Saturday, May 4, 2013


"He was still a boy, but so alive with ideas that whatever he appeared in those years he always caused a stir. People sensed the dynamic strength fermenting in him and knew that he was doomed."

"At that time relatively few people had experienced at first hand the peculiarities of our legal system."

"Did they really think that posterity, going through these records, would believe them just as blindly as their crazed contemporaries?"

"We never asked, on hearing about the latest arrest, what was he arrested for?"

"Osip, I envy you," Gumilev used to say to M., "you will die in a garret."

"What a great thing is a police station!  The place where I have my rendez-vous with the State." Khlebnikov.

Nadezhda Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope begins with a description and analysis of the nighttime arrest of her husband, Osip Mandelstam, one of Russia’s greatest poets.  Years after the terrifying intrusion of state security agents into her small apartment, Nadezhda’s understandably remembers the search and legal kidnapping bitterly.  To whom does she assign blame?  She identifies a large assortment of culprits.  If success has many parents, villainy has as many bastards.  When evil triumphs, we can almost always assume that it was aided and abetted by dozens of actors, although the guilty go to extraordinary lengths to deny paternity.  With Osip’s arrest, we can blame the agents who accepted the vile mission of going to war with intellectuals and poets.  We can blame the stool pigeons who bore false witness against Russia’s best and brightest.  We can point angry fingers at the apartment building spies who stood ready to certify the legality of the state’s brutal nighttime thuggery.  We can blame the dictator who gave the secret police its orders.  We can even blame, as Nadezhda does, the people who, years later, covered up the matter, justified it, de-emphasized its importance, or even ignored it. 

I have a friend who once worked at a large, multi-campus institution that conducted its own “nighttime raids.” Faculty and staff were frequently called into offices without warning and, after being denied dignity and due process, summarily dismissed for vague, illogical, and sometimes even absurdist reasons.  That enormous institution employed a vast network of spies and informants and bureaucratic niceties to obscure the mysterious disappearances of good men and women. My friend said the culture of anxiety that pervaded every aspect of life at each and every satellite of the place. People worried about taking any action, fearful that anything that attracted notice, good or bad, might lead to an abrupt dismissal.  As in Soviet Russia, even positive change could attract the unwanted attention from jealous citizens. Were you contemplating the possibility of applying for a large grant?  Wonderful, but couldn’t those new computers be put to use by your enemies?   Did you get a new position into the budget?  Perfect—unless that position awoke the appetite of some ravenous bureaucrat at the system’s distant headquarters.  The appetites of key actors at headquarter were so legendary, and so destructive, that my friend said he always pictured them as a group of cannibals.  You did your best to stay out of their line of sight, lest they note that you had somehow caught a glimpse of them in the dark act of devouring one of their own.  If you witnessed the unholy feast, you’d certainly soon appear on the list of daily specials to appear on their menu. 

In Stalin’s time, things were of course much worse.  Informants could earn reasonable salaries testifying to the treachery of whole apartment complexes, sometimes even whole streets of apartment complexes.  The state murdered hundreds of thousands of its citizens, and enslaved many more.  But the analogy isn’t worthless.  Although operating at different scales, evil is perhaps a single substance.  Thus it is that the legacy of Mandelstam’s disappearance at the hands of Stalin’s agents is so very compelling.  The act illuminates the radiating degrees of culpability in all of Russian society, which extends across time as well as space.  

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