendship, Gerstein and Nadezhda fell out for good in 1968, by which point Nadezhda, already a widow for three decades, had written and unofficially circulated "Hope Against Hope," the first of the famous memoirs that enshrined the image not just of herself and her husband Osip Mandelstam, but also of the many other figures who were drawn into their lives. Gerstein, a stickler for the facts, summarily denounces the accuracy and good faith of Nadezhda's accounts: "They cry with one voice: How magnificently she has reflected the epoch in her books! Defamation, slander and demagogy indeed shaped that epoch. Nadezhda not only depicted the time in which she lived but also embodied its defects."
Gerstein retraces key episodes of Mandelstam's final years: his first arrest in the wake of his 1933 "Epigram," which described the "Kremlin crag-dweller" (Stalin) with "fat fingers as oily as maggots" and "large laughing cockroach eyes"; his three years in internal exile in Voronezh; and his subsequent peregrinations before a second arrest in 1938, which was followed by death in a transit camp. All through this period Gerstein was at hand as witness and support, even if she eventually came to feel that "the Mandelstams needed me not as a friend, a companion or an admirer of his work, but as a servant with no life or personality of her own."
Against the canonical account, polished by Akhmatova in "Leaves From a Diary" "under the strong influence of Nadezhda's guiding hand," Gerstein claims that there was nothing heroic or "irreproachable" about Mandelstam's conduct under interrogation in 1934, when the poet named her and many others as acquaintances to whom he had read his "Epigram." As for the years of exile, Gerstein views them as an improbable example of clemency on the part of Stalin, whose relative leniency in this instance ("isolate, but preserve") only cast into sharper relief the rashness of the Mandelstams' behavior on their return in 1937. "It was madness," Gerstein writes, "for anyone to hang around Moscow and Leningrad in 1937 without the right to reside in either city, and to hover persistently before the eyes of blood-crazed officials or mortally frightened writers and editors. For the sick Mandelstam it was triply insane. Yet Nadya could not withstand Mandelstam's elemental craving to live and work freely and openly and Nadya's gambling instinct constantly incited Osip to keep trying."
Gerstein's revisions of accepted literary history point in innumerable directions, and it is now for the scholars to assess the validity and implications of her assertions. She has also tried to recover the true history of Mandelstam's many romantic attachments, even his erotic interests, which, she claims, was smoothed over in Nadezhda's memoirs. Gerstein explores its relevance to his poetry, about which she has much of interest to say.
Another bone of contention is the often tragic history of Mandelstam's manuscripts. Here, Gerstein comes to the rescue of Sergei Rudakov, a callow, aspiring poet to whom Mandelstam entrusted much of his work in Voronezh and whom Nadezhda accused of planning to steal her husband's archive. Conclusively disproving this slur, Gerstein makes a case for the singular interest of the relationship between Mandelstam and Rudakov, and provides 30 pages of Rudakov's correspondence from Voronezh.
Gerstein also describes Rudakov's life and background, creating one of the many compelling portraits that are tucked away in the ample pockets of these surprisingly shapeless memoirs. The richness of the book is its abiding quality, even if the "general reader" -- to whom John Crowfoot rightly directs his diligent efforts as translator and editor -- may find the detail overbearing in places. I have not even touched here on Gerstein's sensitive pages on Akhmatova, in which she rejects "the legend of the bad mother"; nor on her much harsher treatment of Lev Gumilyov. Noteworthy, too, is Gerstein's insightful discussion of the psychological relationship between Pasternak and Stalin, poet and tsar.
More broadly, "Moscow Memoirs" must be read for its thoughtful overview of several extraordinary decades, especially the long-distant 1930s. And also, lest we forget, for the moving story it so discreetly tells of the life and loves of lonely Emma Gerstein, an acclaimed Lermontov scholar and, according to Osip Mandelstam, the "most intelligent woman in Moscow."
Oliver Ready is a graduate student at Oxford and the translator of two books by Yuri Buida.
The plight of two poets in
Emma Gerstein tr by John Crowfoot
482pp, Harvill Press, £25
Charlotte Hobson reviews Moscow Memoirs by Emma Gerstein
When Emma Gerstein, an elderly Russian academic, published a longer version of these memoirs in Russia in 1998, she provoked outrage in literary Moscow.
In meticulous, fiercely honest prose, Gerstein describes her close friendship with two of the greatest poets of the century, Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, as well as Mandelstam's wife, Nadezhda. In doing so, she criticises one of the dissident movement's most sacred texts, Nadezhda Mandelstam's two-volume memoir, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned.
To many in Moscow, this was "mean-spirited", the act of "an embittered old maid". Others greeted Gerstein's recollections with delight. A voice from the 1930s had spoken. Mandelstam and Akhmatova lived again in her pages.
I first read Nadezhda Mandelstam's books while studying in Voronezh, the provincial city where the Mandelstams were exiled in 1934. Like many, I found her description of their life indescribably moving; the image of the harassed, debilitated Osip Mandelstam muttering poetry as he paced the streets of Voronezh haunted me, as did his astonishing "Voronezh Cycle", the poetry he wrote during this period of poverty and nervous exhaustion.
The portrait Gerstein draws of Mandelstam is vivid, human and comic, full of affection. She describes in detail his neurotic, impulsive behaviour, his petty obsessions and his occasional malice – for example, his relief when Akhmatova leaves after a long visit. "How good that she's gone! That was too much electricity for one home." But who has not felt the same on saying goodbye to one's dearest friends?
Gerstein also describes Mandelstam's hypochondria and capriciousness, and a contemporary letter she mentions tells of a hilarious episode in a hospital in Tambov. The poet was infuriating everyone. Eight patients banged on his door, upon which "O. leapt out and began shouting, calling them all bastards etc… a fellow organised a Red Partisan attack. O. in his underclothes fled to the doctor's office and there he cursed everyone… In the end they discharged him `due to a dramatic worsening of his condition'." Despite it all, Mandelstam comes across as a gifted and inspirational figure, a man full of courage and amazing zhizneradost, or life-gladness.
Akhmatova emerges scarcely blemished from Gerstein's examination. She displayed remarkable dignity during her four decades of poverty and oppression under the Soviet regime. Her first husband, Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed by the Bolsheviks; their son, Lev, was twice imprisoned. The cruellest blow of all, perhaps, was that Lev became so embittered by his experience that he turned against his ageing mother. No wonder she wrote in a poem of 1945: "The most reliable thing on earth – sorrow."
Gerstein's disapproval is directed most fiercely at Nadezhda Mandelstam for her sloppiness in writing and researching her memoirs. Gerstein, who died in 2002 at the age of 98, was a painstaking literary historian, a woman to whom such failings were no less than lies. In this instance she has a point: Hope Against Hope was guilty of inaccuracy at best, slander at worst, and until perestroika its victims had no possibility of redress. However, these 70-year-old quarrels are the least interesting aspect of Moscow Memoirs.
Nadezhda Mandelstam's errors were in part a product of the time, a time that Gerstein conjures up with painful vividness. These were the years when "the crack of skulls being crushed could be felt in the air". In public, most were discreet; many sought jobs that made no ideological demands, and were critical in private. For Gerstein, "Stalin's defining trait was his corrupting influence". He ensured the moral destruction of most who were arrested; of Gerstein's circle, almost everyone who fell into the hands of the NKVD incriminated their friends.
A small revolution in Russia
Aurea Carpenter reviews Moscow Memoirs by Emma Gerstein and Death of a Poet by Irma Kudrova
In 1998, when, breaking decades of silence, Emma Gerstein finally published these memoirs, she may have wondered if she hadn't left it just a bit too late. A literary researcher and critic, born and bred in Moscow, she had witnessed the most turbulent of centuries - from childhood in Tsarist Russia, through the Bolshevik revolution and the years of the Terror and Cold War, to perestroika and beyond - and now found herself offering her life's work to a dwindling readership, as she put it, in "an altered world, occupied with very different things", in which books were all but forgotten.
She need not have worried. Moscow Memoirs caused uproar when it was published in Russia, largely because of its unflattering portrayal of two of the nation's most revered figures - the great poet Osip Mandelstam and his wife, Nadezhda.
Gerstein first met the Mandelstams in 1928, at a sanatorium near Moscow where she was recuperating from a bout of depression. They quickly became friends, three kindred spirits in league against the petty dramas of patient life. Gerstein, then 25, had been feeling dissatisfied and unsettled, at a loss as to what she wanted to do with her career, and this new friendship, as she explains, marked a turning point: "Acquaintance with Mandelstam was my 'initiation' into a different life where everything was judged by other standards."
Over the next decade Gerstein came to know many of Russia's most eminent writers - the poets Anna Akhmatova and Boris Pasternak, the critics Sergei Rudakov and Nikolai Khardiev - but, to her chagrin, she never really felt she qualified as a main literary player herself. Much later on in her life, she would be widely praised for her groundbreaking study of the work of Mikhail Lermontov but, back in the 1930s, she was still the quiet one in the corner, underestimated, unrecognised - and don't they so often turn out to be the most dangerous witnesses?
Of all the characters that Gerstein depicts in this book only Akhmatova emerges wholly undiminished (no surprise there, perhaps, since she was also one of the few writers who took the young Gerstein's work and ideas seriously). Akhmatova comes over as a noble, majestic figure, caught tragically between the demands of art, state and motherhood. In fact, her reputation is even bolstered here thanks to Gerstein's access to privileged information about the poet via her son, Lev Gumilyov - with whom Gerstein had a long, haphazard affair.
Not so the Mandelstams. Gerstein clearly had a deep affection for Osip Mandelstam, and regarded him as a great poet. But she also has no compunction about revealing the darker side of his complicated nature - that of a "fussy, highly strung" man, vain and petulant when he didn't get his own way, a game-player; he had, says Gerstein, "a cruel mind but a kind heart".
Accustomed as we are in the West, to the art of warts-and-all biography writing, we may find it difficult to understand why this relatively mild character assassination caused such a storm. But this is not a Western poet we are talking about, it is a Russian poet, a beloved one at that, whose poems during the worst years of Soviet repression provided some people literally with a reason to carry on living.
And then there is the treatment of his wife. If Mandelstam was a literary martyr par excellence, then Nadezhda was his perfect partner. After Mandelstam's death in the camps in 1938, Nadezhda published two volumes of memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned which, when they became available in the West via the underground press in the 1960s and 1970s, instantly became required reading for anyone interested in the plight of Russia under the Soviet regime.
It is these "epoch-shaping" books with which Gerstein takes issue. They were the products, she argues, of a woman of uninhibited ambition, who woefully misrepresented the facts, and allowed herself to play freely with dialogue, dates and events to suit her own interests.
As literary historical spats go, this is all very entertaining - and we should not feel too sorry for Nadezhda, who could give just as good as she got: "If any of this is written up by Emma Gerstein", she wrote in Hope Abandoned, "it will be distorted out of all recognition. She has a genius for getting everything wrong." But whom should we believe?
According to Gerstein, the Mandelstams asked a lot of her. When the poet was interrogated by the secret police and forced to give names of those to whom he had confided his subversive poem about Stalin, hers was, as he later admitted, pretty much top of the list.
And this was not the only occasion on which she was treated as expendable. She gives a terrible description of the tense days of the autumn of 1941, when Moscow was coming under daily bombardment, and everyone was debating whether to leave the city or stay. In the end, despite their promises that they would reserve a place for her on the special train out the next morning, Akhmatova et al left without her.
And yet, and yet . . . did Gerstein really have so much to complain about? She outlived all of these "living treasures". She did not lose her family to the camps, was never sent into exile. Did she need to betray her former friends in this way?
There is a telling passage early on in Moscow Memoirs, in which Gerstein directly addresses the issue of her motivation for writing the book. After a disagreement with Mandelstam in 1936, when she refuses his demand that she go to the Central Committee to protest about his treatment in exile, he becomes spiky and scornful. Perhaps she is afraid? he taunts. "Aha . . . You'll write memoirs after I'm dead, but you don't care about the living poet?"
At that time, as Gerstein explains, she felt full of rage at the suggestion: "I had no idea of doing such a thing. Close personal ties then bound me to the Mandelstams, not my historical and literary interests." Maybe. But still, it is a fascinatingly prescient remark; and somehow one trusts Gerstein's account all the more for her having had the courage to repeat it.
Irma Kudrova's The Death of a Poet [Overlook Duckworth, £20, 232 pp] is an examination of the circumstances surrounding the suicide of another great poet of the Stalinist era, Marina Tsvetaeva, using new testimony and recently released material from Soviet archives.
Kudrova picks up Tsvetaeva's story in June 1939, when the poet, having long lived with her husband Sergei Efron in exile in Paris, makes the fateful decision to follow him and their daughter Alya back to Moscow. Soon after the family is reunited, both Efron and Alya are arrested for "anti-Soviet activity". For Tsvetaeva this is as perplexing as it is devastating. Her husband, a former officer in the White Guard, had since converted to the Bolshevik cause, and in emigre circles in Europe had worked vigorously in the Soviet interest. Surely there had been some mistake?
Life under totalitarianism, as Tsvetaeva begins to realise, involves an endless cycle of senseless betrayals. For her, this is only the beginning, as old friends and colleagues close ranks and turn away, and she finds herself an exile in her own country.
This is a tragic drama, vividly told. "My strongest passion - justice - was wounded and bloodied," wrote Tsvetaeva in her notebook, just before she hanged herself in 1941. At which Kudrova can only shake her head in a sort of reverent bewilderment: "She still did not suspect that to take so strongly to heart the flouting of justice in her fatherland in these years was like grieving over the absence of snow in the Sahara."
In Brief: The Poet as Flawed Hero
Sunday, October 17, 2004; Page BW15
Preeminent Russian poets Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam have become emblems of suffering -- iconic victims of the Soviet regime. Not without cause: Mandelstam died anonymously in the transit camp near Vladivostok, probably of typhus, in 1938. Akhmatova's husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, was killed by the Cheka, her only son imprisoned in the Soviet gulag. Their dossiers received "special attention" from Stalin, with the constant surveillance that implies.
The events of their lives have become more famous than their poetry -- but only in the West, where the merits of their verse must be triangulated from various translations and "versions." Inevitably, as translations proliferate , these poets will glitter as keenly as first-magnitude stars.
Until then, memoirs will dominate art. Enter Lermontov scholar Emma Gerstein and her Moscow Memoirs : Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam, and Literary Russia under Stalin (Overlook, $35), which recalls her life among last century's literati. Gerstein died in 2002, at age 98. She's waited a long time to tell her tale.
Originally published in Russia six years ago, the book is a lumpy grab bag of pieces published elsewhere over the years. But peppered throughout are remarkable vignettes: Akhmatova blesses her son and faints as her son is taken away to the gulag. Years later, she cries out, "Not one mother has done for her son what I did!" He replies by rolling on the floor, screaming camp obscenities. Mandelstam gives way to nervous exhaustion, ill health and the behavior that tagged him a "schizoid psychopath." His temperament doomed him long before he wrote his satire on Stalin, mocking the despot's "cockroach eyes" and "fat fingers as oily as maggots."
Gerstein is hoping to modify or refute her rival Nadezhda Mandelstam's dynamite memoirs, Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned. But there's no comparison, really. Mandelstam's vision is compelling, full of invective and opinionated oomph. She gives us an epic motion picture; Gerstein gives us a series of snaps, and possibly more than we wanted to know about the seamy side of the Mandelstams. But perhaps the details make a greater point. Gerstein's memoir shatters the cliché of heroism. The poets' suffering defies platitude. If they emerged diamonds, it's because they were under unimaginable pressure.
Cynthia Haven reviews poetry regularly for Book World.
Sunday, September 12, 2004
The passionate voices of Russian poet-martyrs
Reviewed by Carey Harrison
Memories of Anna Akhmatova, Osip Mandelstam and Literary Russia Under Stalin
By Emma Gerstein; translated by John Crowfoot
OVERLOOK PRESS; 502 Pages; $35
The history of tyranny boasts many literary victims, and among these the victims of Stalinism are better known and more widely lamented than most.
Osip Mandelstam and Anna Akhmatova, two of the leading figures in the history of 20th century Russian literature, continue to be revered as poets, confirming the verdict of their contemporaries. They are no less justly remembered for their sufferings at the hands of the Soviet state, and for many years it was almost sacrilegious to question their sanctity as individuals. Martyrs, however, do not have to have led the life of a saint in order to be remembered for their sacrifice, and with time it becomes possible to be more candid about their ordinary frailties.
Scholars have always known that both Mandelstam and Akhmatova were bohemians to the hilt, each in his or her fashion. Russian poets, after all, are supposed to be outrageous, promiscuous, melodramatic, quarrelsome and contradictory, and the fact that not even Stalinist persecution could dampen the challenge they posed to bourgeois morals will surely make them seem, to many readers, only the more admirable.
Yet as recently as 1998, when Emma Gerstein, a distinguished biographer who had been a close friend of both Akhmatova and Mandelstam, finally published the intimate memoirs of their circle that in the early 1960s Akhmatova herself had urged Gerstein to write, "Moscow Memoirs" was greeted in Russia with mixed responses. Some critics felt that the memory of heroes was being sullied by scurrilous and questionable claims about their private life. Others, for whom neither bisexual adventures nor tempestuous literary and romantic feuds cast a shadow over the genius of the poets in question, let alone over the ordeals they endured, were grateful that something resembling the truth was being heard at last.
The truth itself, of course, where the most intimate dealings between mercurial and self-dramatizing people are concerned -- let alone when the protagonists are Russian poets whose moods vary as alarmingly as any tyrant's -- will always be open to dispute. Gerstein's portraits of Mandelstam, Akhmatova and Pasternak, along with their contemporaries, cannot hope to be the last word. But their inestimable value to us and the importance of their publication in Moscow and their English-language publication here by Overlook Press, in a translation by John Crowfoot, lies in the demystification of these poets' lives. We need a sense of their rambunctiousness, an understanding of the freedom with which they savored life, no less than of the un-freedom with which Stalin curtailed it, because without this the poems themselves make little sense.
Mandelstam, who died at age 47 while in transit to a "gulag archipelago" labor camp in 1938, was a youthful genius who drew attention with his first volume of fireworks verse, published when he was barely 22. As a critic of repression in all its forms, he lived much of his creative life under threat of enforced silence, leading to periods in which he ceased to write poems altogether and turned to prose, subdued and "stifled," as his friend Akhmatova put it, "by his own unpublished verse."
In 1930 Mandelstam began to write poetry again, and with characteristic recklessness and defiance he penned an epigrammatic "Ode" to Stalin in which the despot's fingers feature as oily maggots, and his mustache as a cockroach (elsewhere Mandelstam speaks of Stalin's "cockroach eyes"). As if this weren't enough, the draft that fell into the hands of the police in 1934 referred to Stalin, without recourse to metaphor, as a murderer and peasant slayer. Mandelstam's subsequent arrest cast an enduring shadow of fear across the entire literary community. Akhmatova, whose son was jailed in 1949 and held for seven years, was even reduced to the ghastly expedient of writing poems in praise of Stalin and his government, in a vain attempt to secure her son's release. Yet, unlike Mandelstam, Akhmatova survived the years of terror to write their requiem.
Gerstein's tribute to her old friends is penetrating, gossipy and fascinating. Her own gifts as a storyteller include vivid recollection of dialogue and a pungency that permits her to sum up Mandelstam's feisty wife, Nadezhda, as "over-rich, like a strong blue cheese." "Moscow Memoirs" also handily includes a selection of poems by both Mandelstam and Akhmatova, translated into English. Despite the translator's understandable queasiness about the problems of rendering the often complex and always allusive language of the originals (Akhmatova's more direct and soulful voice comes across less fractured than Mandelstam's zanier flights), the poetry bears witness to its author's triumph over oppression and restores to us our reason for reading about these particular individuals, out of so many who suffered and perished in the same hell.
One of the salutary effects of reviving, on the page, the lived reality of these brave and remarkable writers is that it counteracts an opportunist tendency on the rise in these post-Communist times: our willingness to disparage the Russian character. We imagine it mutable, histrionic, by turns bullying and sentimental. "Moscow Memoirs" provides the antidote to such stereotyping. Gerstein's book reminds us that beneath the emotional extravagance rests a courage no less Russian, as well as the lyric power to engrave that courage on the reader's spirit.
For all the uniformity that Russian communism sought to enforce, and for all its power to stifle dissent, what survives of Stalin's rule, when censorship ceases, is a heritage obstinately diverse and utterly Russian: passionate, untamed by convention and, in its search for truth, impossible to silence for long.
Carey Harrison is a New York writer.
Saturday, 24th April 2004
Poets under surveillance
Without a doubt, Moscow Memoirs is an extraordinary book, one of those literary memoirs that comes along once a decade. Emma Gerstein, in her nineties when she published it, has shed completely new light on some of the most important poets and writers of the 20th century, providing previously unknown biographical details, some of which will lead to new interpretations of their work. The book has been beautifully translated, introduced and annotated by John Crowfoot, one of the great translators of Russian to English.
Having said that, I would caution readers: the poets and writers in question were Russians living in Stalin’s Soviet Union, a civilisation as remote from ours as the moon. To find this book completely gripping, as I did, you have to care quite a lot about the main cast of characters, mainly the poet Osip Mandelstam, his wife and biographer Nadezhda Mandelstam, the poet Anna Akhmatova and Akhmatova’s son, the historian Lev Gumilyov.
You also have to be aware of the obsessive reverence which is normally bestowed upon these four figures in Russia. For Moscow Memoirs is not at all reverent — and therein lies its charm. Gerstein was a contemporary of her protagonists, and intimately involved with all of them. She was a close friend of the Mandelstams, so close that they once attempted to involve her in a ménage à trois. She was also Lev Gumilyov’s lover. After he was sent to Stalin’s concentration camps, she became close to his famous mother, and even attempted to patch up her relationship with Gumilyov when it became shaky in later life. She had many opportunities to view these four cultural icons up close, and she doesn’t mind disturbing the golden haze that normally encases them all. Indeed, she seems positively to relish it.
When this book was published in Russian, it was loudly attacked by people who felt Gerstein was looking for ‘revenge’, and accused her of defaming the dead. But in fact the book succeeds not because it is negative but because it humanises its main characters, and in doing so brings to life the strange atmosphere of 1930s Moscow. Osip Mandel-stam is usually portrayed as his wife described him in her biography, Hope Against Hope, a book that became a Soviet underground classic: as a martyr, as a victim of Stalin, as a lone voice crying in the wilderness. And Mandelstam did indeed die in a camp, having been arrested for writing a poem that slandered the dictator:
And around him a rabble of thin-necked
He toys with the service of such semi-
They whistle, they meow and they whine
He alone merely jabs with his finger and
But while not taking anything away from Mandelstam’s tragedy, Gerstein’s portrait of him is more nuanced. In her version of events, he was not a single-minded dissident, but a man both repelled and fascinated by Stalin. He was not a saint either, but rather criminally careless, both with his own life and that of others. After writing his Stalin poem, he came rushing to Gerstein and asked her to memorise it, which she did. Subsequently, she learned that he had recited the poem to at least a dozen other people. After his arrest, he willingly revealed all of their names. As a result, Gerstein lost her job and Gumilyov was arrested.
Both Mandelstam and his wife were also great manipulators, scheming to secure his place in literary history, persuading people (Gerstein included) to do them favours, dragging others into their emotional and erotic games. All of which sounds eminently plausible, and far more interesting than the portrait of ‘Mandelstam the defeated hero’ that has been passed down by his wife, and none of which takes away from his achievements. Gerstein writes that only many years after Mandelstam’s death did she fully understand that an entire portion of her life had been completely dominated by his poetry: ‘It had accompanied us as though we were strolling through a garden where clear water bubbled in the fountains....’
Gerstein’s portrait of Akhmatova and Gumilyov is equally fresh. As perhaps only she could have done, she examines their relationship in great detail. Infamously, Gumilyov accused his mother of coldness — the letters that she sent when he was in prison were, he claimed, ‘laconic’ and distant. Gerstein explains, however, that Akhmatova had a horror of censorship: she loathed the idea that someone would be reading her correspondence, and as a result preferred to write four or five short postcards instead of a letter. This, too, is a plausible explanation for her behaviour, and one which would not have been uncommon among those, like Akhmatova, who knew they were under constant surveillance. Her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumilyov, had been murdered by the Bolsheviks in 1921, and she always feared, not without justification, that her turn was next.
Moscow Memoirs is stuffed full of such observations, not only shedding light on a peculiar historical moment, but also describing, more universally, the impact of the totalitarian state on creative minds. It restores, as Crowfoot writes, the ‘ambivalence and uncertainties’ of that time. For that alone it is worth reading.
Als junger Dichter ließ sich Mandelstam vom vorzeitigen Tod Alexander Skrjabins faszinieren und erklärte ihn kurzerhand für den "höchsten Akt" des künstlerischen Schaffens und seinen teleologischen Grund. Das kurze 20.Jahrhundert hatte soeben begonnen. Doch die Blitze der Stahlgewitter wurden allzu gern mit dem reinigenden Feuer verwechselt. Der Grundton der Dichtung blieb hieratisch. Man durfte den Künstler ernsthaft zur Heiligenfigur stilisieren.
Dem abgemagerten, in Lumpen herumlaufenden Häftling, der in Müllgruben nach Essensresten wühlte, würde eine derartige Überhöhung obszön erscheinen. Denn der Heilige dieses Jahrhunderts machte Erfahrungen mit dem millionenfachen Tod, der jederzeit auch sein eigener sein konnte. Vor 60 Jahren, am 27. Dezember 1938, starb in einem Transitlager im sowjetischen fernen Osten im Alter von 48 Jahren der Dichter Ossip Mandelstam, der für "antisowjetische Agitation" zu fünf Jahren "Isolierung" verurteilt worden war. Seine Leidensgefährten erinnerten sich an einen verlotterten Alten, der Gedichte rezitierte oder den Kriminellen Romane erzählte, wofür er von ihnen gelegentlich zu essen bekam. Er litt an Verfolgungswahn und verzichtete aus Angst, vergiftet zu werden, auf seine Essensration. Er starb an Herzschwäche: kein Künstler, kein Genie, kein Mensch mehr, sondern ein Lagerwurm, mit Desinfektionsmittel bearbeitet, mit einem Nummernschild am Zeh, nackt ins Massengrab geworfen. Der letzte von ihm überlieferte Vers lautet sehr prosaisch, aber treffend: "Schwarze Nacht, stikkige Baracke, fette Läuse."
Im Unterschied zu den meisten seiner Schicksalsgefährten, die dem stalinistischen Terror zum Opfer fielen, war er wohl der Einzige, der in einem selbstmörderischen Anfall Stalin unmißverständlich als Henker bezeichnet hatte. 1933 schreibt er sein berühmtes "Epigramm gegen Stalin":
"Nur zu hören vom Bergmenschen im Kreml, dem Knechter/Vom Verderber der Seelen und Bauernschlächter Jede Hinrichtung schmeckt ihm wie Beeren/Diesem Breitbrust-Osseten zu Ehren" (Übersetzung von Ralph Dutli).
Dieses Gedicht, im lockeren Freundeskreis, in dem es an Spitzeln nicht fehlte, vorgelesen, war der unmittelbare Grund seiner ersten Verhaftung. Dank der Bemühungen seiner Frau und seines "Beschützers" Nikolaj Bucharin entging er dem ursprünglichen Verbannungsort und wurde statt dessen in die südrussische Stadt Woronesch geschickt. Man könnte sagen, mit dem rebellischen Gedicht habe Mandelstam die Bahn des Todes betreten. Unklar war nur, wann der Tyrann zurückschlagen würde.
Seit den 60er Jahren galt die mutige Tat des Dichters als Exempel für unerhörte Zivilcourage und als Heldentat schlechthin. Von seinen unmittelbar betroffenen Gesinnungsgenossen und Freunden wurde die selbstmörderische Auflehnung des Künstlers allerdings anders bewertet: als Hirngespinst und Provokation. Gegen den Verhaltenskodex der damaligen Intelligenzija den Nächsten nicht gefährden und um jeden Preis überleben hatte Mandelstam ausdrücklich verstoßen. Beim Verhör gab er die Namen all seiner Zuhörer an; manche von ihnen kamen nicht ungeschoren davon. Bekannt ist die wütende Reaktion von Boris Pasternak: "Sie haben nichts rezitiert, ich habe nichts gehört."
Es läßt sich im Nachhinein natürlich nicht restlos aufklären, warum ausgerechnet Mandelstam dieses selbstmörderische "Denkverbrechen" begangen hatte. Sicher scheint, daß er unter einem wachsenden inneren Druck gestanden hat. Hinweise darauf sind aus den bemerkenswerten Memoiren Emma Gersteins, einer 95jährigen Literaturwissenschaftlerin und der letzten noch lebenden Freundin des Ehepaars Mandelstam, zu entnehmen, die Anfang dieses Jahres in Moskau erschienen sind. Bis dahin waren die Erinnerungen von Nadeschda Mandelstam, auf Deutsch unter dem Titel "Generation ohne Tränen" veröffentlicht, die einzige Biographie des Dichters. Gerstein stellt das Monopol Nadeschdas auf die Wahrheit über Mandelstam in Frage und setzt sich mit der Person dieser bemerkenswerten Frau und deren umstrittenen Einfluß auf das Schicksal des Dichters auseinander. Noch wichtiger erscheint der gelungene Versuch der hochbetagten Dame, unter Mißachtung aller russischen Traditionen und Gruppenkonventionen, ein völlig moralfreies Porträt des Milieus zu zeichnen, dem der Dichter und seine Frau angehört hatten.
Die Revolution radikalisierte die Zerstörung der bürgerlichen Moral. Gleichzeitig beseitigte sie bürgerliche Freiheiten und zwang die Kulturelite zum Konformismus. Ossip und Nadeschda Mandelstam gehörten zur libertären Kultur der europäischen Moderne, die sich um die überkommenen Moralvorstellungen nicht kümmerte. Die Überidentifizierung Mandelstams mit der russischen literarischen Tradition ließ jedoch eine rein ästhetische Existenz nicht zu. Als Schriftsteller mußte er Bürger bleiben, eine Position zur Macht beziehen und die Rolle übernehmen, die dem Poeten in Rußland aufgebürdet war.
Nadeschda Chasina, Tochter eines Kiewer Rechtsanwaltes und Schülerin der Künstlerin Alexandra Exter, wuchs im Milieu der Kiewer Bohème auf. Mit 19 wurde sie Ossip Mandelstams Lebensgefährtin. Sie beugte sich freiwillig der Dominanz Mandelstams und verzichtete auf die eigene Selbstverwirklichung. Ihr "verbissenes Temperament und ihre ungezügelte Einbildungskraft" (Gerstein) durfte sie lediglich in erotischen Exzessen ausleben. Nadeschda, so berichtet Emma Gerstein, war eine bisexuelle Exhibitionistin. Für ihre Umgebung war es kein Geheimnis, daß sie alle Geliebten Mandelstams in Dreierbeziehungen einzubinden pflegte, wobei sie selbst die Rolle der "Hauptfrau" übernahm.
Dreierbeziehungen waren in den 20er Jahren so etwas wie eine Eintrittskarte ins Künstlermilieu. Berühmte Lebensgemeinschaften aus der Jahrhundertwende wie die von Mereschkowski, Sinaida Gippius und Filosofow, sowie die ihrer Zeitgenossen Lilja und Ossip Brick und Majakowski waren Vorreiter. Die erotischen Themen, die Nadeschda jahrelang beschäftigten, sind, laut Emma Gerstein, in den 30er Jahren durch eine fieberhafte Leidenschaft für Politik ersetzt worden: "Der Seitenblick auf die Ideologie begleitete alle Leidenschaften Nadeschdas." In ihrem "bürgerlichen" Freundeskreis tat sich Nadeschda durch antisow-jetische Militanz hervor. Ossip konnte indes die absolute Ablehnung der Revolution nicht akzeptieren. Er schwankte zwischen der Faszination durch dieses welthistorische Ereignis und der Empörung des zivilisierten Zeitgenossen. Folgt man der Logik Gersteins, so steigerte Nadjas Aversion gegen das Regime den inneren Widerstand Mandelstams: sein Überlebensinstinkt wich dem Tanz auf dem Vulkan, zumal er entsprechend der Bohème-Tradition bis zum Exzeß ausgelebt wurde. Bezeichnend dafür ist eine Episode, die sich in Anwesenheit Gersteins abspielte. Nach Abfassung seines Epigramms befand sich Mandelstam in einem fieberhaften Zustand. So verlangte er von Anna Achmatowa, die in Leningrad lebte, sie solle sofort zu ihm nach Moskau kommen, und wandte sich, ohne den Hörer aufzulegen, nicht ohne Pathos mit folgenden Worten an Gerstein: "Wir sind Mitglieder einer Partei. Ihr Parteikamerad ist in Not. Sie muß kommen." Gerstein kommentiert: "Ich kann den Eindruck nicht loswerden, daß er sein Unglück selber heraufbeschwor." Noch in der Nacht von Achmatowas Ankunft wurde er verhaftet.
Der Generation der Künstler, zu der Mandelstam gehörte, mißtraute das Regime von Anfang an. Bestensfalls galten sie als Sympathisanten, konnten aber jederzeit als "bürgerliche Schriftsteller" denunziert und als Feinde abgestempelt werden. In den 30er Jahren bedeutete dies nicht nur ihre gesellschaftliche Ausgrenzung, sondern den sicheren Tod. Wie auch die anderen "als Klasse" vernichteten sozialen Gruppen mußten sie Anpassungsmechanismen entwickeln. Bekannt ist das weitverbreitete Phänomen der "ungleichen Paare": eine adlige Frau heiratet einen hohen sowjetischen Funktionär bäuerlicher Herkunft oder einen GPU-Mitarbeiter, um auf diese Weise zu überleben und ihr soziales Stigma abzuschütteln. Ähnlich sicherte die futuristische Gruppe "LEF" um Ossip Brick und Wladimir Majakowski ihre gesellschaftliche Existenz: sie waren mit hohen Offizieren der GPU befreundet, die anscheinend Gefallen am ambitionierten Künstlermilieu fanden. Während des großen Terrors wurden die Gönner der Künste allerdings repressiert. Zu den gefährdeten "bürgerlichen" Schriftstellern zählten unter anderem Boris Pasternak und Michail Bulgakow. Beide waren dementsprechend in zweiter und dritter Ehe mit glühenden Stalinistinnen verheiratet. Selbstverständlich hatten sie sich in diese Frauen nicht deshalb verliebt, weil sie ihnen Schutz anbieten konnten. Aber sie brauchten für ihr Werk positive Impulse, und solche Ehefrauen waren für sie eine Art intime Brücke zum neuen Leben, dessen Vorzüge ihnen sonst verborgen geblieben wären. All das fehlte Mandelstam. Er lebte in einer seltenen körperlichen und seelischen Symbiose mit einer Frau, die das Regime haßte und ihn zum Haß anspornte. Daß sie dadurch gefährdet waren, war Nadeschda, deren Name im Russischen "Hoffnung" bedeutet, durchaus bewußt. Aber Spiel und Provokation waren ihre Natur. "Nadja bildete in sich das Ideal einer Römerin heraus, die bereit war, mit dem Tod zu spielen", schreibt Gerstein. Mandelstam liebte das Leben und sträubte sich gegen die ultimative Variante des Selbstmordes.
In den Jahren vor der ersten Verhaftung beschworen seine Gedichte die Angst und den Tod herauf. Obwohl er wie auch andere exponierte Zeitgenossen allen Grund hatte, sich zu fürchten, spiegelten sich darin eher die nichtendenwollenden Auseinandersetzungen mit Nadeschda wider. In diesem Kontext wäre auch sein Geständnis gegenüber Achmatowa zu interpretieren, das er kurz nach dem Stalin-Epigramm abgelegt hat: "Ich bin zum Tode bereit."
Die späteren Ereignisse zeigten, daß Mandelstam sich wie die meisten Sterblichen durchaus ans Leben klammerte. Auf dem Höhepunkt seiner Verfolgung verliebte er sich in eine junge Stalinistin, Lilja Popowa, eine Regisseurin proletarischer Herkunft, der er 1937 ein intimes Gedicht von zweifelhafter Qualität widmete. Doch die Hoffnung, durch diese Beziehung Vertrauen zum neuen und ihm gegenüber erbarmungslosen Leben zu fassen, konnte nicht mehr in Erfüllung gehen. Erschöpft durch die Jahre der Isolation und Ungewißheit, war er psychisch ernsthaft krank. Die ebenso erschöpfte Nadeschda, so vermutet Gerstein, drängte ihn, Huldigungsgedichte für Stalin zu schreiben. Nadeschda verlor immer mehr an Realitätssinn und unternahm Schritte, die in der Atmosphäre des großen Terrors tödliche Folgen haben sollten. So fuhren sie ohne Genehmigung nach Moskau, was Mandelstam nach der Verbannung nicht gestattet war, und appellierten unermüdlich an den Schriftstellerverband. Die verunsicherten Schriftsteller wußten nicht, wie sie mit dem Autor eines gegen Stalin gerichteten Gedichts umgehen sollten; sie distanzierten sich und gaben ihn der Verfolgung preis.
Dem Ratschlag der Freunde, unterzutauchen, konnte das geschundene Ehepaar nicht mehr folgen. Nadeschda soll aber schon 1935, als Ossip in Woronesch von Anfällen der Verzweiflung überwältigt wurde, zu seinem ebenso verbannten Freund Sergej Rudakow gesagt haben: "Ossip klammert sich an alles, um weiter zu leben Ich bin für das Sterben." Als Nadeschda Mandelstam später mit diesem Zitat konfrontiert wurde, war sie, so Gerstein, so schokkiert, daß sie empört notierte: "Unverschämte Lügen." Das Spiel mit dem freiwilligen Tod verwandelte sich unter dem Druck unerträglicher Entbehrungen in ein kaum noch verdecktes Bedürfnis, den lästigen Partner loszuwerden. Da Nadeschda nach seiner Verhaftung zu ihrem Geliebten eilte diese Tatsache traut sich Gerstein nicht publik zu machen , muß sie Erleichterung empfunden haben.
Die Notizen von Gerstein tragen alle Züge einer Befreiung von der Schweigepflicht, eines Bruchs mit den Konventionen der Intelligenzija. Deshalb ist ihre Überzeugung, Nadeschda habe Ossip letztendlich in den Tod getrieben, mit Vorsicht zu genießen. Sie zu seinem Todesengel zu stilisieren, bedeutet nur, die Rolle des Regimes und seiner Handlanger der Denunzianten und Nutznießer des Massenterrors herunterzuspielen. Aber immerhin: Nadeschda ignorierte das Menetekel und ließ nicht einmal von ihren gefährlichen Liebschaften. Im Sanatorium, in dem Mandelstam im Mai 1938 verhaftet wurde, soll sie versucht haben, eine Parteifunktionärin zu verführen: unglaublich, wenn man sich vergegenwärtigt, in welchem physisch und psychisch ausgezehrten Zustand sich Ossip befand. Sein Schutzengel war Nadeschda jedenfalls nicht. Dennoch wäre Ossip trotz seines ungebrochenen Lebenswillens nicht imstande gewesen, sich in einen Schatten zu verwandeln; zu sehr war er Dichter, zu sehr brauchte er Anerkennung. Sein aufgewühltes, krankes Hirn hätte die Existenz eines Maulwurfes nicht ertragen.
Reue und Verdrängung
Vertraute man den neuen Fakten, dann wäre eine Revision bei der Beurteilung des heroischen Werks Nadeschdas als Witwe des ermordeten Dichters fällig. Zweifelsohne muß sie ein schlechtes Gewissen gehabt haben: In ihren Erinnerungen verunglimpft sie alle Personen, die in der einen oder anderen Form sowohl von ihren sexuellen Neigungen als auch von ihrer dubiosen Haltung gegenüber Ossip berichteten. Die Memoiren von Emma Gerstein helfen nun zu verstehen, warum Nadeschda so obsessiv die Fakten verdrehte und sich so niederträchtig vieler treuer Freunde erinnerte.
Nadeschda Mandelstam fand erst in hohem Alter ihre Berufung und Anerkennung als Schriftstellerin. Hätte sie sich zu Lebenszeiten Mandelstams verwirklichen können, wäre der Druck dieser begabten, bösartigen und unverschämten Frau auf ihren Mann vermutlich nicht so stark gewesen. Aber Ossip selbst konnte ohne ihre vollständige Hingabe nicht leben; er brauchte sie jede Minute. Beim Diktieren der Gedichte, die Nadeschda aufschreiben sollte, pflegte er sie wüst zu beschimpfen. Noch dazu sei er ein Sadist gewesen, schreibt Gerstein entsetzt. Mit der Zeit wuchs seine Abhängigheit von ihr, so daß es kaum noch Sinn hatte, die miteinander verschmolzenen Körper und Seelen der unzertrennlichen Geliebten "analytisch" zu trennen. Diese Kinder der Moderne trugen ihre ungezügelten Leidenschaften in einer mörderischen Zeit aus. Obwohl sie mit jeder Pore den terror antiquus der kommenden Epoche spürten, waren sie gewohnt, spielend zu leben und Leben in Spiel zu verwandeln. Sogar im Straflager inszenierte Ossip ab und zu sein narrenhaftes Schattentheater. Unter dem Mangel an Zucker leidend, wollte er einmal seine Tabakration für ein Stückchen Zucker umtauschen. Kaum hatte er den ersehnten Zucker in der Hand, leckte er ihn sogleich ab und gab ihn zurück: der Zucker sei ihm nicht süß genug gewesen. Vielleicht hätte Diogenes, ins Straflager gesteckt, sich genauso unanständig gegenüber seinen Leidensgenossen aufgeführt. Sie alle sollten ihm aus der Sonne gehen.
Эмма Григорьевна Герштейн (род. в 1903 г.) - ныне известный историк литературы, пушкинист и выдающийся писатель.
В 20-х годах она - просто Эмма, дочь врача кремлевской больницы, тихая девушка из интеллигентной еврейской семьи, ощущающая себя чужой в мире комсомольцев и рабфаковцев. Именно в 20-е годы судьба свела ее с семьей Мандельштамов. Она: "молодая женщина с умным лбом, чем-то изысканная... короткий и тайно лукавый взгляд косо поставленных голубых глаз". Он: "изящный птичий нос, высокий лоб с залысинами, седоват, совсем безгубый... и торчащие уши как у гадкого мальчишки...". Мандельштамы отнеслись к Эмме как к члену своей семьи. Без Эммы трудно было бы представить этот дом и часто бывавшим там друзьям: Ахматовой, Гумилеву, Цветаевой, Пастернаку, Харджиеву... Знакомство с Мандельштамами стало для Эммы Герштейн посвящением в иную жизнь, "где все меряется по особому счету"... Дверь в этот мир приоткрывается и для нас, читающих эту книгу.
Такова уж особенность мемуарного жанра - мы становимся свидетелями внутренней жизни семьи двух очень непростых людей. Бытовые сценки в духе анекдотов Хармса наполняют книгу: клопы под оторвавшимся куском обоев, нестерпимое желание Осипа Эмильевича как-то раз "обрить голову Наденьке", его выкрики в форточку: "Вот идет подлец NN!" (в адрес поэта, не отдававшего долг). А знаете ли вы значение, придававшееся в среде Мандельштамов слову "сутолока"? Прочитайте сами. Возможно, и у вас в жизни такое когда-нибудь было...
Мы видим жизнь поэта словно под лупой, в самых мельчайших подробностях, Цепкая память и прекрасное владение литературным словом Э.Г.Герштейн дают нам ощущение присутствия, мы словно проживаем эту жизнь. Эмма Герштейн позволяет нам проникнуть в заповедную область: к тому, что терзало и томило поэта в самые страшные годы его жизни (1928-1937).
Книга состоит из отдельных кусков: очерков, эссе. «Вблизи поэта» - здесь все от первого знакомства с семьей Мандельштамов, их дружба в Москве, сложности человеческих взаимоотношений, и до конца. До 1938 г. «Мандельштам в Воронеже» - почти детективная история об утраченных и неизвестных стихах Мандельштама, о пропавших рукописях и таинственном исчезнувшем "ключе ко всем его стихам". «Лишняя любовь» - о Н.И. Харджиеве. «Перечень обид» - автобиографический очерк. Отдельная часть посвящена такой сложной и многогранной фигуре, как жена поэуа - Надежда Яковлевна Мандельштам. Отдельные очерки: "Молодой Мандельштам", "Анна Ахматова и Лев Гумилев", "Несколько встреч с Борисом Пастернаком"...
Из подробностей, из деталей, из писем и обрывков разговоров, смешных случаев и трагических обстоятельств - как из мельчайших крупиц бисера сложный узор - складывается картина прошлого, картина культуры XX века.